A Lesson for Scientists from Hurricane Sandy

Lab mice were among the victims of Hurricane Sandy (image courtesy of flickr user Rick Eh?)

Among the tally of losses from Hurricane Sandy–hundreds of lab mice that drowned when New York University’s Smilow Research Building flooded as a higher-than-expected storm surge flooded the building. There are far worse stories of death and devastation from this storm, but this small one is a reminder that it is just as important for scientists to come up with a plan for handling potential disasters as it is for the rest of us at home.

The story of the drowned lab mice is not unusual. Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, for example, lost years of research when his breast cancer samples were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And of course it’s not just hurricanes that are a threat–earthquake, fire, even a simple power outage can destroy years of work if a scientist has not prepared their lab.

So what should a scientist do? When I thought about writing this piece–as simply a reminder for friends and family in science–I was certain that someone must have researched this and written an article or created a website with useful tips. Sadly, no. But by digging deep and harnessing Facebook and Twitter, I did manage to cobble together some potentially good advice:

Check out ready.gov: FEMA’s advice page for disaster preparedness is geared for the home, but one friend noted that the agency’s advice can be easily translated for the scientific world. “What are your ‘valuables?’ What should your ‘go bag’ contain? If people need food and water for x number of days, then what do lab animals and things living in petri dishes need?,” my friend wrote on Facebook. The whole point of ready.gov is that people should prepare for all of the potential risks that they might face. The first place to start, then, is with an evaluation of those risks. Be sure to add power outage and fire to your list, because those are risks that everyone will face and that can be particularly devastating to a lab.

Have an up-to-date plan and a leader: This suggestion came from @RegisDudley. The person in charge in an emergency need not be the head of the lab, but there should be a point person who coordinates these things.

Don’t keep important things in basements that could be flooded: This is why the mice at NYU drowned. If there’s a potential for flooding in your lab building, consider keeping less essential things on the lower levels (stick a classroom down there, not cages of animals). And if you do have animals, have a plan to care for them and even evacuate them in an emergency. One friend who worked for a research lab noted that his pharmaceutical company employer would have lab techs stay in nearby hotels during bad snowstorms. The USDA has a good list of recommendations for preparing animal facilities for potential disasters.

Create backups in alternate locations: If you’ve got paper lab books, copy or scan them. If you have important files on your computer, back them up. Online backups are great for this (Lifehacker has good recommendations for online backups, but the site is currently down because its servers in Manhattan were flooded–a lesson in itself), but backups to a hard drive can also work, as long as you keep that hard drive in a separate location. You can also backup some of your supplies–Jackson Laboratories, for example, offers cryopreservation services for just this situation. And, of course, there are generators for backup power supplies, but you may not be able to rely on those to protect your work in all disaster situations.

Share: On Twitter, @biochembio noted that if biologists share or deposit their reagents or strains, they can get them back after they’ve lost research to flooded labs or thawed freezers.

The most important piece of advice, though, is that scientists should remember that people are the most important part of the scientific process, so protecting the people in your lab should be the biggest concern. Research is supposed to be reproducible, but people aren’t replaceable.

(I really wish that I was in a situation to pitch and write this as a longer story. If any science writers are reading this, would someone pick up where I’ve left off?)

The Science of Artomatic

At Artomatic, more than 1,000 artists are currently displaying their work in an empty office building in Crystal City, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. As one of those artists, I’ve spent several hours walking the floors, and last week I spent an entire afternoon searching out art inspired by science. There’s not a lot (and I’m sure I missed a few), but it’s worth a look if you’re at the show:

11th floor, #151: Xenophilia, by Liz Lescault
Lescault creates what she calls “biomorphic” art–a mixture of sculpture, ceramic and pottery inspired by patterns in nature. Her works aren’t copies of anything you’ll see in real life, but they are reminiscent of plants, corals, forams and other familiar forms.

10th floor: Roger Cutler
Cutler’s Apatasaurus excelsus immediately draws you eye in this large room on the 10th floor; it’s eight feet tall and made of wire. But I prefer the tiny T. rex Cutler had placed in the front of his space, where it looks on as the sculptor creates a third dinosaur, Allosaurus fragilis on site. Cutler is a huge dinosaur fan, and I hope that he’s successful in his quest to bring a dinosaur festival to the National Mall.

9th floor, #108: AdenoCD Virus, Forest McCluer
This enormous adenovirus constructed of CDs and computer parts is the latest sculpture from McCluer’s 30 Computers project. Since 2001, McCluer has been working to create sculptures from the remnants of 30 discarded computers.

9th floor, #126: Sarah Noble
Noble’s day job as a planetary geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is reflected in her wondrous paintings of rockets, planets and astronauts.

9th floor, #163: Beth Pitcher
Another ceramic artist inspired by organic textures and natural patterns, Pitcher’s works would look at home nestled in a coral reef.

9th floor, #186: Michele Banks
The petri dishes on the wall caught my eye first. Banks is a collage and watercolor artist who uses scientific themes–and sometimes scientific objects–mostly from biology, in her work. The artist doesn’t have a science background, but I would swear that she’s spent many hours staring through microscopes and plating bacteria (though her works are much more colorful and beautiful than anything I ever saw in the lab).

9th floor, Peeps: Faster Than The Peep of Light?
One of the highlights of Artomatic is the display of dioramas from the Washington Post’s annual Peeps Contest. This interpretation of the experiments at CERN didn’t win, but who doesn’t like particle physics as done in colored marshmallow cream?

8th floor, #142: Heather Miller
One section of Miller’s huge display is devoted to science and technology, using objects from science to create art about science. My favorite has to be A Series of Tubes, a commentary on a memorable senatorial quip created from test tubes–science, technology and culture all in one.

4th floor, #309: The 19: A Collection of 19 Icons From the 19th Century, Praveen Thaivalappil
These 19 palette-knife paintings are large-scale recreations of portraits of many familiar and influential thinkers from the 19th (and early 20th) century, including many scientists–Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alfred Nobel and Louis Pasteur.

4th floor, #353: Julia D’Ambrosi
I was mesmerized by D’Ambrosi’s beautiful paintings inspired by sea creatures. D’Ambrosi uses them as inspiration for her interpretive paintings, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she’s even looked to the Census of Marine Life for her work.

Science doesn’t seem to inspire art all that often, if Artomatic is any indication. That’s kind of sad since it’s such an interesting part of life. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with that observation, but it seems like there’s plenty of opportunity here to mix the worlds of science and art and create something truly special.

Artomatic runs Wednesdays through Sundays until June 23.

Henrietta Leavitt, the Woman Who Discovered the Key to Measuring the Universe

By the late 1800s, astronomy had moved on from simple human observation to the collection of images of the sky on photographic plates—these were pieces of glass coated with light-sensitive silver salts. At the time they were made, these plates could be analyzed only through tedious, labor-intensive work. A person had to scan and measure and compare stars in the images before their position and brightness could be calculated and discoveries made.

In 1879, Edward Pickering, head of the Harvard College Observatory, began hiring women to do this work. Paid just 25 to 30 cents an hour for their labors, women were cheaper than men, but Pickering found that they were also better than the male scientists who had done the work previously. The women were more detail-oriented and worked harder. (That didn’t mean they were more respected, however. Today this group of women is often called the “Harvard Computers,” but when they were working they were called “Pickering’s Harem.”)

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (credit: American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

One of the computers was Henrietta Snow Leavitt, who joined the team as a volunteer in 1895, after studying astronomy at (what would become) Radcliffe College. In 1902, Leavitt became a permanent—and paid—member of the staff and eventually headed up the photographic photometry department.

Leavitt’s job was to identify variable stars, which can change in brightness over hours to weeks. She used a blink comparator to look back and forth between two plates that showed the same spot in space days or weeks apart. A star that had changed in brightness over that time would appear as a blinking spot, and Leavitt identified more than 2,400 variable stars using this method.

Anyone studying the brightness of stars quickly runs up against a problem—the brightness alone doesn’t give any information about the star. A very bright star from far away looks the same as a dimmer one closer to Earth. But Leavitt eliminated that problem by studying Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds, which are really two tiny galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. She began studying these stars, which are approximately the same distance from Earth whatever their appearance, to determine whether there was a relationship between a variable star’s brightness and the period of its dimming-brightening cycle.

Leavitt identified 1,777 variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds but, due to the difficulty involved in determining the period and maximum and minimum brightnesses for a single star, was able to gather this data for only 25 stars by 1912. But that was enough data for her to find a pattern. When Leavitt plotted these stars’ brightnesses versus their periods on a graph, she found that they were related logarithmically—the brighter the star, the longer its period. (Her study was published in the Harvard College Observatory Circular, dated March 3, 1912, with Pickering as the official author on the paper; he did, however, credit Leavitt for the discovery and the write-up.)

Other astronomers soon realized the value of Leavitt’s discovery. A year later, Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung determined the distance to several Cepheid variables in the Milky Way, and once this was combined with Leavitt’s data, astronomers could calculate the distance to any Cepheid variable in the sky.

Cepheid variable V1, one of the stars that convinced Edwin Hubble that the Milky Way wasn't the only galaxy in the universe (Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

In 1922 and 1923, Edwin Hubble found Cepheid variables in several spiral nebulae and, when he calculated their distances, found they were too far away to be part of the Milky Way and concluded that our galaxy wasn’t the only one in the universe. Leavitt’s finding would also prove to play a key part in Hubble’s later discovery that the universe is expanding.

Hubble recommended that Leavitt be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and the head of the Swedish Academy of Sciences began the paperwork for her nomination. That came to a halt, however, when they realized that she had died of cancer in 1921.

After her death, Harlow Shapely, then director of the Harvard College Observatory, wrote:

 Much of the time [Leavitt] was engaged at the Harvard Observatory, her efforts had to be devoted to the heavy routine of establishing standard magnitudes upon which later we can base our studies of the galactic system. If she had been free from those necessary chores, I feel sure that Miss Leavitt’s scientific contributions would have been even more brilliant than they were.

We can only imagine what Leavitt and the other computers during that time might have accomplished had they had the time and freedom to devote themselves to efforts outside that of routine astronomical data gathering.

This post first appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

A Day in the Chicken Lab

Vigilant male chickens at Macquarie University (courtesy of K-lynn Smith)

While I’m in Australia, I’m staying with a friend, K-lynn Smith, who is an animal behavior scientist at Macquarie University. She studies chickens. And on Tuesday, I put myself at her disposal as a free lab assistant. When I made the offer, I had no idea what I’d be doing, but I wasn’t disappointed when she told me that I’d be chasing chickens.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. The goal of the day was to rearrange the chicken population, moving groups into different enclosures, combining and resorting some groups, to make room for the six-week-old chicks and their moms and dads that had been in smaller pens (growing families need bigger homes). Since I couldn’t touch any of the chickens, I did a lot of carrying and standing in place to discourage the birds from going into certain directions while my friend and her students did the actual capturing and moving. But for me, it was a fun day (if a bit tiring) out in the sun. And a reminder that a lot of grunt work goes into any scientific discovery.

The general goal of K-lynn’s work is to understand the evolution of communication and cognition in social species, using chickens (Gallus gallus) as a model. (Specifically Golden Sebright bantams, which are an ornamental breed developed in the 19th century by Sir John Saunders Sebright, a chicken breeder whose 1809 pamphlet on breeding domestic animals influenced Charles Darwin.)

If you’ve ever seen pictures or video of chickens being raised to eat, with hundreds or thousands packed into small spaces, the enclosures for K-lynn’s birds seem like chicken paradise. There’s tall grass, trees, a building or two for shelter, and plenty of food and water.

And if you stop and listen to the birds, you’ll hear a conversation more complex than a simple “cluck-cluck.” There are calls to say there’s danger and other calls to say there’s food. They make sounds when they meet others in their group and to claim their territory. There are at least 24 different sounds chickens make–a female even makes a sound when she lays an egg. Some calls are combined with movements, like head bobs, with a chicken picking up and then dropping food.

And did you know that chickens can count? That they prefer human music to discordant sounds? And they can even tell a Picasso from a Monet?

Knowing all of this didn’t stop me from eating chicken at dinner today. It does make me think, however, that we should care more about how our chickens are raised. But that’s a more weighty issue than I want to tackle on what should be a vacation.

Manly’s Disappearing Penguins

Penguin Pose

I wouldn’t have thought that Sydney, Australia would be a natural home for penguins. Sure, they’re found inside Taronga Zoo, but I was surprised yesterday, while on my way to the beach, to find signs near Manly Wharf saying to watch out for penguins.

The colony of fairy penguins (a.k.a. little penguins) used to number in the hundreds. Just a few years ago there were 60 breeding pairs. This month, however, there is just one breeding pair with one chick (and I didn’t manage to see any of them). This colony seems doomed to die out, despite efforts by the government to protect it.

What did them in? Manly, famed for its beach, is heavily developed and the penguins lost a lot of their habitat. Their nesting sites were disturbed, and since breeding is the main reason they came to Manly, that disturbance surely didn’t help the population to grow. But one of the biggest problems was predation by dogs and foxes. The danger was so great that snipers were brought into the town in 2009 to try to protect the little birds.

Elsewhere in its range–which stretches across southern Australia and over to New Zealand–fairy penguins appear to be on the decline, but that decline isn’t fast enough to have scientists worry yet.

I’ll probably have more luck finding wild fairy penguins in someplace like Phillip Island near Melbourne.