Thursday, July 24, 2008

Workin' the night shift

Yes, I've been away! But it's because I've been working very very late nights.... and for far too many hours of the day.

I sure hope the flies appreciate it.

In the meantime, enjoy this gallery of labs at night.... 'cause that's exactly what I've been doing every day. Except, less pretty colours and more fluorescents. Ew.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Florence Bascomb (1862-1945, July 14), geologist

Alright...something a bit different this time! Geology!

Not only was she the first female hired by the United States Geological Survey, but she was also the first female graduate of John Hopkins University. Apparently she had to sit behind a screen so the men in class wouldn't have to see her (God forbid! A woman! Gadzooks!) She taught at Bryn Mawr (like Nettie Maria Stevens I wrote about before) and developed the geology program there into a full-fledged course of study.

She studied the geomorphology of the Piedmont (a section of the Appalachian Mountains). According to the USGS, her arguments were occaisonally "caustic". As if they would ever note this about a male geologist...

Anyway, moving right along... she is recorded as writing:
"The fascination of any search after the truth lies not in the attainment...but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed by the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds joy that is beyond expression in sounding the abyss of science and the secrets of the infinite mind."
Amen to that--and that's as religious as you'll ever see me get.

Oh! And she has a crater on Venus named after can see it here to the right. Awesome.



Crater Database

Phrase of the Day!

Me to Physiology Prof: "I guess my supervisor cares if we wear bike helmets because he's invested a lot of money into what's underneath them".

Physiology Prof to Me: "So does that make you like the fighter pilots of insect physiology?"

...yes...yes it does...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Home sweet home

I come from a deeply contradictory place. Although I mostly grew up in a small village called West Montrose (our famous covered bridge is to the right), the "big town" nearby was Elmira.

Elmira is an interesting town. It's one of the few places where you can still see Old Order Mennonites drive their horse and buggies down the street every day. The picture to the right is a pretty common sight during the summer.

It is, as you can imagine, a very conservative town where family values are king. Life is respected, community is valued, and during the wars, conscientious objectors were in almost family. Mennonites are pacifists, you see.

Elmira is home to the world's largest maple syrup festival, a gorgeous cultural heritage, and a chemical plant that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

This town of pacifists has been featured in a recent story by the Globe and Mail. The story talks about the legacy of birth defects and cancers the defoliant left through Vietnam and North America.

I have difficulty understanding this town and trying to relate to it. I respect the community that people try to build here. I understand the struggle between clinging to tradition and the drive towards progress. But I find the contradictions so very difficult.

A complicated kindness indeed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mathilde Krim (July 9 1926 - ), cancer researcher

I'm so sorry. This is our first still-living famous female scientist, and I'm afraid if she ever stumbled across this it might be kind of creepy to be listed with a bunch of dead scientists. Or hey, she might be honoured (I hope so anyway!).

So, since I can't find an obiturary, I'm afraid information is a little thinner on the ground. She's listed as a cancer researcher on my list, but from the information I've seen she's done a lot of work in AIDS research as well. The holder of 16 honorary doctorates, she has been showered with awards for her work with all sorts of AIDS-related activities, including the United States' highest honour: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She co-founded amfAR with Elizabeth Taylor.

Currently working as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia, she received her doctorate at the University of Geneva in Columbia. She worked at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel


Liebert Online

Catching up: Nettie Maria Stevens (July 7, 1861 - May 4, 1912), geneticist

Alright, moving along then.

Wow. I didn't even realize there were geneticists (other than Mendel) back in the ninteenth century. And, on top of that, I didn't realize a woman had such an important role in the discipline.

Along with a geneticist named Edmund Beecher Wilson, she discovered one of the few things that almost everyone knows about genetics. (That's her on the right, by the way.) Using the same fruit fly that I mentioned below, she found the chromosomal basis for sex determination: the X and Y chromosomes.

So you know how this goes. Females have two X chromosomes, males have an X and a Y. And that genetic difference drives all the physical differences that appear between males and females in most species (there are some very notable exceptions).

She travelled in some pretty awesome company: Thomas Hunt Morgan was one of her professors (he later won a Nobel Prize for his work establishing that same fruit fly as a model system for studying genetics and embryology).

Nettie herself was born to working-class parents in Vermont. She taught for 10 years before saving enough money to go to university, which she attended at Stanford, graduating with a master's degree. She worked then at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, but died of breast cancer before she was able to receive the research faculty position she desired.

Her position in history is somewhat controversial. Usually Edmund Beecher Wilson seems to be given the credit for the X and Y chromosome discovery. Her obiturary, published in Science and written by Morgan, seems to indicate that he considered more a technician than a scientist. Wikipedia also claims that she brought the fruit fly to Morgan's lab in the first place (although my copy of Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth Century Science doesn't mention her at all).


Wikipedia (of course!)
DNA From The Beginning

Bad Kitty!

I know, I know. I missed a few days/female scientists. It's been super-busy! I've been working 14+ hours a day, mostly nights, for the last week and my energy reserves are running kind of low.

To make up for it, I'll give ya a quick run-down on what I'm doing.

I study insect cold tolerance. But more importantly, I study what happens with multiple cold exposures. Can insects repair damage caused by chilling or freezing? Does a single cold exposure for a longer period of time cause more damage than many short cold exposures? Just how variable is climate now, and how variable will it be in the future?

There's a few systems I use to try and figure this out. One is using the woolly bear caterpillars I talked about before (they're freeze tolerant--more about that some other time) to repeatedly freeze and thaw them (and yes, they can survive that!). I can sort out then which damage is caused by being frozen and which is caused by being cold (two very different things!).

But what's been keeping me up at nights lately has been the fruit flies. I'm looking at the very common lab fly Drosophila melanogaster. We collected them wild from the London area last summer and fall, so we suspect they're likely more cold tolerant than the ones that have been kept in stock centres for decades (not individual flies, but the whole culture of them).

So I'm doing what I described before: I have some flies that I give a 10 hour exposure to -0.5 degC and some flies that get 5 two hour exposures (with one day in between) to the same temperature (plus a bunch of control flies of various treatments as well). And it's pretty nifty--more than 75% of them will survive that. Then, I take bunches of flies at 0, 24, 48, and 72 hours after their cold treatment and test them for lipid (fat), carbohydrate (sugar), and protein storage. I also give some of them boyfriends to see how many offspring they produce.

So what do I think I'll see? Well...there's a few different possibilites (assuming cold exposure causes damage visible in either fuel storage (those carbs, lipids, and proteins above) or in the number of offspring they produce):

1. Flies can repair damage caused by the cold exposure. So the flies given the multiple cold treatment will have higher fuel stores and more offspring compared to the sustained cold exposure.

2. Flies can't repair damage caused the cold exposure. So flies in both groups will have similar fuel stores and numbers of offspring.

Hmm... which is it? I won't know the answer until Christmas probably... but in the meantime, think about how important this is. If we know how flexible insects are at repairing damage from low temperatures, we can figure out better how where they can live if climate changes. And considering the number of insect-borne illnesses out there (Malaria alone kills 1 -3 MILLION people a year), understanding the ecophysiology of insects and temperature is so important!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 - 1921), astronomer

I have to admit one of my misgivings about this whole "women in science" hurrah thing I'm doing is that the phrase "woman scientist" itself gives me the creeps. It smacks of condescension: "look at how well she did, even for a woman". Is it necessary to modify the noun "scientist" with the adjective "female"? What does it add to the item you're writing?

For instance, this phrase from my textbook The Fifth Kingdom about the treatment of mycoses drives me crazy:

Drs. Brown and Hazen, the two women scientists who discovered this antibiotic, philanthropically gave their profits to establish a foundation that finances research into medical mycology.

Is it necessary to point out they're female? Does it add anything to the article? Would you ever write that sentence with the phrase "the two male scientists"?

But here I go, writing a series of posts about female scientists. Maybe my intention is this case makes it ok?

Speaking of which, the lady up for today is one that helped us figure out how to measure distances to the stars.

She worked for Harvard, acting as a human "computer" for Edward Charles Pickering (the man who apparently was well known for his "harem" of women that did complex calculations for him).

She studied a type of star called a Cepheid Variable. These stars vary in their brightness in a regular pattern: starting dim, they pulsate to bright, and back again. And it turns out that the length of those pulsations is related to the luminosity of the star (how much light it produces).
So..the awesome thing about that is if you have the period of the star, you can calculate the luminosity of the star from the above chart. You can then measure how bright the star looks from Earth (since farther away stars look dimmer), compare it to the luminosity you figured out before, then you can get the distance that star is away from Earth. Voila! Instant intergalatic yardstick!

Henrietta was not only female, but she was deaf. She died young of cancer, but has been posthumously honoured by having the Leavitt crater on the Moon named after her.


University of Oregon

Phrase of the Day!

From Slate on Christine Brinkley's divorce trial:

Brinkley's lawyer has promoted, time and again, the misguided notion that courtrooms are magical centrifuges that spin away all the garbage to extract some distillate called "the unfiltered truth.

/wants a magical centrifuge.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Florence Gwendolen Rees (1906-1994), zoologist

Well, for my very first female scientist entry, I get a (relatively, for me) easier one--a zoologist!

I'm afraid Google images don't have scandalous pictures of her... but the Royal Society did make her Fellow of the Month (jolly good, eh?) in March 2005.

Not only was she featured in Vogue magazine in 1975, but she also had a career. She was a parasitologist and studied parasitic worms (helminths), publishing a total of 68 papers over her tenure at the University College of Wales.

While many sources mention her work ethic and strong publication record, if you dig deep enough, you find she certainly was no curmugeon.

Many girls now fortunately realise that it is possible to combine gaiety
with with Greek, laughter with Latin, chic with chemistry, and a zest for life
with zoology. Existence would certainly be appalling without some measure
of frivolity, and pottering about has its valued place in the education of every
woman. Life is for living and it would be a poor return for work if we had
no time for pleasure (1973).

Interesting, eh? We've been talking about balancing work and life as women scientists for decades... and is it any better?

Those words aside, she somehow managed to finish her PhD work in 18 months. MY. DEAR. GOD. She studied the trematodes that cause live fluke disease in sheep. On the right, you can see one of her illustrations from her PhD thesis: Cercaria 'Z' sp. n. from Limnaea palustris.

She was an accomplished horsewoman, and was noted for her zest for life. She never married...and it's been speculated the following is the cause:

...the outrageous rule enforced at that time by the University that, in the case
of non-professorial, female members of the academic staff, marriage would be
taken as notice of resignation from one's post (Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society).

Can you imagine it? I wonder what scandalous tales of unrequited love are out there...


The Royal Society
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 43, (Nov., 1997), pp. 445-459

A tip o' the birthday hat

There's a wonderful calendar that someone has put together listing the birthdays of a huge number of female scientists. It certainly highlights my ignorance of the contributions of female scientists. Ethel Wood Shakespeare, Florence Bascomb, Stephanie Kwolek--who ARE these people?

Only one way to find out!

Every day with a female scientist listed, I'm going to try and blog a few things about that person. See what kind of dirt I can dig up. At least learn something in the meantime. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Birthdays all around!

Today is a terribly exciting day...

1. Happy Canada Day for all you Canadians and wannabes out there!

2. It marks 150 years since Darwin and Wallace read their paper on the theory of evolution by natural selection to the Linnean Society.

And please note the critical inclusion of "by natural selection". Evolution (the change noticed in species over time) had long been recognized by natural scientists. But the mechanism of natural selection, Darwin and Wallace's bright idea, was important for many reasons. For one, it introduced the idea of population, rather than individual, traits.

What was different about natural selection, compared to other ideas of the time, was that the critical changes occured in the species, not in individuals. This idea is now enshrined in the scientific method--scientists measure traits in large numbers of individuals because they realize each individual is unique and there is variation between individuals. What matters is the change to the population over time.

Secondly, natural selection introduced the idea of algorithms working in the natural world. The idea that a very simple set of automatic instructions can work with random mutation to produce the dizzying complexity we see in the natural world is immensely powerful.

So happy birthday to Canada and natural selection!

Oh! And if you live near Toronto, go see the Darwin exhibit. I hear it's awesome.