Tag Archives: Science

Night Lab: The Science of Extinction

If you can imagine it, mammoths, camels, saber-toothed cats and massive ground sloths once walked the ground that has become Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.  Walking down Michigan Avenue today, you’d never guess that these huge creatures foraged on the marsh land now buried beneath city’s streets.  Just as the first humans settled the Americas, these Ice Age giants vanished forever.  New research on these extinctions offers insights for modern conservation – understanding the demise of the mastodon may help us create strategies to protect today’s endangered elephants, rhinos, tigers and wolves.

Some conservation biologists take the argument further: they now suggest that in some cases, deliberately introducing exotic animals may be critical to restoring damaged ecosystems.  Should we strive to replicate the animal populations found by the first Europeans as they colonized the globe, as traditional conservation efforts assume?  Or should we instead work to rebuild whole ecosystems, using substitutes to fill niches left empty by the top predators and large herbivores humans have driven to extinction?  Join us to find out about what science can tell us about our Earth’s past and future at Night Lab, Chicago’s science series for adults, for a discussion with science writer Sharon Levy, author of Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals.

Schubas (3159 N. Southport)
May 1, 2011
7-9 PM
Red Line to Belmont

About Once and Future Giants:

In Once and Future Giants, science writer Sharon Levy digs through the evidence surrounding Pleistocene large animal (“megafauna”) extinction events worldwide, showing that understanding this history-and our part in it-is crucial for protecting the elephants, polar bears, and other great creatures at risk today. These surviving relatives of the Ice Age beasts now face an intensified replay of that great die-off, as our species usurps the planet’s last wild places while driving a warming trend more extreme than any in mammalian history.  Deftly navigating competing theories and emerging evidence, Once and Future Giants examines the extent of human influence on megafauna extinctions past and present, and explores innovative conservation efforts around the globe. The key to modern-day conservation, Levy suggests, may lie fossilized right under our feet.

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Night Lab: The Science of Sex and Attraction and Kiss-In

Night Lab, Chicago’s science series for adults, returns to Schubas just in time for Valentine’s Day. Molecular geneticist and cell biologist Stephanie Levi, Ph.D. will be demystifying the science behind love, lust, attraction and everything in between-and the audience will pick the topics. If you’ve ever wondered about differences in the brains of men and women during orgasm, the science behind breakups, or how pheromones-chemical signals that are processed by the nervous system and influence reproductive behavior-work, and what science is showing us about how they influence lust and love, come by for a drink and stay for the discussion.

Stephanie will share a statistical analysis of hookups and breakups on Facebook while you add your favorite songs to Night Lab’s first-ever make-out playlist. Take part in Chicago’s first kiss-in, where you can put science to the test. One lucky trivia winner will receive a copy of The Science of Kissing by Sheril Kirshenbaum and sexy gifts from Early to Bed. Scientific valentines will be on hand to exchange as we unravel the molecular mysteries behind love and lust.

February 13, 2011

7:00 PM-9:00 PM

Schubas (3159 North Southport Avenue)



Red Line to Belmont


Stephanie started Night Lab to bring science to the masses in November 2008.  It is designed to give non-scientists a short and sweet taste of science in their everyday lives-without turning it into science lite.  If you failed outta freshman bio, are afraid of math, or think physics is boring, Night Lab is for you.  Scientists are welcome too, of course!

Drop Stephanie a note at Night.Lab.Chicago@gmail.com with questions.


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Last Night’s Solstice Lunar Eclipse: The Basic Science Explained

A rare duo of astronomical events, the December 2010 lunar eclipse occurred on the December 21 winter solstice to produce a beautiful light show for those who were lucky (and awake) enough to watch. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth intercepts the Sun’s path to the Moon, casting a shadow on the Moon that appears red, amber, or gray. Lunar eclipses occur at least twice a year, so you will certainly be able to see the event again. The special part about this particular eclipse, however, is its timing: The last time an eclipse occurred on the solstice was on 1638 (372 years ago), and the next one is projected to occur in 2094. On the day of the winter solstice, the tilt of the Earth is at its farthest position from the Sun, giving us winter.  This also makes the day of the solstice the shortest of the year.

The eclipse began on December 21, 2010 at 12:33 AM, and the Moon was completely engulfed in the Earth’s shadow at 1:41 AM (CST). Take a look at this time lapse video for a peek if you missed it:

So when is the Earth’s shadow visible? Well, it’s actually the moment in the video when the Moon turns red. Sunlight is made up of all colors of the spectrum, from red to violet, and then some beyond the visible spectrum. The Earth’s atmosphere scatters blue light (which is why the sky is blue), so the light that makes it to the Moon is red, causing a red shadow to appear on the Moon’s surface.

Why do you see the Moon go black before it becomes red? Shouldn’t it just go from white to red? If you look at a picture of the Sun, Earth and Moon during a lunar eclipse, you can see that sunlight from each edge of the sun crosses each edge of the Earth, creating cone-shaped shadows in space called Penumbra. These shadows appear on the Moon’s surface as darkness before the Moon moves directly into the Earth’s path, or Umbra.

Courtesy of Space.com


You can also view this from the Moon’s point of view!

Courtesy of Space.com


Speaking of the Moon’s point of view, the temperature of the Moon goes wild during lunar eclipses. Ordinarily, the temperature of the surface of the Moon exposed to the Sun (during a full moon) is 266 degrees Fahrenheit. During a lunar eclipse, the temperature of the Moon drops to -146 degrees Fahrenheit-all in the span of 90 minutes! The lack of an atmosphere on the Moon means that it can’t control heat loss into space during an eclipse. Kind of makes you want to do something nice for the ozone layer, right?

Courtesy of some nice lady on Twitter. Please don't sue me.

Some really gorgeous photos were captured from this event. This one, from a viewer in Manhattan, caught this shot of the Moon from her balcony:

And this one, which showed up on the Associated Press this morning, showing the Moon entering one of the two Penumbra over the top of the Chrysler Building in New York:

Courtesy of the Associated Press


The nice thing about lunar eclipses is that, unlike solar eclipses, in which the Moon blocks the Sun’s path to the Earth, lunar eclipses can be viewed from anywhere in the world at night, and don’t require special eye protection, although visibility is optimal in different parts of the world during different eclipses. There will be two lunar eclipses in 2011: June 15, 2011 and December 10, 2011. Get out there!

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Off the Bench Begins


This year has been a wild ride. I made the transition from bench scientist to program administrator/outreach maven/boss-type-person. I know some of you want to make a similar move, and I want to help you. So, I am starting a column called Off the Bench that will detail for you what this transition has been like, what has worked, and what hasn’t. I tell you, there is a lot you need to know that you ain’t learning in grad school. It’s a shame it’s so hard to learn the soft skills that really make a difference when you are in a new position (these help you whether you’re taking the tenure track or going outside the hallowed halls of the academy), but you need them regardless, so you better find a way to pick them up.

So, here’s the background:

I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2009 in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. It became increasingly apparent throughout grad school that science outreach was my thing. Not that research isn’t-it totally is. I have done research in a lab since I was 19 years old, and worked on projects in labs since without pause. I love to do science. I love to ask questions, design experiments, test hypotheses and formulate models based on data. I love to sit for several hours a day taking in the literature on a research area I enjoy (Fig 1.).

Fig. 1: Thesis writing carnage.

Fig. 1: Thesis writing carnage.

I love writing about science, condensing the work of several years into six concise figures. But I also love people, helping others, seeing tangible results every day, and was moved by my own experience to help others who might have professional aspirations in science themselves, as well as my uncontrollable craziness for bringing science to the public. It’s out of control, I tell you. I also have a gregarious and social nature that sometimes competes with the side of my personality that loves to slap my iPod on and crank through a solid session on the electron microscope until 2:30 AM without a soul around in the basement of a science building (Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Extreme isolation, rocking data collection-2:00 AM, sometime in 2009

Fig 2: Extreme isolation, rocking data collection-2:00 AM, sometime in 2009

Make no mistake: those two sides of my personality co-exist, but I left graduate school knowing that I wanted to take a different, but related, path. It’s heresy, but I-wait for it-decided to go for a job that I knew would light me up everyday and skip the post-doc.

You read that right.

I’m one of those.

But read the other part: I got my Ph.D. and took a job that lights me up every day.

So, I want to help you do the same, if that is what you want. If you’re exploring that idea and are not sure how to make it happen, or feeling a little nervous about it, have an advisor who thinks your education is a waste if you don’t take the tenure-track route-which is awesome, but not for everyone, I hope this will help you.

I’ll give you the punchline of the whole thing right now-follow your heart first, and then get the skills you need to make sure you have what it takes to get where you want to go. I warn you, this requires vigilance, self-awareness, planning, and often a feeling of otherness when you are in an intense academic environment. However, you’ll be in another intense environment doing what you love and really happy at the end of all your preparation, so you may as well just go for it, it is worth it. Here’s the other thing: you can learn the other skills, although you don’t want to be missing many of them, but no one can teach you what it is to be a scientist on the job. That, you need to pick up elsewhere. So, pick it up.

In upcoming posts, I will detail what I have learned as I went through this transition, the skills I didn’t pick up in grad school that have become essential to my work in the day-to-day, why I love what I do and what it’s about, and how you can make a plan to get where you want to go.

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Science: New Faces

Science needs a new face, and with any luck, it will get it. Diversity in science is an ongoing issue, but today I was able to see the richness, perspective, and talent that we will see as the scientific workforce diversifies. A very talented young man, an engineering student, stepped up to the podium at the LSAMP conference today, nervous at first and then sounding like the CEO of an alternative energy firm, discussing his research on alternative energy solutions for villages in Canada. His ideas, his perspectives, his presence-I could see that this guy was a leader, and was built to be a voice for science. The AMP program serves students from traditionally under-represented groups, and hearing talks by these students, including this student, an African-American, overwhelmed me with the realization of how urgent and important it is to support these students, connect them with opportunities to ensure their success and set the stage for the innovation that will arise from their brilliance. Their perspectives are needed. I know we hear this, but chatting with them at lunch, hearing about their goals to get a Ph.D. or a good job in science, looking for funding, certainly, it drove me even higher in my goal to connect students with opportunities to help them succeed, but I hope that others reading this will be similarly moved to take a few minutes this week to reach out to a student walking in the halls of their science building, consider mentoring more, or hook a student up with an opportunity. It definitely requires that you be proactive when you already have so much going on, it asks that you go above and beyond, but isn’t that what we’re here for? Isn’t that what we owe after so many invested in us? Isn’t that our obligation, our responsibility, after we made it, to show others how to get where they’d like to go? Connect them with the SACNAS website, the LSAMP website, or email me and I’ll send resources your way. I was hearing their goals, and their uncertainty about how to get there-lots of “I’ll get that Ph.D….right.” It is right. It’s not too big for you. It is for you, if that is what you want.

If anyone who got my card reads this, then this is what I have to tell you: Keep going. Reach out for help. Ask for what you need, and assume the resources are there for you, because they are, you just need someone to help you find them and support you while you pursue them. We’re out there. You can drop me a line.

And to the young man who spoke today about villages in Canada, deep-water wind turbines, and the village plan, you killed it-I can’t wait to see where you’re at in ten years.

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Night Lab in Chicago Magazine!

The upcoming Night Lab on May 17th is being featured in the May issue of Chicago magazine!  The event covers all things molecular gastronomy-related.  I am writing my thesis and super-busy pulling the final details together, so won’t be posting a whole lot until after May 4 (Ph.D. Day!), but will be back in full effect with all the sweet science you can handle!

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Citizen Science-The Great Backyard Bird Count

On Friday February 13, people will have the opportunity to participate in a large-scale science project. You don’t need fancy equipment, quantitative prowess or background. Just look outside the window and count birds for ten minutes. That’s right, you heard me. The Great Backyard Bird Count will be taking place from the 13th-16th. The goal is to engage people in the scientific process and enable researchers to acquire data about bird populations that would be impossible to get with isolated research teams. Who cares about birds? Well, if you’ve ever taken the time to bird-watch you’d know that birds are beautiful. But that aside, understanding bird populations and changes in bird communities gives researchers information about the ecological health about the surrounding environment and lends critical insights into needs for conservation efforts, how diseases (like West Nile Virus) are taking hold in one place versus another, and the pattern of bird populations studies over years can help scientists understand more global changes in the environment that could be worrisome (or encouraging). Learn more and participate at the website for the Backyard Bird Count and take a few minutes to become a scientist yourself.

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