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Filtering by Category: Education


Cindy Maddera

Remember when you were a kid and thought dandelions where the most beautiful flower and you picked all of them in your yard and then proudly held them up in your clutched sweaty little hand as a gift to your mom? At some point in adulthood, probably when we first started caring for a lawn of our very own, those bright yellow blooms became the bane of our existence. That dime sized blister on my thumb is the result of digging those invasive plants out of the vegetable garden. I've seen Josephine eat them. In fact she dragged half of the ones I pulled from the garden off into the yard to chew on while I worked. As I tugged and pulled each dandelion plant free, I thought "I used to love these. I used to think these bright yellow flowers where stunning." 

It is a wonder how perceptions change with age. When the Cabbage was in pre-school, Michael asked her if she had any black kids in her class. He wanted to make sure that she was in a class of diversity. The Cabbage looked at him oddly and said "Black kids?!? Kids aren't black!" She didn't know about the terms we adults have created to describe skin that is not white. Michael, not wanting to mess up anything, just said "OK" and left it at that. He realized that kids don't see color the way adults do. They recognize that there are different skin colors but they haven't been told about ethnicities or about stereotypes. They learn those things. From grownups. Eventually the Cabbage will notice that the color of her skin will afford her a certain sort of privilege. I would have hoped that we would have fixed the privilege of skin color before that happened, but it doesn't look like that's the case. 

iBiology recently posted a video series on Mentor Training to Improve Diversity in Science. I watched it because I thought it would be important and educational for me to watch. I thought I might learn how to talk about diversity and race with confidence or without the worry of offending someone. I also wanted to hear if they addressed the lack of young African American women in science. I see this here and I wonder how to fix it. They don't really address that, but they do talk about how important diversity is to making scientific discoveries. This is not a message I needed to learn, but it was one I was happy to hear because I don't think it is said often enough. It's the reason why I shared the video to Facebook. The messages presented by Dr. Angela Byars-Winston and Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn are messages that applies universally, not just in the field of science. 

Let's say there's a committee of people put together to solve a specific problem regarding the whole country. The committee consists of ten people. All of them are men. All of them are very very wealthy. All of them are white. How effective do you think they will be in solving a problem that affects all of us (white, black, hispanic, middle class, female, LGBQT, farmer, working class) in a way that is helpful to all of us? Wait...that's pretty much the situation we have now. Bad example. I'm saying that having a diverse group allows that group to approach questions to a problem in a more effective way because we all add something unique to the table. 

It's not about not seeing color. Not at all. It's about embracing color and recognizing the beauty and strengths in having a diverse society. It's about being respectful without expectations. Treating others the way you would want to be treated. 


Cindy Maddera

I knew all about the Scientific Method when I started this series. I just didn't really think too much about it. Now that I'm breaking it down for you guys and really getting into the nitty gritty details of it all, I am reminded that my job is hard. In the last lesson, we had formed a hypothesis and were starting to design experiments to test that hypothesis. If we take a moment to go back and look at our Scientific Method, we will find that testing the hypothesis becomes the most convoluted part of that flow chart.

Experiments fail and then you have to figure out if the experiment failed because of human error or if because your hypothesis is wrong. Then you have to account for the steps in your experiment that may have serious consequences to the outcome of that experiment. Remember how I said I was working on staining yeast cells with a nanobody I've labeled with a fluorescent dye? Don't worry. I'm not going to test you. I will tell you that yeast have pretty strong cell walls. They are difficult to stain without first permeabilizing (punching holes) the cell wall. We use an enzyme called zymolyase to chew up the cell walls of yeast. This is the part that can vary. If you leave the zymolyase on too long, the cells completely fall apart. If you don't leave it on long enough, you do not get good staining because the dye or in our case, nanobody, can't get through the cell wall. So now I don't know if my experiment is not working because the nanobody doesn't work or if it is because I didn't permeabilize the cell wall enough. 

These are the kinds of factors and variables that scientist dig their way through to get answers. Once they have experiments working, they must be repeated multiple times. We are looking for results that are consistently repeatable and after we've performed those experiments many times, we have to make sense of the results. If those results don't support our hypothesis, we start all over again from the beginning. If the data shows that our hypothesis is true, then we write up all the information to submit to journals for publication. Communicating the results means writing up everything, your background research, how you designed the experiments, the exact protocol for those experiments, and an explanation of the results from those experiments. Once that paper is submitted, it goes through a peer-review process where others in that field of research read through the paper before recommending it for publication. Those reviewers often want more questions answered and recommend a few other experiments before the paper can be published.

Even after publication, there are other researchers who will repeat those experiments from your paper to determine if your work is repeatable. I hope that now when you read a headline that starts with something like "Scientists discovered..." you'll have a better understanding and maybe even respect for the work that went into that discovery. Sometimes those discoveries may feel like they conflict with your core values. We all tend to reject information that is threatening to us. My wish is that you understand, by breaking down the method to which scientists come about their discoveries and information is complex and not just pulled from thin air to spite you. Understanding this process may even make those discoveries less threatening. The information discovered is more than a snappy headline. 

And this concludes our study of the Scientific Method. What's next? What do you guys want to learn about? Send me some ideas!


Cindy Maddera

Last we left off in learning about the scientific method, we were asking questions and doing some background research. Remember that all that background research changes the basic question you started with. Eventually, after all of that research, you get to form a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a statement or a prediction that attempts to answer your question. If I place my hand on the stove I will probably burn my hand. That's not really a great hypothesis, but it gives you an idea. If I do this then that will happen is the basic format of a hypothesis. The hypothesis needs to be testable and you need to consider all the variables involved in doing those tests or experiments. 

The human body is made up of trillions of cells. Nearly two trillion of those cells divide every day to replace old or dead cells. For instance, the cells that line the gut absorb stuff and protect the body. That's why it is important to maintain a healthy layer of these cells. The body does this by replacing those cells daily with stem cells living deep in the intestinal lining or crypt. Those stem cells have also been linked to the origin of intestinal cancer. The cells that line the gut and make up the skin, basically all the cells that have to be replaced regularly, are somatic cells and they divide through mitosis. 


There's a lot more involved in mitosis than that video shows. There's many different proteins involved in everything from signaling cell division to actual division. If you take out one of those proteins, cell division may or may not be disrupted. If something goes wrong and there's more of a certain protein than the cell actually needs, cell division may or may not be disrupted. The types of cell division disruption can vary from incomplete cell division to lopsided cell division. So you can see that we can't just form a hypothesis like if I stop cell division then I can cure cancer. First of all we don't want to stop cell division and secondly the link between cell division and cancer is far more complicated. So we start with something simple like if I change the way cells signal mitosis I will regulate cell division. 

Except I realize now that I have to go about testing this theory that this hypothesis is very complicated and there are many variables involved. To test this hypothesis, I am going to have to plan my experiments very carefully and those experiments are probably going to lead to more questions. Hopefully through some of these experiments though, I can answer a part of that hypothesis or that my findings lead me closer to understanding a piece of that hypothesis. This brings us to the middle of that flow chart of the Scientific Method. We are still experimenting and testing the hypothesis. We haven't even started to analyze the data or communicate the results. The Scientific Method is hard work, y'all. 

Stay tuned for next week when we discuss making sense of the data and how to represent that information in a way that makes sense!


Cindy Maddera

I wanted to start an educational series here on science. I get the impression that non-science people are unaware of what a scientist goes through to get her research published or the questioning of the science behind their research while publishing and after publishing. The idea is to help you have a better understanding of blanket statements like "97% of Climate Scientists agree that humans are the cause of global warming" and why those scientists think (not believe) this is true. To do that, I'm going to start by breaking down the Scientific Method. Some of you may have a vague memory of learning something about the Scientific Method in middle school science. Words like 'hypothesis' and 'analyze' probably ring some bells for you. 

For today's visual, I'm going to reference Science Buddies because they have a great diagram that breaks down the Scientific Method.

First off, let's start by asking a question about something we observe. It helps if the question can be measured, but for today, we're not going to worry too much about that. We're going to keep things simple, like will I burn my hand if I place it on the stove? After you develop a question the next step is to do some background research. You want to look around for reliable sources pertaining to your question. Has this questions been asked before? What are the steps that scientist used to answer the same question? Is that scientist's data repeatable? Your question can change depending on what you find in your background research. You might find that other scientists who asked this question found that they only burned their hands part of the time when placing it on the stove. So now your question might be "why do I only burn my hand some of the times when I place it on the stove?"

Asking the question sounds like the easy part. It's the background research that makes your question more complicated. Here's an example of a question I've been working at my job. Can I stain a GFP-tagged protein with a nanobody to achieve greater microscopic resolution in the less than 100nm scale? I do not present this question to you to be condescending, but as an example of the complexity of the kinds of questions that scientists are asking. That's just asking the question. After that, there's developing a hypothesis and coming up with an experimental design. The scientist has to figure out what experiments to do to answer this question along with all the variables involved in running that experiment. There's a lot of steps that happen in between asking a question and communicating those results. 

I hoped this helped explain some things or at least put things in a better perspective for you. The science is more than a one sentence headline designed to grab your attention. Maybe next week we'll dig a little deeper into the Scientific Method. That middle part with all the experiments and testing is thick. So..join me next week when I discuss variability in experiments, also known to other scientists as gremlins in the lab.