29 Jul 2011

Flocks of fun: The Roger Tory Peterson Institute

Text and photos by Marie Powell

For those who love museums and galleries with a special interest, I can highly recommend spending some time at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York State.

The Peterson Field Guide to Birds has been a useful and recommended resource since its first publication in 1934.

The Institute is filled with Peterson’s sketches and paintings, as well as other works of art and exhibits.

I recently had a chance to join a tour of the archives given by Mark Baldwin, director of education since 1998, during the Highlights Chautauqua conference in July.

It's a fascinating place, full of displays and information.

I learned that Peterson trained as an artist and painter, but he also became known as a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and lecturer. Born in Jamestown in 1908, he loved to escape into the “natural world.” He bought his first camera with his paper route money as a child.

He used a variety of tools to help him create his well-known field guides, and the beautiful paintings of birds in their natural habitat that adorn the walls of the Institute.

Some examples include field notes and sketches, 35-mm transparencies, and “study skins” like this passenger pigeon (left).

There are about 200,000 transparencies in the archives, Baldwin said, as well as “study skins” of various birds that date back as far as 1892.

We also had a tour of the building and an introduction to its architecture from retired architect Marlin Casker.

The facility was built using the rural "Adirondack" style that's well known in the western part of NY State, Casker told us. In other words, it looks a little like the large log-cabin-style buildings that wealthy families built as their summer homes after the civil war.

The architects and builders used stone, natural and finished wood, as well as lodge-pole and white pine. It's very striking inside and out, with high ceilings, arches, and display areas.

I love birds, so I found lots to interest me at the institute, including some very cute displays like this Emperor Penguin (right).

Find out more about the Institute and about Roger Tory Peterson on the website: http: www.rtpi.org/

Marie Powell is the author of Dragonflies are Amazing! (Scholastic Canada).

21 Jul 2011


A rotifer needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle
Perhaps Gloria Steinem was thinking of the microscopic creature Bdelloid rotifer when she popularized the famous feminist's catch phrase of the 70's about a woman's necessity for a man. In the rotifer's case- sisters are really doing it for themselves. You see this animal is only female and she never has sex. Never. ...for tens of millions of years. It's not that she has a headache; it's just that she doesn't need to have sex in order to have daughters. And how do we know this? This fascinating scientific tidbit was explained to me by Dr. David Mark Welch, a scientist who has been studying this organism for years.
I had an opportunity to visit Dr. Welsh in his lab located in the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Peering through a microscope it was easy to see these transparent creatures swimming happily in a dish. The rotifer doesn't look like much. There's a mouth end, a tail end and a balloon -shaped part in between. The inner workings of this very simple creature contain all the stuff necessary to create more of the same.
But the asexual breeding is not the really cool thing about the rotifer. Although this animal lives in water it can also completely dry out and become a speck of dust. At the first drop of moisture, it rehydrates and comes back to life. This means that anywhere the wind blows, you will find one of these things hitching a ride.
Welch has done extensive work with Bdelloid rotifers and has learned that no matter what you do to these girls, nothing seems to harm them. He's blasted them with radiation, heated them to extreme temperatures and has even frozen them solid. After this punishment he added water and poof, they came back to life, no worse for the wear. His research has found that something in the DNA of the creature seems to be able to fix or mend any chromosomes damaged during the experiment.
And it turns out that rotifers have a best before date stamped on their life. They only live four weeks. But the interesting thing about those four weeks is that they are cumulative. That is to say, if you dehydrated and froze a two week old animal, kept if frozen for 6 months, then rehydrated it, the rotifer would live for only another two weeks.
Probably the most astonishing fact I learned from Dr. Welch was that NASA has to clean all probes sent into space to prevent dried rotifers from interplanetary exploration. The idea of sending something from Earth that could hatch in moisture in other places is probably not a good idea. Certainly the space agency is doing its best not to introduce alien life onto other planets. Mind you, popular music tells us, "Mars Needs Women", and the Bdelloid rotifer might just be the perfect fix.

18 Jul 2011

A Visit to the Mad Scientists' Lab

So they're not really mad. Not even a little miffed, if the truth be known. Priya Kumar, a researcher at the Rotman Research Institute/Baycrest Centre was actually pretty happy yesterday when I stopped in for my 12:30 appointment with the MRI machine. She's planning a wedding, and her excitement bubbled over as we went through the pre-test checklist.

"Any cardiac implants?"


"Clamps in your head? Rods, Valves, Stents?"


"Transmitting devices?"

I had to think about that one. Would my communicator to the Mother Ship count?

"No," I replied.

"Good, then we're ready to go," Priya said as she handed me the fabulously fashionable wardrobe I'd need to wear for my tests. It included soft blue "shoes" NOT designed by Jimmy Choo.

I was about to have my head examined, for the fourth time, as part of the Rotman Research Institute's ongoing exploration into memory and aging. In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, I've repeatedly submitted to EKGs, answered endless survey questions and been scanned by an fMRI. I am a 'control' for their studies.

It does give me pause to know that my somewhat twisty brain is being used as the "normal."

Today's tests were looking at episodic memory. Beforehand, I'd been given a chart to fill out with 'titles' for specific memories in several different times frames - up to two weeks ago, three to seven weeks ago, up to six months ago, more than 18 months ago. Stuff like, "Coffee with Bev at Sebastians" or "Jackie's Birthday Party in the park." Once in the MRI machine, I'd be asked to recall as much as I could about each event while my brain activity was being recorded. After each one, I'd be given non-memory as a comparison. In this case, I'd be asked to identify odd or even numbers as they flashed on the screen.

Many people ask me how come I keep volunteering for these tests. Usually, their reluctance to consider doing so themselves has to do with fear of getting in that MRI machine. Luckily, I have no issue with small spaces, and being cossetted and petted and made to lie down - during the afternoon! - seems more like a treat than a burden. A mini-spa day, so to speak.

But the real reason I volunteer is that I can. As a freelance writer, I have a flexible schedule. And as a science writer, I know how tricky it is for researchers to find study subjects who can give them several hours of time during the work day. Most healthy adults are pretty well busybusybusy from 9 to 5.

The other real reason is because I'm interested. I can't think of anything more fascinating than moi moi moi, and here is a chance to take a peek into my own brain while helping to further the cause of scientific investigation. What could be better than knowing that I've helped solve a knotty problem in memory formation theory, and through my participation, helped Alzheimer patients, MS patients, and brain injury patients (all focus groups of Rotman Institute research) retain better control over their memories and life?

Once, in the cool, dark MRI room, thoroughly pajamad and hairnetted, I laid myself down on the machine's bed. A "helmet-thingy" was placed over my face. Annette, the technician, fixed it in place with soft sponges. Ear plugs, then headphones were added next. A finger-pad control panel, on which I could enter my replies to prompt questions, was taped to my hips. A heart monitor was clamped to my left toe, and a breathing monitor wrapped snugly around my waist. A pillow was placed under my knees for maximum padded comfort. Then I was slid, Space Mountain-like, into the MRI donut.

All that was missing was strewn rose petals and cucumbers for my eyes.

The machine kicked into life with an otherworldly series of clicks, bangs, toots and wheezes. At first it sounded like the huffing of the Big Bad Wolf. Then, more like bees in a hive, tooting, quacking and piping.  Bone-shaking vibrations added to the cacophony. Now I understood the reason for the headphones and emergency beeper placed near my chest - no one could hear a bloody thing once that machine was going.

The actual test lasted about an hour. Four 11- minute series of autobiographical prompts were flashed on the screen, interspersed with the odd/even tests. For each autobiographical prompt, I had to indicate how intense my memories were. Were they so vivid I felt like I was reliving it (press down right pinky)? Totally vague (left pinky)? Or something in between? After the odd/even tests, I had to indicate how complete my focus was (left pinky) or whether memories from earlier tests seeped back in.

I discovered that memories involving food had an uncanny way of seeping into the odd/evens more than non-food memories, despite the fact that I'd had a perfectly adequate lunch only an hour earlier. It took me three goes at odd/even before I'd completely shaken the vision of a greasy-but-delish Fried Chicken meal I'd had at my sister’s bucolic birthday in the park six years ago. Ditto for last week's scrumptious baked potato, slathered in sour cream. When I'd written down "Dinner with Chantelle in Amherst, Nova Scotia" on my title sheet, I'd had no idea that my baked potato would end up being the most salient part of the evening.  Kind of embarassing, that.

When the fMRI was finished, they followed up with a "I have to do absolutely nothing" structural MRI. 15 uninterrupted nap minutes, as far as I was concerned.

Then time to get dressed, and one more test. This one was pretty funky.

A few years ago, out of the blue, a woman had contacted the Rotman Brain Health Centre saying, "I think I might have a problem..." Her friends and family had been telling her for years that she was unusual. She had no memory of anything that ever happened to her in the past. No memory of last night's movie. No memory of last week's birthday dinner. No memory of last year's big house purchase. Yet she functions perfectly - husband, job, kids.

Was something strange going on?

Indeed it was. For the last several years, a Rotman research team, under the direction of Dr, Brian Levine, has been trying to figure out what's the story with this woman's decidedly unusual cranium. My tests were part of this research. The fMRI I took was looking at episodic memory - what this mystery patient lacks. Pretty clear and straightforward.

But the next test was looking at something completely different: Spatial sense and visualization.

I was asked to close my eyes and visualize different shapes in my head while the researcher gave me instructions on how to manipulate them in my mind.

Like this:

Imagine the capital letter Y.
Place a horizontal line half way along the vertical line so it crosses it evenly.
Imagine a small circle at the base of the Y's stem.
Rotate the whole image 180 degrees.
What shape do you see? (Having trouble visualizing it? Take a moment and draw the shape on paper. What do you see now?!!! Ta dah!)

It wasn't clear to me how these shape-manipulation tests related to the mystery woman with no baked potato memories. But after I was finished with the questions, I got the skinny.

The case study lady has an extremely poor spatial sense. She also has poor visualization skills. She can't hold a picture of a shape, like a triangle, in her head for any length of time, let alone twist it to the left, right or upside down.

The researchers wanted to see if this ability, or lack thereof, had any correlation to the episodic recall I demonstrated in the fMRI. Only time – and lots more data -  will tell if spatial ability and visualization skills are related to memory formation.

I participated in one final study for the Rotman Institute yesterday. You can too! It's an online survey that takes only about 15 minutes to complete. You'll be given a $10 gift certificate to Amazon for participating, so it's a win win! To take the survey and help further the cause of scientific research, go to


For more information on the Rotman Institute and their fascinating research, go to:


And to read about my earlier Brain Study participation, check out the post on my own blog at


Here’s the funny thing: when I read this old memory-study post, I discovered I’d forgotten most of what had happened during it! I suppose that my , ahem, undeclared transmitter to the Mother Ship may have interfered after all.

11 Jul 2011

Cantastic Authorpalooza - Featuring Sci/Why Authors!

When I'm not writing about science or posting here, I also run a book blog called Ten Stories Up.  During July, I'm posting 20 interviews with Canadian children's book authors and illustrators.  This week is nonfiction week, and three of my guests are Sci/Why authors!

Drop by, check things out, and be sure to leave a comment or two for your chance to win in my weekly giveaways.

Lindsey Carmichael


8 Jul 2011

Seeing the real McCoy... er, McDino

I love really old animals. Really, really old animals! Not just dinosaurs, but ancient mammals and sea monsters and proto-birds and mysterious undersea critters that have left their imprint in ancient rocks... all of them. And I love thinking about how they and their worlds link up with us and our world.

In fact, I love that so much that I've written two books on the subject: Super Crocs and Monster Wings, and Spiked Scorpions and Walking Whales.

So, imagine my delight at visiting the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, a small town in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Although it was named for Scotty, the Tyrannosaurus rex found nearby, the Discovery Centre is a treasure trove of an amazing range of fossils from the area, from giant sea creatures that swam in the great inland sea that once covered most of the Great Plains to the strange-looking mammals that evolved to fill niches left by the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Still, Scotty the T. rex is pretty cool. With more than 65 percent of her skeleton complete, she (probably she) is the most complete T. rex found in Canada so far. Scotty was discovered 20 years ago near Eastend. All her fossil bits are in the Royal Saskatchewan Museum's fossil research lab, which is housed in the Discovery Centre. There's something rather amazing about peering through a huge glass window to see a complete set of fossilized dinosaur vertebrae laid out in order on four large shelves. Not replicas. The real thing!

Coincidentally, in the year that Scotty was discovered, 1991, other scientists discovered the impact site of a huge meteor that struck Earth 65 million years ago and hastened the extinction of the dinosaurs, as well as plenty of other animals. In fact, 75 percent of the species on earth became extinct after that impact.

The meteor left its mark around the world, in a layer of light-coloured clay and ash, often rich in the element iridium, which is more common in meteors than in Earth's crust. It's called the K-T Boundary because it marks the end of the geological time called the Cretaceous Period (it starts with a K in German) and the beginning of the Tertiary Period.

And there it was, too! Not just a diagram of rock layers or a photograph, but a chunk of rock from the Frenchman River Valley with the actual K-T Boundary layer running through it. Below that pale line was rock a dinosaur might have stepped on. Above it was rock that might once have carried the footprint of a mammal exploring its new, dinosaur-free world.

When you spend a lot of time reading about the ancient past, looking at pictures or replicas of fossils, and even writing about it, seeing the real thing right in front of you is a thrill.

Can you tell?

Claire Eamer

6 Jul 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Recyle Does Not Apply to Research

Every June, the University of Alberta hosts Women's Words - a week long writing extravaganza. This year, I had the privilege of teaching a course on writing children's nonfiction. Among my students were several teachers, a librarian, a biologist and a civil engineer.

We spent the whole second lecture on research techniques. First, an overview of the kinds of information sources writers can use. Then a discussion of the way different sources are perceived and weighed by editors. Finally, we talked about how many sources the average 800-word article requires. When I told them that articles I've written about DNA - a subject on which I can reasonably be considered an expert - reference about a dozen sources, my students gaped at me in horror. It's a look resulting from the kind of mental math I've trained myself not to do - hours of work divided by potential financial compensation can be a pretty unhappy equation.

But it comes down to this. Nonfiction writers deal in facts. And if you only consult one source, how do you know the facts it contains are accurate?

The type of source can be a clue - experts in the field, archival documents, and government websites are arguably pretty trustworthy. There's no substitute, however, for independent confirmation.

About five days after my course ended, I signed my first book contract - to write four children's books on animal migration in a little over three weeks. Consequently, I've been doing a lot of research in a real big hurry. Despite the need for speed, the concept of "independent confirmation" has been foremost.

I always start my research online. It's a great way to get an overview of a subject, and to identify the kinds of sources - books, professional papers, experts - I prefer to rely on. So I'm surfing the web in search of wildebeests and discover an odd thing: the same paragraph, verbatim, on more than a dozen sites. An hour's hard googling revealed that the paragraph originated with the IUCN Red List - a reputable source if ever there was one.  But despite being splashed all over the internet, it's still a single source.

Teachers, including myself, warn their students not to plagiarize.  We also warn our students about the potential bias and inaccuracy of unedited online sources.  The problem of accurate information appearing in multiple places is a more subtle one, but something all researchers, be they student or science writer, need to watch out for.


As a reward for anyone who read all the way through, I give you a well-confirmed wildebeest fact:  250,000 wildebeest calves are born in less than three weeks.  That is 12,000 calves per day, or 500 calves every hour! 

Lindsey Carmichael

5 Jul 2011

My Big Toe and Big Questions

When I was in grade 5, I wrote a poem as part of a class assignment. Little did I know, my homeroom teacher entered it into a contest. And I won. The poem was called “My Big Toe”.
It started:
My big toe sure doesn’t look like snow.
Why it’s there, I really don’t know.
It went on for a painful two pages, and it nicely shows why I didn’t become a poet. Still, the prize I won for was for a gift certificate from a local bookstore. Mom and I bounced off to the mall to peruse the shelves and pick out my prize.
Anne of Green Gables”, my mother pulled out a book with a big grin her face.
“Nah,” I said, flipping through a book about toads.
Mary Poppins,” mom said, holding out a nice hardcover edition.
“Already read it at the library,” I said, glazing over an indecipherable book on astronomy.
Little Women? Black Beauty? You really need to read the classics,” she said.
“I dunno, I want something different...” The book of chemistry experiments looked too complicated, and I put it back on the shelf.
The Tinman of Oz,” she said. I hesitated, and glanced at the cover.
“I already have that one...ooh! Wait.” I saw my prize. Hardcover, black background with a coloured overlay of plants, animals, a creepy looking insect, and rockets. I flipped through it. It was perfect.
“Oh no, that looks dull,” mom said. “You really should get Anne of Green Gables. It’s a wonderful book.”
“I want this one.” It was a book, now long out of print, called Tell Me Why. It was a question and answer book about science and had stuff about lightening, insects, cats and famous inventors. It was about everything, and I liked that. That’s the book we went home with.
Flash forward about 17 years. At the age of 27 I landed a column on the kid’s page at the Toronto Star. It was called Ask Pippa – a question and answer column about science. It was about all sorts of stuff, and the column ran for 20 years.
I wouldn’t say Tell Me Why was the cause of me getting into the question answering biz. I look back at it now and find the answers in it a bit fluffy – not the way I’d answer them. In fact, even back then I would’ve liked a bit more depth. I try to get at what I call the “essence” of what the science is about in words kids can understand – not skirt around it. And it’s a tricky thing to do, while also keeping to a very short word length.
I figure if kids ask real questions, they deserve real answers.
In grade 6 I won another gift certificate. Much to mom’s dismay, the book I selected was Tell Me Why, Part 2.