Need a feel-good news story to pick you up today? Here you go. It’s certainly nice to see Ohio in the news for non-COVID reasons.
The Akron Zoo, where I worked briefly about 10 years ago, recently got a new resident: a blue lobster. Employees at the local Red Lobster restaurant, which is literally down the road from me, discovered this specimen in one of their shipments and reached out to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which put them in touch with the Akron Zoo. It turns out that only one in about 2 million lobsters are blue, which certainly makes this lobster pretty special!
“Clawde” then got adopted and relocated to the zoo, which happens to have a lot of experienced aquatic animal keepers because many were hired on there after SeaWorld Ohio closed in 2000. After settling in there, zoo staff discovered that the lobster was actually female, and she was renamed “Clawdia.” She’s being housed in the Komodo Kingdom building where the aquatic exhibits are located, though you can’t visit her yet as all zoo building are currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 precautions (the zoo itself is open).
Like many of us bored during the COVID stay-at-home period, YouTuber Mark Rober turned to a new hobby: backyard birding. But Mark is a former NASA engineer (you may know him from his glitter bomb bait package video), so when he saw squirrels getting into his bird feeder, this new hobby spun out into an experiment in squirrel-proof bird feeders, which then (naturally) eventually involved into building a Ninja Warrior-style squirrel obstacle course in his yard.
His YouTube video on the subject is highly entertaining, but what impressed me most as a scientist was…the science! Did you know there was going to be science? You might have missed it because it was so interesting.
His observations of the course begin by identifying his subjects: 4 particular squirrels were included in this study. My favorite: Phat Gus aka Phantastic Gus, who turns out to be a pregnant female. Speaking as another currently-pregnant female, Phat Gus is quite frankly an inspiration to me.
The study here really consists of two types of animal behavior science. The most interesting to me is the part involving ethology, the study of animals’ behavior typically in their natural environment with limited interference. This type of research was my primary focus during my undergrad; my career goal was to study animal behavior in zoos (spoiler alert: this is not my current field of biology at all).
For example, I would observe the manatees at the Columbus zoo, creating an ethogram of their behaviors (eating, sleeping, social interaction, swimming, surfacing to breathe) to see how much of their time was spent doing each activity, and what part of the exhibit they were doing them in. This led me to be fascinated by the physiology of how manatees use their tails, flippers, and bodies to rise to the surface to breathe, even while sleeping.
Rober is similarly fascinated by the physics of how squirrels are able to land so cleanly even after being launched or dropped from his platforms: lowering their terminal velocity, turning in midair and pulling in/stretching their limbs, spotting their landings, and using their tails to adjust their trajectory. He nicely ties this back to the evolutionary ecology of squirrels, considering it an adaptation to life in trees.
Also under the ethology category would be his initial pilot study of which type of seeds or nuts the squirrels prefer: walnuts, which he then used as his obstacle course final reward.
The obstacle course itself is a great example of behaviorism, measuring behavioral responses to stimuli (typically in a laboratory environment). This is the kind of research people typically think of with rats in mazes or Pavlov making dogs salivate to a bell.
It only took the squirrels about a week to get to the end of the obstacle course, and they were eventually able to do it all in less than 40 seconds.
Rober also highlighted another important aspect of animal research: the safety of the subjects. I appreciated his repeated comments on how he made the course humane so the squirrels would not actually be harmed.
This video highlights so much of why I love animal behavior research. Animals are endlessly fascinating to me, and I find interacting with them, even just by observing in a research setting, to be a rewarding educational experience.
Rober never did find a bird feeder that completely stopped the squirrels. But in the end, he didn’t really care.
After waiting many months for it at the library, I am happy to report that it is indeed an excellent book and I happily recommend it, though I wouldn’t say it was the best book ever, or even the best book I read this year.
Crawdads is the story of Kya, abandoned as a child by her family in the marshes of North Carolina during the 1950s, interspersed with the 1969 investigation of the murder of a popular young local man. The back-and-forth between the two plot threads is wonderful, though the payoff when they finally connect was a little underwhelming to me.
The writing in general is excellent, though at points it does feel like a debut novel. The world building is really special, with a unique setting and atmosphere. There also is a sweet young love story that I was head-over-heels for.
But what did I really love? The biology!
Kya grows up in the marshes, swamps, and estuaries of the coastal South, and comes to see Nature as her real family. She sleeps outside and lives off the land. She knows all the plants, birds, and fish of the region. She collects flowers, nests, and bird feathers which she then sketches and categorizes by species. She feeds the gulls on the beach and names them. Many people have said that the marsh is treated like a character in the book, and it’s really true.
The descriptions of all these ecological details are like catnip to a biologist like me. As someone with a background in animal behavior, I loved the way Kya approaches human relationships from the lens of the animal behavior she has observed and read about. She always looks for comparisons between animal and human social behaviors; sometimes they correspond well, like with certain male and female mating strategies, and sometimes slightly less, like with certain maternal behaviors.
Owens is a biologist herself, having already published books about her time spent studying wildlife in Africa. (She’s also been published in Nature, which is a pretty big deal for a scientist.) As a biologist and aspiring novelist, Owens is a big inspiration to me, along with other biologists such as Diana Galabdon (Outlander) and Stephanie Laurens (Regency romances) who have gone on to have phenomenal careers as fiction writers.
If you are looking for a quick, engaging read with some new perspectives but nothing too groundbreaking, I think Crawdads is for you. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t think it quite lived up to the excessive hype. Since many of you reading this have probably read it, what were your thoughts?
When the movie Hidden Figures came out in 2017, I made sure to go see it in theaters. Not only did it sound interesting, I wanted Hollywood to know that a movie about black female scientists had a paying audience.
Like most people, I had no idea of the story of the “colored computers,” women whose work helped the U.S. get into space. Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson spent years doing mathematical calculations that were critical our efforts in World War II, the Korean War, and the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
If you want to dig a little deeper into their story, you can check out the book that the movie was based on. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly came out in 2016 and tells the story of the computers in greater detail.
The book follows several generations of computers, starting with Dorothy Vaughan who joined during the expansion of aeronautics research at NACA (the precursor of NASA) during WWII. With so many men off at war, the need for mathematicians meant that many women, even black women, were hired into the workforce at Langley. And even after the war, the need to maintain the superiority of our air forces during conflicts like the Korean War meant that other women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson came to join Dorothy. Eventually, the importance of the space race meant the creation of NASA and starting space research basically from scratch, bringing in even more talent such as Christine Mann Darden.
Hidden Figures was Shetterly’s first book, and that shows a bit in the way parts get bogged down in the overwhelming amount of detail. (It took me a while to read this one.) According to the Kindle version, the Notes and Bibliography take up 20% of the book.
But at the same time, that detail allows a full picture of what life was like during these times, particularly for these women and their families. As someone who was born in the 80s, this book provides valuable context for not only the civil rights movement and major historical events, but also scenes of daily life during these times.
The movie is an excellent adaptation, streamlining all the detail into a smooth narrative. Of course, that means it is not always perfectly factual; the timeline of these women’s careers is greatly compressed, for example. There is also a Young Readers version of the book that I understand is more readable as it is for children.
As a scientist, there were a couple of notes from the book that I found interesting. First, most of these women were originally teachers, one of the most stable, respected professions for smart black women at the time. Yet these were women that could (and in some cases, did) have received advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering. Imagine today if the same people who are NASA scientists were instead high school teachers!
Second, the structure of scientific research that Shetterly describes at NASA is very similar to science today. She describes teams led by engineers (who today would be called Principal Investigators or PIs) with support staff such as the computers (today’s laboratory technicians, including myself). The engineers would draft research reports or memos that would be picked apart by a committee before being finalized; this is much like the peer review process today governing how scientists publish papers in journals after being critiqued by external reviewers.
As a lab tech, I appreciated that this book focused on how the contributions of the computers to NASA’s research were just as important as those of the engineers. However, the fact remains that many of the computers should have been engineers to begin with, being just as intelligent and capable as their supervisors, and many fought their whole careers to advance and be accepted as such.
It has been wonderful to see these women get the recognition they deserve. Katherine Johnson now has two NASA facilities named after her, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Not only are the “hidden figures” an important part of black history and an important part of U.S. history, they also helped to pave the way for women like me in science. Even if I never knew it until recently.
I grew up in Florida watching Space Shuttle launches, and let me tell you, it doesn’t get any less cool with age.
If you missed it, today was a big day for SpaceX, the commercial space flight company led by Elon Musk. They successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket in a test off Cape Canaveral. Watching the live stream was pretty exhilarating; I can only imagine how the engineers that worked on it feel.
SpaceX has launched plenty of rockets before; today’s flight used those rockets, the Falcon 9, as boosters for an even bigger main core. The coolest part for me was seeing these two boosters split off and then come back to land at the Cape.
The core itself was to land on a floating platform in the Atlantic; unfortunately the feed cut out, so we are still waiting to hear its fate.