Archive for December, 2014

December 29, 2014

Our Department is Searching for an Administrative Assistant!

by Melissa Harding


Phipps is seeking a part-time Administrative Assistant to provide administrative support to the Science Education and Research Department! The Administrative Assistant will answer and direct phone calls, manage event scheduling, maintain and file department paperwork/databases, update department web pages and participate in department activities as needed. Strong Microsoft Office and Internet skills are required. Two-year business school degree with office experience is preferred, along with a sincere interest in sustainability, science education and working around children and youth.

Please include a cover letter, resume and salary history when responding.

Qualified candidates should send their resume and cover letter via email to or mail to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Human Resources Department, 1059 Shady Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232. Phipps is an equal opportunity employer. Or, request an application by filling out our contact form.

Part-time employees receive free parking and discounts in The Shop in the Park, The Shop at Phipps and Café Phipps. By maintaining an average of 15 hours per week, part-time employees can enroll in Phipps education classes tuition-free. After one year and 1,000 hours, part-time employees are eligible for the retirement program.

December 26, 2014

Backyard Connections: Healthy Holidays Start Outside

by Melissa Harding


The holidays can be a wonderful time; they are traditionally a time for sitting by the fireside, drinking hot chocolate, and spending time with loved ones. Unfortunately, they are also a time for eating too many sweet and savory treats and spending a lot of time sitting on our collective bottoms in front of screens. While the holiday season is a great time to relax from the stresses of school and work, it can also be pretty hard on our bodies. Kids and adults alike get lethargic and can gain weight from all the rich foods and inactivity; this makes us sleepy, uncomfortable and even grumpy. No one wants to spend weeks feeling horrible, or even worse, parenting children who are feeling horrible. However, there is a simple solution to make your holidays healthier for everyone. Don’t worry, this post will not tell you to count the calories in your cookies or to hit the gym every morning before breakfast; instead, there is a much simpler and more fun prescription for a healthy holiday: go outside!

Being outside is not just fun, but good for you as well. Nature has a positive, direct impact on human health; it enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress and illness, reduces the risk of obesity, increases happiness and positive life outlook, increases the body’s natural immunity to diseases, increases creativity, and improves mental health.  This is especially true of children, who benefit greatly from time spent outside as well. In addition to the above benefits, playing outside also makes children kinder and more compassionate, more confident and more likely to become a successful adult. Not bad for just building a snowman, right?

Spending time outside will refresh your mind and body, giving you back the energy and feelings of well-being that too many treats can steal from you. Whether the weather is rainy and gloomy, cold and snowy, or beautiful and sunny where you are, there is always something to do outside. Here are some ways to make the most of your time outside during this holiday season, no matter what your winter looks like:

1. Go on a treasure hunt: This works especially well for young children. Take a short walk around your yard, neighborhood or local green space and look for collectibles that catch your child’s eye; rocks, pinecones and bark are commonly treasured items, as are flowers and leaves. Encourage this by bringing a container for holding treasures – mason jars, plastic food containers, and even grocery bags make good collecting containers. As a bonus, scouring nature for treasures improves observation skills! Remember, while these nature treasures may not look like much to you, to a child these items are priceless indeed.
2. Take a hike: Taking a walk in nature is always a great way to spend part of your day. Whether this is a short walk around the block or a hike on a trail will depend on your family’s stamina and the weather. However, even seemingly inclement weather can be fun to walk through; a walk in the rain is a great excuse to splash in puddles and a snow storm can turn your landscape into a beautiful wonderland. Just be sure to bundle everyone up and use caution on slick or precarious surfaces.
3. Look for animal friends:
 Everyone loves to spot a critter outside, whether it is a hawk soaring in the sky or a deer feeding in the park. Any member of your family can keep a keen eye out for animals, no matter their age. Older children may enjoy bird watching in the woods and tracking their finds, while younger children will enjoy watching cardinals at the backyard feeder.  If you can’t spot the animals themselves, look for signs of their presence: tracks, bite marks, scraped tree trunks and piles of nuts or pinecones are just a few signs that show you have an animal visitor nearby.
4. Feed those critters: Winter is a tough time for all animals, as the cold temperatures and scarce food supply can make survival much harder. Do your animal neighbors a solid and give them a holiday treat! This can be a wonderful activity to do as a family; string berries, nuts and seeds together for beautiful and delicious garlands to adorn your trees and shrubs or spread shortening on pinecones and roll in bird seed to create feeders for your feathered friends. However, animals don’t need fancy crafts, so even filling up your bird feeders and restocking your salt licks will be much appreciated (and make them stick around longer for you to watch!)
5. Create some art outside: Nature is full of beautiful art supplies; use the natural world as inspiration to create a piece of art as a family. Create a nature mandala in the snow, nature weavings to hang on your doors, or snow sculptures. You can even get crazy and bring your nature inside to do some crafting; assemble pinecone bird feeders, press leaves and flowers, or create happy holiday cards and thank you notes. With nature as your canvas and your paints, the possibilities are endless!
6. Play and explore: Sometimes, activities and crafts are not necessary; what a child (or an adult) really needs is the time to play and explore. Sled riding, building snow forts, stamping in icy puddles and generally running around will connect you all with nature just as well as anything you may use to guide your family’s energies. Sometimes all you need to do is go outside and rest will take care of itself!

Spend ten minutes in the yard or several hours taking a hike; the longer you spend outside, the more benefits you will reap. If you take some time every day to explore nature as a family, you will certainly beat those holiday blues and feel healthier in no time!

Looking for ideas of how to spend your time outside? Check out this blog post of fun winter activities!

Learn more about the benefits of nature on human happiness here!

The above photo is taken by Science Education and Research staff.

December 26, 2014

Tune In: Edible Plants and People Photo Winners on the Radio this Saturday!

by Melissa Harding


Tomorrow, December 27th at 10:35 am, The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station will feature a 25-min interview with the Edible Plants and People middle school photo winners from the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps competition. Over 465 area students created photo essays that reflect the relationship between people and the food on their plates. Hear from the winners about the challenge and what they learned from it!

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.

Read more about the previous challenge and  learn about the Fairchild Challenge competition at the blog!

The above picture was a winning photo in the most recent challenge!

December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays from All of Us!

by Melissa Harding


A Holiday wish from all of us:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy,
while cares drop off like autumn leaves.
– John Muir

Happy Holidays from Phipps Science Education and Research Department!

The above photo was taken by Jeff Harding.

December 22, 2014

Dr. Emily Kalnicky Talks with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette!

by Melissa Harding


Last week, Science Education and Research director Dr. Emily Kalnicky was featured in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette! She spoke about her work in academia, her love for science communication, and her vision for science education at Phipps. Emily also talked about how her passions intertwine with the work that Phipps does to promote human and environmental well-being:

“In many ways, Phipps is on the cutting edge and a great place to examine ecological and human health interacting — and that is my passion, how they interact and can work together.”

In addition to an interview, the article also profiled Emily on some of her favorite people, places and things – from her hobbies to who would play her in a movie of her to life (hint: Sandra Bullock or Amy Adams)!

Join us in congratulating Emily on her interview!

To read the whole interview, click here.

To read more about Emily’s research, check out her biography on the blog

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman

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.


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