December 19, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Stephen Murphy

by Melissa Harding


If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children.  In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.

For our next installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Stephen Murphy. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. The BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences. Stephen is in his first year as a BIA Fellow, researching tree growth in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We interviewed Stephen about his surprising love of computer work, the thrill of publishing his first paper, and why he loves working outside:

1. Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less.

My name is Stephen and I’m currently a graduate assistant and PhD student in the ecology and evolution department at Ohio State University. My research focuses primarily on temperate deciduous forests in southwestern Pennsylvania. I’m very interested in helping to understand why trees grow and thrive where they do, and how they interact with each other across space and time. I’m also very involved with undergraduate education, and have been a teaching assistant for courses ranging from introductory biology to sustainable agriculture.

2. Why did you become a scientist?

I grew up loving science. I come from a family of physicians, so science (and particularly biology), has always been of great interest to me. I always knew that I would major in biology in college, but it wasn’t until I took a botany course my junior year that I actually got interested in plant ecology. To be honest, the only reason that I even took the class was because the other elective that I wanted to take filled up and there weren’t any other options! It’s funny how little things like that can have such an impact on the rest of your entire life. I can’t imagine doing anything different now that I’ve been pursuing a career in plant ecology for so long now. The work suits my personality and interests perfectly. I have always enjoyed working outdoors, camping, and the likes and now I get to do that as part of my work. It’s very rewarding work.

3. What part do plants play in your research?

Plants, and trees in particular, are my primary area of interest. I’m fascinated by how trees interact with each other and with their surrounding environment. I’m hoping to make a career out of better understanding exactly how these interactions work in nature.

4. What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work? 

Submitting my first paper was probably the most exciting thing that I’ve done thus far in my career. It is both exciting and nerve-wracking to put your work out there for review, but knowing that you will leave a permanent contribution to the field feels very rewarding. Other than that, working outside in the woods is always an adventure. I’ve ran into bears and rattlesnakes and bobcats, and have definitely had to work through some tough weather conditions before. You never know what’s gonna happen!


 5. What skills do you use in your job?

Whenever I meet a student who expresses interest in pursuing a career in the natural sciences, I always ask them two questions: do you like to read, and do you like to write? With few exceptions, these two skills are more important than any other in science. These two skills have probably helped me in my career more than any other. You don’t necessarily have to be a mathematical wizard or a world authority on something to be a good scientist, but you do have to know how to read and write effectively. Reading skills are important for scientists to keep up-to-date with the vast amount of information that’s out there, and for developing new ideas for future projects. Conversely, writing skills are paramount for disseminating your own work to a wide audience, including both scientists and non-scientists alike. Beyond these two skills, I also use statistical methods and programming software for analyzing data, as well as graphical software for producing figures and maps. Public speaking is also an important part of my job, both for teaching and for presenting my work at scientific conferences.

6. What is your favorite part of your job?

Working in the field collecting new data is definitely at the top of the list. It’s always great getting back outside and away from the office for a while. However, I also really enjoy the data analysis component of research, which was a rather unexpected turn because I never had much experience with it prior to graduate school. I think my job is great because once I get bored with one thing it’s usually time to get back to other. I get the best of both worlds!

7. If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose?

If I had to truly start everything over and choose a career outside of science, I think computer programming would be an ideal job. I have discovered that I enjoy the computer-oriented aspects of my job a lot more than I expected, and it’s hard to think of any aspect of my job that doesn’t at least indirectly involve a computer in some way. I really was never much of a tech ‘geek’ growing up, but now that I realize how vital computers are to my life and my job, I definitely wish that I had been. I also think being a computer programmer would be fulfilling in similar ways to being a scientist. Both involve problem solving, and at the end of the day you can feel like you created something or learned something new. And, as an added bonus, the job market for computer programmers these days is quite good.

8. Why is science education important? 

Science education is just as important for non-scientists as it is for scientists. A lot of people think that science is a purely academic pursuit, but this is totally not true. I think it’s safe to say that we use science on a daily basis more than any other subject, even if we don’t realize it. From making dietary choices, to driving our cars, to using our phones, to recycling, science is really everywhere in our lives. And I think a really important point is that all of this information is based off of primary research that real scientists have conducted. It’s easy to forget where the data originally comes from for information that we take for granted in our daily lives. Just flip to the back of any science textbook. What you will find is a long list of hundreds of primary articles that were written by scientists, and which are being used as the foundation for the material presented in the textbook. It’s important to recognize the link between the two. We may not need to know exactly how the phones in our pockets work, but we should recognize that decades of scientific research went into their development. We may not need to know the exact strategies that the National Park Service is using to conserve Grizzly Bear populations in Yellowstone, except to recognize that their efforts are certainly based off of years of important ecological research.

Stephen is a great example of someone whose life was changed by a great science class. It was by chance that he ended up in the field of plant ecology, but he was hooked from the beginning. To learn more about the importance of science communication, check out this post.

Follow Stephen’s adventures in research at his blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Stephen Murphy and Phipps Science Education.

December 18, 2014

Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Examining the Relationship Between People and Edible Plants

by Melissa Harding


Nowhere else is the relationship between people and the environment more obvious than in the food that we consume. During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, middle and high school participants were asked to examine this in the context of the plants that we eat on our plates every day. Using photography as a means of reflection, students were tasked with creating a photo story that illustrates the relationship between people and edible plants. They were also asked to research the plants that they featured and to write a short caption explaining their photos. Over 465 students participated in this challenge, with interesting results!

In the middle school category, the first place entry was titled “Homegrown Healthy Happiness” and featured photos of the participants’ younger siblings enjoying homegrown fruits and veggies. The plants shown included apples, carrots and bell peppers and the essay enumerated the health benefits of each. The second place entry featured the author’s mint plants as they transformed from growing plant, to harvested herbs, to steaming in a mug of tea! The author’s essay explains that not only does she grow mint in her yard, but also many other herbs and vegetables. She loves taking care of her plants and thinks they taste great! Finally, the third place entry featured potatoes, from the author’s trip to the grocery store to a photo of his friend enjoying some mashed potatoes.

In the high school category, the first place entry explored plants from the Sichuan region of China and featured plants such as bitter melon, lemongrass, and ginger, from whole produce to their use in traditional cuisine. The author visited that region during a stay in China and has been in love with the food ever since. The second place entry featured herbs from the school’s herb garden, which inspired students to share a meal together. Students harvested herbs, created butter from whipping cream and combined it with the herbs to create fancy herb butter, which they enjoyed on homemade biscuits. Plants featured included mint, sage, chives, and basil. Finally, the third place entry focused on the author’s father harvesting plants from the garden. Featured plants included sunflower, eggplant, fennel, kale and green beans.

Not only did this challenge help participants to look deeper at their relationships to plants, but it also prompted some exciting fun-related projects, from picking vegetables with family to cooking class. We congratulate all participants on taking the time to reflect on the role of plants in their lives (and on their plates)!

The winning entries are:
Middle School
First Place: Schaffer Elementary
Second Place: The Ellis School
Third Place: David E. Williams Middle School
Honorable Mentions: Keystone Oaks Middle School and Shaler Area Middle School

High School
First Place: North Allegheny Senior High School
Second Place: Shaler Area High School
Third Place: North Allegheny Intermediate High School

Unfortunately, because some of these photos featured faces of children, we cannot show them here. However, please enjoy the rest of the photos in the slideshow below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The first place winners of all middle school challenges will be invited to appear on the Saturday Light Brigade radio program. The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices. Join area middle school students on Saturday, December 27th at 10:35 a.m.! Check out the broadcast here.

Pictures of the entries taken by Science Education and Research staff.

December 17, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding


“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” - Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.



December 11, 2014

Phipps and Citizen Power Host a Teacher Workshop on Sustainable Energy!

by Melissa Harding


Yesterday, Phipps hosted a teacher workshop on sustainable energy in conjunction with Citizen Power, a non-profit energy advocacy organization. Entitled “Sustainable Energy Workshop: Energy Smart Schools, Wind Power and Solar Photovoltaics“, this workshop focused on teaching about green power sources in the classroom. This workshop is the last in a series of similar workshops held across the region designed to familiarize middle and secondary level educators with renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies. The purpose of the workshop is to “ensure that future decision makers understand how our energy use affects our health and environment, and how we must work towards smart and healthy solutions for future increased global energy needs challenged by decreasing traditional fuel resources”.

The workshop included plenty of hands-on activities, as well as a special tour of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. Participating teachers left with not only a working knowledge of sustainable energy, but also with a huge amount of teaching resources, including a model wind turbine, a solar energy kit, a Kill-a-Watt meter, and a multi-meter. Special thanks to Citizen Power and all the educators who participated in this exciting workshop!

To learn more about Citizen Power and to find future workshops, check out their website!

To learn more about how Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes is revolutionizing how we view the built environment, click here!

The above photos were taken by Kate Borger.





December 10, 2014

Follow the Botany in Action Fellows on Their Websites!

by Melissa Harding

Our Botany in Action Fellows are not just out doing wonderful research, but have also been busy creating outreach opportunities that allow them to share their work with others. As part of their science communication training during the BIA Science Engagement, the Fellows learn principals of written communication, as well as how to use photographs to tell a compelling story. As a way to use these skills to reach out to visitors and students, each Fellow has also created their own website. Similar in purpose to the Follow the Fellows” pages on the official BIA website, these new websites allow each Fellow the ability to tell the story of their research in their own way.

These websites allow the reader to vicariously participate in science by following the Fellows in their work. Each website is a little different and helps the reader to really understand what it is like to engage in botanical research. This is includes both exciting adventures in the field and not-as-exciting adventures in crunching numbers and writing papers;  all of these pieces are necessary parts of strong research. By creating a complete picture of their lives and their work, they are able to convey not only what a scientist really does and looks like, but why their work is important.

BIa fellows map

Advocating for good science communication is an important outcome of the Botany in Action program, but it is not an easy one. It requires not only rethinking preconceived notions about the role of a scientist in communicating his or her own work, but also rethinking what science communication should look like at all. The model of publishing research has not changed in a long time and neither has what happens to that research; it often exists in publications where only other scientists can access it, making it almost impossible to be seen by the public. The Botany in Action program helps Fellows to champion their own work and add to a public body of knowledge, as well as to reach out to students, educators and others who would find their research compelling. By communicating their love for science and showing why their research matters in the real world, the Fellows will inspire readers to dig deeper into their own passions, helping to create a future generation of biologists, chemists, physicists and more!

To learn more about our Fellows and to follow them through the research process, check out their wonderful websites:

Chelsie Romulo:
Kelly Ksiazek:
Anna Johnson:
Stephen Murphy:
Aurelie Jacquet:
Jessica Turner:

To learn more about Botany in Action, check out the website or this blog post.

To read more about the importance of science communication, check out this blog post!

The above images are used courtesy of Kelly Ksiazek and Phipps Science Education, respectively.

December 10, 2014

School Program Spotlight: Tropical Pursuit

by Melissa Harding


This school year, our department has added some new programs to the mix and we are so excited to be sharing them with our students and with you! In School Program Spotlight, we explore the content of some of our newest school programs.

Whether it’s cards or Candyland, children of all ages love to play a good game. Playing games allows children to work in teams, challenge their minds and compete for the title of “winner”. Games are also a great way to turn a group of passive students sitting at desks into interested and participating learners. In our new Tropical Pursuit class, students act as pawns on a classroom-sized game board and race to the rainforest by answering questions about some of their favorite foods and products that come from tropical climates. This field trip consists of a classroom portion and a tour.

In the classroom portion, students work in teams to race their pawns up the game board and into the rainforest. To move their pieces, each team must correctly identify a number of plants and plant parts that come from the rainforest. For each correct answer, students move their pawns and advance towards the end. For bonus points, teams may also identify different parts of the plant used by people. While this may sound easy, students are quickly astounded by how many of the items they use and eat every day that have a tropical origin. Plants explored in this class include, but are not limited to: sugar cane, cacao, coffee, rubber, annatto, macadamia nuts, cinnamon and bananas. Students also explore the different parts of the plants that we use, from roots to shoots and everything in between. Finally, students learn that the rainforest is not just important to these plants, but to the animals that call it their home. Most importantly, each students wins a free trip to our tropical rainforest conservatory upon completion of the game!

The tour portion of the program consists of a self-guided or docent-lead tour of the Conservatory. Those who would prefer a self-guided experience may request a PDF of our self-guided tour or explore on their own. Those who choose the docent-lead tour will learn about the history of the Conservatory and the plants of our tropical biomes, including a stop in our tropical Fruit and Spice Room to see many of these tropical treasures up close!

If you are a teacher and would like more information on how to sign up for this or any other school program, please use the “Registering for Programs” link in the menu above. Please note that scout groups, home school groups and other groups of 10 or more may sign up for any of our school programs as well!

The above photo was taken by Cory Doman.

December 8, 2014

Backyard Connections: Join the Christmas Bird Count!

by Melissa Harding

bird countIt is almost time for one of the most fun and exciting winter naturalist traditions: The Christmas Bird Count! The Christmas Bird Count, or the ‘CBC’ to those in the know, is the longest running citizen science project in the world. From December 14 to January 5, thousands of volunteers, armed only with binoculars and bird lists, will head out into their local wilderness areas to count birds. Scientists, birders, families and students all take part in this adventure, some even heading out before dawn to get the most accurate count possible. Counting the birds, number and species, in any given area provides data about population trends that help scientists to better understand overall bird health around the globe.  This is a huge contribution to science and helps guide conservation action.

The data that is collected by the CBC is used by researchers to learn more about the long-term health and status of birds in North America. This data is then combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Project Feeder Watch to create a fuller picture of how bird populations change over time. Scientists can look at the effects of things like pollution and habitat fragmentation; the count can also show scientists where environmental threats exist that may not have yet been identified, like ground water contamination or pesticide poisoning. Not only is this good for birds, but it can be good for people as well. Birds can act as environmental indicators that show us potential threats to our own well-being, including climate change.

Luckily, there are far fewer species of birds to be found in the winter than in the spring. This is because many of the birds that we take for granted in the summer, such as warblers and flycatchers, are actually only visiting. In fact, at least two-thirds of North American birds migrate some distance each fall. Most of these migratory birds are predators, feeding on insects and worms. These birds need to migrate in order to find food; many travel to tropical locations near the equator. Most of the birds left behind are seed-eaters, such as cardinals and sparrows, and can find food all winter long. Since the variety of species is reduced during the CBC, many of the birds left are well-known backyard feeder birds or larger waterfowl and raptors. This makes it easier and lot more fun to bird in the winter – you can be sure that you will know the birds that you see!

Getting involved in the Christmas Bird Count is easy, but does require a little bit of planning. This is not the kind of citizen science project that you can do on your own, since it is a true, scientific census. There is a very specific way that the count is organized, so registration is required. Each count takes place in a 15-mile diameter circle and each circle has a count compiler. There are multiple count compilers in an area, so there may be several counts going on near you.  If you are new to birding, your area count compiler will put you in a group with more experienced birders. Even if you are not great at identifying birds, you can still participate in the fun! If your home is within one of the 15-mile circles, you can even bird from your backyard! To get started, check out this list of counts near year on the Audubon website.

Want to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count? Check out the Audubon Society website!

New to birding? Check out the Audubon Society’s online bird guide.

Think the CBC is fun? Learn more about other upcoming Audubon citizen science projects, The Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home.

The above photo is courtesy of the National Audubon Society, by Geoff LaBaron.


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