A big shout out to Eyedrum Periodically for publishing this poem; you can find the link to the poem here, see it with the correct formatting here, or listen to me read it aloud here.
A preface: it seems not a lot is known for certain about the shrimp Spongicola japonica or its host, Euplectella spp. What follows is a loose biopoetics of the ‘science’ that inspired this piece.
S. japonica shrimp are small, translucent shrimp sometimes pictured with an orange tint [though it was hard for me to tell if that was their actual color (unlikely) or perhaps some kind of image manipulation or stain]. When they are still very young, and thus small, these ocean bottom-dwelling shrimp find their way inside Euplectella spp. – sponges made of silicon that form a sort of lattice as pictured left. Two shrimp live in a sponge together, a male and female pairing, and grow up eating the nutrients “provided” by the sponge (it’s unclear to me if they eat algae off the spicules or get particulate matter that the sponge absorbs first or…); as they grow bigger and can no longer fit through the lattice of the sponge, they become trapped inside the sponge for life. After the pair reproduces, their young leave the sponge while they’re small enough to escape and go in search of their own place.
Euplectella spp. are thought to live on the abyssal plane (according to this website anyway), about 3000 to 6000 m deep. They are known for their fantastic spicules (what constructs the lattice) which have fiber optic qualities; since the spicules house bioluminescent bacteria, they glow quite consistently and brightly. The sponges grow on mud and hold themselves to it with fibers that grow like a messy ball at the end of the sponge. The sponges are relatively tall and thin, held up by rods (again, the spicules) which are covered in syncytium which seems to be a cob-webby mesh that catches particulate matter. Basically, these sponges are like a deep-sea skyscraper for shrimp.
The sponges can come detached from the mud and, eventually, they can wash up on beaches. In Japan, dried sponges containing two dead shrimp were given as gifts to couples at their weddings, considered to be a sign of eternal love and thus a symbol of good luck.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a novel I’ve been work-in-progressing with various amounts of gusto for the past four years; clocking in at around 35,000 words now, the book was shaping up to be a real high-quality piece of work. If I was struggling anywhere, it was with moving past that 35K mark, not with loving what I had already written…
Until I sent the beginning of the book off to be read by an editor at a publishing house as part of an unfinished manuscripts call. Now as I sent it off, I had no real hopes that it would be picked up by that publisher. I mean, what are the chances? The book did get rejected a few months later, with a very kind no-thank-you note. And while the editors did not compile a list for me of things to improve upon, the simple fact that I’d sent the book off for someone else to read it made me ask myself the question ‘What didn’t they like?’.
The simple act of sending it out pushed me to go from thinking about what I might like to write to what my readers might like to read. And this, it turns out, was an important enough distinction that I had an uncomfortable ‘A-ha’ moment and scrapped all 35,000 words to begin anew.
The plot changed; the order of the books in the series changed; elements of the characters’ personalities that I had not previously known were uncovered to me. What had begun as a writing-fantasy-on-paper became a more realistic, flawed group of characters with a completely different set of factors affecting their lives together. It amazed me how just this one shift in focus could make me realize that my whole novel in progress so far was bad: not bad writing, perse, but bad planning.
From that one question, other questions unfolded: Why must this scene be on the page (even if I enjoy it)? Why must the book start here? Where should I give the backstory of this event – and who should give it to be most realistic? How can I make this character more realistic without losing her quintessential awesomeness? Is this believable or am I asking for too much from my readers? These are hard questions to answer sometimes, but the shift from me-centered-writing to reader-centered writing was revolutionary, even if uncomfortable.
This fascinated me mostly, I imagine, because of my incredible ego; on so many writers’ blogs I have read about all the ‘bad rough drafts and manuscripts sitting under the bed never to see the light of day’ and I thought to myself, “my writing is excellent”. And in a sense, that is true; I have a talent for imagery, am competent with witty dialogue, and can wrap up a plot cleanly. But there is so much more to writing than the writing – the decision making, the planning, can matter just as much, if not more, to keeping your readers engaged. And the choices made, those hard decisions, can make for just as bad a manuscript as one littered with purple prose.
Have you ever had an uncomfortable writer’s ‘A-ha’ moment? Let me know in the comments below!
Whew, what a title! A huge shout out to Slag Review for publishing this poem in 2016 – you can read it here and listen to me read it aloud here. You can find the scientific paper this poem was ‘found’ in here.
This poem is about my favorite organism (though not my favorite species) – the bee; specifically, the honey bee. The paper this poem was found in is titled “Dance precision of Apis florea – clues to the evolution of the honeybee dance language?” and explores the dancing communication behavior of two species of honeybee.
All honeybee species use something called ‘the waggle dance’ to communicate the direction of and distance to new food sources and possible new nests (if the colony is getting ready to swarm – where they take off, and find a new home together). You can see a great video of this behavior here (starting around 1:20) – it’s pretty cute. The duration of time a worker bee spends wiggling back and forth indicates how far away the source is, the direction she orients her dance indicates the direction of the source in relation to the sun, and there is some evidence to suggest that she can also describe how ‘exciting’ her find is with the vigor of her dancing.
Different species of honeybees nest in different locations – some nest in the open, on a branch or cliff face (like Apis florea), and others nest in much more precise locations, like a cavity in a hollow tree (such as Apis mellifera). This leads to differences in how precise the dances of these species need to be when advertising for new nest sites; open nest sites require less precise dances than small cavity nest sites. By contrast, almost all advertisements for food sources do not need to be very precise – usually floral patches are very large (like cliff faces).
This paper studied the dance precision of A. florea and A. mellifera; they found that A. florea workers danced with the same imprecision whether they were advertising food sources or nesting sites. In contrast, A. mellifera increased its dance precision when advertising a new home for the swarm, as compared to food sources. I won’t get into a long evolutionary explanation here since we’re running low on word count, but the authors suggest that their results present evidence in favor of the waggle dance evolving firstly for communicating about nesting sites – and then was later adapted for foraging as well.
NaRMo is here! For those of you that missed my last post, NaRMo is National (Book) Reviewing Month – a month-long celebration of reviewing hosted by SUNY Geneseo every February where anyone can submit reviews of their favorite reads to the NaRMO website here. I managed to get a few minutes of time from Dr. Lytton Smith, the founder of NaRMo, for an interview about the project – check it out, below!
Me: Hi Dr. Smith – thanks for agreeing to do an interview with me about this great project. Let’s get started with our questions – How did NaRMo get started – what was the impetus?
Dr. Smith: Friends and relatives are always asking how to find great new books. And beyond the bestseller charts, that can be hard; review space has been trimmed to cut costs in newspapers, and even online ventures struggle. There’s attention and space for generating work, but we can only generate work if we first read it, and the literary world is well aware that we need more readers of what we’re producing, not least because there are amazing viewpoints, ideas, and stories that will enrich us when they’re heard. I felt that it’s time we signaled as a culture our commitment to shared reading – to reading and talking about books – not just by the wonderful book groups that run all around the country, but by devoting a month to the endeavor – with the hoped-for aim that it will leads to year-long habits of reviewing!
Me:How do you see Geneseo and NaRMo (as a project) benefiting each other? Does the academic ‘host’ for the project provide it with something unique?
Dr. Smith: I think Geneseo students provide something unique. I had the idea over a decade ago and I’ve mentioned it to a few people along the way without much uptake. At Geneseo I found myself surrounded by students whose ethical commitment to the world includes the kind of generosity that book reviewing requires: taking your time, generally without any form of compensation except maybe books, to tell others about someone else’s book. The reviewer largely fades away. Geneseo students recognize the value of doing something that enriches the community first, and the self as a result, so this is an ideal place for it. Plus, I found that Geneseo students were already reading contemporary writing – that my students were introducing me to books I’d not found. I wanted to help create a space for them to share that.
Me:What is the importance of the project? Of book reviews?
Dr. Smith: Whatever one’s political persuasion, we live in a time of great doubt, of people willing to discount someone else’s truth. That move gets a lot, lot harder when you read a book that shares their experience. Research shows that fast broadband internet access makes us more polarized in our political views, that it encourages a cognitive dissonance. I think literature is a crucial way to dispel that, but you can only have that happen if you have the swarm of book reviewers helping people find those books. The social realism of Dickens is still relevant today, but we also need to hear the social realism of a book like Alena Hairston’s poetry collection The Logan Topographies, about African-American coal miners in West Virginia. There are some books that get all the attention, some authors who get hundreds of reviews for anything they write, and often those voices are white and male. If National Book Review Month can draw attention to the fact that there’s a lot more going on, I do think it can elevate political discourse and help us all understand one another a little more.
Me: What kinds of books/reviews does NaRMo accept/prefer?
Dr. Smith: Anything contemporary. It’s important that we reflect what people are reading and want to read. We want books that you, as readers, are passionate about. The poet and critic Craig Dworkin once made the point, a point that’s stuck with me a long time, that in a world where so many books are published, where we can’t possibly read everything, we need to become better at sharing what we are reading, even in brief reviews, so that everyone can have a sense of what’s going on, even if they can’t read everything.
Me: What does the future look like for NaRMo?
Dr. Smith: Right now, Geneseo is the main hub of activity, and New York state more broadly. I hope within the next three years we’ll see more parts of the country come on board, so that it begins to feel truly national, so that we can start making comparisons across place, having conversations that extend beyond Geneseo itself. We’re starting a student club, Geneseo Reads, to foster that year-round, extra-curricular reading and discussion, and I hope that model might extend beyond Geneseo: to other public liberal arts colleges, to other New York schools, to reading groups, to high schools, to places of work. What are auto workers in Detroit reading and what do they want to tell us about it? What about the people of Green Bank, WV, “the town without wifi”? This project exists at Geneseo less because we’re a university and more because we’re committed to the public good, to citizenship in all its dimensions, including literary citizenship. I think the future of NaRMo needs to assert that by creating more links with a public outside of the university – again, something I think Geneseo does very well, and why this feels like a great home for it.
A huge thanks to Dr. Smith for his time, and for starting this great project. Even if you’ve never written a book review before, NaRMo offers easy guidelines for writing quick, helpful book reviews and the official month of reviewing starts today! Get out there and share the writing you love!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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: email@example.com) 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.
I’m so thankful to UnLostmagazine 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!