Archive for January, 2014

January 31, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Kelly Ksiazek

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_BIA (3)

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 third installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Kelly Ksiazek. 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. Kelly is in her second year as a BIA Fellow, researching green roofs in Chicago.

We interviewed Kelly about the importance of scientists being honest about their work, her former job as a science teacher and why science is important.

1. Describe your work:
People know me as a very organized researcher, teacher and graduate student. I am proud to be from Chicago, IL and love that I get to learn about plant ecology in the city that I call home. I am a PhD student at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden where I also earned my Master’s degree in Plant Biology and Conservation. I am currently determining which combinations of local plant species can live together on green roofs. Green roofs are rooftops were many plants can grow. In addition to providing habitat for plants, birds, and insects, these special habitats can help hold stormwater, filter pollutants from the air, and decrease the heating and cooling costs of a building.

As a scientist, I work with many people from the community like naturalists, roofing specialists, and building mangers. I get to travel to some of the most beautiful natural areas and urban green roofs to collect my data. I also spend time in a lab working with student interns and other volunteers cleaning seeds, identifying bees, and running chemical tests on soil samples. My goal is to have my findings to inform how green roofs are used in North America and increase city-wide greening and environmental awareness efforts. Supporting native plant and animal species in cities is essential for the current and future health of all living things on the planet.
2. Why did you become a scientist?
I don’t know why I never thought about being a scientist when I was growing up. Science was always my favorite subject in school but it wasn’t until I was a high school biology teacher that I really knew that I wanted to do more than help other people learn about science: I wanted to do it myself! When I had to learn more about ecology and plants so I could teach my students about these topics, I became fascinated with the field and knew that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was a scientist, making discoveries for myself.
3. What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I love that I get to learn new things every day and that I get to search for answers to questions I have about the ecology in my city.
4. What is the most important quality in a scientist?
Honesty is the most important quality in a scientist. Sometimes when you are expecting a certain result from an experiment, it might be tempting to ignore a small piece of data or analyze numbers in a certain incorrect way so that your experimental results say what you want them to say. But this kind of dishonesty doesn’t help you or the rest of society really understand the true nature of things. As a scientist, you have to be able to admit when you’re wrong and always carry out your work with integrity and honesty.
5. What is the coolest thing you have ever done at work?
I was giving a presentation about my research in France and was invited to go on a tour of some green roofs in Paris. I got to take a special tour of the green roof on top of the Chaillot Palace, right across the river from the Eiffel Tower!
6. If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you want to do?
If I wasn’t a scientist I would want to be a science teacher again so I could help others learn how cool science really is!
7. What are your hobbies outside of your research?
I really like traveling, camping, gardening, cooking, going to concerts and finding excuses to be outside as much as possible.
8. Why is science important?
Although the world is changing so quickly these days, science helps us understand it. Science helps us have clean air and water, enough food to eat and comfortable living spaces. Especially with the population of the world growing so fast, science is important to help us live together with the animals, plants, and other organisms on the planet.
9. Why is it important for kids to learn science?
Kids should learn about science so they can understand how their world works. If they learn how to ask good questions and identify the difference between fact and fiction when they’re young, hopefully they will continue to make discoveries and know how to make educated decisions later in life.

Kelly is an example of someone who loved teaching about science so much that she just had to do it herself! Her background as a former teachers helps inform her ability to communicate her work to others, which is the foundation of what the BIA program is all about. To learn more about the importance of science communication, check out this post.

To learn more about Kelly’s work, check out her Follow the Fellows page on the Botany in Action Website.

The above photo was taken by Amanda Joy.

January 30, 2014

Welcome, Diana, Spring 2014 Intern!

by Melissa Harding

This spring we have a new intern joining our team. Please join us in welcoming her!


Diana is the Science Education and Research Department’s Environmental Education intern for the 2014 Spring semester. She is an adult student earning her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and minoring in Environmental Policy from Chatham University. She is also a busy mother of three and veteran of the United States Air Force. After completion of her degree she hopes to continue on to graduate school, specifically at programs through Chatham’s Eden Hall campus. Her ultimate goal is lobbying for and educating in progressive environmentalism for the public. She believes very strongly in educating today’s youth with awareness of the choices and consequences of our impact on the planet. When she does get a break from her responsibilities, she enjoys getting her hands dirty in her own garden, and particularly enjoys the practice of growing food and using various preservation techniques to minimize her household’s dependence on the environment.

We are excited to have Diana with us this semester!

The above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.

January 30, 2014

This Weekend: Students on the Radio!

by Melissa Harding

For the third year running, the Saturday Light Brigade radio show will feature interviews with Fairchild Challenge at Phipps middle school challenge winners. The first place winners of all middle school challenges will be invited to appear on the Saturday Light Brigade radio program. On the air since 1978,  The Saturday Light Brigade is a Saturday morning public radio program that blends acoustic music with  live performances by youth and adults, participatory puzzles, on-air telephone calls, and interviews with other community-based nonprofits serving youth and families.

This coming Saturday at 10:40 am, the winners of the latest challenge will be interviewed about the biophilic designs that they created for their school.  Students from Shaffer Elementary 6th Grade, J. E. Harrison Middle School and Shaler Area Middle School will be joining SLB host, Larry Berger, who will interview them live on the air during the “Youth Expression Showcase” segment of the show.  Throughout the school year, all the young winners will have a chance to discuss their achievements and the environmental issues that they have been exploring through the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps.  It’s a great opportunity for students’ voices to be heard, literally, around the region and beyond!

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.

The above photo is used courtesy of the Saturday Light Brigade.

January 29, 2014

Home Connections: Beat the Indoor Blues with Some Crafty Fun!

by Melissa Harding


It is very, very cold in Pittsburgh right now. It is so cold that cars aren’t starting and pipes are freezing all over the city. It is so cold that the water on the inside of the Tropical Forest doors is freezing! If you are living in a place that is also experiencing its own bit of frigid weather right now, going outside may be the last thing on your mind. In fact, you may be wanting to get inside as fast as possible!  It can be hard to feel connected to nature when you don’t want to be out in it. While it’s fun to curl up on the couch every once in a while, night after night of sitting inside can make you go a little crazy. Add to that the pressure of closed schools and bored kids and you may be looking at a seemingly interminable prison sentence: Indoor Confinement!

We have put together a little survival guide of activities to keep you and your family happy and engaged while you wait out the big freeze. Based on our Home Connections series, here are some ways to connect to nature and make some cool projects at the same time. Each link has easy to follow steps and tons of modifications to suit both younger and older children. Pull out your crayons and markers, folks, because it is time to get crafty and have some fun!

copyright molly steinwald

1. Plant a few terrariums: Create miniature gardens out of clipping from house plants, seeds or anything else you have stashed away in the basement. Decorate them and set them all over your windows – it’s hard to feel blue when you are looking at so much green!


2. Create a seed mosaic: The humble seed is such a versatile craft supply! Use seeds from your garage or dried beans from soup mix and create beautiful mosaic pictures.


3. Turn your old T-shirts in a jump rope: Do you have a pile of old T-shirts just waiting to go to Goodwill or be turned into rags? Try this fun idea for making them into a jump rope instead.


4. Turn your recycle bin into art: It can take lots of energy to recycle those soda cans and paperboard boxes. Turn them into fun art instead – everything from picture frames to lava lamps and everything in between. Check out how we repurpose cardboard, plastic and glass at Phipps for ideas.

Phipps Science Education Playdough (2)

5. Make some dough: Homemade dough is fun for all ages! Try colorful rainbow play dough, spiced salt dough or any other of many ideas to keep your kids entertained for hours. Build sculptures, make ornaments or just play – the sky is the limit.DSC_3087

6. Create a nature weaving: If you can brave the outdoors for a bit, grab some winter nature to turn into a beautiful weaving to hang on your wall or your door. Don’t want to go outside? Use colorful bits and bobs that you find in your junk drawer and maybe even a few flowers out of the vase.

Hopefully, these nature- and conservation-based crafts and activities will keep you and your family busily creating and connecting with the natural world, all within the warm comfort of your home! Enjoy!

Once it gets a little warmer, check out our Backyard Connections series for ideas to connect with nature outdoors.

The above photos were taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff and volunteers.

January 28, 2014

Biophilia: Pittsburgh, February 6 – “Re-cognizing Life: Using Sidewalk Photography to Heighten Sensitivity to Everyday Nature”

by Melissa Harding

 Molly Steinwald child nature sewer moth

Biophilia: Pittsburgh

Thursday, February 6, 2014 – 5:30 p.m.
Free to attend – RSVP required.

The February 6th Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting will feature guest speaker Molly Steinwald, Director of Science Education and Research at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and past Environment Committee chair of the North American Nature Photography Association. Her presentation will be:

Re-cognizing Life: Using Sidewalk Photography to Heighten Sensitivity to Everyday Nature.

Hiking, camping, and even trips to the local city park can increase people’s connection with nature but are difficult to fit in to busy lives with regularity. Molly will present strategies for using artistic photography to increase people’s daily connection with nature through heightening their awareness of mundane ‘sidewalk’ nature – small-scale nature encountered while fulfilling their everyday obligations in the built environment.

About Biophilia: Pittsburgh
Biophilia: Pittsburgh is the pilot chapter for a Biophilia Network dedicated to strengthening the bond between people and the natural world through education, discussion and action. The group meets monthly at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where, over delicious small-plate food and a happy-hour cash bar, a discipline or behavior will be identified — often by an expert guest speaker — and discussed among the participants in the interest of sharing ideas and identifying opportunities. Join the conversation!

RSVP by sending an email or signing up at the group’s Meetup page.

What is Biophilia?
The term “biophilia,” stemming from the Greek roots meaning “love of life,” was coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. It came into use in the 1980s when Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

In the last twenty years, studies examining human attraction to nature have yielded convincing evidence that links interactions with nature with positive gains in productivity, increased healing rates, and even enhanced learning comprehension in a wide range of sectors.

Biophilia Pittsburgh

The top image is copyrighted by Molly Steinwald.

January 28, 2014

Little Sprouts Have Fun in All Seasons!

by Melissa Harding


We just finished our latest four-week Little Sprouts program, My Four Seasons, and we had so much fun! Campers learned all about the four seasons and how they affect plants and animals, from how a plant makes a seed to why animals hibernate in the winter. Campers sang songs, played games and read stories to help them understand seasonal change in nature.

Week one focused on the falling leaves and dropping temperatures of fall. Campers made leaf prints in play dough and leaf rubbings on paper using differently shaped leaves from around the Conservatory. After they were finished, campers explored tree bark, branches, buckeyes and acorns from our tree bin, as well as played with animal puppets and tree cookies. Campers learned about the different shapes and colors of leaves and why leaves fall off the trees. Finally, campers decorated collecting pouches made from recycled newspaper and used them to collect fallen leaves, seeds, acorns and more during a walk through the Conservatory.


Week two was about winter and hibernation. Campers created snow scenes on dark construction paper using paint made from dissolved Epsom salts and made salt dough snow men. Using animals puppets, campers learned why animals hibernate in the winter. Finally, we went on a winter scavenger hunt through the Conservatory.

Week three focused on spring, learning about the birth of new plants and animals. Campers made a set of binoculars out of toilet paper rolls and explored the soil, pots, and seeds in our spring bin, as well as our animal puppets. Campers learned about the life cycle of a plant and the inside of a seed by pulling apart pre-soaked lima beans and pretending to be plants in a life cycle pantomime. Finally, we went on a bird hunt through the Conservatory using our new binoculars.

DSC_0117-001Week four was about summer and the colors of the season. Campers created picture frames out of composted leaves and played in our soil and sand sensory bins. We learned about the plants and bugs that are out and about in the summer. Campers planted bail, a delicious summer herb, and went on a color scavenger hunt in the Conservatory.

Little Sprouts programs are a fun way to learn about nature with your child; studies show that exploring nature and the outdoors with a trusted caregiver creates positive attitudes towards nature in both the child and the adult (Louise Chawla, 2006). However, you don’t need to visit the Conservatory to get those benefits. Playing the in backyard or going to the park and observing seasonal changes is a wonderful way to increase both your and your child’s connection to natural cycles.

 If you want to read some great stories about the seasons with your own Little Sprout, check out these books:
Time to Sleep  by Denise Fleming
Fall Leaves Fall by Zoe Hall
When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Mitten by Jan Brett
Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

To see more images from the program, check out the slideshow below!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our next Little Sprouts: Single Servings program, My Tropical Adventure, is scheduled for February 20 and 21, 10:30 am-noon. If you would like to sign up your child for a future Little Sprouts program, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

The above pictures were taken by Science Education Staff.

January 27, 2014

Understanding the Human Connection to American Ginseng

by Melissa Harding

ginesng 4

BIA Fellow Jessi Turner shares with us her love of ginseng and her commitment to its preservation in this following essay. Thanks to Jessi for sharing her story and helping us understand the human connection to this great plant!

I will never forget the first time I saw American ginseng.  It was in the last daylight hours of a chilly, early September day; my older brother and I put on our flannels as we walked into the woods.  “Here it is,” he pointed at the small, unassuming plant with bright red berries, “Green Gold.” After I looked at the three prongs, each with the compound whorl of leaflets, Joshua bent down, took the bright red berries and planted them. Then he used a small shovel, slowly digging it into the soil, and he exposed a dirty, beige root.  I remember how excited he was to show me how to “go ‘sanging” (or hunt for ginseng.)  He later took it into the basement, and among others, placed it out to dry.

ginesng 2I have always been fascinated by medicinal plants, and ginseng was no exception. The international connection of this plant is second to none. Locally, people harvest with their family and friends to earn a valuable second income.  After these roots are sold, they end up in Hong Kong, and sold for traditional Chinese medicine.  Ginseng is considered a cure-all, an aphrodisiac, and an energizer (let’s be honest, ginseng basically sells itself!).  The mere fact that this moment with my brother would influence the market on the other side of the world, is still a concept that amazes me.

Wild American ginseng can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound, and it has been harvested readily since the 1700’s.  Ginseng harvest is an important tradition of Appalachian culture.  However, ginseng faces a host of pressures: unethical harvest (out of season, taking non-reproductive plants, taking plants that are too small), climate change, deer browse, and loss of habitat from conversion of forests to other types of land use.  Without sustainable practices, ginseng will likely go extinct.

In order to conserve ginseng for future generations, there should be a push to ethically harvest and steward populations of ginseng.  This is an easy process:
1. Familiarize yourself on Ginseng Harvest Laws in your state.
2. Always ask permission, or acquire the proper permits, to harvest if it isn’t on your property.
3. Harvest only 25% of all mature plants in a population (3 to 4 prong plants) that have red fruit.
4. Plant the seeds near the host plant, make sure the seeds are about an inch deep in the soil.
5. Plant any seeds from any plant, even if you do not harvest the plant.

ginseng 3These days, I still go out in the woods yearly with family members.  As my brother joined the AirForce and moved away, I now go out with my parents.  Both are skilled at finding ginseng.  In late August, when the berries are red, we go looking for plants.  As I study ginseng conservation, rather than harvest the plant, the thrill for us is finding these rare plants. I like to think we do a catch and release program.  After we find ginseng, we plant the berries, 2 cm into the dirt, and then carefully cut off the plant at the stem (to keep illegal harvesters from finding the plant and digging it up.)  Since it is the end of the season, the plants have enough energy from the summer, and the tops are no longer needed- plus, we collect the leaves to use them in tea.  Over the past few years, we have seen populations of ginseng in the areas we visit increase dramatically. Ginseng is a very special plant that reminds me of great memories with my family and friends.  As it is a species that is economically, culturally, and medicinally importance on an international scale, we need to conserve it for future generations.

For more information, please visit and watch the following video: How to Steward your Ginseng Population.  

 Learn more about Jessi at her website and follow her work with Phipps with our Follow the Fellows feature!

The above photos were all provided courtesy of Jessi Turner.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers

%d bloggers like this: