Posts Tagged ‘Kirsti’

Chemistry for ice cream addicts   

In April 2015 on April 7, 2015 at 11:25 am

Kirsty Nitrogenie2 copy

Kirsti: We’re in Noosa at the moment, enjoying some beach time, pool time, more beach time and lush green grass and forests. Having come from western NSW and QLD — where the heat and dry conditions were all consuming — this newfound subtropical environment is quite overwhelming!

The impact on our four year old is that he wants ice cream. Constantly.

Enter Nitrogenie.

We first encountered Nitrogenie as we strolled (read pushed) through Easter crowds on Hastings St, Noosa Heads. We spotted it a mile away, most likely a result of its cooler-than-cool marketing colours. But also because I saw liquid nitrogen clouds!

Even though the slogan is ‘Nitrogenie – ice cream from magic, the marketing genius is that it makes people feel like they are eating SCIENCE! A giant vat of liquid nitrogen is situated behind the counter, and staff access its contents every couple of minutes. During the making process, liquid nitrogen vapour oozes and wafts from food processors. All ice cream makers wear safety glasses.

Liquid nitrogen (N2), is a non-hazardous liquid, is extremely cold (it boils at −195.79 °C) and is stored under pressure. According to its MSDS, or scientific safety sheet, it can cause rapid suffocation in confined environments, and severe frostbite if it comes in contact with live tissue. But there are essentially no restrictions on using it. Just obtaining it.

It got me wondering about employees at such establishments: do they have to learn anything about liquid nitrogen, such as do a course in how to handle it safely? So I asked them. The answer was yes: staff complete an online safety course about chemicals and liquids in food preparation, then an in-store training course all about handling liquid nitrogen, clean-ups and other chemical aspects of the job.

They were pretty busy, so I couldn’t ask many more questions. But I would be very keen to know more. For example, would employees at Nitrogenie be more inclined to feel comfortable with the concept of elements, or chemicals, compared to a more general teen population? (the employees at the Noosa Nitrogenie were all young women). Do staff become more interested in how liquid nitrogen works once they complete the training? Do they wonder about other commercial applications of elements with particular properties?

And what about the customers: does this sort of venture make them more interested in the science in their life?

Maybe they are just happy enough to enjoy the ice cream. Which for the record, is sensational, especially the sticky date fudge toffee flavour…

[Sarah: Adelaide also has a liquid nitrogen ice-cream venue: see here for more details. I’m keen to try it!]

Stand on your hands!

In March 2015 on March 2, 2015 at 10:56 am

kirsti Handstand 6Feb border

Kirsti: It’s the end of #handstandfebruary, didn’t you know?!

I enthusiastically joined Sonja Dominik for my inaugural handstand February in 2014.

Kirsti Handstand with Sonja 17Feb border

Now having just completed my second year, I suspect it will be an annual event in our household. Handstands are fun, often challenging, and who doesn’t want to improve their upper body strength? I’ve been doing them since I was 4, so there is no reason to stop now.

An unexpected benefit of daily handstands for me this year has been the improvement in my posture. Being conscious of my posture on a daily basis helps me to make frequent adjustments to align my body.

On a very simple level, standing up straight with my shoulders relaxed but aligned feels good, because my shoulders are often sore from so much handstanding!

It’s also because I am conscious of my body alignment when handstanding regularly; I think about my balance and alignment when grounded on my feet as well as on my hands.

But it also helps I came across this cool site that details ALL the muscles involved in doing a handstand, and shows progressions to the most awesome and complicated dream-on-dare-I-try-it handstands! It further lead me to make micro-corrections to my alignment and posture, and helped me stay vertical on my hands just like I do on my feet every day.

Biomechanics in sport is an important part of improving physical performance in competition. It involves analysing aspects of body movement like stillness (inertia), kinetics, velocity, rotation, acceleration, torque and muscle coordination.

I’ve blogged about rediscovering gymnastics, and the physical and cognitive benefits it will have for me into old age. But I’d be fairly willing to say now that just a handstand a day might keep the physio away!

Kirsti Handstand 5Feb border

Etching out a track in science

In October 2014 on October 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Kirsti career science

Kirsti: Last week Radio National’s Life Matters show featured a segment on early career researchers. Natasha Mitchell posed the question,

“Are we at risk of losing a generation of young scientists?”

I say yes, we are.

If you are under the age of 60 and in science, I’d suggest you listen to the podcast of that show. It chews the fat on some very important issues for science in Australia, for individuals in an already volatile labour market but also those trying to understand our planet, our place in it, and our potential to shape it.

Insecure short term contracts, tightening of funding for science, and lack of generational change in research teams were the main topics that were tackled on the show. There was also resounding consensus by the interviewees that etching a career in research in Australia at this time is hard.

Casualisation of the academic work force is happening all over Australia. I know, as I am directly impacted — partly by choice, partly not. I believe the shift to casual employment undermines the skills and value of workers, and provides no means of progressing upward. Furthermore, there is little to no opportunity to build a cohesive academic culture with casuals. Typically they don’t feel motivated to become a ‘real’ part of an institution that doesn’t want them ‘officially’, but is willing to exploit their talents for a teaching semester (or 12) or a special project. Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to scientists and – going beyond remuneration – it helps to maintain what Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne calls ‘perpetual scientific adolescence’, or the ‘career neverland’.

Lack of generational change in research teams is a relatively recent phenomenon. Little turnover in the workforce since the 1970’s meant that older researchers were retained and those coming out of postdocs never really got the same chance to become independent. Consequently, researchers that spend a decade or more refining their skills aren’t faced with job ads and gaps to fill. Instead, they are continually more reliant on senior researchers for funding and positions within research teams. They never really get a chance to flourish, to be innovative lead researchers in their own right.

The treadmill starts there – with few to no grants to their name they’re less competitive, and being less competitive won’t land you a permanent job. Round we go.

The lack of funding for science compounds this problem, as the competition for money favours track record and productivity, not potential. So early and mid-career researchers are once again reliant on permanent, senior academics to be primary investigators on grants. The names on applications are the established scientists’; the brilliant ideas come from the younger scientists who are in the prime of their innovative and focussed careers. Round we go again.

Recently I’ve been thinking that staying in science and research without a permanent job is sort of like owning your own small business. Lots fail. Not the majority, but lots. You have to find your own salary every year. You are constantly chasing contacts, leads and potential for the next project or funding round. As a casual, you are doing this with no holiday pay, super or other benefits, and many do it while parenting on an almost full time basis. Lastly, it’s not looking like anything is going to change anytime soon.

I must admit, I am super happy with my decisions around my career trajectory. I am making conscious non-traditional stories around how to blend research with education, communication and understanding of nature (both engendering and sustaining a connection with it). It’s hard in many respects, but I like a challenge. Part time everything seems to be the answer for me.

But I really feel for those brilliant young things who have never, or who will never get a chance to discover their potential as a lead researcher.

Australia is far worse off for it.

[image thanks to wiredforlego on flickr]

Happy Birthday Siding Springs! (#starfest2014)

In October 2014 on October 9, 2014 at 7:46 am

Kirsti starfest1 Khaiam with sun

Kirsti: The telescopes at ANU’s Siding Springs Observatory in the Warrumbungle National Park are having birthdays! FOUR birthdays in fact. And they celebrated recently with one of the best programs for Starfest2014 to date.

The Warrumbungle Festival of the Stars is on right now, and runs until Monday 27th of October. It’s the community’s way of saying “we love astronomy and art!”, and Starfest2014 is a part of it. The event attracts professional and amateur astronomers from all over Australia, as well as families, tourists, travellers and science nerds from near and far.

I happened to go this year, and boy do I wish I’d had some more kid-free time for the adult stuff! There was Science in the Pub with Radio National’s Robyn Williams, and an all-star cast (pun intended) including @astropixie. There were talks by amaze-balls astronomers like Fred Watson and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, and astronaut Andy Thomas giving the Bok Lecture!

We got to see some talks for kids, and spent time in the exploratory centre at Siding Springs. Here I learnt I would weigh almost 2 tonnes on the sun but only about 10 kgs on the Moon (note to self: go there some day).

But we were absolutely blown away by the sheer size and workings of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, operated by the Australian Astronomical Observatory. It turned 40 this year, having taken its first photos in 1974. Over its life it has detected clouds near the surface of Venus, photographed the explosion of the Supernova 1987A (allowing astronomers’ unprecedented understanding of the death of a star), and identified (for the first time) an isolated brown dwarf star in our Galaxy! These, and oh, just a few other spectacularly life-changing things….

We were able to walk around inside it, stare in awe at the 3.9m diameter mirror, and then walk out onto the observation deck about 26m up, with the most incredible view of the Warrumbungle National Park ever!

Kirsti starfest 2 Warrumbungle panorama

So even though I am into tiny things with six legs on our own planet, Starfest2014 succeeded in blowing my mind with big picture space science. It’s worth the drive out there at this time of year as all the wildflowers are out too.

Ahhhh, school holidays, why are you over?!

Go outside…and find ants!

In September 2014 on September 22, 2014 at 10:38 am

Kirsit antblitz

Kirsti: They say great minds think alike.

As Sarah posted her most recent piece Go outside!, I was drafting some words about ANTBLITZ which — among other scientific and community-driven goals — aims to get kids outdoors! SNAP

Part of the North Western Regional Science Hub, ANTBLITZ (via School of Ants) consists of a whole weekend of learning about the ant communities at the Armidale Tree Group. The idea originally was spawned from my desire to create a National Science Week project activity based around ants. While the regional hub has already launched the fantastic Little Things that Run the World at the art museum, ANTBLITZ is focused more directly on science.

Yes, it’s a month later than the specified dates for National Science Week…..but really, what ant in their right mind would be wandering around in Armidale mid-winter I ask you?!

In the event, the science of using ants as bio-indicators of land use and habitat restoration is cunningly disguised as a great day outside for community members. We invite people to be involved at the start of a potentially long term project for the tree group, something which could yield some really useful insights into invertebrate biodiversity over time.

Since one of the aims of School of Ants is to connect kids to nature through citizen science and learning outside, what better way than to get their whole family out and staring at the ground and peering down microscopes with them? They will also possibly discover a public space that opens up a world of outside play, observation, picnics, insects and birds they never knew existed.

I echo Sarah’s sentiments about the importance of outside play and connection to nature. These mind-boggling stats on the Victorian Child & Nature Connection website reveal just some of the negative effects of inside, sedentary (mostly screen) time, and how we can easily prevent them.

So if I manage to coax at least three families out of their homes that otherwise would not have engaged with nature on the weekend, I’ll feel like I have succeeded.

I’ll keep you posted!

Happy birthday to us!

In August 2014 on August 21, 2014 at 11:51 am


Sarah: ScienceforLife.365 is two years old! 

It’s now National Science Week 2014. During the same week in 2012, I launched this blog as a daily project aimed at sharing the science in my everyday life. I also saw the challenge as a way to make sure I was writing regularly. 

The first year was crazy and wonderful, and ended with my post The Finishing Line, and a BrainBreak morning tea. You can review my thoughts on the professional benefits the initial year of this blog brought to me here

Phase 2 of the blog welcomed the very wonderful Kirsti Abbot as a weekly contributor, and a shift to less frequent posts from me (weekly rather than daily) to free up time for my growing work commitments as a freelance science writer. Guest posts from Heather Bray, Geoff Hudson, Tiki Swain (here and here), Mia Cobb and Cameron Webb have also been wonderful, adding diversity and interest across the breadth of science. 

And what awaits for the third year? 

Kirsti and I plan to continue exploring the science in our lives. I’d also love to continue to feature guest posts (be in touch if you have an idea!). 

But there could be more. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Australia and the rest of the world are now facing many challenges, including that posed by climate change. I don’t often write political posts. And yet I feel a growing urge to tackle this topic. I don’t yet know what that might look like. 

Come along for the ride and we’ll see what happens. It’s social media, after all, right? 

[image thanks to Anna Hall on flickr

National Science Week. It’s on!

In August 2014 on August 15, 2014 at 10:25 am

kirsti Nat Sci Wk selfie

Kirsti: It’s on people!

Although it’s officially National Science Week next week, things are hotting up right now. And for me, it’s going to be rather big relative to other years. For I admit that despite being a scientist and having science in my life every day….I hardly ever went to National Science Week events.

Really. Hardly ever.

Partly this was because I was swanning around remote tropical islands learning about ants (and beer), and then because I had two small children that didn’t make going out very amenable (I think I did go out a few times….) or because I was just too tired, or whatever. I couldn’t even tell you why for most years, but I do know that the islands I worked on didn’t have a National Science Week agenda.

But this year has got me thinking about why it’s important to even have a National Science Week. Not a day, like “National Tree Day”, or “Clean Up Australia Day”, “World Wetlands Day” even though I kinda think these days should be every day. No, we have a whole week of celebrating science.

Here’s why I think it’s important:

1. Questions and answers matter
We all start out as natural scientists; curious, in awe of the world around us. All of it. We ask questions from the moment we can talk and learn so so much in the first decade of our lives that it’s almost incomprehensible there’s more to learn once you leave school! But many people lose that capacity to ask questions. Or maybe it’s decreasing desire to ask questions….or both over time (for various reasons, don’t get me started). I think it is an essential human virtue – to continue asking questions, and find answers to them with a method we know has stood the test of time, ego, funding, politics and scepticism. A national week to remind us of this is good.

2. Gratitude for how we live
Without science, technology and engineering (including medical), we would not enjoy anything like the standards of living and life expectancies we do today in the western world. I am so incredibly grateful for this that, in my books anyway, a week of celebrating it doesn’t come close to the gratitude we should have!

3. Fun times!
There are a plethora of extraordinarily fun, adventurous, exciting, brain bending and joyful things that you can do with science, so this is your chance to do them! Anything!

4. Opportunities in education
Some schools (particularly primary schools) don’t do much science, if any. National Science Week therefore is THE most important week of their year! Where art and music get special teachers and often equipment and instruments, science is left to individual teachers with the confidence to do hands on experiments with meagre supplies. Even if it’s a video conference link up to open their eyes to what is possible, this week in the year can facilitate that.

5. Science needs women
Women are dropping out of our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) system after graduate research studies at alarming rates. Australia – and other countries – need a kick up the rear end to keep brilliant researchers of all types in work and ensure a well-informed, coherent and sustainable future. National Science Week reminds of us this too, and this year a Wikibomb about female scientists has done this in style.

So Happy National Science Week peeps.

Check out the website for an event near you and try and get to one of the amazing events around the country.

Is an ant worth less than a mammal?

In August 2014, Uncategorized on August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Kirsti Oecophylla Cairns

Kirsti: I’m in the midst of planning an AntBlitz for a National Science Week project here in Armidale.

An AntBlitz is comparable to ECOBLITZ, or BUSHBLITZ, or BIOBLITZ. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour period in which citizens can help us collect ants, sort ants, identify ants and curate a reference collection for a given location. All this activity will go toward helping a local tree group understand their ant communities and document their change over time. Ants are used as bioindicators of ecosystem health, and can be used to measure the impact of various land management practices.

What the citizens don’t see is a whole heap of careful planning and experimental design. We aim to ensure that our projects create useful data, not just a load of dead ants in vials that no one will look at ever again.

Yep, we kill the ants.

We kill them without ethics approval from anyone. We can do this because there are no requirements for ethics approval relating to invertebrates other than cephalopods.

Anything with a backbone? The approval processes, forms, committees and meetings one must work through are time consuming and don’t always guarantee you can continue with your research. And rightly so. Ethical issues regarding the use of animals in research are subjective, highly contentious and tricky to navigate. Humans have made many mistakes in the past whilst using animals in research, and some would say we still do.

But for invertebrates things are different. Reasons given for why these creatures are not protected by ethics approval vary, from citing underdeveloped nervous systems (and therefore reduced capacity to experience pain, stress and distress) to the fact that so many are killed in every day life anyway.

But an important part of my work is about acknowledging moral objections that others may have in killing ants. I argue there is ethical value in killing a relatively small number of individuals representing a social colony in order to learn more about their ecology, their identities, their sociality, and their function on our planet. Killing non-reproductive individuals of a colony formed by hundreds, if not thousands, rarely if ever impacts on their population dynamics. Because turnover of worker ants is high, those individuals we have gratefully taken are replaced. Quickly.

I’m currently developing a Code of Conduct (kind of similar to this one) with respect to how School of Ants deals with ant collections, specimens and curation of our reference collections. I’m really keen to get some feedback on the diversity of opinions on the killing of ants for research purposes.

CONTACT ME if you’ve got a view on this!

[photo by Kirsti Abbott]

Milk that fish (yes, I said fish)

In July 2014 on July 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm

kirsti Stone fish

Kirsti: In Cairns recently for a conference on social insects, I visited my Honours supervisor Jamie Seymour – the guy I’ve previously talked about as being a big influence in my science life.

In his past life Jamie was an entomologist, using integrated pest management strategies to increase food production and efficiency. But now he’s a toxicologist, conducting research on some of the most deadly animals in the world.

It’s really cool. And he has a really cool aquarium where he studies box jelly fish and other nasties that could stop a fabulous tropical paradise holiday in its tracks.

Jamie’s been doing a series with SmarterEveryDay, the YouTube channel with ultra awesome science stuff on it, and there are some really interesting clips, including one on milking stone fish!

Seriously. You have GOT to watch this! (you seriously do, it’s way wicked – Sarah) It shows the hypodermic-needle-like spine of a stone fish shooting out deadly venom as some rubber exerts pressure on it (simulating a foot or other unfortunate body part). Apparently there are about 1000 victims of stone fish spine impalement in Australia every year. Footwear isn’t always an effective barrier!

While I was at Jamie’s workplace – just for 20 minutes or so – I was treated to a baby saltwater crocodile launching itself at me from a mangrove tank, and a massive barramundi nearly jumping out of the aquarium at me! I’m currently working on my reflexes so that the next time I visit my chances of survival are much greater……

There are blue ringed octopuses, sea horses, a leopard shark they raised from an egg, wobbegongs, white tip reef sharks and more. It’s fascinating stuff, deadly animals!

[image thanks to Tetsuhiro Kikuchi on Flickr]


Totes bushranger

In July 2014 on July 15, 2014 at 2:57 pm


Sarah: Kirsti and I went totes bushranger this school holidays.

Under the pseudonyms Blood Thirsty Kirsty and Saltrock Sarah, and accompanied by miscellaneous children and other family members, we explored Uralla in New South Wales.

Uralla is the home of the famed bushranger Captain Thunderbolt; the image above shows the table on which his body was displayed after being shot dead by a local policeman.

Now everyone loves a good bushranger story. But Kirsti and I were also very interested to learn about Thunderbolt’s partner Mary Ann Bugg. Some reports suggest that Mary Ann was the brains behind Thunderbolt’s success, as she planned, scoped, read and wrote on her man’s behalf.

It’s a theme scientists are already familiar with – woman plods away in the background, then man comes along and performs a daring exciting final move and gets all the credit.

Perhaps I’m being a little cranky, but we all know the story of Rosalind Franklin. And there are more cases of a similar nature.

We can’t change history, but let’s bring a few more ladies forward and get them robbing stage coaches, huh? There’s a bit of mongrel bushranger in all of us, regardless of gender.