26 Jun 2015

Saskatoon Offers Robotic Cow Massagers, Big Physics and More

By Pippa Wysong (June 26, 2015)

TORONTO – From robotic cow massagers to photon accelerators and big physics, to a major vaccine development centre, Saskatoon is a hub of science, discovery and outreach.  This, of course, was a delightful find for the nearly 100 members of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) who attended the annual conference there. We couldn’t get enough of what the University of Saskatchewan had to offer.

The first stop on campus was the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Facility, home to about 100 cows where research is done looking at how feed combinations affect milk production, the use of robotic technology, cow health, fertility and more. Between that and the Ryan-Dube Equine Performance Centre, veterinary college students learn how to work with big animals.

We saw cows, ready to be milked, wander into an automatic milking stall. A cow walks in, had treats she could snack on, and stands there while milking cups attach themselves to her udders – guided by a robotic vision system. When done, the cow we watched languidly walked out.

Next to this was a robotic arm in the form of a large spinning brush that could be activated by a cow to get a back-scratch or massage. And just as our guide was describing how cows voluntarily walk over to the device and activate it, one did. It was a bovine spa moment.

Devices like these are starting to appear in actual dairy farms because, well, the cows like it, according to Dr. Bernard Laarveld who teaches animal and poultry science. He noted that when outside, cows often rub their backs or sides against a fence or tree. It feels good. Mimicking this indoors makes cows happy.

We also toured the Canadian Light Source (CLS) where several physicists described their projects, ranging from using the synchrotron for medical diagnostics, to soil analysis. The ranges of light frequencies it uses means it is one of the most sensitive tools in Canada for analysing the structure and chemistry of materials, including soil, metals and biologic materials.

Impressively, the public can request tours for both the Rayner centre and the CLS.

Being in the agriculture research capital of Canada, the topic of GMOs came up. A keynote talk was given by Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO food activist who was behind various campaigns ripping GMO crops out of fields, in England. He now regrets the activism.

Why? The AAAS - The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a consensus statement saying climate change was real and that the science overwhelmingly demonstrated it. He was impressed with the science. But then the AAAS released a consensus statement saying GMOs are safe, and generally good for farming and for feeding the world's population. He couldn't support the one on climate change, and not the one on GMOs since the quality of the science was excellent for both, he said. During his activism days, he says he didn’t know the science.

The group got the chance to meet numerous other scientists at the conference in areas ranging from Arctic water quality, soil science, a researcher comparing heritage vs modern wheat, global food security, vaccine development, and more. And there was a public talk by Jay Ingram about Alzheimer’s Disease (he also gave a talk on effective and creative story-telling methods).

What about the art of science communication? Speakers from Mashable, Greymadder.net and the CBC gave inspiring talks about new ways of presenting stories and the changing market place. Personal stories still matter when it comes to what people want to read, said Alix Hayden who launched Greymadder. Professional development sessions were useful for beginner and seasoned science writers alike.

There was fun too, such as the boat tour on the Saskatchewn River on a perfect day. We mingled with researchers working on how to deal with the effects of climate change (such as drought) and managing this valuable river source – the water of which is needed for most of Canada’s crops. These world-class researchers are also working as consultants in China and advising how to reduce emissions and water pollution there – much of which eventually flows to Canadian waters.

With a population of only 250,000, the city of Saskatoon sure packs in a lot of world-class science.


15 Jun 2015

Proof That Even Brilliant Scientists Are Occasionally Boneheads

Hey, scientists are people, too. They're just as vulnerable to bias and brain farts as the next guy or gal. But sometimes the boneheadery is so profound you really kind of wonder how they manage to tie their shoes in the morning.
Case in point, Tim Hunt. 
Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize winning biochemist. Who proclaimed to a room full of female science journalists that science labs should be segregated because:
Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.
Let's put this statement under the... ahem... microscope, shall we? 
You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you...
As regular readers will know, before I started writing science books for kids, I was an actual female scientist. And I vividly remember those days in the lab, wearing a lab coat flecked with stains of mysterious origin, the aroma of growth medium and carcinogenic chemicals infusing the air, staring at data in the wee hours of the night, trying to figure out why a reaction that had worked perfectly well the last three hundred times had mysteriously stopped working... Such a heady combination for romance, it's a wonder I managed to get any work done. 
But putting all that aside, I rather object to the implication that women in science (or any other field) have nothing better to do that moon over the menfolk all day long - and the implication that we are so at the mercy of our hormones, we'll sacrifice everything we've worked for to get to the nearest source of testosterone.
And if we look at it from the opposite side, there's something here that's even more disturbing - the implication that women are to blame for men's reactions to them, that men just can't control themselves in our presence. At attitude that not only does a disservice to men, but underlies the rape culture that's a serious threat to girls and women.
buffy conclusions
I also have to wonder where, in Hunt's ideal segregated lab scenario, gay male scientists will be allowed to work.
When you criticize them, they cry...
First of all, crying is good for you. Crying is a sign that your physical and emotional stresses have built up to the point where your body can't store them anymore. Tears are the release valve on the pressure cooker, and science is ten kinds of pressure. But assuming scientists of any gender are doing the crying, they're not doing it in the middle of the lab. That's what bathrooms are for.
What's more interesting, again, are the underlying implications here. Is Hunt implying that crying is a thing only women do? Because that's patently untrue. Or are female scientists being excessively criticized compared to male scientists?
Yeah. That last one.
I've sat with male colleagues and been excluded from the conversation. One of my friends was frequently complemented on her appearance rather than her work. Another was told that women aren't smart enough for genetics and she should go into nursing instead. One ended up quitting her job because she couldn't handle the unrelenting misogyny. 
Civil EngineeringAnd that's just me and my female friends. Studies show that graduating classes in university engineering programs are now 20% women. But only 9.7% of working engineers are female. When asked why they left their field, many women cite the attitudes of their male coworkers.
Right now, Tim Hunt is the face of the problem, but he is the tiny visible tip of a massive submerged iceberg - a slow, persistent, pervasive discrimination that prevents women (and especially women who aren't white) from reaching their potential. 
Our society faces enormous challenges, challenges that only science and engineering can solve, and we need diverse minds with diverse approaches working on these problems. We need young girls to know that their skills and ideas are just as valuable as those of boys. And we need boys to grow up, get smart, and fling open the doors of the clubhouse.
If you can't adapt, you can always resign.
Tim Hunt did.
Check the responses of other female scientists herehere, or at the Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy
For more on women in engineering, check out my book, Amazing Feats of Civil Engineering.
What do think about the Tim Hunt affair (see what I did there)? Have you observed these kinds of attitudes in your workplace or experienced them yourself? How can we change the story for women in science and engineering?

12 Jun 2015

Gifts from the Golden Wattle - chewing gum, pom-pom flowers, and glue

by Joan Marie Galat

The golden wattle (Acacia pycantha) is the most widespread of all Australian plants and one of more than 900 species of wattle in the country. An evergreen, it may grow as a bushy shrub up to 16 feet (5 meters) high and sport a multitude of slightly droopy branches, or grow as a tree with a single trunk up to 32 feet (10 meters) high. 

As a seedling, golden wattles grow tough, water-saving leaves that help it survive Australia’s dry regions. But adult trees do not have true leaves. Instead, they grow shiny flattened leaf stalks without blades. These blades, called phyllodes, do the work of leaves.

When the tree is three years old, flowers erupt, looking like clusters of fluffy gold pompoms. Each flower head contains up to eighty tiny sweet-smelling blossoms. 
After pollination, flowers form pods that look like long, green string beans. 

Under the hot Australian sun, pods turn dark brown as they mature and split open on one side to release their seeds. These remarkable seeds can still sprout after spending decades in the soil, and trees often appear soon after a bushfire because heat enables the seeds to germinate.

Golden Wattle Chewing Gum
Long before you could buy chewing gum at a store and well before British settlers arrived in Australia, Aborigine people ate gum. Where did they get it? From the sap that oozed out of golden wattle trees. They made notches in the bark to collect gum more easily and ensure a regular supply. They also found the gooey sap could be used as an adhesive and mixed it with other ingredients to make objects stick together. 

Sugar gliders like the gum too. They make golden wattle sap flow by chewing holes into tree trunks and branches. The tree produces gum to heal the injury and the sugar glider gets a tasty snack. Sugar gliders also eat golden wattle seeds before they ripen.

In Australia, September 1 marks the first day of spring and National Wattle Day—a special time to honor the spirit and resilience of Australian people. With bright yellow flowers and deep green leaves, the famous golden wattle’s image adorns Australia’s coat of arms, postage stamps, and awards of merit.

You can discover how people, animals, and the planet needs 11 different species of trees from across the globe in Branching Out - How trees are part of Our World published by Owlkids. Watch this 62 second book trailer for details.