Archive for the ‘June 2014’ Category

Got any bugs at home?

In June 2014, Uncategorized on June 28, 2014 at 2:30 pm

kirsti Caterpillar

Kirsti: I am teaching a unit this coming trimester called Insect-Plant Interactions. It’s a third year subject that can be part of a Bachelor of Zoology, Bachelor of Science or similar at University of New England, developed as part of the Entomology Curriculum Australia.

Yes, that’s right. There are people who care about insects so much that they have swarmed, collaborated and produced this great resource called Entomology Australia that tells you – apart from many other things – where you can study entomology in Oz.

I’ve been teaching fundamental science, writing, communication, ethics, history & philosophy of science and other topics that unite scientific disciplines for long enough now that I feel a bit out of the education side of entomology.

As a researcher not directly involved in specific units on entomology it is semi-easy enough to keep abreast of my own field and teach broadly into relevant subjects. But I have a feeling this entomology subject coming up is going to awaken my sleeping expertise! Sleeping, that is, since my postdoc days in New Zealand where I helped teach a fabulous insect diversity subject at Victoria University of Wellington.

One of the features of the Entomology Australia site that I really like is that it has a tab called Bugs @ Home specifically to help amateur entomologists increase their knowledge and provide access to specialty areas and resources. There are so many brilliant amateur entomologists in Australia, including one of the guys working with me on School of Ants. His day job is an outdoor education teacher at TAFE, but he has been collecting, mapping and identifying ants in the New England region for over 20 years.

So if you have any interest in bugs at all, head on over to Entomology Australia.

Then head outside and see what you can see!



What’s in a name?

In June 2014 on June 24, 2014 at 9:03 am

Kirsti Goose bumps LaT1NaSo

Kirsti: Since beholding the great sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia I posted on a few weeks back, I’ve acquired a bit of a morbid interest in the technical or medical names of common afflictions.

There are a plethora of fabulous and mind bending names for every day behaviours and conditions that just don’t get used enough. Although I teach science students to use plain and simple English when explaining technical content, in the age of rapid modification of our vocabulary, I’m also big fan of keeping alive those crazy technical words that might otherwise only be used on a medical diagnostic chart.

You might know more of these words than you think. So I’m going to give you a little quiz. See how many of the words below you know in plain English, or in kid-english (“OUCH that reeeaaaallly hurts MUUUUMMM”!). Answers are waaay down the bottom.

  1. Cutis anserine
  2. Myocardial infarction
  3. Periodontitis
  4. Borborygmi
  5. Xerostomia
  6. Pruritus ani
  7. Hallux abducto valgus
  8. Rhinotillexomania

If, like the majority of us, you forgot what a brain freeze was called perhaps as soon as one hour after reading that blog post, you’re in luck. I found some cool tips on how to remember words. It can be as easy as using those words in the 30 minutes following learning them.

So go now and call someone – I challenge you to drop in one or two of the words above!

[image thanks to Roberto Gomez on Flickr]




Cutis anserine = goose bumps

Myocardial infarction = heart attack

Periodontitis = gum disease

Borborygmi = rumbly tummy

Xerostomia = dry mouth

Pruritus ani = itchy bum

Hallux abducto valgus = bunion

Rhinotillexomania = nose picking

QnA: Developing skills for scientific enquiry

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Today a student sent me these two great questions:

Query: I was interested in your point (made during the lecture) about your daughters’ teacher who, although she had never studied science formally, taught children to ask open ended questions/ have an inquiring mind/ participate in open ended conversations. Would you say these inquiry skills are most important for students to learn in science classes at primary school

Students are blogging more and more these days and I thought blogging may be a good way for students to develop their science inquiry skills, ie. question, predict, plan, conduct, process & analyse data, evaluate and especially – communicate. As a notable ‘science blogger’, what do you think about this idea?

Response: Yes, I do think inquiry skills are a critical aspect of primary school education – and not just valuable to science either. The best adult scientists have an awareness that there is never a single or correct answer ‘out there’ to each dilemma. Investigating scientific theories – also know as hypotheses – involves seeking evidence. New information either supports or refutes your hypothesis, and then you refine your hypothesis on the weight of evidence. So learning to keep an open mind, ask lots of questions, not to be put off by different kinds of evidence is an important lesson to learn early. Having teachers who aren’t afraid to say “oh well, that’s interesting/unexpected” and to invite kids to reconsider their thoughts on how things work is so valuable. If kids are taught to seek ‘the answer’ and not be able to discriminate the quality of the information they see, it’s probably very difficult to undo.

I think blogging can also be a useful way to learn research skills – but with some limitations. As long as the blogger has a rigorous approach to seeking and evaluating the quality of evidence, it can work. Seeking confirmation of facts through alternative sources is also important. In addition, using the internet as a research tool has some limitations. For example, using Google to search for evidence will return information tailored to suit the user based on past activity, not on the quality of evidence necessarily. Also, on social media – as in real life – people tend to collect people around them who reflect their own views. These may not necessarily be balanced and evidence-based views.

Addendum: When I posted this same article on the ScienceforLife.365 Facebook community, and shared to my own personal page, I received responses from two teachers whose opinion I respect.

This comment is from a university teacher: Yes and no. Yes, that students need to have open-minded and thoughtful teachers that allow the students to consider things in their own open way (which I think is the essence of the above). However, it is just as important to ask questions that lead to conclusions. Too often ideas are bounced around via open questions that never get resolved. I think that is the second part of the post, and it’s true that students need to come some conclusion in the end that is consistent with what science says.

This comment from a teacher of junior primary aged children: When I pose a question through provocation in the classroom it has a twofold purpose. To invite children in to both the theory and the language of science and to orchestrate the learning to enable the children to achieve the scientific outcomes. When we empower the scientific competencies in even the youngest of children we are inspired by the deep thinking and learning that occurs. We hear the children name themselves as scientists and use complex scientific language in their everyday learning. We look now, always at the child as competent rather than an empty vessel that needs to be filled! Great post!

[image thanks to audio luci store on flickr]


QnA: Can ‘like’ treat ‘like’?

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Here’s one of the written queries I received, and my answer.

Query: Thinking about homeopathy, how does the theory of “like treating like”’ relate to science?

Response: As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence to broadly support the idea of ‘like treating like’.

Treating medical ailments in a scientific manner involves considering what specific mechanism is involved in each case. As an example: for a fever which results from infection with a virus, this involves thinking about how the virus creates changes in the body which elevate temperature. In a nutshell, the virus triggers a response in the body’s immune system. This response includes the release of signalling molecules (known as cytokines) which tell the cells of the immune system to travel to the site of infection, and also coordinate activities which eventually kill the virus (in most cases). Unfortunately the cytokines also lead to a rise in body temperature. So using something like panadol reduces body temperature and pain in a targeted way and without limiting the ability of the cytokines to coordinate immune activity.

However in each treatment there is also a placebo effect. In effect, this refers to the fact that people tend to feel slightly better after taking what they perceive to be a treatment even if that treatment has no actual effect at a biological level. The simple act of believing a treatment is effective actual does have an impact – how much of an impact varies according to the situation. Here’s some more reading:

[image thanks to Sue Clark on flickr]


Jumping about in muddy puddles

In June 2014 on June 14, 2014 at 11:14 am


Sarah: Some scientists just inherently know how to communicate.

Entomologist Dr Cameron Webb is one of those people. This week he sent me a wonderful idea for a blog post, and followed up a few days later with this story: 

Cameron: The joys of beach combing are well known but what about “bush combing”? Perhaps not quite the same, but after a bit of rain, there is much joy to be had splashing about in puddles, ponds and potholes in your local bushland.

A wet winter weekend is just the time to start sloshing about.

Most of my summer is spent chasing mosquitoes about the wetlands of NSW, from coastal saltmarshes and mangroves to constructed waste-water treatment wetlands. I’m generally targeting specific mosquitoes, tracking changes in abundance and processing them for the detection of pathogens such as Ross River virus. However, Australia boasts a diverse mosquito fauna and many species are found in highly specialised ecological niches. It is often difficult for me to justify spending time hunting down these less common mosquitoes.

One of my favourite environments to explore “for fun” are the sandstone escarpments around Sydney. Amongst the bushland trails, there are often outcrops of sandstone where potholes form and trap rainwater. These mini-wetlands are often thriving ecosystems of aquatic insects and visiting vertebrates but while they may be less well studied than their coastal cousins, they’re still ecologically important.

My daughter and I set off to Buffalo Creek Reserve (near the Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre) with a bag packed with collecting equipment and the ever essential snacks. Miss 6 is a keen insect wrangler having picked up a few skills accompanying me on quick weekend trips to work for maintenance of our laboratory mosquito colonies.

Our main target was a series of freshwater rock pools that, in size and shape are not dissimilar to those of coastal rock shelves. These shallow pools are typically black and on first glance you may be surprised that there is much life in them at all. Stop for a moment and you can see they’re alive with all manner of invertebrates.

There may not be so many frogs about in winter (but these habitats often contain a range of neat tadpoles) but there are still plenty of aquatic invertebrates. There were lots of tiny crustaceans (mostly ostracods and copepods) as well as a few bright red immature stages of chironomids (non-biting midges) but we were mostly interested in the mosquito larvae.

Using an old soup ladle and small disposal plastic pipette, we were able to collect dozens of wrigglers and a few pupae.


We brought them home and over the course of a couple of days what they start to emerge, a process I’m still fascinated by despite watching it happen for over a decade!

There was some surprising diversity in the mosquitoes we collected with a total of four species. Aedes alboannulatus, Aedes notoscriptus, Aedes rubrithorax and Culex quinquefasciatus. Aedes notoscriptus is usually found in artificial water holding containers (e.g. pot plant saucers, discarded tyres, buckets, bird baths etc) and Cx. quinquefasciatus is associated with similar, but generally more polluted, urban habitats. The other two species are typically found in highly ephemeral habitats, Aedes rubrithorax (shown here) almost exclusively in bushland pools like these.


Next time you’re out in the bush after some rain, take the time to stop and have a close look in those puddles, you may be missing a glimpse into some unique bushland biodiversity!

If you’re keen on hunting down some aquatic invertebrates, make sure you pick up a copy of “The Waterbug Book: A guide to the freshwater macroinvertebrates of temperate Australia” by Gooderham and Tsyrlin (CSIRO Publishing).

*Dr Cameron Webb is a Medical Entomologist with the University of Sydney and Pathology West – ICPMR Westmead based at Westmead Hospital, Sydney. You can follow Cameron on Twitter (@mozziebites) or check out his blog

School of Ants Australia

In June 2014 on June 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Kirsti SoA logo B&W

Kirsti: So this is what I’ve been doing. And it’s now official!

This week colleagues and I launched the School of Ants Australia project and website. It is a nation-wide citizen science project run through the University of New England, and it aims to combine research into large-scale patterns of ant diversity, distribution and diet with hands on science education.

The project is an international off-shoot of the very successful citizen science project School of Ants in the US. And it appears to be timely: citizen science in Australia is really only just kicking off on a national scale. The Citizen Science Network Australia launched earlier this month too.

Our site, and project, will go through several phases and will [eventually] include an interactive map allowing contributors to see their data, and integration with the biodiversity mapping project Bowerbird run through Museum Victoria.

Up in my neck of the woods there have already been 12 schools that have participated in our inaugural pilot project. We looked at ant diets across an altitudinal gradient between Coffs Harbour and 1330m at the top of the Great Dividing Range. Kids have loved it, and I’m now up to my eyeballs in ants to identify. I’m loving being back at a microscope, but secretly mortified at how much I’ve got to learn about the ant fauna here!

At School of Ants we’re also currently developing a comprehensive Primary Connections style teaching unit, covering 9 lessons and fully aligned to the new primary school curriculum. It is so exciting working with passionate, committed and knowledgeable teachers on this stuff. Our heads were exploding with ideas this week!

So as well as blogging here with Sarah I’ll be posting regular news updates and blog posts on our School of Ants site, and summaries and updates of data collected will be posted quarterly so you can keep tabs on us keeping tabs on the ants. You can keep your eyes out for writing, photography and poetry competitions we’ll be running in the coming months.

Check us out!  Feedback most welcome.

BYO children

In June 2014 on June 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

in disguise

Sarah: Yesterday I delivered a guest lecture to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia.

I spoke about how my experiences in science and writing, the role that blogging and social media has played in developing my skills, and how writing science can sometimes be a battle between the demands of rigorous and ethical science reporting versus the needs of news-makers.

The lecture time was 6pm – a terrible hour for any parent with young kids needing meals, homework done, bag sorting, lunchbox cleaning and general emotional health maintenance. Plus various piano lessons and footy practise drop-offs and pick-ups to squeeze in as well. With my two boys hand-balled in the direction of parents in law plus husband, I decided to take my 9-year old daughter to the lecture.

She loved it. Absolutely loved it! The chance to be in a university environment, sit in a lecture theatre, see what uni students look like, realise that what I do when she’d not there is valued by other people – she lapped it all up.

Take your kid to work sometime. It’s good for everyone.