Archive for ‘Conservation’

February 5, 2015

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Anna Johnson

by Melissa Harding

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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 Anna Johnson. 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. Anna has been a BIA Fellow for two years, researching urban ecology.

We interviewed Anna about her passion for the urban environment, why she loves planting flowers in vacant lots, and how practicing science can expand our world.

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

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania but when I moved to Pittsburgh, PA after college, I fell in love with the city. Now, I split my time between my home in Pittsburgh and where I work on my graduate degree, in Baltimore, MD. I am an urban ecologist, which means I study ecosystems that contain a combination of things you would expect to find in any terrestrial ecosystem (water, soil, plants, insects) but also built infrastructure (things like buildings, roads or bridges). One of the things I think about in my own life is what the role of humans should be in our world, and I try to study that too as a scientist, by studying what types of plants make their home in cities and how humans influence where they grow.

2. Why did you become a scientist?

I have always loved the natural world but didn’t really think about being a scientist until I worked as an environmental educator for a summer during college. I quickly began to realize how much I didn’t know about the natural world, and in the process of educating myself to better teach lessons, I realized that I actually had an aptitude for science, and that asking and answering questions was what I loved to do best (and bonus points if those questions were about our natural ecosystems!).

3. What part do plants play in your research?

I like to think of plants as a “habitat template”—in terrestrial ecosystems (that is, on land), plants really form the basis of ecosystems, and they are a big part of how we define habitats (what makes the forest the forest? The trees!). I study the plants that grow in vacant lots because I want to learn what species are able to survive in these tough relatively “new” habitats, and also (eventually—I haven’t gotten there yet with my research!) I’d like to study how their diversity affects other organisms such as pollinators or herbivores and the quality of the soils in vacant lots.

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

This is such a hard question! I find so much of what I do exciting because I love doing and trying new things, and my research always involves something new. Probably the most exciting thing that I have done recently is to help plant 25 vacant lots in Baltimore with wildflower seeds in April of this year, and then return to them in July to discover that they were beautiful and covered in flowers! I really didn’t think our plantings would work, but they did! I watched a family walk by one of the vacant lots and show the flowers to their child, and that made me so happy—that there was something they enjoyed looking at in a vacant lot that used to be mostly just viewed as a problem in their neighborhood.

5. What skills do you use in your job?

I love my job because I get to do different things almost every day, so I have to use lots of different skills. For example, I get to use/hone my organizational skills all the time (usually early in the morning, on my way to a day of field work as I write lists in my head of what tools I need to bring into the field with me…), but also I get to use my imagination when I write research proposals for new projects, my leadership skills when I have to convince my field crew that we should work all day in the cold or the heat or the rain and also some physical strength when I’m carrying heavy fence poles or digging holes in dry, compact soil.

 6. What is your favorite part of your job?

I love sharing my work with other people. Science can be lonely sometimes, so I jump at any opportunity to work in groups on projects or to start new collaborations with people who might have new ideas about ways to do/think about things.

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

I would probably work in an environmental non-profit of some sort—I really like working with groups of people on projects and I hate being in an office all day or talking about things I can’t see. I’d want to be out planting gardens or pruning trees or showing people how to care for/restore natural landscapes. Also, at the end of the day I would want to feel like I had done something useful that made people happier and healthier.

8. Why is science education important?

Science is all about asking and answering questions. To learn to do science is to learn how to collect data and then decide what it tells you (and be able to defend why you think that!). Science education is important because doing science is one of the only ways we can learn about things we don’t already know—otherwise, our world is very small because we are not able to add new knowledge to it, only revisit the same ideas and thoughts over and over. Science teaches us to explore new possibilities and gives us hope for the future.

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Anna is a great example of someone who uses her work to help others; scientists contribute important information to our collective body of knowledge all the time by asking good questions and seeking out the answers. To read more about asking good questions, check out this blog post!

Follow Anna’s adventures in research at her blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Anna Johnson and Phipps Science Education.

February 4, 2015

Challenge #3 of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Plants and Pollinators

by Melissa Harding

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Pollination is a magical process. A plant, through seemingly no will of its own and often with the help of a whole host of unwitting accomplices, is able to orchestrate the ritual by which its pollen is mixed and spread around to make reproduction possible. Not only is this complex plan catalyzed by an organism without an actual brain, but it has been doing so for millions of years. All things considered, the fact that pollination works so well is kind of a miracle. While much of the credit should go to plants, they really couldn’t do it without their pollination pals: bees, butterflies, bats, birds and a number of less famous plant friends like flies and wasps. The most recent challenge for middle and high school students in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps honors those pairings of critters and plants and the   pivotal roles that they play in the ecosystem. Participating students were tasked with creating drawings that depict one such relationship and to explain the value that it provides in a short caption.

Not only was this challenge offered at Phipps, but it is a global challenge as well. The Global Competition is being offered by The Fairchild Challenge, in partnership with all of the Fairchild Challenge Partners. For the first time, ten international and national institutions will be invited to participate in the same challenge. Top 10 drawings from each individual institution, Phipps Conservatory being one, will share their entries and compete in this global challenge. Online voting will be open from Wednesday, April 1 through Thursday, April 30 and winning entries of the Global Challenge will be published in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s magazine!

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In addition, a selection of drawings will be matted, framed and displayed at the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes gallery from May through summer 2015.

In the middle school category, the winning entries are:

1st Place: Tie: Shaler Area Middle School and Shaler Area Middle School
2nd Place: Shaffer Elementary 6th Grade
3rd Place: Carson Middle School

Special Merit Awards:
Carson Middle School for flowers
The Ellis School for originality
David E. Williams Middle School

In the high school category, the winning entries are: 

1st Place: Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy
2nd Place: Hampton High School
3rd Place: Woodland Hills High School

Special Merit Awards:
Hampton High School for an amazing bee
Gateway High School for creativity and skill
Shaler Area High School for exquisite detail
Shaler Area High School for pen and ink artistry
Shaler Area High School for composition

To see the winning entries in both the middle and high school challenges, check out the slideshow below:

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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 slbradio.org where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices. Join area middle school students on Saturday, February 21 at 10:35 a.m. Check out the broadcast here. 

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

February 3, 2015

Say “Hello” to Free Choice Learning in the New Tropical Forest Congo!

by Melissa Harding

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While we have many rooms and plants that change over time at Phipps, including our numerous seasonal shows, perhaps our most extensive and exciting new exhibit comes with the changing of our Tropical Forest Conservatory. Every three years, the entire room gets a serious face-lift; this winter, over 60 percent of the plant life will be removed to make room for plants from our newly highlighted region – the African Congo.  This new forest is the culmination of years of research by Phipps staff, including a trip to Cameroon, and will highlight some of Africa’s lushest landscapes.

In addition to being filled with unique and interesting plant species, this new forest also has an exciting interpretive plan designed to help visitors make the connection between the many different cultures of the region and their own relationships to nature. Focusing on how the people of the Congo region rely on the natural world for their food, culture, housing, economy, art, and architecture, the Tropical Forest Congo exhibit hopes to remind visitors of the power of plants in their own lives.

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Even more exciting is the redoubled focus on science education within the Tropical Forest Congo. With their high diversity of plants and animals, tropical forests provide many excellent opportunities for scientific research; this makes the Tropical Forest Conservatory the perfect place to connect our visitors with what science (and scientists) really look and act like. Meant as a way to give visitors a hands-on look at the world of botanical research, both in the field and in the lab, the new exhibit puts guests into the shoes of real scientists. Each part of the exhibit invites visitors to learn about the scientific process through stories, activities, and sensory exploration. As they walk through the Forest, participants will encounter a research field station (starring BIA Fellow Jessi Turner as our example scientist!), several research kiosks with real scientific tools they can use to collect data, and a lab space.

Congo4Not only does this exhibit enable visitors to experience a bit of the life of a scientist throughout the whole research process, but it encourages them to make a personal connection with botanical research and the importance of plants. It also connects them to the field of science in general and helps to  increase overall scientific literacy. These types of exhibits and activities are important for increasing scientific literacy because most Americans learn the majority of their science knowledge through free choice learning opportunities like those found at Phipps. According to “The 95 Percent Solution”,  a rather infamous 2010 report published by the journal American Scientist, non-school resources, like museums, are where most science learning occurs.

This is particularly important for children. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that not only do these kinds of experiences start a child’s long-term interest in science, but they can significantly increase scientific literacy in populations that are typically under-represented in science. Museum learning not only reinforce topics taught in school, but has the potential to create a vibrant spark in a student that lasts his whole life. Effective science communication through exhibits like the Tropical Forest Congo inspires students to pursue STEM careers and develop a passion for life-long learning.

People learn throughout their entire lives – both as children and as adults. Finding new ways to get them interested in science, especially through a multi-disciplinary approach, is essential to creating new avenues of learning. We are proud that our new interpretive exhibits within the Tropical Forest Congo will contribute to creating a spark of science learning in our visitors for the next three years!

Come celebrate the opening of our new exhibit with a special opening festival – February 7, 11:00-4:00pm! There will be a variety of fun, family-friendly activities such as storytelling, pot-a-plant, cultural crafts, food sampling and visits from real botanical researchers – all free with Phipps admission! Learn more on our website.

Learn more about the importance of free choice learning in museum settings here.

What does a scientist look like? Check out this blog post about how children’s perception of scientists influences their engagement in science.

Photos © Tim Hammill; Paul g. Wiegman; Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

 

January 30, 2015

Backyard Connections: Help Scientists by Joining The Great Backyard Bird Count

by Melissa Harding

Are you ready for some science? It’s been a whole month since the most recent citizen science challenge posted here and it’s time for another one! The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, is another chance to help scientists gain a better understanding of overall bird health around the world. Taking place February 13-16, 2014, the GBBC is an annual four-day event that asks bird lovers to create real-time “snapshots” of where birds are. Birders count the number of birds that they see in their backyard, area park, or local green space and submit this information to scientists, who combine it with data from the Christmas Bird Count and other sources to get a more complete picture of what is happening to bird populations.

Why have two bird counts so close together in time? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the winter months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year. Even better, the February GBBC used to only take place in the United States and Canada, but now that it is a global count, birds are counted in all seasons. This gives scientists even more useful data!

The GBBC is such a great program because it is accessible to everyone, even beginning birders and families. Anyone can participate for as little as 15 minutes or as long as each day of the event. It’s easy to get started – simply create a free GBBC account to submit your checklist. Once you have an account, tally the number of individual bird species that you see during the count period and then enter those numbers on the GBBC website. If you decide to count on multiple days or in multiple locations, just be sure to submit a separate checklist for each day and/or location. You can also send in photos of your backyard birds, the best of which will be posted on their website as part of a photo gallery.

To learn how to participate in the GBBC, visit the Cornell Lab website. Get comprehensive instructions here, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above video is used courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

January 26, 2015

Confessions of a Plant Lover: BIA Fellow Jessi Turner Published in EcoMyths!

by Melissa Harding

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Yet another of our Botany in Action Fellows has been honored this month – Jessica Turner is the author of a recently published article at EcoMyth! Entitled “Why Plants are Awesome to Study: A Love Song from a Scientist“, Jessi’s article speaks about why she prefers to study humble plants over more exciting animal and human subjects. She not only explains why plants are such great subjects for research, but also why they are important to each and every one of us.

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. We are so excited for Jessi to have this great opportunity to share her work with a larger audience!

To read Jessi’s article, check it out on EcoMyth! Additionally, check out this piece that Jessi wrote last year for the blog, Understanding the Human Connection the American Ginseng.

Learn more about Jessi and follow her research at her website !

The above photo of Jessi was taken by Chelsie Romulo.  

January 13, 2015

Watch our SEED Being Built

by Melissa Harding

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The SEEDClassroom is becoming a reality at Phipps! The SEEDclassroom, a portable, sustainable learning space built to Living Building standards, is a great example of tailoring the learning environment to the needs to the students who will learn there. This modular classroom is a way to provide a healthy, happy environment for learning. It also provides opportunities for hands-on experiential opportunities for students of all ages.

In addition, the classroom is net-zero energy, net-zero water, is made of non-toxic materials, includes daylighting, urban agriculture and equity components and creates a space that fosters inspiration, education and beauty. The SEEDclassroom is built to last 100 years!

We are getting more excited as progress is being made on the site and on the modular building itself. We wanted to share these awesome photos of our classroom in production. We can’t wait for it to land next to our lagoon!

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To learn more about the SEEDclassroom and get a sense of what it will look inside and out, check out the website.

To learn more about the Living Building Challenge (LBC), check out this website. Learn more about the LBC at Phipps here.

The above photos were provided by Eco Craft.

 

 

December 19, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Stephen Murphy

by Melissa Harding

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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!

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 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.

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