Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Tremors: The Nepal Quake and the San Ramon Swarm

by Zack Griggy, San Marin HS

            The earthquake is an awe-inspiring disaster that can occur anywhere at anytime where two tectonic plates contact. Tectonic plates make up most of the Earth's crust and move freely, so they can rub up against, move away from, or compress against other tectonic plates, which results in huge amounts of energy. The place where said actions occur are called faults. Earthquakes are the result of rocks along the fault breaking as the faults move. This releases all the pent-up energy from the tectonic plate movement, and results in a tremor. There have been countless earthquakes recorded, but recently, there have been many events in particular that have attracted a large amount of attention in the seismological community, among which include the San Ramon Swarm and last April's Nepal Quake.
Destruction from April's Nepal Earthquake
             Since October 15, the town of San Ramon in Contra Costa County, California has been rattled by more than 200 small earthquakes. Thirty of which occurred over two days. The tremors have been small, the largest to date barely reaching 3.2 on the Richter Scale. According to the US Geological Survey, there have been numerous instances of earthquake "swarms," where numerous earthquakes occur in a close vicinity and in a short period of time. However, the past swarms have occurred over a long period of time, which raised the question of how long this swarm will last. The longest swarm was in the nearby town of Alamo that lasted 42 days with over 350 earthquakes. Residents are concerned about the earthquake swarm but seismologists say that the swarm may be beneficial, because the fault is releasing pent up energy and abating the risk of a large magnitude tremor for years to come.
            However, earthquakes are very capable of wreaking havoc into both the developed and undeveloped world. The recent Nepal Quake of last April is an example of the destructive power earthquakes possess. This quake, centered about 85 miles from Nepal's capital of Kathmandu, was responsible for the death of over 8000 people and the destruction of over half a
A diagram that shows the risk for earthquakes worldwide
million homes. Millions are still in need of humanitarian aid because of this quake and its aftershocks. The quake reached 7.8 on the Richter Scale, which made this tremor more than 800 thousand times stronger than the strongest tremor in the San Ramon Earthquake Swarm. What really raises concerns however, is the realization that a quake like this could happen almost anywhere. According to TIME, the three cities most at risk for a large magnitude earthquake are Tehran, Istanbul, and Los Angeles. These are densely populated cities, and the fallouts of a large earthquake there could be devastating.

1. http://www.ktvu.com/news/east-bay-news/32982571-story
2. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Small-earthquake-strikes-in-area-of-recent-swarms-6590014.php#photo-8857844
3. http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/hazards/earthquake/basics/causes
4. http://time.com/3882272/nepal-earthquake-death-toll-2/
5. http://time.com/3838716/earthquake-risk-nepal/

To learn more about earthquakes and the science behind them, attend Dr. Diego Melgar's presentation on Wednesday, November 15, 2015 from 7:30 - 8:30 at Terra Linda High School, Room 207, 320 Nova Albion Way. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Modeling Tsunamis and Monitoring Earthquakes: an Interview with Geophysicist and MSS Speaker Diego Melgar

By Talya Klinger, MSS Intern

How can we meet the computational challenge of modeling and monitoring earthquakes in real time, and how can we anticipate and prepare for natural disasters? Diego Melgar, Ph.D. of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, is investigating these questions and more. As an assistant researcher, he develops earthquake models and tsunami warning systems using high-rate GPS data, paving the way for better earthquake preparation.

1. How did you first get interested in seismology?

I grew up in Mexico City, where earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and other natural hazards are a fact of life. I've also always liked math and physics, and so, when it was time to go to college and select a program, I looked around and I found a geophysics degree at the National University that studied the Earth and its physics with lots of math. It seemed like a great idea to me!

2. What are some of the most challenging aspects of modeling natural disasters in real-time?

That they are complex and that measurements are sparse. Many things are going on during an earthquake or any other natural hazard, they're really complicated! Saying something about them very quickly with sparse observations and being right about it is a real challenge.

3. How do you go about making tsunami propagation models more efficient?

We run them in parallel on bigger computers. We can now make very detailed models of the tsunami in less than one minute.

4. How does the technique of real-time monitoring impact geological research and natural disaster preparation?

 Basic research allows us to find out what are the laws of physics and chemistry that make earthquakes and other hazards do what they do, it lets us find about what makes the Earth tick. In turn, the more we know about the physics and chemistry of the Earth the more intelligent we can make our warning systems, we can provide more relevant and precise information in shorter periods of time.

5. Tell us about your work in analyzing the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal: what did you discover about its source?

Nepal was a very interesting event because in spite of the fact that there were thousands of casualties and widespread destruction, it really could have been a lot worse. Given the state of development of the country we could have easily seen 150,000 casualties like we did in Haiti in 2010, but we did not. After some research we learned that part of the reason for this is that the earthquake rupture was very smooth and that smoothness lead to less shaking than we would have expected.

6. Finally, what advice do you have for students who are interested in seismology, geophysics, or signal processing?

Learn physics, learn math, and learn computers. Earth sciences are an incredibly rich field where these tools are really important. But also go outside, go hiking, look at rocks, notice how each one is different and wonder where they came from. The Earth is a beautiful laboratory and we should enjoy it with our minds but we should also go out and experience it.

To find out more, watch Dr. Melgar's Marin Science Seminar presentation on November 18th, 7:30-8:30 pm at Terra Linda High School, Room 207.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Angiosperms: How the Disappearance of Bees Put Flowers At Risk

By Zack Griggy, San Marin HS

          Plants are unique organisms. They have unique cell structures, ways of making energy, and reproduction. There are many different kinds of plants, but a category of plants called angiosperms makes up 80% of plants. But some of these angiosperms are at risk, as bees and other pollinators, which are vital to angiosperm reproduction, are disappearing.
         Plant reproduction varies among different kinds of plants in two significant ways. The two distinguishing factors that divide the kingdom Plantae are seeding and flowering. Angiosperms are the only group of plants that makes both flowers and seeds.
The various parts of a flower.
         Flowers are the reproductive system of an angiosperm. In a flower, two structures in particular play a vital role in plant reproduction. These parts are the pistil and stamen of a flower. The pistil consists of the ovary, the style and the stigma. The ovary is a small are in the bulb of the flower where eggs are stored. Atop the ovary is the style, a narrow region of the pistil that elevates the stigma. The stigma is the tip of the pistil that catches pollen and directs it down a tube so it can fertilize an ovule. The stamen consists of anthers and filaments. The anther rests atop a filament, which is a long narrow structure that supports the anther, and produces pollen, which can fertilize ovules in the ovary. The plant uses pollination to move pollen from the stamen to the pistil. However, the anther is not capable of pollinating on its own, as the pistil and anther are separated by a small distance. Something needs to pollenate the flower, whether it be wind or a pollinating insect, for the plant to be able to reproduce.
          Bees are unbelievably important pollinators. According to the Michigan State University, bees play a huge role in the environment by maintaining many plant communities. Many of these pant communities are farmed for food. Most fruits and nuts, along with cotton and alfalfa are maintained by bee populations. We need bees for our food and as our population grows, so will our need for bees. 
          Unfortunately, the bee population has been declining over the past 50 years. The decline of the bee population is due to many causes, including pesticides, colony collapse disorder (in which worker bees leave their queen and a few young and nursing bees), predators, and carnivorous plants. These causes are serious threats to the bee population and therefore a serious threat to us.
          Angiosperms are flowering plants that make up 80% of the plant population. They are at risk because bees, their primary source for pollination are disappearing. This can lead to agricultural problems for humans when bees cannot pollinate all of our crops.


To learn more about the disappearance of bees, attend Dr. Amber Sciligo's research presentation on Wednesday, October 21st at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, in Room 207 from 7:30 to 8:30. 

Carnivorous Plants

by Jane Casto, Terra Linda High School Freshman

Carnivorous plants is a term often associated with flies and Venus fly traps. There is much more however, to learn about these organisms, and about their complex functions that allow optimal survival and ideal food supply. Scientists have been unraveling the true genius of these plants for years, and even now, breakthroughs are being made in research. To begin, we answer the question: what is a carnivorous plant? 

Carnivorous plants, or insectivorous plants, are plants that have adapted to consuming and digesting insects and other animals. These plants work in a variety of ways based on their species, of which there are 600 known to man. The basic understanding of the makeup of carnivorous plants is uniform throughout the different species. Carnivorous plants have adapted to a low-nutrient environment, making digestion of invertebrates optimal, as it is a low-nutrient energy method of consumption.
the Venus fly trap's deadly leaves, the vibrant trap ready for action

In the example of a Venus fly trap, this ability to digest small insects and organisms is remarkably dependent on the transfer of electrical signaling. According to ScienceLine, "Each trap is actually a modified leaf: a hinged midriB . . which joins two lobes and secretes a sweet sap to attract insects." This modified leaf is constant throughout all carnivorous plants, while the sap it produces varies in color, sweetness, and other qualities. Following the example of a Venus fly trap, the sap can attract virtually any small creature, and thus, the Venus fly trap often digests small frogs along with the usual fly. When the actual trap of the Venus fly trap is open, the red belly is exposed for all invertebrates to see. Once the prey has been attracted to the trap, the lips of the trap, or the lobes, close within one tenth of a second! So how does a plant move so quickly?

The answer is within the lobes of the Venus fly trap, where three or more small hairs lie. These hairs act as sensors, and if something brushes against two of these hairs, or brushes against one hair twice, the lobes of the plant will snap shut within 30 seconds of initial contact.
small hairs on specialized leaf, or lobe, of the Venus fly trap.

The science behind the closing of the trap is in the pressure caused by something brushing against the hair. This mechanical energy is translated into electrical energy, causing a small electrical signal. This electrical signal is enough to open pores within the center of the lobe, which allow water flow between the cells on the surface of the lobe. Thus water is transferred from the inner layers of the cells to the outer layer of the cells. During the transfer of water, the pressure within the lobes is drastically changed, causing the lobes to invert. This is how the effect of the Venus fly trap is achieved. 

These beautiful and deadly plants have a unique way of maintaining survival, and in turn are incredibly interesting to learn about and study. 

More on carnivorous plants and when
insects fall victim to them
during the October 21st seminar,
7:30 - 8:30 P.M.
Terra Linda High School, Room 207
320 Albion Way, San Rafael, CA 94903

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pollinators, Predator-Prey Relations, and Pursuing Your STEM Interests: an Interview with Biologist and MSS Speaker Amber Sciligo

by Talya Klinger, MSS Intern

Dr. Amber Sciligo, a scientist in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley, researches the interactions between insects, plants, the environment, and human economies. Whether she directs her focus to examining self-fertilizing carnivorous plants, observing how native bee communities enhance crop pollination, or finding the optimal level of crop diversity for sustainable farming, Dr. Sciligo’s research has important implications for the wild world of botany. Attend her research presentation at Terra Linda High School, Room 207, from 7:30-8:30 pm on October 21st.
In Dr. Sciligo's words:
1.      How did you originally get interested in ecology and evolution?

Multiple life events led me down this path. The first was in my high school biology class, when I was taught how to catch insects and curate them as if they were to be kept in a museum (arrange their body parts and pin them so that they would dry out and be preserved). I LOVED it. I thought I would become an entomology museum curator. By the time I entered college though, I had changed my interests and thought I would save the dolphins (this was back in the 90s) and signed up for the marine biology major at UCSC. Then I took a scuba class in my sophomore year and damaged my ears. I realized my place was probably not underwater, so I changed my major to Ecology and Evolution, a new major that had the same prerequisites as marine biology. That’s when I took another entomology class, curated insects again, and was reminded how much I loved them! So from then on, I took classes that allowed me to specialize in the ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions. And the rest is history.

2. Why did you decide to research sundew plants?

I kind of fell into the study system. Normally, one picks a study system to ask a research question. In this case I had my question in mind (is there pollinator-prey conflict in carnivorous plants in New Zealand and how do they deal with it?) without more than a vague idea of where I would conduct the work. I knew I wanted to study carnivorous plants and to ask this question. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school in New Zealand. And when I put the two together, I landed on the system of Drosera (sundews), because it was the only feasible carnivorous plant that New Zealand had to offer. At the time, I didn’t realize that Australia, just a hop, skip and a jump away, had close to 200 species of carnivorous plants of many types, while NZ only had 12 species of two types. But I had chosen NZ, so sundews are what I got!

3. How do carnivorous plants satisfy their needs for insect pollinators and insects as food at the same time?

They do a pretty incredible job attracting different kinds of insects to their traps and to their flowers, usually by visual cues such as colors, or by emitting different smells from the traps and flowers. Often, smaller insects like ants and tiny flies will get trapped as prey, which provides the plants with the nutrients they need. Larger flies and bees will visit the flowers to provide pollination. Sometimes pollinators get trapped as prey. Maybe they were visiting the flowers and the trap was too close and the pollinators fall in or get tangled up. This can be bad for the plant if they need that pollinator to bring pollen from another flower in order to make seeds. But if the plant doesn’t need this, if it can self-fertilize without many inbreeding consequences, then catching a big juicy pollinator would provide a great feed for the plant.

4. What impact will your research on crop diversification and bee communities have on agriculture?

My current work is looking not just at how crop diversity improves native bee communities, (which is an important finding on its own as it demonstrates a way to leave land in production and support biodiversity at the same time), but also how crop diversity and other practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping, mixing annual and perennial crops, and planting flower strips or hedgerows affect multiple ecosystem services at once, e.g. pollination, natural pest control, and soil and air quality. This allows us to see whether farming techniques that improve biodiversity on a farm provides benefits or tradeoffs to ecosystem services (e.g. plants that attract pollinators might also attract pests, but then they might also attract natural predators of those pests). Farmers don’t think about each of these things independently, they see their farms as a whole system with pests and pollinators, and birds and everything else all interacting at once. So it’s important that if we are going to conduct research that results in management recommendations, then we need to study the farm as a whole too. Otherwise we might make conservation recommendations that are unfeasible and won’t be adopted.

5. Whats your advice for high school students who are passionate about ecology and environmental science?

Find what aspects about these fields specifically interest you and dive in! If you have a more broad interest then seek out as many opportunities as you can to expose yourself to multiple aspects of these fields (there are many) and run with those that bring you the most curiosity and excitement. Volunteer to teach younger children or other community members. Teaching is the best way to learn about something. And look for opportunities to work in research labs at universities. There you can learn what parts of the scientific process you like the most. And maybe you’ll find a system that really fascinates you and you can end up studying that for a senior thesis project at a university, or on your own if you prefer.

I would add that while the scientific research world needs enthusiastic students like you, there are many important roles for people who love the natural world: scientific research is one way to go, teaching in schools or public forums is another, or sharing your values through writing, painting, song or other artistic avenues is also a great way to inspire others around you to pay attention.

6. One last question: do you have a favorite carnivorous plant?

Well, to be honest, I’m not really familiar with too many species. In NZ, there are only 12 species and most of them are really, really small and easy to miss. For instance, my study species ranged from only 1/2”-4” in height. I always wanted to find Drosera pygmaea, whose sticky-trap rosette is only 0.25” in diameter!! It’s no wonder I never found them though…they are so small.

I am also fascinated by the bladderworts (Utricularia spp.). They too are very small and were also at my study sites. You can only spot them when they send out a tiny flowering stalk from the body of water in which they reside. The traps are underwater and act like a vacuum to catch tiny swimming insects. I don’t know how they manage to lure the insects into their little bladders, which is why I find them so interesting. They also have very pretty flowers of bright colors, which is not characteristic of the sundews.

To find out more, come to the upcoming MSS presentation at Terra Linda High School, on Wednesday, October 21st, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way in Room 207. 
Dr. Amber Sciligo's Marin Science Seminar profile

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

E-Cigarettes: A Subtle Danger?

By Zack Griggy, San Marin HS

          E-cigarettes, or electronic cigarettes, are marketed as a healthier and safer cigarette. But is it really? Multiple organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have found that they are not at all safer that traditional cigarettes.
Newer e-cigarettes sometimes don't resemble
traditional cigarettes at all.
          A traditional cigarette burns the leaves from the tobacco plant. Tobacco is a plant that naturally contains nicotine, the main addictive agent in cigarettes. Nicotine is also used as a strong insecticide and is so strong that a drop of pure nicotine can kill a person. When tobacco is burned, nicotine is released in the smoke. The smoker can then inhale the smoke and experience a high feeling, which is caused by excess levels of dopamine from the nicotine. In addition to

tobacco,cigarettes can also contain thousands of toxic chemicals, the purpose of which could be anything from making cigarettes combustible to enhancing the addictive effects of the nicotine.
          An e-cigarette, on the other hand, vaporizes liquid nicotine, and releases vapor. The process of smoking e-cigarettes was dubbed "vaping" because of this process. The e-cigarette is composed of a cartridge that contains e-liquid, an atomizer that heats the e-liquid, a battery, a sensor that determines when someone is taking a drag and activates the atomizer, and, sometimes, a light that simulates smoking. When a person decides to take a puff of the vapor, the sensor detects this and activates the light and atomizer. The atomizer, once activated, vaporizes the e-liquid and then releases the vapor so it can be inhaled.
E-cigarettes are composed of five parts. The orange section is
composed of the sensor and cartridge. The metallic silver section is the
atomizer. The white section is the battery and light.
          E-cigarettes are widely marketed as a safer way to get high off of nicotine, but the FDA has found that contrary to the marketing, e-cigarettes are not safe. E-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA. This means that e-cigarette manufacturers do not have to list any or all of the nefarious substances found in the e-liquid. So, when someone "vapes," they inhale all sorts of unknown chemicals. With
e-cigarettes, one might be inhaling a few toxic chemicals or a few thousand. However, e-cigarettes are slightly healthier than traditional cigarettes, mainly because e-cigarettes do not result in as much smoke as traditional cigarettes.
          To make matters worse, e-cigarette use is on the rise. E-cigarettes were invented in 2003, but has only recently gained popularity. Now, it is the most commonly used tobacco product in US high schools, and from 2013 to 2014, e-cigarette use among high school students tripled from 660,000 students to over 2 million students. E-cigarette use is clearly a growing problem. Marketing, mostly the TV marketing, was attributed to this recent spike in e-cigarette usage.
          E-cigarettes in spite of their marketing, are not safe products. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, a poisonous chemical, and all sorts of other unknown toxins. Because of marketing, e-cigarette use is increasing. E-cigarettes are slightly healthier than traditional cigarette because there is not nearly as much smoke produced.

To learn more about e-cigarettes and the risks attributed to them and other important health issues, be sure to join us Wednesday, October 7th, to hear Julie Pettijohn MPH of the California Department of Public Health discuss these important topics at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, in Room 207 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bacteria, Botulism, and Beauty

By Talya Klinger, MSS Intern

The molecular structure of botulinum toxin
What do foodborne illnesses, neck dystonia treatments, and celebrities’ beauty regimens have in common? Clostridium botulinum, baratii, and other species of Clostridium bacteria produce all of the above and more. These seemingly innocuous, rod-shaped bacteria, commonly found in soil and in the intestinal tracts of fish and mammals, produce one of the most deadly biological substances: botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin that intercepts neurotransmitters and paralyzes muscles in the disease known as botulism. Nonetheless, botulinum toxin isn’t all bad: this chemical not only protects the bacteria from intense heat and high acidity, but it makes for an effective treatment for medical conditions as wide-ranging as muscle spasms, chronic migraines, and, yes, wrinkles. 

C. botulinum
Clostridium botulinum and similar bacteria can make their way into the human body in a number of ways. Wounds infected with Clostridium botulinum or spores ingested by infants can lead to the rare but serious disease of botulism, as can accidental overdoses of medicinal or cosmetic botulinum toxin. Botulism is often foodborne, usually contracted by infants from honey or by adults from improperly home-canned foods and unrefrigerated herb-infused oils. Regardless of where any case of botulism comes from, it causes muscle paralysis, which can manifest as blurred vision, dry mouth, and muscle weakness in adults or lethargy and constipation in infants. These are only early warning signs for an illness that, if left untreated, can paralyze a patient’s respiratory muscles to the point of asphyxiation. Although 95-97% of botulism patients receive treatment and survive, they often require months of intensive care and suffer years of muscle weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

So how does the neurotoxin that makes botulism so deadly work? Clostridium bacteria produce several protein compounds with similar structures and molecular weights, consisting of two chains of amino acids—one small and one large. These two amino acid chains are linked together by a covalent bond between two sulfur atoms, one in each chain. The botulinum toxin proteins bind to nerve endings where they join muscles, blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which ordinarily causes muscle contractions. This blockage is permanent, paralyzing the muscle until a new nerve ending forms a synaptic connection with it. Because the process of forming new neuromuscular junctions takes at least 2 or 3 months, the affected muscle will often atrophy in the meantime, causing the long-term side effects that plague botulism survivors.

Ironically, the very mechanisms that make botulinum toxin so dangerous give it a wide range of beneficial medical applications. When botulinum toxin is administered in small, controlled doses, its muscle-contraction preventing effects make it a viable treatment for neck dystonia, sustained involuntary eyelid closure, chronic migraines, neurogenic bladder dysfunction, and other conditions caused by involuntary muscle movements. In popular culture and tabloid media, Botox’s serious medical applications are often overshadowed by its cosmetic notoriety: smoothing out wrinkles. Cosmetic Botox inhibits the neuromuscular activity that leads to wrinkles, relaxing the surrounding skin. Seeming to reverse one of the telltale signs of aging may have given botulinum toxin its Hollywood appeal, but its wide ranging pharmaceutical uses are what continue to fascinate research scientists.

In a nutshell, the molecule botulinum toxin is a toxic protein made by clostridium botulinum bacteria. In measured amounts, the toxic protein is marketed as Botox for pharmaceutical uses. When uncontrolled doses of the bacteria are ingested, however, Clostridium botulinum can result in deadly cases of muscle paralysis called botulism. 

 If you are intrigued by the terrible beauty of such a versatile molecule as botulinum toxin, come to Marin Science Seminar on September 30th, at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, in Room 207 from 7:30 to 8:30 pm, when bioanalysis and pharmacology expert Dr. Erik Foehr will discuss his research on botulinum toxin.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

An Interview With Dr. Erik Foehr

By Zack Griggy, MSS Intern, San Marin High School, Novato

          In today's world, infectious disease remains a deadly concern to humanity. Some of these diseases include anthrax, Venezuelian equine encephalitis, bubonic plague, MERS, Eastern equine encephalitis, and, of course, botulism. Botulism is a disease that can cause paralysis and even death, but what makes botulism so different from the rest of these diseases is that the substance that causes it, botulinum toxin, is widely marketed as a beauty product under the name Botox. Dr. Erik Foehr, an expert in the fields of bioanalysis, immunogenicity risk assessment, and drug development, is currently investigating the toxin and how the body responds to it. Attend his presentation at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, in Room 207 from 7:30 to 8:30 pm on September 30th.

In order to gain a little more insight before his talk, we interviewed Dr. Foehr about his work and research.

1. What drew you into the fields of pharmacology and bioanalysis?

I have always enjoyed learning about biology and how living things work.  After high school at Drake, I went to UC Davis and studied genetics and biochemistry.  I eventually worked in the biotechnology industry and specialized in pharmacology and bioanalysis.

 2. What have you studied in the past and how did this lead to your study on botulinum toxin?

I studied cell biology and how cells signal and function. I also spent many years studying immunology.  In my current job I study how botulinum toxin works and test if people develop antibodies to the toxin.

3. How is botulinum toxin used in beauty products? How are dangers minimized by these products?

Its a bit crazy to think something so dangerous can be used as a beauty product (it removes wrinkles).  The trick is to use a tiny amount and inject it at the site of the wrinkle. The toxin inhibits the neuro-muscular activity so that the skin looks "relaxed". They are finding other more medically relevant uses of the toxin.

 4. What do you enjoy the most about your work? What do you enjoy the least?

I enjoy learning about the huge number of experimental new drugs being developed for unmet medical needs and helping to study them. Sometimes I would like to spend more time "thinking" and less time "doing".

 5. Do you have any advice for high school students who aspire to be pharmacologists?

Study what interests you and be prepared to be a life-time learner. Science and technology move really fast and you need to adapt and learn on the go. Don't get replaced by robots!

Join us Wednesday, September 30th, at Terra Linda High School, 320 Nova Albion Way, in Room 207 from 7:30 to 8:30 to hear Dr. Foehr talk about his work and his study on botulinum toxin and other lethal diseases. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Chemosynthesis in the Deep Sea

Chemosynthesis In the Deep Sea
by Jane Casto, MSS Intern, Terra Linda High School
          The deep sea- where cold, stable pressures and darkness rule. Within that darkness lies life; a broad spectrum of biodiversity. The most fascinating thing about the deep sea, however, lays within what goes against lifeforms on land. 
          On land, plants and animals alike require some form of energy. The same is true in the deep sea, but one thing, particularly about plants, is quite different. Photosynthesis, the process plants use to turn sunlight into usable energy through chlorophyll, is almost always the method that plants use to get said energy. However, in the deep sea, quite a difference can be seen with that process.
          One of the reasons as to why deep sea ecosystems, such as hydrothermal vents, do not use the process of photosynthesis is obvious. Little sunlight reaches that far down into the ocean. With that in mind, however, the question presents itself: how do these ecosystems get their energy?
          Jenna Judge has studied just that. Her research has been following Marine Biology, specifically the deep sea and, our answer, chemosynthesis. Chemosynthesis is the process in which energy is obtained by reactions of inorganic chemicals, occurring within bacteria and other living organisms. 

          "Chemosynthesis also seems to be fueling ecosystems at organic substrates, such as whale falls and wood falls." Jenna said during her presentation, Patterns of Specialization in the Deep Sea, "We found that rather than sunlight fueling this reaction, it's reduced molecules such as sulfide, and in other cases, methane, than can fuel these microbial metabolisms." 
          According to wiseGEEK.org, the process relies on oxidation, or redox reactions. Organisms, namely bacteria and those that belong to the kingdom archea, use chemosynthesis to manufacture food. This food is used as a carbohydrate, made of carbon dioxide and water, rendering it usable for the bacteria just as a carbohydrate would be usable to us. 
          While the deep sea is one of the most extreme examples of chemosynthesis, believe it or not, chemosynthesis is also found on land. The key is that chemosynthesis occurs where sunlight is not present. Therefore it can occur in a variety of places above land, i.e. in soil, in the intestines of mammals, and in petroleum deposits. In fact, some scientists believe that due to the tendency of chemosynthesis to take place in extreme environments, it may feature prominently on other planets depending on weather patterns. 
          The deep sea has many unexplored aspects. It is nice to know that some things are no longer a mystery, and it is also exciting to think about the fact that it is not yet fully explored, leaving room for ventures for years to come.

More on the deep sea at the first seminar of the season, with Jenna Judge.
Wednesday, September 9th, 2015
7:30 - 8:30 pm
Terra Linda High School, San Rafael
Room 207

Saturday, August 22, 2015

An Interview with Dr. Jenna Judge, Marine Biologist

by Talya Klinger, MSS Intern

Driftwood is a common sight on beaches, but what happens to driftwood when it sinks to the seafloor? Dr. Jenna Judge, a recent doctoral graduate of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, researches evolution and ecology in deep-sea habitats, such as driftwood, as well as hydrothermal vents and sunken whale bones. Her research shows that these unusual substrates host diverse, lively communities shaped by the wood they inhabit. Attend her research presentation at Terra Linda High School, Room 207, from 7:30-8:30 pm on September 9th.

In Dr. Judge’s words:

1.   Why did you decide to become a marine biologist in the first place?

Well, I grew up in the mountains, but I was always interested in nature and science. I also loved the beach when my family would go on camping trips to the coast. However, I really decided to pursue marine biology in high school after learning about extreme deep-sea environments and the strange animals that live there from my AP Biology teacher. From there, I looked for colleges that offered a marine biology major for undergraduates and went to UC Santa Barbara. My interests in the ocean and the deep sea in particular were reinforced with each class I took and especially the semester abroad I spent in Australia doing a marine biology program. At the time, the obvious next step for me to take was to apply to graduate school to pursue a career as a marine biologist. While this route has served me well, I usually advise college students to take some time after graduation to explore options before jumping into graduate school. It is a big decision, and it’s important to have a strong sense of yourself and what you want to get out of an advanced program before choosing a program and an adviser.

2.  How did you decide to research driftwood?

I ended up studying sunken wood as a habitat for deep-sea animals after learning that the communities on wood are similar to other deep-sea ecosystems I was initially interested in, but had been much less studied. These ecosystems were hydrothermal vents (basically deep-sea volcanoes), cold seeps, and whale falls, which I’ll explain more about in my talk. Due to a series of conversations with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, I was given the opportunity to test whether the kind of wood matters in shaping animal communities by sinking a bunch of wood at about 2 miles deep and waiting 2 years to see what happened. You’ll see what happened during my talk.

3.   How does your work on communities that form around driftwood relate to other ecosystems?

The experiment I did on sunken wood showed that, like forests and other terrestrial (land) ecosystems, the immediate habitat can act as a filter that shapes the community that colonizes that habitat. This means that the ocean isn’t just a big bathtub with a soup of organisms floating or swimming through it, but that even on small scales, the complexity of a habitat can significantly affect who decides to settle down there. I see all ecosystems as a connected web across the Earth, and I am especially interested in links between the land and the ocean, like wood, but also how the increase in artificial materials like plastic is affecting marine ecosystems.

4.  What advice do you have for high school students who aspire to be biologists?

Follow your curiosity! Ask questions and read about what interests you to keep learning and following your interests. Reach out to people who are doing things you find interesting. Scientists are always happy to hear from people who appreciate what they are doing, and it will help you learn more about what it might be like to pursue certain career paths. And once you have some ideas, research colleges that will support that passion and allow you to fully explore and develop your passion. You might find that the best program for you isn’t at the “top” university in the state or the country. For me, I was only looking at CA schools, and I was really excited about marine biology. So, I focused on applying to schools that had specific aquatic or marine biology majors like UCSB and UCSC, but I did not bother applying to UC Berkeley or UCLA even though they rank higher overall. I encourage you to find a good fit for your interests (and of course a good personal fit!) when choosing a college, and if you don’t have a clear idea about what you want to pursue (most people don’t, I was unusually focused), take your time. If you are looking to pursue marine biology in particular, here is a good site that lists all the programs across states: http://marinebio.org/marinebio/careers/us-schools/.

5.  One final question: do you have a favorite driftwood-dwelling creature?

My favorite wood-dwelling creatures would have to be limpets, since they are what led me to studying sunken wood in the first place. Limpets are snails that have no coil in their shell and a particular group of them are specialized to live in a wide range of deep-sea habitats, including hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, whale falls, and sunken wood. They also  live on empty shark egg cases, crab carapaces, worm tubes, squid beaks, algal holdfasts, and likely other organic substrates that sink to the bottom. 

Join us Wednesday, September 9th, 2015, 7:30 - 8:30 pm at Terra Linda HS, 320 Nova Albion, San Rafael - Room 207 - to hear Dr. Judge talk about her work.  Link to Dr. Judge's Marin Science Seminar profile. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Internship application period for 2015-2016 now open

Marin Teens! (HS & college age) Want a cool fall internship? Check out Marin Science Seminar internships. You can apply online. http://www.marinscienceseminar.com/interns.html

Apply Online for MSS Internships
Fall 2015 Internship dates: Sept. 9 - Nov. 18
Spring 2016 Internship dates: Feb. 10 - Apr. 13

Explore science & technology, meet scientists and medical professionals, gain experience for your resume and college applications, develop a portfolio! 

JokeMSS interns attend and assist with a minimum of 6 science seminars per academic year (there are 12 per year) during which they meet the speakers and assist with various logistical duties. Sessions take place on Wednesday evenings at Terra Linda High School, Room 207, during the school year. Interns arrive evening of a session at 7 pm and are free to leave once breakdown is completed (between 8:30 and 9 pm).
Interns also assist in researching and creating materials about event topics, creating and distributing outreach materials, social networking and online development of Marin Science Seminar’s mission to attract more students to the fields of science, technology and math. Other than attending MSS sessions, duties will depend on student interests and background. Training is provided for some intern tasks.

Below is a comparison of the internships currently being offered. 

Writing or Photojournalism (Photography & Writing) Videography or Film & Photojournalism
Attend and assist at MSS sessions, 6 Wednesday evenings per semester, 7 - 9pm Attend and assist at MSS sessions, 6 Wednesday evenings per semester, 7 - 9pm
At Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207 At Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207
Submit 2 writing samples (plus photo samples for Photojournalism) Submit 2 video samples (plus photo samples for Film & Photojournalism)
Familiarity with basic blogging interfaces (e.g. Tumblr, Blogger, Wordpress) Able to edit video using video editing software
Facebook and/or Instagram familiarity Facebook and/or Instagram familiarity
Training in blogging software provided Recording equipment and SC cards & reader provided

Questions?  Contact us.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

All About Lysosomes

by Angel Zhou, Branson School

Lysosomes, discovered and named by Belgian biologist Christian de Duve, who eventually received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974, are membrane-enclosed organelles that function as the digestive system of the cell, both degrading material taken up from outside the cell and digesting obsolete components of the cell itself. The membrane around a lysosome allows the digestive enzymes to work at the pH they require. In their simplest form, lysosomes are visualized as dense spherical vacuoles, but they can display considerable variation in size and shape as a result of differences in the materials that have been taken up for digestion. Lysosomes contain an array of enzymes capable of breaking down biological polymers, including proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids.

The lysosome’s enzymes are synthesized in the rough endoplasmic reticulum. The enzymes are released from Golgi apparatus in small vesicles which ultimately fuse with acidic vesicles called endosomes, thus becoming full lysosomes. Lysosomes are interlinked with three intracellular processes, namely phagocytosis, endocytosis and autophagy. Extracellular materials such as microorganisms taken up by phagocytosis, macromolecules by endocytosis, and unwanted cell organelles are fused with lysosomes in which they are broken down to their basic molecules.

Synthesis of lysosomal enzymes is controlled by nuclear genes. Mutations in the genes for these enzymes are responsible for more than 30 different human genetic diseases, which are collectively known as lysosomal storage diseases (LSD). The group of genetically inherited disorders are a type of inborn errors of metabolism caused by malfunction of one of the enzymes. The rate of incidence is estimated to be 1 in 5,000 live births. The primary cause is deficiency of an acidic hydrolase, a hydrolase which functions best in acidic environments. The initial effect of such disorders is accumulation of specific macromolecules or monomeric compounds, affecting the brain, viscera, bone and cartilage the most drastically.

To learn more about how lysosomes can communicate with the rest of the cell to act as recycling centers of cellular waste material in good times and about how lysosomes can act as overly-filled, toxic trash cans in bad times, contributing to cell death and the onset of disease, join us this Wednesday, April 7th for this week's Marin Science Seminar “Let's Learn About Lysosomes" with Gouri Yogalingam, Ph.D. of the BioMarin in Room 207 at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Interview with Dr. Katie Ferris of UC Berkeley

by Angel Zhou, Branson School

Monkey Flower 

Monkey flowers and mice - two radically different things. Yet, biologists, like Dr. Katie Ferris, are studying how native monkey flowers and mice have adapted to drastically different environments. 

Dr. Ferris currently works with Dr. Michael Nachman at UC Berkeley, using genetic sequencing and samples of monkey flowers and mice to show how organisms are often adapted to their local environment and that these adaptations are genetically based. 

To learn more about Dr. Ferris and her work with Monkey flowers and mice, read the following interview:

1) How did you decide to enter your field of work?
I decided to become a biologist pretty early on in life. When I was little I loved being outside and interacting with the natural world, especially with plants. Because of my attraction to plants I often got in trouble for picking flowers in my mother's garden. When I was three years old I picked off every single bright green new hosta lily shoot that popped out of the earth. My mother was furious that I had laid waste to her hostas. After she calmed down a little she told me that when I grew up I should be a botanist because then I could pick any plant that I wanted without getting in trouble. The notion stuck and I pursued biology throughout high school and into college. In college I got a job in a lab that studied plant evolutionary genetics and learned a lot of new and exciting things through doing my own research. That experience is how I became interested in my current field of the genetics of adaptation in wild organisms.

2) Describe your typical day at work as a geneticist. What are the best parts of your job? What are the worst parts?
My typical day at work involves several different kinds of activities, which is something I like. Typically I will attend a scientific talk on something related to my interests, do hands-on work with mice (or monkey flowers in my former job), spend an hour or two doing molecular biology in a wet lab and of course spend a little time working on my computer analyzing data or reading scientific papers. The work with animals and in the wet lab usually involved working with undergraduate students who volunteer in the lab in order to participate in research. Some of the best parts of my job are getting to work with students and trying to spread my love of biology and scientific research. I also enjoy the precious and satisfaction of laboratory work and the personalities of the mice. The worst part of my job is when I have to spend a lot of time dissecting dead mice. I did not go into medicine for a reason :)

3) How did you decide to study monkey flowers and wild mice specifically? What conclusions have you drawn thus far in your research?
I decided to study monkey flowers when I was interviewing for graduate school. I visited a lot of different labs that studied plants, but the monkey flowers were by far the most captivating. They are bright yellow, happy little things and closely related species live in an incredible range of different environments from old copper mine tailings to salty coastal sand dunes. They are just really cool plants. I became interested in wild mice because of the work my post-doc advisor had done on the genetics of mouse coloration. He found the genetic changes that caused light colored desert mice to become dark when they lived on black rock outcrops. The mice that live on the dark rocks can then blend in to their surroundings and are less likely to be eaten by predators. I like making hypotheses more than drawing conclusions, but I would say that the main conclusion I have drawn from my research so far is that organisms are often adapted to their local environment and that these adaptations are genetically based. I have also concluded that biology is very complicated 

4) What is your ultimate goal in studying the genetics of adaption and speciation?
My ultimate goal in studying the genetics of adaptation and speciation is to understand better how the world around us works. I want to understand which genes are involved in important traits and if the same genes are used repeatedly to evolve the same traits in different organisms. In short, I want to know if the genetic basis of adaptation is predictable in any way. I also just generally want to contribute new knowledge to the scientific community. A better understanding of the genetic basis of ecologically important traits like drought tolerance or coat color can also be used by scientists in applied field to help improve agriculture or medicine. 

Dr. Katie Ferris, UC Berkley

To learn more about the genes and species’ adaptation to extreme environments, join us on Wednesday, April 1st for Dr. Katie Ferris’ seminar, “From Monkey Flowers to Wild Mice: A Tale of Genes, Adaptation and Extreme Environments” in Room 207 at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. For more information, visit Marin Science Seminar's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/850586588342167/