Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interview with Alex Gunderson, Ph.D: The Price is Wrong


Join us Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 for:

Interview with Alex Gunderson Ph.D.
by Isobel Wright, MSS Intern, Tamalpais HS

How can you compare a game show to climate change and its effect on animals? Well, Alex Gunderson has. Alex Gunderson, Ph.D is a physiological ecologist who specializes in thermal biology and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley. His current research is aimed at answering these questions. How do physiology and behavior interact to influence the vulnerability of ectotherms to climate warming?  How do divergent climatic habitats shape physiological phenotypes, and how does physiological divergence contribute to evolutionary radiations? To answer these questions, he has studied the Caribbean Anolis lizards but is now exploring the crustacean systems. Read the following interview to learn more about his life and work as a physiological ecologist. 


Alex Gunderson, Ph. D.


1.    How did you decide to enter this line of work, as it is so specialized?

I think I gravitated toward biology as a profession because I love being in nature. I grew up in a very rural part of the Midwest where I spent a lot of time outside, on lakes and in the woods. That led me to be interested in how the natural world works.

2. Why did you decide to use the Price is Right as an analogy for the effects of global warming?

The Price is Right was as easy choice for me because it is one of my favorite game shows. When I was in grade school and would get sick and stay home, it was the show I looked forward to watching most. I have always wanted to spin the big wheel!

Anole Lizard
3. What have you learned from working with the Caribbean Anolis lizards?

I have learned a lot! Maybe one of the biggest things is how subtle nature can be. On Puerto Rico there are ten different species of Anolis lizard and to most people they all just sort of look like a generic lizard. But when you look closely, you see that they have evolved all of these small differences that allow them to live and thrive in different habitats. It really is amazing!

4. What level of education do you need to do what you do?

It depends on what your ultimate goal is. You can get paid to do biology with a Bachelors degree, but many positions require graduate degrees like a Master's or PhD. My goal is to be a college professor, so a PhD is required.  

5.  If there was one thing you could tell us to do to prevent climate change, what would it be?

The biggest road-block to making progress on climate change is political inaction, so speak up about it through your vote (if you are 18!), letters to politicians, and outreach activities. On a personal level, there are a lot of things you can do to reduce your contribution to climate change. The Nature Conservancy has a great website where you can calculate your carbon footprint and learn about ways to reduce it: http://www.nature.org/greenliving/carboncalculator/ 

6. What was your biggest Aha moment in life so far, relating to your work?

I think the biggest "Aha" moment I had was when I decided that I wanted to study how animals adapt to different climates. It was my first year as a PhD student, and I was in Puerto Rico for the first time. I thought I wanted to study the evolution of animal signals, or how animals communicate with one another. I had been studying one species in northern Puerto Rico, but I knew the same species also lived in southern Puerto Rico so I decided to drive down there. I was driving south through the mountains with my cousin Neil (he was helping me do my research) and all of a sudden, the landscape changed dramatically. It went from cool, shady tropical rainforest to hot, dry desert in just a few miles. I thought there was no way the same species could live in such different conditions. But sure enough, the same species was there. I wanted to know how they did it, and my fascination with thermal biology was born!

7. What are the best parts of your job? What are the worst parts?

There are two things that I think are best about my job. First, my job takes me amazing places to study amazing animals. Over the years, I have studied lizards in the Caribbean, frogs in the back-country wilderness of Montana, and seabirds in the Galapagos, to name a few. Hard to beat. Second, in many ways, I am my own boss. With some caveats, I get to decide what I study, where I study it, and how I study it. That kind of freedom is hard to come by in many professions.

The worst part of my job? Writing grants. Because most scientific research doesnt generate profits like a business, you have to convince other people to give you money to do it. Those other people are usually government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Its fantastic that they give the money, but the grant writing itself is often extremely tedious. 

Learn more about Alex Gunderson and his research here

Join us and Learn! 




Wednesday, November 12, 2014

NuSTAR: Bringing the High Energy Universe into Focus

by MSS Intern Isobel Wright, Tamalpais HS
NASA’s NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, is the first device to use orbiting telescopes to target light with high energy X-rays. The high-energy X-rays can perceive objects with 100 times more sensitivity than other missions can, which results in 10 times better resolution. This allows it to explore the hottest and densest structures in the Universe.  NuSTAR was launched on June 13th, 2012. 

 During its first two-year mission, NuSTAR will outline certain areas of the sky to take a survey of collapsed stars and black holes by studying the sectors around the center of the Milky Way, and to map new materials in infant supernovae remnants so as to interpret how stars explode and how the elements are formed. Finally, it will explore particles from galaxies which contain extremely large black holes in order to understand “what powers relativistic jets”. The NuSTAR instrument is created from two aligned grazing telescopes with specialized optics and advanced detectors that have a more developed sensitivity to higher energy forces.
February 19th, 2014 - The first map of radioactivity in the remnant of a supernova.
The blue represents the high energy X-rays observed by NuSTAR. 
Black holes are some of the most unique objects in the universe. NuSTAR studies the X-ray light that is produced by the black hole as it gathers matter. NuSTAR has various programs observing both black holes in our own galaxy as well as supermassive black holes in remote galaxies. NuStar studies the supernovae explosions which create elements that make up our Earth. With the help of NuSTAR, we can better understand how these actions occur. 

NuSTAR also studies neutron stars, which are dense remnants of supernovae. It has several programs which analyze the physical make-up and creation of neutron stars. 

Finally, NuSTAR examines relativistic jets of radiation and fragments that move around the speed of light, making them some of the most intense sources of X-ray energy in the universe. 
This is an artist's interpretation of NuSTAR in orbit

Join us Wednesday, November 12th 2014, to hear Dr. Lynn Cominsky of Sonoma State University discuss NuSTAR and other NASA projects currently being undertaken in SSU's Astronomy and Physics Department. Join us and learn!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

California Droughts

by Isobel Wright, MSS Intern
Tamalpais High School

Having suffered three consecutive years with abnormally low rainfall averages, California faces its most severe drought in decades. In 2013, we received less rain than any year since California became a state in 1850. In fact, many Bay Area scientists have proven from tree-ring data, that on the current path, the upcoming rainfall season will be the driest since 1580. The effects of low water levels have left communities fighting over emergency water supplies, fires raging across the state, and whole species and industries are subsequently threatened.



Many reservoirs are only 30 percent full (like Folsom Lake, shown above). Retrieved from Huffington Post.



But we have had little rainfall before, so what makes this drought different? What makes this drought particularly cruel is the record-keeping heat experienced in the first half of 2014. This heat exacerbated an already devastating drought. The National Climatic Data Center released information revealing that California had its warmest January-June season since the recording began in 1895, with the temperature being 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit above average.

This graph shows the extremely low rain fall levels in 2014. Retrieved from Independent.com. 
It is thought that this intense heat is being caused by human created global warming and a persistent high pressure ridge above the West and the eastern Pacific Ocean. This ridge has prevented storms from reaching this region.

Information sources:

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_24993601/california-drought-past-dry-periods-have-lasted-more
http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/09/02/california-megadrought/14446195/
http://ca.gov/drought/

Join us Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 to learn more at "Pain for Cows and Pumpkins: Drought Impacts on Central Valley Agricultural Water Supply" with Douglas Charlton PhD of Charlton International.  7:30 - 8:30 pm Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207. RSVP on Facebook here.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Saving Our Ocean Friends

by MSS Intern Isobel Wright, Tamalpais High School

From sea lions with cancer to stranded motherless seal pups, Dr. Claire Simeone knows just what to do. Dr. Simeone works as a Conservation Medicine Veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California and at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington, DC. In addition to tending to sick animals, she travels the world to attend Unusual Mortality Events, international training programs, and works on the Marine Mammal Health Map. Dr. Simeone attended the University of Maryland College Park to receive her BSc in Physiology and Neurobiology, and graduated from veterinary school at Virginia Tech. Read the following interview to learn more about life at the Marine Mammal Center and working with animals. 

Claire Simeone, DVM

            Could you walk me through your typical day at The Marine Mammal Center?

One of the best things about working at The Marine Mammal Center is that every day is different. Some days, you’re caring for harbor seal pups that have been separated from their mother. Another day, you’re treating California sea lions with cancer. You might be medicating elephant seals that are dying of lungworms. Some days, you’re treating all of those animals, plus caring for the two hundred additional animals that are ALSO onsite. 

As a veterinarian, I usually start my day walking around the pens to check in on all of the animals on-site, and then our team starts procedures, which include blood draws, x-rays, and surgeries. If animals die, we perform post-mortem exams to determine why they died. At the same time, our volunteer crews (more than 1,000 committed people!) are preparing fish, feeding the animals, and cleaning their pens. Our night volunteer crews take care of the animals into the night, and the veterinarians and technicians are on-call 24 hours a day to make sure all of the animals receive the care they need.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

There are so many best parts of my job. First, I’m lucky to be able to travel around the world to care for marine mammals and learn more about them. Second, I really feel that I’m making a difference with the work I’m doing – whether it’s saving a seal pup or training the next generation of marine mammal veterinarians. Third, I’m constantly learning new things – about marine mammals, their habitats, and what affects their health. 

Because I do work with animals, a difficult part of the job can be seeing animals that are suffering, often because of things humans do – but it helps to know that we are doing everything we can to bring that animal back to health.

What does it feel like to rescue an animal?

Imagine getting a call from someone who was on vacation, and saw a California sea lion that had fishing line around his neck. First, you feel focused – you take down the description of the animal from the citizen, check your maps, and plan out your strategy. Your rescue volunteers have confirmed that this animal is one you’ve been watching for months, and he’s asleep on the beach. You load up the truck, and make the drive to meet your team. You feel hopeful – he’s still snoring away. Holding your breath, you sneak up slowly, and then with a leap you throw the net over his head. He roars as he jumps up and finds himself trapped. With swift action your team boards him into a carrier, and as stealthily as you came, you load him into the truck. You feel elated as you watch him resting calmly on the way home. 

After a quick procedure to remove the line, it’s clear his wound will heal on its own, and he’s ready to go back to the ocean. After driving him back to the beach, you open the carrier, and he strides out into the waves and dives under the break. You feel proud that you’ve saved this animal’s life, and returned him to his ocean home. 

What’s the most common injury/disease you see in marine mammals? How can we prevent this?

Unfortunately, we commonly see injuries that are due to something called human interaction – entangled in fishing line, nets, or plastic packing straps; ingesting pieces of plastic; struck by a boat; or gunshot. In 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, making it illegal to harass or harm a marine mammal. However, many marine mammals are still harmed in passive ways from our trash or discarded items. You can prevent these entanglements by properly disposing of plastics, and helping to keep beaches clean by picking up any trash you see. Just a few weeks ago the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day brought 54,000 volunteers to California’s coasts. They removed over 680,000 pounds of trash in one day!

What level of education and experience do you need to obtain a job like yours?

As a veterinarian, I have a bachelor’s degree, as well as a DVM – Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. However, there are many ways that you can be involved with marine mammals or ocean conservation – through a Master’s or PhD, if you’re more science-focused, or you can have a completely unrelated career, and get your fill through volunteering at a facility like TMMC. We even have a Youth Crew volunteer program for teenagers 15-18 years old (learn more at http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/Get-Involved/volunteer/youth-crew ). As far as experiences go, I would recommend doing as much as you can to get a variety of experiences, which will help you decide what is really right for you. I’ve worked with dogs and cats, horses and cattle, birds and seals, and each experience set me up for the next step in my career. 

What have you learned from working with these animals?

I’ve learned that in order to conserve energy while diving, some seals can lower their heart rate to 10 beats per minute, and right before they surface, their body speeds the rate back up to 120. I’ve learned that a sea otter, if left alone, will unscrew all of the screws on a drain – that were placed with an electric drill! – with its bare paws. And I’ve learned that a harbor seal, blind from cataracts, can find fish by sensing the water movement with its vibrissae (whiskers). Each one of our patients has given me great stories with which to share the knowledge I’ve learned. 

What is an Unusual Mortality Event? What is it like to attend one? Tell me about the most recent one you attended? 

If a group of marine mammals are sick, they may strand on the beach near one another. Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) are declared when the number of sick or dying animals is larger than expected in that area or time frame. A panel of experts is then called to lead a response to care for the animals, and to try to figure out why they are dying. A recent UME was close to home – in 2013, more than 1500 starving California sea lion pups washed up on southern California beaches. Thanks to the UME response team, it was determined that the reason the pups were starving was because the fish their moms were feeding on had moved farther offshore – meaning they had to go farther to forage. This caused moms to either lack the milk they needed to nurse them, or abandon their pups completely. Caring for hundreds of sea lion pups at a time is exhausting – most need to eat 3-4 times a day, and they may need treatment for vomiting, diarrhea, or pneumonia. It was thanks to hard-working rehabilitation centers, like TMMC, all along the California coast, that we were able to save so many pups. 

What is the Marine Mammal Health Map? How do you contribute to it?

Think about all of the animals we’ve talked about – starving sea lions, entangled elephant seals, gunshot animals or animals with cancer. Each one of these animals provides a unique look at what is happening in the ocean at that location. All of the animals that come through TMMC have a record with all of their health information. Similarly, all of the stranding centers across the country have records on all of their animals. However, there is no centralized database to collect these data, or display them for all to see. The Marine Mammal Health Map will be that space – so that biologists, veterinarians, and members of the public will know what’s happening to marine mammals in their area. I’m working with scientists from around the country to develop the Health Map and ensure that all of our marine mammals are represented. You’ll have to come to the talk to learn more!

Watch this video below to see the process of the rescuing, rehabilitation and release of a sea lion...


Join us for "Sick Seals and Seizing Sea Lions: What Marine Mammals Can Tell Us About the Health of Our Oceans" with Claire Simeone DVM of The Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito - Wednesday, October 8th, 2014 at Marin Science Seminar