A big thank you to The Trumpeter for publishing this poem here (listen to it here).
This biopoetics may be a bit of a cop-out but there is a reason for it – promise!
This poem was the beginning. My first – ever – poem that combined science and poetry. What you see in this poem is something that desperately needs unpacking; something beautiful on its own, which gains additional power upon explanation. So why won’t I explain it?
I have. Acerum on Fomalhaut b was the inspiration for the following poems (with their biopoetics linked if available):
And several additional poems in the sugar maple cycle, which were in turn inspired by the poems listed above.
It is important to note that I have been working on unpacking this poem since December of 2015, but have still only unpacked half of the poem in total. The left side of the poem tells the story of a bright planet in our screaming universe – Fomalhaut b. This side weaves in and out of the right, the story of Acer saccharum – or the sugar maple tree. It is the sugar maple side of the story that I have had the chance to unpack and tell so far in my two years of working on this project. Admittedly, I may have gotten a bit stuck on the sugar maples…oops!
I hope that, reading this poem, you can appreciate the two threads as they come in and out of focus – the way our teeming, lively trees on earth can both parallel and juxtapose the vast emptiness of our universe, the way a planet, a star, or a tree is born, lives, or dies. And I hope the ever-growing web of poems that surrounds this smattering of words helps you appreciate those patterns in a poetic, and a scientific, way.
A big thank you to Palaver magazine for publishing this poem; you can read it here (pg 75) or hear me read it aloud here.
Deepnight is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Deepnight occurs after the trees shed all their leaves and enter a state of dormancy until the days become longer and warmer again.
While Sunleaves tells the story of the leaves on the trees changing color in fall, Deepnight tells of the tree settling into a period of barrenness, of the very beginning of winter. The story is told from the perspective of the leaves themselves: the sense of betrayal as they are tossed away so the tree can conserve resources (and not worry about the fragility of the leaves themselves) during the winter.
As the days gets shorter, less chlorophyll is produced in the leaves, allowing for the other colorful chemicals that were already there, such as anthocyanin (red) and carotenoids (orange), to be ‘uncovered’. The sap sent to the leaves to grow and sustain them is now instead sent to the roots, stored there throughout the winter to be used to power the next generation of leaves after Deepnight is over. Water concentration in the cells of the tree is reduced (increasing the concentration of solutes like glucose), in order to lower the temperature at which the cells will freeze through disrupting ice crystal formation.
Layers of abscission cells (often with modified, weaker cell walls) are formed where the leaf meets the branch of the tree; this means that, eventually, one hard gust of wind will knock the leaf off the branch. Abscisic acid plays a role in endodormancy (a non-growing phase for a plant caused by conditions like cold, lack of light, etc) – though that role is currently poorly understood (originally, it was believed to play a role in abscission but scientists now believe it has some other function).
Some parts of the leaf will be actively broken down as the leaf slowly dies, its grasp on the tree being weakened by the abscission cells, until the tree is finally rid of all the leaves and enters dormancy, waiting for the days to grow longer again.
Since we’re halfway through the year (or thereabouts) I’d like to take some time to reflect on those goals I set for 2017, all the way back in January (how has it been six months already??). It’s important to check in on your big goals every once in a while, before it’s too late to make changes in order to achieve them.
In my goal-setting post I set the following list up for 2017… we’ll go point by point:
Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project – this goal is, as I talked about last month, on it’s way to completion. With 6 undergraduates and myself all plugging away at this over the next three months, I have no doubt we’ll ring in September will all of the data.
Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week – I think, most weeks, I’ve managed to get at least one post out and I’ve maintained my monthly biopoetics, of which I’m most proud. It’s been a little hard recently – with finals and some big personal stuff coming up – but I have managed to keep up this blog (for my betterment, if not yours).
Develop my board game idea into a reality – Honestly, I forgot this was even something I was looking to do (#mybad). I’ve got a really interesting board game idea in my head about my brother’s business, but I’ve still yet to take the time to work on this – prioritizing other creative projects, like novel writing, over this. Maybe this means this project should be moved to the back burner?
Publish three more poems – I’ve accomplished this one several times over! So far I’ve had 14 poems published this year – though I have been really lax in writing or submitting my work to new places. Most of these publications are roll-over from my work in the summer/fall of 2016.
Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD – This is actually pretty in-progress. I’ve got some cool ideas about bee dimorphisms (both morphologically and behaviorally!) and I think my attendance at the Bee Course 2017 this year (at the Southwestern Research Station in AZ) will really help flesh them out.
In addition to these goals, I want to remind myself of some additional things I’m working towards accomplishing this year that I should be proud of, including:
Adding 20,000 words to one of my novels
Generating data for the next NSF proposal on spider brains
Working on getting a house (crazy right?)
Taking additional classwork in the form of PROFESS courses
Gathering data on Synoeca wasp dimorphisms
Gathering data on erythritol and various mysterious insects #patent
Heading a lab of six undergraduates – and hopefully not sucking too hard
Given that so many of the above only really happened in the last two months, it seems like it might be a good idea to re-evaluate my yearly goals every quarter instead of every six months – so much can change so fast!
How is your 2017 going? Are you on top of your goals? What do you do to re-focus during that mid-year burn out?
Insecticides are a huge industry in the United States – whether we’re talking the small-scale can of Raid for your kitchen counter ants or the much larger scale agricultural market. But what if there was something already on your kitchen counter that might take care of those ants for you?
Erythritol is the main compound found in Truvia, a common artificial sweetener that many people use for baking or their morning Cup o’ Joe. Erythritol is a non-nutritive sugar alcohol – so while it sweetens your food, it can’t be digested by your body. The fact that it is sweet (like sucrose or other sugars) makes it attractive to insects such as Drosophila melanogaster, one species of small fruit fly that is a very common organism for scientific study. In this case, attractive can also mean deadly.
My lab published its first ground-breaking (what, can’t a girl brag?) paper on erythritol in PLoS One, entitled “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia, is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide” (Baudier et al 2014, before I arrived). As you can see on the graph to the left, flies that ate Truvia had significantly decreased longevity as compared to flies fed PureVia, Sweet ‘N Low, Sucrose, Equal, Splenda, or Corn Syrup. It’s a pretty drastic split. They also ran an experiment confirming which compound in Truvia was the killer compound (spoilers above: it’s erythritol).
But it doesn’t matter if erythritol kills the flies if they won’t choose to eat it! So Baudier et al. ran several CAFE experiments; one gave the flies access to both sucrose and erythritol of the same concentration and measured how much of each solution the flies ate over time (bottom graph of the figure to the right). As you can see, the red bars are much higher than the blue for both sexes – the flies, when presented with a choice, ate more erythritol than sucrose. If that trend were to hold in the wild, that would be very good news – the flies would self-select to eat the pesticide over other available foods containing non-lethal sucrose!
While this paper looked at a few more things, the last piece of the puzzle I want to talk about here is the effects of higher or lower doses of erythritol on fly longevity. The graph below shows that flies fed two molar erythritol all died within 48 hours! That’s incredibly fast-acting for a pretty tame pesticide.
I hear you saying: “Okay, Meghan, but this is all about flies. Didn’t you promise me that I could take out ants with this stuff?” A recent study by another lab has shown that erythritol works against Solenopsis invicta – the red imported fire ant that causes so much trouble in the United States and abroad. While that probably isn’t the species of ant you have on your counter, it is a promising sign that this stuff may just work on many different groups of insects – from flies to ants, perhaps beyond.
And because erythritol is found in a sweetener meant for human consumption it has been rigorously tested by the FDA and is known to be human-safe (though if you eat a lot, and I mean a lot, of it all at once it may have a laxative effect). In other words, you can feel better about spraying this stuff onto your countertops than Raid. Compared to neurotoxins and other nasty chemical pesticides, erythritol is also thought to be more environmentally friendly too!
A huge thank you to Crab Fat Magazinefor publishing this poem; you can read it here, see the form here, or listen to me read it here.
Windborne is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Windborne occurs as the trees begin to let loose their seeds (known as samaras, or helicopters), allowing for them to be carried on the wind across the land (this is known as anemochory).
In Budbreak, adult sugar maples that are at least 22 years old begin to produce leaves and flowers; these flowers cover the entire crown of the tree and contain both male and female parts. However, within a particular flower, only one sex will be functional – even though each tree will contain both sexes of flowers. Sugar maple pollen is carried by the wind from male to female flowers, fertilizing the ovules within the female flowers that will ripen into seeds over the next sixteen or so weeks. Each double samara (two wings) generally contains one seed which is ripe and ready when it turns a nice green color. Over the next two weeks, the ripened samaras will fall – leaving a pit in their coat, called the hilum, where they were once attached to the tree. The shape of the double samara and the size of the ‘wings’ allow samaras to be carried at least 100m!
Seeds are packed with their own food source (the endosperm) to help fuel the plant embryo’s growth. The embryo has several important parts – the plumule (rudimentary shoot), a radicle root that will emerge first upon germination to reach water through the leaf litter, and the first leaves, or cotyledons. In sugar maples (dicotyledons) there are two of them, which I wrote more about here in the Biopoetics for my poem “Dicotyledons”. Seeds typically have only a year to germinate before losing viability so it’s critical they land in a welcoming, wet environment. Seeds that are carried by the wind to extremely dry areas, rocks, or other inhospitable places will likely never germinate – which is why adult trees produce so many samaras. One year in Michigan, 8.56 million samaras/acre were recorded!
Check out the link of the photo, where the photographer has provided a few more maple seed facts in the description!
I’m so thankful to Five 2 One magazine for publishing this poem; you can purchase the journal here, read my poem here, or listen to it: here.
Sapriver is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Sapriver occurs as the ground begins to warm and winter (Deepnight) starts to fade into spring.
In fall, trees store sugars in their roots before losing their leaves and laying dormant through the short, cold days of winter. ABA, abscisic acid, helps the tree acclimate to the cold winter temperatures and be ‘frost ready‘ (entering a period of dormancy with fallen leaves, closed stomates, and other cellular changes).
During those winter days, sunlight can warm the cells just under the bark, causing them to expand. When night comes, the bark cools and contracts faster than the cells underneath, causing a vertical seam to split the bark open as it tightens over an expanded layer of cells. This heat stress can cause significant cell death and cracks in the barks of trees, sometimes called ‘frost cracks’ or ‘radial shakes’ (though there are also other causes of these wounds). Smaller trees can even die from these wounds, as they have fewer cell layers overall. This is just one challenge faced by trees due to weather conditions.
Longer days cause snow to melt, saturating the soil, and also raises ground temperature. The daytime heating of the ground causes sap stored in the roots (created through photosynthesis by leaves the tree lost in the fall) to also heat up; the sap expands due to the heating, creating pressure inside the finite space of the roots, causing some of the sap to flow up the trunk of the tree through the xylem. At night, when everything cools, there is now negative pressure in the roots – causing water to be pulled into the roots from the environment to equalize the pressure again. This sap and water is used by the tree to begin creating buds that will eventually become flowers and leaves, a process helped along by ‘gibberelins’ – hormones that stimulate stem elongation, breaking and budding, and seed germination after periods of dormancy (in response to cold).
The last ‘What I’m Working On’ was all the way back in September 2016, and a lot has happened since then – so you probably deserve an update!
I’m still working on gathering data for the Eciton ant brain project (the only thing which did stay consistent between my last post and this one). It turns out that this project is going to be a really, really long one… we’ve got about 12 heads left to embed and slice and somewhere around 45 left to photograph and quantify. If you imagine that it takes a week to embed, 1.5 hours to slice each head, 6 hours to stain them all, 3 hours to coverslip them all, 1.5 hours each for photographs, and 2 hours each to quantify… basically, see you never! In addition to the Eciton spp project, we’re doing something similar with termites – I’m helping Susie finish up the tail ends of that project by taking photographs and embedding for her so she can be the master quantifier. Termite brains are funny (though not as funny as the spiders!).
While we’re waiting to hear back from the NSF on social spider brains, I’ve been doing some work for Sean on our super-secret pesticide project. Unfortunately, this is one I really can’t talk much about given that there’s patents and all kinds of legalese involved. Basically, I’m learning lots of things about lots of different arthropods and pesticides and animal husbandry it’s been really absorbing lots of my time in a (mostly) good way.
I have a few other project ideas brewing as I begin thinking more about my thesis – some involving Centris pallida, a beautiful species of desert bee with really dimorphic male mating behaviors. I also have some developing interest in the brains of myrmecophilous beetles – parasitic beetles that live in ant colonies and utilize their resources. Hopefully, these more collaborative projects will start to develop soon, since I’m not currently in the position to collect these insects myself!
As my last post stated, I recently embarked on my Camp NaNoWriMo journey for April of 2017 and managed to write about 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress that I didn’t actually even conceptualize until April 2nd! April was a whirlwind month, but I feel pretty good about this story, and am excited to continue it when my life gets a bit more under control. The story features a journalist in England in the early 1800s, and her investigation into the Foreign Office and a prolific English assassin. I’ve had a lot of fun researching who the assassin kills, and making sure the timeline and locations fit – overall, this story is a set up for another that I’ve been working on for a long time and filling in all the background is really rewarding and intriguing.
I also managed to participate in the Creative Writing Collaboration since my last September post – but pretty much everything else has been at a standstill with graduate school at the forefront of my mind.
April was an interesting month for me, in part because I really focused on my writing more than I had the rest of the year, by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, and happens every November – participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I participated my senior year of high school and won (in only 19 days!), but November has been a pretty sh*t month every year thereafter given that I’ve been a college/grad student and things get pretty heated for school right around November.
Camp NaNo, then, happens in the spring and summer and is a lot more relaxed – you set your own goals for word count/hours of writing/pages, etc, and get sorted into cabins with other participants to chat and motivate one another. I started out April’s camp with a far too ambitious goal of 50,000 words (thinking my writing skills were more in practice than they are) and quickly lowered it to 35,000 words. But the end of April really took me by surprise, with research, classwork, friend and family obligations, and so I only ended up at around 20,000 words – still a remarkable number of words for a grad student to tackle in just one month, I think.
I have mixed feelings about how April’s camp went – on the one hand, I am 20,000 words deeper into a story than I was before and that is an amazing amount of progress for just one month while also taking classes and working on several research projects. What I’m less happy about, is how much else in my life fell to a standstill – namely, every household chore, my emotional health, and several friendships were under-served in this time “balance”. It feels like something is constantly being sacrificed – my health, my research, my coursework, my sanity, my house, my friendships, or my writing.
It’s this feeling of sacrifice, and the immense amount of weight of all the constantly undone things in my life, that seems to be dragging me down most of late. I no longer feel like an ‘impostor’ – I’m really hitting a stride in my research and have tons of ideas flowing. I love (and am annoyed by) how my story is flowing, and had fun working on it. But it’s all the papers unread, the brains unmeasured, the photos not taken, the emails unanswered, the homework undone, the laundry unfolded and dishes not cleaned, the games not made, the words not written, the calls not made, and the gifts not purchased that are paralyzing me. And each time I begin to feel really good about one or even two things, the other areas of my life start to pop up and burden me heavily with the weight of my neglect.
And paralyzing is an accurate word, I think. I come home at night and do nothing, in part because I am tired and in part because I cannot decide fully which problem most deserves my attention and suddenly nothing happens and it is time for bed. My typical strategies for dealing with stress and being overwhelmed no longer seem to work and I still can’t quite figure out if that’s because I’ve changed, or my life has changed, or both. Camp was, in many ways, lovely and encouraging (exciting and relieving to boot!) but in several senses it highlighted just how hard it can be to juggle my two big life goals at the same time and still maintain a creative, energetic flow in my life. And it certainly makes me appreciate how hard my favorite writers work to maintain their ‘day’ and writing careers at the same time.
Do you have any tricks for managing a difficult workload or schedule with several long-term projects? How do you adjust your mindset?
Being a budding entomologist is like being a child in a muggle world, and getting your letter from Hogwarts. Suddenly, all around you, a whole new world opens up – things that were there before, unnoticed, are now glaringly obvious to you even as the rest of the world carries on, oblivious. Like running up to platform 9 and 3/4 or the wall opening to Diagon Alley, entomologists see extraordinary and unique things in their everyday environment.
This is apparent to me whenever I am outside – at home, or in the city proper of Philadelphia. What’s that? Apidae nomada chasing one another around near the ground outside? Look at those three Xylacopa, buzzing by the roof of my house (uh oh…)! What a gorgeous, glossy Formica – my goodness, wing buds! She’s a queen! And check out the size dimorphism on all those Camponotus workers – they’re no Eciton, to be sure, but it’s still pretty drastic. As a budding entomologist, a whole new world opens up, right before your eyes. The everyday events of walking down the street, or exiting your car, can be filled with new, exciting observations and discoveries.
One of my favorite things about this metaphor, however, is where it ends. Unlike in the Harry Potter universe, I (a wizard in training!) am allowed to share my knowledge and my world with the ‘muggles’. Showing my grandmother a spider brain under the scope, or showing my fiance the large Camponotus ants I’ve been hunting all week, or showing my queen Formica ant to the inquisitive man on the subway platform, brings me joy. By far my favorite thing to share, is my knowledge of beautiful bees. Ask a ‘bee muggle’ what comes to mind when they think of a bee and the answers are:
Yellow and black
Very rarely, someone will say ‘sweat bee’ or ‘carpenter/mason bee’ to go along with the three things above. But the truth of bees, is that there is so much more – right in our neck of the woods. The amazement when I show someone the beautiful green Agapostemon, Augochlorini, or the red Nomada, or even dark blue Osmia that they can catch practically in their own backyard (not to mention the gorgeous Chrysididae wasps!) right here in PA or NY is incredibly fulfilling. Suddenly, they too are getting a brief glimpse into the magical world of insects that surrounds us – and they nearly always want to know more.
This post comes to mind mostly because I am more tuned in to nature right now than I’ve ever been before. With spring starting up, the world is beginning to hum and buzz with life again, and I am yet another year more knowledgeable about the world around me. I also spent most of my weekend chasing Camponotus with my aspirator (they’re fast!) – which afforded me a lot of time looking at the ground, observing bees, wasps, ants, beetles, spiders, worms, etc. Despite the fact that this would seem initially unexciting, little is more rewarding than getting peeks into this ‘secret’ world, constantly in motion all around us – it is times like these that I feel extremely lucky to have received my entomologist’s letter to Hogwarts.
This past weekend, my fiance and I took a trip to Florida for Easter to visit his family. Despite the fact that this was our third trip down (aka, I’m not new to planes), I still managed to forget to pack some Dramamine for the plane ride. I spent the entirety of our descent into Punta Gorda wincing, holding onto my stomach, trying not to hyperventilate and thankfully, not vomiting on my beloved. As we exited the plane and returned to blessed, solid ground, my legs were shaking so badly I thought I might fall over.
A more perfect version of myself would have one of two qualities:
A sturdier stomach, in which I do not get plane sick
A more focused brain, in which I remember I get plane sickness and bring the medicine I own for said problem
But if I were reading about this moment in My Life: A Novel, a reader enjoying a well-crafted protagonist named Meghan Barrett, it’s exactly this kind of moment that would bring me, the character, to life for me, the reader. As I read the description of my wobbly legs nearly buckling descending the steps to the tarmac, complete with a description of my fear of fainting at my father-in-law’s feet and regret at forgetting my medicine, I’d likely howl with laughter and then call my fiance over to read those same lines with me. It is a character’s imperfections that make them real and interesting.
I don’t particularly like writing my characters’ imperfections – it feels almost like betraying a friend or revealing someone’s dirty secret since no one else in the world knows these characters (and their flaws) but me. If you like a person, you don’t generally go around telling other people about all the things they could be doing better, a la “Rachel? Oh yeah, she’s great. Real smart and lovable but she does have a temper. And man could she use a toothbrush.” By writing honestly about those flaws, my characters then generally have to go through exactly what I hate to go through myself: failure or embarrassment. But it’s overcoming those moments of failure (and the humor of living through some of them) that make the story interesting, inspiring, engaging – great.
Do you struggle to write about your character’s flaws and failures? How do you make sure you stay true to your characters? What kinds of flaws are your favorites to write (or least favorite)? Why? Tell me in the comments below!