Archive for the ‘October 2013’ Category

Science for opening possibilities

In October 2013 on October 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Kirsti PLC girls ant looking

Kirsti: Science is all about primary school extension projects for me right now. After my last blog entry about first year university biology, I’m taking it back some 15 years.

I’m a Scientist in a School. Two schools in fact.  I run a citizen science project called School of Ants at both schools in slightly different forms, and teach kids each week in grades from 3 to 5.  These schools are my second and third Scientist in Schools partnership, and I love it.

My personal gripe is that I don’t believe the majority of primary school students in Australia get exposed to enough science, or encouraged to ask their own questions – real questions.  Let alone answer them using a rigorous process of enquiry like the scientific method.  Science is often seen as daunting to teachers and students alike in primary school because we are so often told that we must invent something, solve a global issue or be the ‘smartest kid in the school’  to actually be doing science.

And of course this is bollocks!

In fact, primary school students in Devon, UK proved in 2010 that they too could publish science in a prestigious and high impact journal, Biology Letters. And the experience transformed their perception of science in fundamental ways.

In collaboration with a scientist – and much encouragement from their teachers – Blackawton Primary School students added to our knowledge bank on foraging bees: how they discriminate between flowers with and without nectar rewards. The paper is great, and the study designed, carried out and written by 8-10 year olds. BRILLIANT.

In their own words, their principal finding was that,

“Bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships when deciding which colour flower to forage from.

We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

I love being able to contribute to young people’s awe of nature. Just today my teacher colleague at PLC, Armidale and I decided that our measure of success in these first weeks of the project was the ‘squeal factor’. The girls have been so interested, so genuinely curious, fascinated and excited about ants that the squealing is in sheer delight of the discovery of spines, queens and hairs on the gasters of ants! They are learning about diversity, colony structure and habitat preference, and doing so with voracity. I am not limiting them in their questions or perceptions of what they can do.

Who knows? We might embark on a real scientific paper.  But for now, I’m happy helping to open possibilities in these kids’ lives.

Image of students conducting ant research published with permissions 


Body crisis

In October 2013 on October 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm


Sarah: I was crazy enough to think that I could be a runner without looking after the rest of my body.

Yeah, I can run long distances.

Yeah, I’m fit.

Yeah, I don’t have time to swim or do sit-ups.

A couple of months ago, a niggling achilles tendon sent me to the physiotherapist. I visited a most excellent woman about my age, also a runner (and a very good one at that), and a renowned expert on core and pelvic strength (the kind that gets messed with in pregnancy and childbirth).

Not surprisingly, she told me my right achilles was inflamed. That made sense. Also, my quadriceps muscles (those ones at the front of your leg) were strong and well-developed from my running.

Hell, yeah, I’m a runner.

But pretty much the rest of my body was screwed. Abdominal strength, terrible. Butt muscles, pathetic. Hamstrings, tight and inflexible.


Also, my shoes were wrong and I needed moulded shoe inserts to support my insteps.


So now with the advice of the physiotherapist as well as a podiatrist, I’ve modified my fitness program. In full earnest, I’m applying Kirsti’s approach:

Repetition rapidly reinforces specific neural pathways.”

Everything I do needs to pull in and reinforce the use of specific muscles and their associated nerve pathways.

Swimming, with deliberate and conscious use of rear leg and abdominal muscles.

Gym classes with squats, lunges and abdominal strength exercises in front of a mirror to provide visual feedback on alignment.

Cycling classes with focus on using core strength, and pushing and pulling the pedal around its circuit.

Mate, I’m concentrating on exercise more that I ever have. It’s exhausting!

But the theory goes that if I think and recruit specific muscles into activation on a repetitive basis, soon they’ll be used automatically for all my activities.

And that means better fitness and form, all over.

[image thanks to here].

First year biology

In October 2013 on October 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

kirsti biology Spiral succulent

Kirsti: First year biology at university. Most Bachelor of Science students did it. I did it. It’s a prerequisite for many, more specialised second year units, and the foundation for other degrees like agriculture, food science, biomedicine and medicine, and sometimes environmental science.

I’ve been doing some lab and tutorial teaching of first year biology this past 3 months. It’s been rewarding. But I’m now launching into my first trimester of purely external (online) first year biology students at the University of New England.

I know. EXCITED!

The students will experience an intensive practical school to ensure they get into a lab, get their hands dirty, make observations of actual specimens and get to talk to other students first hand. But other than that, everything’s in their own time, at [mainly] their own pace, and – the killer – during the summer holidays of most university courses.

I’m looking forward to live chats about our topics, setting some fun interactive quizzes to get them thinking, but most of all, advising them to get out there and look around! They could, for example, look for evidence of symmetry in their own gardens, arthropods on their kitchen bench-tops and shared features of any vertebrate pets in their vicinity.

In my own head right now I might choose to go off on a tangent with thoughts and grumbles about various things relating to university study these days. Like the reduction of semester weeks to trimesters at some universities, decreasing the number of lectures, practicals and assessments in first year biology (primarily due to increasing student numbers and decreasing budgets), and superficial learning by generations of IT-savvy kids. But I will not force you to endure that. Not today anyway. 🙂 

Instead, I will continue writing my lecture on animal development, and marvel at radial symmetry, a developing gastrula, arthropod diversity and the existence of nematodes.

Making maple flavour

In October 2013 on October 21, 2013 at 9:20 am


A guest post by Tiki Swain* 

I think buying local food, and growing and making your own is important.

But not everything can be done locally. Maple syrup, for instance. We don’t have the climate for maple trees anywhere on the continent, except possibly the highlands of Tasmania and even that’s a bit touchy. To add further complexity, the process of gathering syrup is not ‘home-garden’. It’s quite labour intensive and needs lots of trees.

However, the flavour for imitation maple syrup comes from the seeds of the spice fenugreek, which is a warm-climate Mediterranean-type plant. We can grow that here. When I found this out, I said,

“Whee! I can make maple syrup!”

But, wait a second. Fenugreek. That’s the spice that gives samosas that distinctive curry flavour. How on earth do you get from there to maple? I’ve seen it used to flavour chocolate so I know it can be done, but…

Turns out it’s in the extraction profile. Fenugreek – like all spices – has a number of flavour compounds, and the way you treat it affects which compounds come out more strongly (hint: never add black pepper to soup more than seven minutes before it finishes cooking). The compounds that give the distinctive maple flavour – as opposed to curry – are less straightforward to extract. My reading suggested that water wouldn’t extract those compounds at all, and that industrial manufacturers used hexanes and similar organic (carbon-based) solvents in the process. OK, fair enough. But I don’t keep them in my kitchen. And I guessed I didn’t need to.

Fenugreek is an old, old spice. The name ‘fenugreek’ is a garbled-through-the-centuries form of the name the Romans gave it when they bought it for horse fodder. And I doubt someone in the 20th century just said,

“Hey, let’s stick this curry powder in petrol and see if it makes a nice topping for pancakes”.

There had to have been a reason someone tried it. Which means the flavours can be extracted some other low-tech normal-cooking way – most likely alcohol or oil.

After some careful reading, I devised a possible method for making imitation maple essence, as follows:

–> Warm the fenugreek seeds lightly and evenly without browning (to create the flavour compounds I wanted selectively extractable)

–> Grind the seeds (to increase surface area for extraction)

–> Place in alcohol (as the solvent to collect the wanted compounds)

–> Wait three weeks.

I’m afraid my first attempt was less than successful.

For alcohol I used a bottle of gin someone had left with us after a party. And I didn’t get the fenugreek seeds evenly warmed nor completely unbrowned, nor did I grind them sufficiently before they’d cooled too far. Despite that, it did smell wonderful while I was performing the steps, so I had no early reason to doubt it. And when I opened one of my test bottles after three weeks, a magical mapley aroma washed out of the bottle. Unfortunately, I think that’s where all the maple-like compounds went…up my nose.

When I tasted it, it was curry-flavoured gin. Yep.

So I gave the bottles to some of my foodie friends – who would think it was cool – and reconsidered my methods.

I plan to try again with a heavy, thick-based frying pan for warming, see if that gives me better heat control, and also with a form of alcohol that has a less strong flavour of its own than gin.

I’ll keep you posted.

*Tiki Swain is interested in everything and pays attention to as much as possible, especially if it’s food, plants or primitive skills. She is a former science communicator, now studying urban farming and writing about the interplay within agricultural systems at AgriTapestry. You can find her on twitter as @tikiwanderer

A well-worn pathway

In October 2013 on October 16, 2013 at 1:57 pm


Kirsti: As I trod the boards (and concrete) of the shearing shed last week, all the while wondering about breeding good wool and hardy sheep, I was doing my jobs *almost* automatically. After the first 2 hour session of catching bellies, sorting brown and white wool, binning wigs, throwing fleeces and sweeping the board, I had made some new brain pathways! Yay!

The next sessions became easier as I continued these same actions. I improved, and should I throw fleeces again in the next few months, I dare say I will be able to get back into a good rhythm relatively quickly.

Repetition rapidly reinforces specific neural pathways. Practice really does make perfect.  Mums and Dads all over the world may not realise they are teaching a little bit of neuroscience every time they utter those famed words!  Repeating language, movements, processes and tasks cements the maps in your brain associated with each of those activities. The neural pathways are strengthened and, as well as becoming a more robust pathway for your brain to use, they become less likely to shrink to uselessness.  Moreover, the amazing part is that we can deliberately strengthen beneficial neural pathways, and attempt to shrink others by simply thinking particular ways.

I am convinced that the perfect fleece throws I visualised in the shed were responsible for my perfect performance *cough cough*!

If you’re interested in the phenomenon of neuroplasticity – or shaping the brain through experience – make sure you read The Brain that Changes Itself. And parents, get yourselves a copy of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years. My recommended reading for this week!

When history and genes collide

In October 2013 on October 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm

 Sarah Groot Eylandt

Sarah: Most history books tell us that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1788.

Delve a little deeper, and you’ll find plenty of other snippets of information showing that the Dutch and maybe even the Portuguese explored Northern and Western coasts of our Great Southern Land centuries earlier.

Unfortunately, 16th century Portuguese exploration and sexual activity near or in Australia sealed its influence in a permanent way through embedding itself firmly in the genomes of local people. Machado-Joseph Disease is a neurodegenerative condition passed from generation to generation and most often seen in individuals of Portuguese/Azorean descent, but also found in a few families living in the North of Australia.

Currently on holiday at Groote Eyland, 50km off the Arnham Land Coast in northern Australia, I read about this disease and its presence in this region on an inflight document (Vincent Aviation is a major sponsor of the Machado-Joseph Disease Foundation).

In my head, I have an image of 15th and 16th century Portuguese traders passing through Indonesia and maybe even Australia, and spending enough time with local women to establish a few pregnancies carrying those fatal genes. Further trade and travel within the region spread those genes further and further, and now many hundreds of years later they still crop up.

Individuals with the disease typically experience “slowly progressive clumsiness in the arms and legs, a staggering lurching gait that can be mistaken for drunkenness, difficulty with speech and swallowing, impaired eye movements sometimes accompanied by double vision or bulging eyes, and lower limb spasticity.”

Sadly, it’s just another example of the catostrophic influence that Europeans have had on the course of Aboriginal history and health.

Sophisticated selection of sheep genes

In October 2013 on October 9, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Sheep backsides

Kirsti:  It’s shearing time in my family.

My parents have a small farm where Dad runs fine wool merinos, and we’re harvesting that cash crop at the moment.  The sheep are raised for wool, not meat, so all the looking and the feeling and the sniffing and the rubbing of the wool made me wonder about the breeding of fine wool merinos in Australia.

And WOAH!  What an interesting history!  I mean, I thought I knew a bit about sheep and breeding and all that stuff, but I will admit that I knew nothing of just how huge this industry is.  And just how much is known about the origin of the Australian merino, right down to the fact that as many as 70% of merinos currently in production are directly descended from one ram called ‘Emperor’, a French Rambouillet breed of sheep that was introduced around the 1860s to create the Peppin strain of Australian merino.

Australian Wool Innovation – a not-for-profit company owned by woolgrowers themselves – vortexed me into some amazing research and development across the fashion, textile and grower industries. So much so that this post is starting to sound a little like an ad for wool!

My interest was piqued by the breeding programs in progress to prevent breech strike, which is when sheep fly larvae (maggots) originating in poo stuck to wool around a sheep’s bum burrow into the sheep’s flesh around their nether regions (yes, this is a terrible affliction, you can wince now).  A commitment by Australian wool growers and researchers to address this can only be described as VITAL. The alternative is mulesing – removing wool producing skin from around their buttocks so that flies have nowhere to lay eggs.

There are genes for breech wrinkle, breech cover and dag (a fancy term for the potential for poo to hang off your bum), and researchers have developed a tool whereby growers can actually select rams that have desirable Australian Sheep Breeding Values for these traits. MERINOSELECT is the culmination of a huge amount of genetic and breeding research, and an example of how I wish we could better use ecological research to improve the state of our planet…..

I digress….

Common, but alone

In October 2013 on October 3, 2013 at 10:08 am


Sarah: Next time you go to an event or venue with lots of people, look around.

Approximately 1 in every 100 people that you see suffers from, or will develop, schizophrenia.

Truth be told, in reality the people that actually do experience this debilitating brain disorder probably stay well away from crowded public places. With disordered thinking, delusions and hallucinations common amongst sufferers, busy bustling places are probably the last place they’d want to hang out.

Despite its relatively high prevalence, schizophrenia remains a difficult disease to diagnose and treat, and approximately 50% of sufferers attempt suicide to escape the manifestations of the disease and its treatment.

Schizophrenia is believed to be a disorder resulting from abnormalities in the ways that nerves and organisational centres in the brain develop and form connections. Although lifestyle and social factors have a role in triggering disease onset, it does have a genetic basis – in other words, it’s in the DNA.

The problem is, we don’t know which bit of DNA is to blame. As a result, current approaches to both diagnosis and clinical management of the disease are non-specific and broad-brush in nature. It’s comparable to treating an ear infection with every known antibiotic. One will probably work, but you’ll also experience a hell of a lot of unwanted side effects.

Naturally, scientists and doctors are constantly on the lookout to identify new genes which might help them better understand and manage schizophrenia. Recently, Adelaide’s Dr Quenten Schwarz sniffed out a lead in this regard. To read more, see my latest Robinson Institute Science Story Exciting new target for schizophrenia diagnosis and treatment.

[image thanks to Photos by Mavis]

Observing nature

In October 2013 on October 2, 2013 at 11:27 am

Cicada moults

Kirsti:  On a recent camping trip we discovered dozens of trees covered in cicada moults. You know, those brown crispy near-whole creepy looking insect skeletons that cling to trunks of trees anywhere from the ground up to about 3 metres? Yep, those.

With five kids (ranging in age from 2 to 7) on the trip, there was no doubt that the moults were one of the greatest discoveries of the weekend; the shells caught the kids’ imaginations, and a natural treasure hunt ensued! The result was a whole lunchbox full of moults.

We searched high and low for at least 30 minutes.  We looked on big trees and small trees, rough bark and smooth bark. The kids ran from tree to tree and fought to be the one to pick them off. We talked about what they once were; that the noise above us was made by the very insects that once inhabited these shells.

But what if I hadn’t pointed them out? What if we had simply had a lovely lunch, admired the waterfall and gone on our merry way?

One of the kids from the other family asked me how I knew about all these things, and I told them I was a biologist.


they replied.

“So it’s your job?”

“Yeah, I guess so, but I also just really like knowing about our natural world”

I said.

“It’s cool that you know what all these little things are. Not many people would see them because they don’t take the time to look.”

It’s true. Most people miss so many of nature’s most incredible goings ons simply because they don’t look. We overlook tiny worlds by looking where we’re told to look; we neglect details in the everyday, and instead of asking “what’s that?”, we ask “what’s next?”. We rush to our destination without regarding our fellow travellers along the way.

The skill of observation is crucial to any scientific pursuit, but I would also argue that it is vital for experiencing child-like awe in our daily lives.

Look around in a familiar place for new things tomorrow. What do you see?

P.S. If you’ve not noticed, Sarah is a keen observer of beach flora and fauna. Click on her beach tag on the ScienceForLife website and you’ll see!  My favourite is her observations of circles on the beach.

Cicada box

Cicada moult in light