Posts Tagged ‘phase 2’

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


The small things

In December 2013 on December 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm

beach small 5

Sarah: A mere 48 hours ago I was sitting on a beach towel at the bottom of Yorke Peninsula.

Here are some small things I noticed:

  • Succulent rock flora (above)
  • A teeny crustacean (below)
  • A suspicious-looking hole in the sand (below)
  • A pure white feather (below)
  • A high profile limpet (below)

beach small 1

beach small 2

beach small 3

beach small 4

A window to the ocean

In December 2013 on December 11, 2013 at 8:10 pm

bivalve blisters

KirstiWaves. We catch them, ride them, jump into and over them. Play in them, marvel at them. They are a source of awe for photographers, surfers, sailors and coastal people around the globe.

And they are vehicles, transporting what resides in the ocean onto the shore. Waves dump clues to an underwater world all along the coast, for us to decipher; connecting us to invisible ecosystems.

My recent sleuthing involved the shells of these bivalves (above). All along the beach at Home Bay in Auckland were these shells with holes and scrapes across their outsides. My guesstimate was that 1 in 3 shells of this type looked like this.

So as you do, I Googled it. Unfortunately, my key words weren’t what Google was looking for.

I loved marine invertebrate biology at uni, and I remembered that moon snails are predators of bivalves and drill holes in bivalve shells to get to their soft insides. But the holes they drill are neat and round, not dragged across the shell like someone was hauling a dead body over it. Then just last week at a conference, I saw a woman who was my invertebrate biology tutor from undergraduate years – and she’s a snail person! She said they reminded her of teredo worm holes in wood.

So off I went on another search. But these teredos don’t burrow into shells, just wood when they are ready to metamorphose from a planktonic larvae into a tunnelling clam….. HANG ON – a burrowing clam that’s called a worm?!?! A clam whose body resembles a worm but it has two shells at its front end designed to burrow into wood. So here I am, on a marine invertebrate bender. Loving it, and frustrated that the clues I were given are sufficiently cryptic to keep me searching until I find the answer.

Sarah: When I read Kirsti’s post, and saw her image, I too was inspired to find an answer. Having interviewed Thierry Laperousaz  (Collection Manager, Marine Invertebrates at the South Australian Museum) earlier in the year, it occurred to me he might be just the man for the job. A quick email with photo resulted in the following:

These are called mud-blisters made by burrowing marine worms most probably of the Spionidae family.  They can have an negative impact on bivalves population in case of severe infection.

Further reading told me that Spionidae worms are found all over the world, and occur in both shallow and deep waters, and even above the tidal line, particularly along sandy beaches. Some but not all of the species bore into shelled bivalve molluscs; those that do can cause blisters as shown in Kirsti’s image.

If you have more information which will assist us in identifying the particular worm involved, please be in touch!

Poo for good and not evil

In November 2013 on November 27, 2013 at 11:25 am


Sarah: When the kids and I walk to school, it’s not rare for us to encounter dog turds along the neighbourhood streets. As I casually drop a ‘look out for the poo’ warning, immediately all three come running.

“Where’s the poo?”

“Can I see the poo?”

“Ewww, it’s all white. And long.”

You get the picture.

But all is not lost. Now we have the chance to channel that poo obsession for good instead of for maternal frustration. All will be explained in the following guest post by Mia Cobb from the Anthrozoology Research Group, and recent winner of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! in Australia.

What happens when you combine Poo Power! (as covered by Sarah back in February) with a zone winner of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! (that’s me) and a canine science blogger (that’s also me).

You get the Poo Power Global Challenge!

Some might say it’s a joke or April Fool’s Day material, but we’ve never been so serious!

Students and classes will be pitched against each other to see who can identify the most and largest dog waste ‘hotspots’ in their local neighbourhood in the ‘Poo Power! Global Challenge’. Participants use a GPS-enabled iPhone to download the free Poo Power! App from the App Store. Their task is to identify and map dog poo ‘hotspots’ in dog parks and public spaces from their neighbourhood from Monday 25 November 2013.

For this project I’m working closely with Duncan Chew from Poo Power!. The collected information will be uploaded onto the Global Poo Map and provides a platform for students to discuss the scientific, social and environmental issues of dog waste. The students are then encouraged to write a letter to their local Government representative of their findings and recommendations.

Here’s what Duncan had to say on the matter:

“From our research only 3% of Australians see uncollected dog waste as an environmental concern.”

“When it rains, uncollected dog poo gets washed down drains, effecting water quality and habitat for native animals, as well as making rivers and creeks unpleasant for us to visit.”

From my point of view, I see the project as a great way to utilise my prize money from winning the I’m A Scientist – Get Me Out of Here! competition, to raise awareness of new sustainable energy sources, environmental issues and responsible dog ownership, and all the while increasing student engagement in a unique citizen science activity.

The collated information has the poo-tential to identify sites for biogas-powered lights for parks as proposed by the Melbourne-based project, Poo Power!, currently in development. The methane that is released from the dog waste as it breaks down inside a ‘biogas generator’ can be used as a viable renewable energy source. Competition prizes and giveaways are up for grabs for students who participate with photo submissions received between 25th November and 9th December 2013.

After this initial competition period closes, the project will continue to run, collecting ongoing hotspot data worldwide.

Full instructions on how to participate via or available here.

For classroom applications, teachers can download the Poo Power! Study Guide. For each competing class, teachers will receive a copy of the ‘Dog Poo – The Truth At Last’ on DVD.

[image thanks to Steven Pam]

A-Z of conference survival

In November 2013 on November 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Kirsti conference

Kirsti: I’m gearing up for my first two ecology/conservation conferences in 5 years. Yee gads. I’ve been to science communication conferences and other small ones in the meantime, but since child rearing started for me, this coming fortnight sees me back in more familiar territory in Auckland and Fiji.


So needless to say I’ve been thinking about what makes a successful [scientific] conference, and I thought I’d share my A-Z of how I approach such events. It has proven a good reminder list for me in the past, and I’m hoping for the next fortnight too.

A – Abstracts. Get them in before the deadline.

B – Bus. Make sure you get on the one that will take you to the venue, not to a primary school.

C – Coffee. Find good coffee early. Get to know the barista. Take new friends there.

D – Dinner. Go to the conference dinner. Meet new people. Dance and drink with them.

E – Eat with new friends. It’s all about these social gatherings.

F – Food with friends. See?

G – Go to talks relevant to you, and some that are outside your field but look interesting. You might find a new collaborator.

H – Hotel. Find one close to the venue, preferably directly above the conference itself.

I – Internet. Make sure it’s available and there’s free wi-fi.

J – Juggling. Time with colleagues, new friends, at talks, sleeping, drinking, eating… it’s tough.

K – Keep your program with you at all times.

L – Loos. Know where they are.

M – Map. Have a map of the conference venue and the city you’re in.

N – Networking. This is what it’s all about. I make a point of introducing myself to at least 3 new people a day.

O – Opening plenary. Always go to this.

P – Posters. Grab a drink (if it’s on offer) and talk to people.

Q – Queue. Try not to get stuck at the end of the food queue.

R – Register before the earlybird prices suddenly double.

S – Social media. Tweet good talks. Get content out there. Media can pick up interesting stories in real time.

T – Time. Practice your talk so you don’t go overtime. [Most annoying thing in the world]

U – USB. Have a USB ready for anything. Uploading, downloading, sharing.

V – Vicious. Be prepared for vicious questions. Be calm.

W – Workshops. Keep an eye out; there are often really useful workshops you need to enrol in before the conference.

X – Excursions. They are always better with an ecologist who knows the environment.

Y – You. Keep hydrated (have water with you at all times), smile (seriously), and wear comfy shoes.

Z – Zzzzzzz….. watch for people falling asleep for entertainment during not so fabulous talks.

Then make a resolution to email those people you’d genuinely like to keep in touch with as soon as you return to real life. Hang on, just email them as you’re in their talk on your laptop, phone, tablet….Then tweet their talk. Then link to their blog…..  Like this one….

What are your secrets to a successful conference experience?  Would love to hear them.

[image thanks to caseorganic on flickr]

High five, Doc.

In November 2013 on November 14, 2013 at 9:59 pm

high five

Sarah: I’ve been somewhat of a grump this week.

Recovering from a terrible springtime lurgy whilst battling an undercurrent of daily hayfever makes me prone to having a whinge. Add a sick kid, lack of exercise and accumulated work, argh!

Today, I sensed a change in the wind.

This morning, prompted by a renewed fever and sore throat in my oldest kid, we tried out the new doctor at our local GP clinic. Mounted on his desk was……a thing. A structured, squarish black plastic thing, on which was perched his computer screen and keyboard. Could it be? Yes! A portable modification to make a standing desk!

I’ve written several times previously (Sitting and standingMaking a stand, The walking meeting) on my urge to make the standing desk a part of my working habit. So this discovery made me excited. Very excited!

I quizzed the doctor,

“Where did you get that? How much was it?”

Turns out it’s a prototype, and he’s the ‘Chief Ideas Man’ over at ZestDesk. He and his team have founded a business based on the mission statement:

One of the biggest causes of modern day illness is the fact we spend a third of our lives sitting at a desk. We are on a mission to make people more healthy by giving them a practical alternative to sitting. More specifically, we are building the world’s most beautiful portable standing desk.

Our prototype phase will be complete by the end 2013 and we will then be opening up pre-sales via a crowd funding site. Please support us so we can take it global!

Oh, did we have a good old chat. I’ll be keeping my eye on ZestDesk.

Also, I’ve broken out of my grumpy funk. My kids’ health is fine too. High five on all fronts, Doc.

[image thanks to johnseidman1988 on flickr]

From rotten teeth to fatty liver

In November 2013 on November 10, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Kristi soft drink

Kirsti: During my invasive ant research in the Pacific islands, I lived and worked in a country called Tokelau. It’s an external territory of New Zealand, but essentially a self-governing Polynesian nation. It is literally the smallest nation in the world by land area, the population living on small atoll islets in some cases only 80m wide.

In this nation, there were certainly some fascinating and rather nasty ants that compromised the fabulous outdoor Polynesian lifestyle. But I also noticed other stuff. Like the fact that the mouths of many kids were full of little black spikes for teeth. Seriously. Seven year olds who had been given soft drinks since the age of 1 or 2 had nothing but rotted remains of baby teeth.

It made me think about soft drinks in our diet and I vowed from that day forth that if I were ever to have kids, soft drink was OFF the menu.

Rotting teeth are not the only disastrous outcome of soft drink consumption. From around the 1970’s, sweetened drinks – especially softies – have contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the sweetener of choice (it’s cheaper than glucose alone). The syrup typically contains either 42% or 55% fructose, the remainder made up of glucose. And the proportion of fructose has increased slowly over time.

Now fructose has enjoyed media attention in the past few years because of the rising number of people with fructose malabsorption issues and hereditary fructose intolerances. Irritable bowel syndrome (often thought of as the equivalent of colic for adults!) is also sometimes diagnosed as fructose malabsorption because of such similar symptoms. Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar! website and associated books as well as the rethink sugary drink campaign have labelled sugar as poison. More recently, Dr Kieron Rooney at University of Sydney has declared that Big Sugar is having its tobacco moment.

Even if you don’t have any real problem absorbing or metabolising fructose, it’s clear that if you do drink a lot of soft drink, you are at risk of a suite of lifestyle diseases. Obesity, type II diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and more.

Fructose is metabolised differently to glucose. Where metabolism of glucose is regulated by insulin, the metabolism of fructose in the liver is essentially unregulated, progressing through a number of steps to a point where carbon atoms can be converted to fatty acids in your liver. More fatty acids means increased risk of liver disease and then risk factors for all of the diseases mentioned above. Healthy levels of fructose are beneficial in that they can assist in the disposal of glucose in the liver.

Here’s where I will emphasise that it’s only when you drink A LOT of soft drinks and eat artificially sweetened food that you are at risk. But we know that this is happening for more and more people in Australia. Current estimates of obesity in Australia suggest that 28% of Australian adults over 18 are obese and that, including these obese adults, 63% are overweight.

It seems ironic and incredibly wasteful that the wealth present in Western societies is associated with inducing these lifestyle diseases, and then even more wealth is required to manage and treat those affected. Yes, we should learn more about treating diabetes. I agree it’s a good idea. But surely we can do more with prevention? Can’t we all talk about this, and start to help each other avoid these situations?

Please do it now. Whether it be family, friend or colleague. Give them a buzz and go for a water and a carrot stick. Let me know how it goes.

[image thanks to Elsie esq. on Flickr]

The dead tree bed

In November 2013 on November 4, 2013 at 10:49 am


A guest post by Tiki Swain*

My dead tree bed is a tricky space, an ongoing garden experiment.

The dead tree was once a citrus, but it didn’t survive the droughts Perth endured in the last few years. The old Italian grape vine sprawling over it however managed fine.

My initial idea was to remove the dead structure and make a mini-citrus orchard. But as I studied the garden system as a whole, I realised that plan was doomed to failure. The droughts of the last few years will become the norm within a couple of decades, and as this garden is intended to last for 100 years I have to assume those conditions in all my choices.

The dead tree bed is the farthest corner on my property from water access. I can reach it with a super-long hose if I set the nozzle to “fly high” and point-and-shoot from about six metres away with perfect parabolic angle, but that’s about it.

The adjacent corrugated fence presents a few challenges too. It is a thermal sink – albeit not too large – but on any warm day it’s radiating heat all afternoon. It does give shade, but it’s hot shade when the sun strikes the other side of it. And it makes a huge rain shadow too, given that much of our better rain comes from that direction.

The soil back there is poor even compared to the rest of its surroundings, and – like all of the garden – it’s off-the-scale water resistant, or hydrophobic. (Literally off the scale – I did the test myself and I couldn’t get any concentration of reagent to penetrate).

Put all that together and it’s no surprise the soil, or rather sand, is dry. Bone dry.

The weeds grow thickly in spring, but their stems are so slender and tough compared to their species-mates just four metres away you can see that it’s only the most-dry-loving variants that are surviving, and they’ve got all their epigenetic switches for drought turned to ON. (An epigenetic switch is something that turns genes ON or OFF based on external conditions such as drought, famine, malnutrition, poverty. Which genes are activated or silenced is never the only factor in how something grows, but it has an influence).

The saving grace of this space is the grape vine. Without it, this sand would sunburn. With it, although the ground stays bare and weedless all through summer, it’s not ‘cooked’. The seedbank remains alive. So I can make this area a seasonal meadow. The trick is to use plants that don’t need to germinate in autumn. It takes ‘til midwinter for the soil profile to get enough rain through it for young plants to survive.

I tried autumn sprouters the first year: flax linseed and quinoa, but no success. This year I’ve gone for garlic. This plant sprouts at midwinter, harvested or dies back in late spring / early summer and is done by the summer solstice. So it’s thriving in the light while the grape vine has no leaves, and then sleeping underground through the hot season. The timing is much better.

Of course, the soil is still crap. I have much work to do to make it able to convince plants that they’re not about to die, and even more work to do to replace the weeds I don’t want. So it’s an ongoing project. But we’ll see how it goes this year, and reassess methods and plan next year.

*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

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].