‘Bee’ Reviewed: Best of the Best from 2005

I finally got a new picture of Nyx... it only took a few months.
A new year, a new picture of the cat not looking at me. Purrrrfect.

First – Happy New Year! Here’s to another year of replicate-able research and smooth writing for all.

Now, we press onward, to more great science writing from The Best of the Best American Science Writing! You can see links for the reviews from other prior years at the bottom of this post.

From the year 2005, Robin Marantz Henig’s “The Genome is Black and White (and Gray)” and David Quammen’s “Darwin or Not” were selected, both socially aware pieces rooted in biology.

Henig’s essay eases us into a conversation on race and genomics using a new heart failure medicine, BiDil, that was created specifically for black Americans as the most effective heart failure medications for white Americans seemed to have little effect on the black population. Race-based pharmacogenomics, however, is a touchy area; after several decades of insisting that there is no genetic basis to race and that it is purely a social construct, many academics, researchers, social scientists, and public figures are, reasonably, very hesitant to admit there could be a genetic link to the race question that is strong enough to produce noticeably different effects using different drugs. Particularly considering how the idea of eugenics poisoned several modern cultures and has fueled many racist arguments, can we really give any credence to the potential biological variance between races that would lead to the creation of unique drugs? Are there really biological differences, or can this all be explained by a host of socio-economic factors affecting separate racial groups differently?

Henig is very fair and impartial in her accounting of both the biological, social, and historical elements throughout this essay and, honestly, it’s a really important ethical issue to consider. Race-based pharmacogenomics could vastly improve health care for minorities but also adds fuel to the fire of the racists; no matter who decides to take the lead on this kind of research, we will need to tread lightly as we discover more about the genetics of race. The writing is good, the piece held a great deal of suspense and momentum for me, and honestly it was the most thought-provoking essay of the book so far. In fact, to break the typical review structure, I’d really love to hear your thoughts in the comments below if you chose to read this essay (which I would highly recommend – here’s the link again).

Quammen’s essay seeks to answer the question ‘Was Darwin Wrong?’ in an age where nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution (in 2015, that number was still relatively high at 31% with 4% being unsure). For a biologist, this essay is not a must-read; it doesn’t present any new or enlightening information. Quammen, in essence, lays out the pro-evolution argument concisely and in a straightforward, direct manner using bio-geographical, pale-ontological, embryological, and morphological evidence. Despite using those four big words, the rest of the essay is very clean and easy to understand no matter your level of scientific knowledge.

This essay isn’t worth you’re time if you’re pretty knowledgeable about, and sold on, the evolution argument; but if you have an aunt, uncle, or gramma who could use a refresher on evolution this article might be for them. The article is relatively short, well-paced, and very well-organized, so I was able to appreciate it as a piece of quality writing even if the information is a bit basic. Reading the article did serve to remind me that I shouldn’t take my education and understanding of evolution for granted in a country where almost a third of Americans still are woefully ignorant about the fundamental principles underlying our world.

Reviews from 2000                                                                                                          Reviews from 2002

Reviews from 2001                                                                                                           Reviews from 2003

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Social Spiders: Brainy Stuff

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to a project I’m working on in my lab with social spiders in this post here. In that post, I talked about overarching differences between solitary, subsocial, and social spiders that will factor into my research question about spider brains – we’ll get to the question in a few posts.

This is incorrect. The legs come off the first section – the ‘head’ of the spider.

I thought I’d move in this post to discussing the spider brain, which resides in the cephalothorax – or the first section (not the silk spinning abdomen) of the spider. When I started this project, I thought a spider looked like my drawing to the right – and many of our popular representations of the spider incorrectly show the legs coming off the abdomen (think Halloween decorations). It’s important to remember that the legs actually come out of the first section, the ‘head’ of the spider; it plays into the really cool layout of the brain/central nervous system.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
Photo credit: Meghan Barrett and the O’Donnell lab at Drexel University.

To the left is a picture of the ‘ventral’ portion of the spider nervous system – called the subesophageal ganglion – the V shaped bit in the center of the picture, in lighter blue (the darker blue is muscle – wow, these spiders are strong!). It sits really close to the belly of the spider, because this portion of the CNS is responsible for movement in the spider and thus needs to be close to the legs. It takes up most of the head, with several discrete sections, radiating out from a central body. The two sections at the top of the photo innervate the pedipalps – sensory organs near the mouth in spiders. The other eight sections each innervate one of the spider’s legs, and the very bottom of the photo is where the nerves go to the abdomen.

These structures are made of motoneurons (neurons that control movement) that go out, into their respective organs/legs and sensory neurons that come in – giving chemical and mechanical information from hairs that cover the body and legs. In the smallest of spiders, these regions can extend pretty significantly into the legs as the spider has a limit to how small its brain can be and still function.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
Photo credit: Meghan Barrett and the O’Donnell lab at Drexel University

The subesophageal ganglion is really large, compared to the ‘brain’ portion of the central nervous system – called the supraesophageal ganglion (so named because the esophagus runs between the sub and supra sections of the spider CNS). The supraesophageal ganglion is pictured to the right and is about a third the size of the subesophageal ganglion; you can see the central body, the strip at the bottom, and the main mass of the brain in front of it. This is the part of the brain responsible for receiving input from the eyes, learning, memory, and other pre-programmed behavior (more classic ‘brain’ activities). It is dorsal to the subesophageal ganglion, meaning it sits (unsurprisingly) closer to the eyes while the sub is closer to the legs.

Photo/data credit to Meghan Barrett and the ODonnell lab at Drexel University.

Below and to the left are some photos of my 3D reconstruction of an Anelosimus guacomayos brain – enjoy! You can really see the difference in size between the supra and sub, and the large space above the sub where the stomach of the spider sits. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the incredible behaviors this tiny CNS is capable of – more than you’d think! Does the spider brain look like you expected? Cool – or creepy? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below!

Photo/data credit to Meghan Barrett and the ODonnell lab at Drexel University.




Sources: Check out the paper linked below for more great views of spider brains, and a good diagram showing the sub/supra divide at the esophagus. 

Park Y, Moon M (2013). Microstructural Organization of the Central Nervous System in the Orb-Web Spider Araneus ventricosus Araneae: Araneidae). Applied Microscopy, 43, 65-74.

Many thanks to Leticia Aviles for the specimen. 

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NaRMO: Ready to Review?

narmoMany of you may have heard of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November. There’s also National Novel Editing Month (organized by volunteers) in March, and National Poetry Writing Month (also organized by volunteers) in April. Along with summers spent at Camp NaNo (for people who don’t just want to write novels in November!) it can seem like the whole year is basically booked in National Writing events.

But on the other end of all that writing are the readers; and that’s where National Book Review Month, a project started by professors at the State University of New York at Geneseo, comes in. NaRMo (the ‘book’ is silent) occurs every February and can take as much or as little time as you want, unlike some of the more ‘hardcore’ national writing months I mentioned above that are really work-intensive (and thus not always feasible for everyone). Participants in Narmo don’t have to make an account or sign up – instead, they simply drop a book review off in the submit box and, after review by the admins, it gets posted on the site. Simple as that!

The idea behind Narmo (#narmo, also @getreviewing and you can email them at: getreviewing@geneseo.edu) is for readers to come together and share books, and what they love. There’s no limit on the type of book reviewed – so far I’ve reviewed poetry, drama, and even romance novels for the project; nonfiction (even textbook-style), children’s books, and other lit are also welcome. If you don’t see a category or genre up there yet – don’t be afraid to request it! Reviews can be as long or as short as you like, and the website offers tips for writing reviews for those who are new to that sort of thing.

So what are you waiting for? Have you read an amazing book lately (of course you have!)? Then share it with the world, over at NaRMo. You can submit reviews at any time, but my understanding is that they start updating the site in February.

What do you think about this project? Are you excited to participate and write/read some reviews? Let me know in the comments below – and thanks as always, for reading.

Some of my reviews:

Blind Huber by Nick Flynn

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt

Sinful in Satin by Madeline Hunter

Taken by the Prince by Christina Dodd

Taming the Beast by Heather Grothaus

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Biopoetics: Strawberry Compositions

I’m so thankful to UnLost magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here or listen to it: here. You can find the scientific journal article it was ‘found’ in here.

Me, working a forest community ecology project in Geneseo, that included lots of black walnut tree hugging.

This poem was directly inspired by a paper entitled ‘The allelopathic effects of juglone and walnut leaf extracts on yield, growth, chemical and PNE compositions of strawberry cv. Fern’ by S. Ercisli, A. Esitken, C. Turkkal, and E. Orhan, published in 2005.

The paper, as the title suggests, looked at the effects of juglone (a chemical produced by plants in the Juglandaceae family, like walnuts) and Persian walnut leaf extracts on the yield, growth, chemical and plant nutrient element composition of strawberry plants. Juglone occurs in pretty much every part of walnut trees – including the roots, bark, leaves, and fruit – and is known to have toxic/growth stunting effects on nearby plants. In my part of the world, it’s why we’ll sometimes see stands (groups) of black walnut trees growing isolated from other species; the juglone in the leaves that drop to the forest floor every year, and in the roots, causes many other species to die off if they are sensitive to juglone (like potatoes, pine trees, white birch, or eggplants).

This paper looked at the sensitivity of strawberry plants to direct juglone treatments and walnut leaf extract treatments (of varying concentrations). They found that the plant’s growth was inhibited by all treatments, and that strawberry plants also produced less leaves and fruits (and smaller leaves and fruits) when subjected to juglone treatments. Extract and juglone treatments also impaired the ability of the strawberry plants to grow roots and uptake nutrients from the surrounding environment. It looked like, based on some of their graphs, diluting the concentration of the walnut leaf extract decreased the negative effect of the extract on plant growth.

The overall picture? It appears that strawberries are pretty sensitive to juglone; if you want a good yield, avoid planting them directly under a walnut tree (particularly black walnuts – which have the highest concentration of this phytotoxin)! The good news is, juglone is not very water-soluble and thus doesn’t travel far in soil. The highest concentration will occur directly under the canopy of the tree – so the further out you go, particularly once you exit the ‘root zone’, the better off your plants will be. Other trees – shagbark hickory, for one – do also contain juglone, but at a low enough concentration to generally not affect even the more juglone-sensitive plants.

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STEM Pipeline is Gushing Women

Many of you have probably heard of the STEM pipeline dripping – that is, the idea that we’re losing lots and lots of students at each step of the educational process. Perhaps the step that is most relevant to me as someone who wants to go on to be a professor: only about half of those students who enter college in a STEM major will graduate with a STEM degree. This is already a sad pronouncement – we are losing so many of our students to things like poor class and assessment design, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, and a dearth of research opportunity to keep people engaged. These are all problems that, as a student of the PROFESS program at Drexel, I aim to learn about fixing.

Me, a young woman scientist, STEMMING it my senior year in undergrad.

But to actually have an impact, I will need to become a professor – and the STEM pipeline prognosis for women, and for minorities, is sadly far worse than that for overall scientists. According to a UC Berkeley study on chemists, women make up roughly 50% of college graduates in the field – but only 37% of PhDs, 22% of associate professors, and a measly 12% of tenured professors. There are many things that explain this ‘drip’ of women from the field (feels more like a gush than a drip, honestly) – they include everyday sexism from the ‘good old boys club’ of science that goes all the way to the top, wanting to earn higher salaries outside of academia, or needing time to start a family – which might not be compatible with the format of tenure-track jobs.

What I think this study, and others like it, show is that we’ve done a good job with outreach to girls to get them interested in science – despite the fact that female scientists are historically forgotten about in favor of their male counterparts (*cough* Rosalind Franklin *cough*) in our culture and the classroom, and despite the fact that science is more actively marketed to boys, we still see about 50% of our undergrads are women in several (though not all) STEM fields. Certainly, more outreach to young girls would not hurt, particularly in fields like IT, Engineering, and Physics where women are still under-represented even in bachelors programs. But this quote really resonated with me, about what the actual problem is here:

“You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty” – kelsium

And this idea, that men in science are actively not supporting women in science, has some pretty significant data behind it. An article in PNAS showed that elite labs run by men (and regular labs run by men) were significantly less likely to hire/train women PhD and postdocs than those run by women. In contrast, elite labs run by women were more likely to hire women than men – but by a less significant margin; and non-elite labs run by women showed no bias, unlike non-elite labs run by men. This problem is multiplied by the fact that there are more Academy/elite male scientists than females (in Chemistry, females make up only 6% of the National Academy of the Sciences chemists) – which means that in 94% of elite labs there’s an anti-woman bias.

The study in PNAS does indicate that they don’t know how many women applied to work in these labs – though they cite high rates of sexual harassment and negative attitudes towards maternity as reasons why many women may steer clear of male-dominated labs. The bottom line is that women in STEM are not being treated fairly or given access to equal opportunities – not really surprising, given how recently women were even allowed to start having careers at all.

Undeniably, women have made incredible strides in the last sixty to eighty years – at least at the undergraduate level. But the anti-woman bias held by the ‘good old boys club’ that has been the norm for the past 600 years of science needs to change and effort needs to go into enacting policies that work from the top down. Policies that support women in cases of sexual harassment, hiring bias, and family planning. Until these policies are enacted, no matter how many chemistry sets we give our young girls, we will not see a change in the gushing STEM pipeline for women.

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An Introduction to the Social Spider Project

I’m about to begin a series of posts on social spiders – yes, those creepy crawly arthropods we all despise – to give some background information on a research project that my PI and I have been developing for a while (now in pre-proposal stage). My hope is that this series of bite-sized bits of my project, the theory behind it, and the journey of the research itself will be interesting enough to turn some of the fear we have into curiosity. As a child I was terrified of spiders, and made my father ‘take care of’ any of the unfortunate few that wandered into my room; but through all this research, I’ve actually developed a (very small) fondness for the little guys, and I hope I can share that fondness with you.

We’ll start this introduction by discussing the study organism itself – the spider. In this study, we’ll be looking at closely related spider species that differ dramatically in one major type of behavior – sociality. There are three ‘types’ of this behavior – solitary, subsocial, and social.

Found on the @ApprenticeRPG twitter

Solitary spiders are the ones most of us are probably familiar with – you know, the spider that chills out on its own web or wanders around on the ground by itself. It meets with other spiders for mating, but that’s the extent of its desire to socially interact.

Subsocial spiders are those that engage in some social behaviors – perhaps they live together or engage in cooperative prey capture maneuvers, but they also have some kind of obligate solitary phase. This could be a particular season of the year or a particular age that they spend alone, or they could even have communal webs but with marked, individual territories. The behaviors here are really diverse.

Photo Credit: Donna Garde, Texas Parks & Wildlife, link through photo.

Lastly, you have the social spiders. For people with arachnophobia this is probably the WORST thing ever because if you find one spider, you know there are bound to be many more nearby. Social spiders engage in cooperative maternal care, nest maintenance, and prey capture behaviors and live together pretty much 24/7 – except during dispersal, when young spiders leave the nest to venture out into the world alone.

Social spiders come in various shapes and sizes just like the more familiar solitary spiders; you have larger huntsman in Australia that can have up to 300 spiders in a colony and the smaller Anelosimus (the spiders I’ll be working with, known as cobweb spiders) found throughout the Americas – Anelosimus eximus, a species I’ll be working with frequently, can have tens of thousands of spiders in a web (found as far north as Panama, though there are other Anelosimus in the US). There are other social spiders found throughout the world, in varying colors, numbers, sizes, and with varying behaviors.

That’s it for today’s introduction to the project – be sure to check back for future installments on spider brains, brain resource allocation theory, social spider behavior, and more!

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New Years Goals: 2017

With the New Year comes new year’s resolutions – which are typically a bit of a mess, in my opinion. Oft hyped but rarely completed, resolutions are something you find on a scrap piece of paper three years later and realize you (maybe) achieved one of the eight things on your list.

Nevertheless, as an eternal optimist, I make resolutions every year without fail and, usually, one or two of them happen. As I get older, my resolutions have gotten more tailored to my actual desires (no ‘run a marathon’) and less numerous – I think, more reasonable overall.

So here are my, hopefully modest, new year goals, not resolutions. Next year, I’ll hopefully be able to reflect back on these and feel like I achieved something significant – just like in my 2016 Wrap Up post.

  1. Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project
  2. Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week
  3. Develop my board game idea into a reality
  4. Publish three more poems
  5. Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD

What’s on your list for 2017? How do you feel about New Years Resolutions/goals? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading.


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A Year in Review: 2016

I’d like to round off the year with a review of all I was able to do – sometimes, when the days are long and hard, the goals and accomplishments of the overall year get lost in the shuffle. But the goals of this year deserve to be celebrated – so here we go!


Although it feels like a lifetime ago already, two of my biggest scientific accomplishments this year were my senior year projects at Geneseo. My honors thesis in Biology, a forest community ecology project that looked at the impact of the emerald ash borer at Nations Road Reserve, was both crazy and rewarding (and taught me how much I hate software programs that don’t do all they advertise…). I got to do a huge presentation of my results to all the faculty at GREAT day, and write what was a pretty good paper about all that I’d found (which was not encouraging for the ash trees, but pretty okay for the forest overall).

Additionally, I completed a project that took three or four times longer than expected – my survey of native pollinators in the Geneseo Area. This project solidified my love of Hymenoptera and taught me a lot about social and solitary bees, factors that affect their abundance, ways to collect them efficiently, what biases factor into various collection mechanisms, and more. I left behind at Geneseo a truly impressive insect collection, well-labelled with IDs and collection metadata and (mostly) expertly pinned. The love of bees this project fostered in me still won’t shake, and I’m working on developing bee-related theses projects for my PhD.

As for grad school, this quarter had me pretty intensely involved in one ongoing project, two brand new projects, and a killer lab class that might actually turn into a pretty neat paper opportunity. This quarter I’ve learned a ton of histological techniques (slicing, staining, and quantifying brain sections) on army ants, where I’m helping finish up a project that looks at brain resource allocation across castes and species. I’ve also been working pretty intensely on ‘the mitonuclear project’ and ‘the social spider brains project’. Both of these are pre-proposal level projects, so I don’t want to give too much away about them yet, but they’ve solidified my molecular (PCR, gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction, etc) and histological skills, and also given me the opportunity to start learning about staining and using a confocal microscope. I feel like grad school has already given me a huge boost to my overall skill set. Lastly, my molecular ecology lab churned out some data that helped me gain experience with sequence analysis using the bacterial communities found in the guts of army ants.

Science is slow. 2016 didn’t give me any publications or big ‘newsworthy’ events (other than passing this quarter, damn that was rough) but I did gain a bunch of new skills and knowledge, and I’ve furthered my scientific career by pushing forward with several really cool projects on everything from ants, to microbes, to spiders.

My two top notebooks right now - spiders and poetry.
My two top notebooks right now – spiders and poetry.


While time for writing has been seriously lacking since September, I think 2016 was overall a really good year for me as a writer. Fun fact: more of my written and creative work has entered the world in 2016 than any other year of my life. By a substantial margin, too; prior to 2016, I’d only had two poems and one 15-minute play published.

Let’s take a look at what happened in 2016:

  • My play, Experimental Ambiguity, was performed for a full house
  • My gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, went ‘live’ in August on iOS and Android
  • I had six articles published for The Key Reporter, plus all the posts on this website (which is new!)
  • I had twenty one poems accepted for publication in eleven different magazines

So maybe 2016 didn’t end on the most writing-productive note, but I’d say it’s still a big win overall for my writing career.

For all of you, my first followers, mostly family and good friends – thanks for following, commenting, subscribing to my email list, and overall supporting me in my scientific and writing careers. Particular thanks goes out to my fiance, Alex, my uncle John, my parents, and my brother – without you, I would have fewer poems, science projects, blog posts, and, most importantly, hours of joy and purpose in my life. You are a big part of what helps me be successful and I can’t express to you how grateful I am to always have your support.

2016 was pretty great… and here’s to an even better 2017!

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From Gamer to Writer

Often, as creators, we take inspiration from the myths, legends, or work of those who came before us – game developer Ziba Scott has taken that to a whole new level with the game Elegy for a Dead World, available on Steam (a gaming platform that any serious computer gamer should have).

Elegy for a Dead World visualizes for us the end-of-world poetry of three British romantic poets – Byron, Shelley, and Keats. We, the player, are immersed in the worlds of these lost civilizations and are instructed to keep a diary that we send back to the homeworld (a communal archive of sorts on Steam that other players can see) with our observations – in the form of stories, poetry, songs, etc. We can choose if to tell ‘their story’, ‘my story’, or keep a ‘scientific journal’. The game itself guides you through these worlds as you explore via constant side-scrolling motion, and can prompt you to construct various literature. You can edit your prose before sending it to the homeland for good, to make sure it’s as cohesive and stunning as possible. Other players can view your entry and rate it – and you, in turn, can see if others saw the same story that you did in these ancient worlds. No rush, however, to ‘publish’ your work; the game never requires you to make your work visible to other players unless you wish to.

The game is different from the typical gaming experience in almost every possible way – there are no levels or quests, no time limits and no way to be wrong or lose. But Elegy for a Dead World could be the kind of alternative gaming experience many would enjoy as an introduction to creative storytelling, by prompting them with gorgeous imagery based off of the work of three master writers. It seems like a great way to combat writer’s block and a great introduction to descriptive, imaginative writing for those new to the craft and unsure of what to write about. I can’t wait to get exploring when I have some free time myself!

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Merry Christmas!

1934077_1201316849883033_6746702421272410645_nMerry Christmas, today, to all you amazing fellow humans! Though this post is not science or writing related, I thought I would share with you a recipe for soup that my family enjoys with my grandmother every Christmas Eve – something to warm us during those cold, NY holiday evenings. If you try it, let me know what you think; I’m happy to be able to share this holiday meal with all of you, as well as my amazing family back home.

Grandma Zimmer’s Soup

  1. Brown three pounds of stew beef in olive oil, at the bottom of a large soup pot (my grandmother also throws in a soup bone for added flavor).
  2. Add two cups of tomato juice, six cups of water, 2 bay leaves, 2 Tbsp Worcester sauce, and 1 Tbsp salt.
  3. Bring to a boil then reduce to a barely-there simmer; let cook, covered, for 2 hours.
  4. Add 2 cups each of finely chopped carrots, potatoes, celery, and coleslaw (shredded cabbage).
  5. Let cook, covered, for another 1.5 hours. Serve!

If you’re not really a soup person, you can always halve the tomato juice, water, Worcester sauce, and salt and you’ll get a pretty thick stew instead.

It’s amazing to me how simple holiday traditions, like a bowl of soup on Christmas Eve, can come to mean so much to us over time. Does your family have a holiday tradition, cookie recipe, special meal etc? Feel free to share with me below. Happy holidays to all – and Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating today.

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