Posts byErin Jarvis

A day in the life of a Parhyale Lab

This post originally appeared in the Node on January 27, 2014 as part of a series on a day in the life of developmental biology labs working on different model organisms. You can read the introduction to the series here and read other posts in this series here. A typical day spent in our lab’s aquarium room will find me

Xtreme BUGs at Lawrence Hall of Science

Sometimes, it’s fun to add in a bit of arts-and-crafts to your research.

And so when I was asked to contribute to the research component of an upcoming exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science, I jumped at the opportunity. Now comes the hard part: how do you turn your research project into a display that is simple enough to be understood by young children, yet comprehensive enough to actually explain your research? How do you make something that is flashy enough to hold a child’s attention, while remaining serious enough to let the science shine through?

And why, oh, why, did I decide that taking three precious weeks away from research was a good thing? Because what I made was AWESOME, that’s why. (Well, that and the fact that I made a serious underestimation—as I always do—about how much time my grand ideas would actually take!)

The goal of this post is twofold: to encourage graduate student participation in museum displays, and to promote the Lawrence Hall of Science’s upcoming exhibit Xtreme BUGS.

Xtreme Bugs dedicated page final

A night of art, science, and synesthesia


Last Friday night I had the pleasure of attending The Creative Consciousness, an art and science extravaganza showcasing the creative talents of UC Berkeley students from the Art & Science DeCal in collaboration with the Synesthesia Association at Berkeley. For those of you who are unfamiliar with one of Berkeley’s coolest undergraduate programs, “DeCals” are student-run courses at UC Berkeley and the entire event was in fact organized by UC Berkeley undergraduates.

The opening night of The Creative Consciousness was an art gallery, science fair, and party, all rolled into one fun-filled night wrapped in a fantastic space with excellent beats spun by Bay Area performer DJ Schwa  (a perfect date-night for my artist husband and I). The event organizers sum up best what their show was about:

 “We hope to foster a sense of community and interdisciplinary appreciation through exploring science through art and art through science, witnessing all the ways it applies from everything to medicine, cartography, technology and beyond”

Tucked into the quiet streets of the warehouse district near Jack London Square (on a dark and rainy night, I might add) is the nondescript warehouse that hosted the event. Radiance Community Center was built to foster community and creativity, and seemed the perfect venue. Running in out of the rain, the first thing I see is a table displaying a box, a tablecloth—and a hand. A participant sits opposite a student facilitator, placing one hand on the table and the other one hidden under the cloth; a fake hand sits where one would expect his or her real hand to be. The facilitator brushes the participant’s “hand,” evoking the sense that one’s hand is actually being stroked.

1451453_10202370850455042_678686570_nMoving to the back, we enter a room of vibration and sound, the synesthesia core of the event. Synesthesia is the neurological condition in which one sensory pathway is evoked by another, for example, the ability to “see” sounds as specific colors. Ever competitive, my husband and I test our skills at linking color to smell by closing our eyes as the facilitator holds a smell under our noses while repeating the name of a color. We are then given the smells at random, and asked to repeat the color. I mix up garlic and pungent cheese, forgetting their respective colors (black and white) but easily remember green (interesting), orange (pleasant, likely a candle), and purple (I’m pretty sure this one was Vix vapor rub). This display is more than just scientific dissemination—it’s active research! The facilitator has been recording the results of each participant, and shows us the up-to-date data from her laptop.

Science, You, and the U.S. Government Shutdown

Government shutdown. It sounds scary enough, but whether or not this had a direct impact on your life during the last sixteen days of shutdown and its immediate aftermath depended on your connection to the federal government.  With the government back up and running (or not, some may argue), I’d like to take a moment to highlight the effects the shutdown had on the center of BSR’s universe: science—Berkeley graduate student science, to be specific.


For those who have been too absorbed with things more awesome (like science) to pay attention to the antics of those in Washington, here is the synopsis:  The Republican controlled House, in an effort to sabotage—or at least delay—Obama Care, decided to tie the fiscal federal budget agreement to the implementation (or lack thereof, rather) to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care, which, by the way, had already been voted on fair and square). The budget decision was not actually linked to the Affordable Care Act, but was being wielded as a post-bargaining measure. Elephants said they wouldn’t agree to a budget unless it delayed or repealed Obama Care; Donkeys said they wouldn’t sign anything that stripped that which had already been agreed upon. In a nutshell:  no federal budget decision = no funding = government funded programs came grinding to a halt.

What did this mean for scientists?

We can loosely categorize government funded research—and the severity of shutdown impact—into three groups: intramural, extramural, and contractors. Intramural researchers conduct research at the government’s own facilities, and are paid directly by the federal government. Intramural organizations include big players like the NIH (National Institute of Health), the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and NASA. These intramural entities were basically closed for business. Don’t worry, the mice at the NIH were still fed—their caretakers were exempt from furlough. Some animals had to be sacrificed unnecessarily, however, and the breeding of important NIH-maintained transgenic lines was halted.  Petri dishes remained unchecked.  NIH was still delivering to cancer patients, but new patients could not enroll.  Hubbell was still delivering data from outer space, but there was no one on the ground to analyze it.

6 ways to integrate your science with smart apps: Episode 1, the Electronic Lab Notebook

lab notebookYou know how it goes. It’s late. You’ve finally finish your experiment, and the last thing you want to do is add an entry to your notebook. You’ll make that entry, tomorrow.

Yeah, sure. Chances are you won’t even remember to make the entry, let alone all those little details that you wish you knew when looking at that particularly strange, bad, or awesome sample you process a week later. Or perhaps you did write down the details—will you be able to find this relevant information when designing a similar experiment next week, preparing for group meeting next month, or when you sit down to write your thesis 3 years later?

Keeping good records is not just about writing down detailed notes. It’s about being able to easily access relevant information at a later date, whether you at your bench or at a meeting halfway across the world. It’s about not losing years of work if you lose your notebook. It’s about not having to leaf through hundreds of sheets of paper to find that one tidbit you faintly remember writing down sometime last May … or was it last year? It is for these reasons—instant searches, remote access, and continuous backups—that I keep an electronic notebook. I have searched the internet far and wide trying to find just the right electronic notebook. And while I still haven’t found that perfect lab notebook application (developers contact me, I have tons of great ideas!), I have found some perfectly acceptable options. Here is what I have found.

Beloved Berkeley professor featured on Science Friday

We all have our different reasons for pursuing science. Many of us are natural tinkerers, and want to know how and why things work. Others discover careers in science along a once medicine-bound pathway. Still others grow up fascinated with bugs, snakes, and large sea creatures. And some of us were inspired by an extraordinary science teacher.

At UC-Berkeley, we are lucky enough to be surrounded by enthusiastic professors who have profound impacts on student trajectories. And although the accolades of the particularly high-impact professors are well sang by their students, there’s nothing like some national prospective to remind us of just how important these teacher-student interactions can be. Imagine my surprise when I visited Science Friday this morning (science radio is a necessity for performing tedious embryo dissections) and encountered a familiar face up front and center. I did a double take … could it be? Yes, it was Integrative Biology’s beloved professor Tom Carlson!


Do rules make us safer?

SciImages_11Laboratory life at Berkeley is about to undergo some changes; whether for better or worse depends on implementation, a willingness to be sensible, and your own personal perspective.

One (of the many) things I loved about coming to Berkeley was a relaxed lab atmosphere. If I am pipetting a caustic reagent, I wear gloves, lab coat and eye protection. If I am working with a volatile substance, I work in a hood. And if I need to pour filtered sea water, I, well … I don’t put on my lab coat, or even reach for a pair of gloves. Having a relaxed lab atmosphere does not mean a disregard for safety–it means that everyone has been sufficiently trained to make proper decisions regarding the safety of themselves and others, and that each person is trusted to take not just the safest, but also the most sensible actions.

But a lawsuit against UC is mandating stricter rules that will further retract from an individual’s power–and responsibility–to make their own good decisions. And although intentions are good and sound safety practices an absolute must, I believe that stricter rules–especially blanket policies–do not equal a safer working environment. In some cases, they may even lead to the opposite.

Limelights and disco clams

discoclam1Sometimes, I wonder, “Is there anybody outside of my small field, or even just the 5th floor, that cares about my research? Is the rest of the world interested in the questions and discoveries that are born within the walls of the Valley Life Science Building?” Yes: they are interested, and Berkeley graduate student Lindsey Dougherty recently proved this by capturing the attention and imagination of the outside world with her research on Disco Clams. And like an underground electronic track that goes viral, her Disco Clams are now pulsing through more than just the science-geek scene. Lindsey is part of the Caldwell Lab and Integrative Biology (a member of my cohort, I’ll proudly claim).

Lindsey, in a nutshell, is an extension of the ocean. She surfs (often braving the cold, 6 a.m. waves of Pacifica or Half Moon Bay before a day at the lab), she dives (she was a dive master long before she came to Berkeley), and she is obsessed with her clams. You will be hard pressed to find another graduate student quite so excited about their model organism as Lindsey. I remember one ecstaticand concernedLindsey talking about feeding her clams when they first arrived.

But it’s hard not to be excited about disco clams. Lindsey saw her first disco clam (a rare sight in its natural habitat) while diving in Indonesia. Her reaction to its strobing lights was most appropriate – she had a flash underwater dance party. When she surfaced, she told everyone that she was going to do a Ph.D. on disco clams, eliciting a few laughs. She spent the next couple of years trying to research them, contacting countless professors, but finding little information about these spectacular creatures. Eventually, she joined Roy Caldwell’s lab, and after a little convincing and a slow start (virtually nothing is known about their life history and behavior) she is now researching her dream organism and the question she is ultimately most interested in: why disco clams flash.

Think of an elephant—a completely ridiculous, non-sensical elephant who will stomp you out if you do not stop it

For those of you who are interested in effectively communicating science in a way that will make a political and social impact, I suggest taking a course with cognitive linguist/neuroscientist George Lakoff. You will discuss the tools necessary for effective communication (and conviction): the use of language, words, grammar, setting, sentence structure, and understanding of your audience, but at a level much, much deeper than you may have ever thought to consider. This is not a simple course on communication—it is the science of communication (mostly within a political context). It is the neural theory of thought and language.

Lakoff began his path in linguistics the first year MIT began offering such a program, and was among Noam Chomsky’s first group of students in this field. Lakoff studies the neural foundations of conceptual systems, the meaning behind metaphors, and the embodied structure of grammar. What is the framework your words evoke? How does grammar instruct how we think? How can scientists use science to get their point across in a more effective manner?

Prop 37 debates continue: some Berkeley perspectives

The elections may be over, but the stream of debates continue: should genetically engineered (GE) food be labelled?

We’ll start with the facts—the easy ones. California Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, mandates the labeling of most food containing genetically modified ingredients. This includes raw or processed foods—but does not include food sold for immediate consumption, alcohol, certified organics, foods containing only small amounts of GE ingredients, food with the unintended inclusion of GE material, and non-GE animals fed or injected with GEs.  Of those who cast a ballot, 46.9% of Californians, 58.3% of Alameda County residents, and only 37.5% of UC Berkeley’s “Politics for Scientists” class supported the measure.  53.1% of Californians, 41.7% of Alameda County residents, and 62.5% of UC Berkeley’s “Politics for Scientists” class voted against mandated labeling of GEs.

The rest of the “facts” start to get hazy: GMOs are perfectly safe; GMOs are intrinsically bad. GMOs promote bad environmental practices; GMOs will save the environment while feeding the world. A vote for prop 37 is a vote against Monsanto and corporate monoculture; a vote for prop 37 is a vote against farmers, consumer grocery bills, and the state, which stand to lose up to 1 million for regulation. We have the right to know what’s in our food so that we may make educated choices; the broad label of GMO tells us nothing.

Inspiration from abroad

Fourteen hours into a 21 hour train ride, I began to second-guess myself: had I make a mistake in weighing the cost vs. benefit ratio of my trip?  After 19 hours of flights and layovers to reach St. Petersburg, a maze of buses and subways, a 21 hour train ride to a small town in northwest Russia, a concerning “off road” bus ride to a discrete dock, and a very cold boat ride through the gray bleakness, we finally reached the remote field station along the White Sea.  I was exhausted, and (as the person who had travelled the farthest) becoming concerned that perhaps I was being too indulgent with time, money, and resources by travelling this far to learn protocols and information that I could have probably obtained by reading a paper or walking to a neighboring lab at Berkeley.

Fourteen hours into the program, I had no more doubts – travelling halfway around the world to discuss scientific questions and to collaborate with researchers from various parts of the world is absolutely worth it.

Squirrel! On campus.

Are squirrels the next contenders for the evolution of human-like thought?  This question was raised jokingly at a recent SETI webinar considering the evolution of life, but for UC-Berkeley psychology professor Lucia Jacobs, the idea of intelligent squirrels is no joke.

I met the slightly frazzled and just-on-time Jacobs at the National Academy of Sciences colloquia In the Light of Evolution V1: Brains and Behavior, where she presented her research on the hippocampus, primordial senses (smell), and cognition (The Evolution of a Cognitive Trait, from Chemotaxis to Associative Learning) in squirrels.  And not just any squirrels, but our very own campus squirrels.  Bold, abundant, and well fed, campus squirrels may make better behavioral study volunteers than Psych I freshman.

Jacobs is not the only one studying Berkeley campus squirrels. Mikel Delgado, a 2nd year graduate student in Jacobs’ lab, studies decision-making, time investment, and caching behavior in squirrels (caching is the process of a squirrel analyzing and then burying a nut for later retrieval).  Her participants are Fox Squirrels; redder and heavier than the Eastern Grey Squirrels of San Francisco, they have taken over Berkeley campus and monopolized the squirrel niche.  In Delgado’s study, the squirrels truly are participants – and quite willing ones at that.  The pay is high (density nuts) and the “testing” is non-invasive – just do normal squirrel things.

What the Higg?

Courtesy CERNI’m sure everyone by now has heard some reference to the July 4th, 2012, announcement by CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland) that they probably found the Higgs Boson – or at least a particle that behaves in a way they would expect the Higgs boson to behave.  Two teams, ATLAS and CMS, independently observed the probable evidence of the Higgs boson; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory participated in the ATLAS experiment.

But what does this mean?  Why is the discovery of this elusive particle important to me? And why do particles of light (photons) have no mass, while particles of matter (such as electrons and quarks) do?

Science and the Data Revolution

The scientific method is obsolete.

This is a bold statement in a room filled with scientists who have spent the better portion of their lives striving for the gold standard of science set forth by 3rd grade science fair projects:

  1. Observe the world.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Make a hypothesis.
  4. Devise a testable experiment with one variable and everything else controlled.
  5. Compile the data and analyze the results.
  6. Revise the experiment or hypothesis and repeat as necessary until they match.
  7. Form a conclusion.
  8. Justify how your manageable (relatively simple) model makes predictions on a much wider scale.

But the predominating focus on producing data to answer a question, which up until now has served our scientific community faithfully, may no longer be the best method for useful discovery, according to Stanford scientist Atul Butte, MD, PhD.  We are amidst a data revolution that necessitates that good science be best performed backwards; instead of questions demanding data, we now have data demanding questions.

Our subjective concept of time

The Big Bang, cosmos, and string theory – there are a surfeit of books that delve into wild ideas about the deepest mysteries of our universe. This caused astronomer Adam Frank to ask himself a question late one night in his fifth month of writing his book, About Time: “Who cares!? ” Save astronomers, physicists, and theologists, does cosmology matter on a day-to-day scale for the rest of us? His answer is yes … but not in the way one would expect.

Dr. Frank’s recently delivered a talk titled About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang as part of the Benjamin Dean astronomy lecture series at the California Academy of Science.  Cal Academy has no shortage of fascinating talks by prominent speakers, and this particular talk included immersive visuals to illustrate Frank’s points, planetarium style.

According to Dr. Frank, cosmology shapes the human experience through one important connection: time. Each cultural era has had its own concept of what time is, or “time logic”.  Time, therefore, is an invention that serves the current needs of humanity. To demonstrate this point, Dr. Frank asks, “What time is it?”  Everyone in the audience found the answer quickly, 7:48 pm, but the abstract concept of 48 minutes after the arbitrary hour of seven would have made no sense to someone living before minute hands were added to the invention of a clock.  For example, a thousand years ago people gauged the time of day by the placement of the sun and the length of the shadows (in Ancient Rome, noon occurred when the sun lined up between two prominent buildings), but there was no metering of time in increments as small as a minute.

Research shows that alcohol drowns sorrows – in fruit flies

“Tony” did everything he could to get the pretty red-eyed girl.  He chased her into the corner, tapped her abdomen with his forelegs, serenaded her with his single-winged song, and even licked her genitalia. Despite a perfect performance of this hard-wired mating dance, he was rejected.

Like any good cowboy in a sad country song, Tony turned to the bottle. But unlike most cowboys, Tony is a fly.

New research shows that humans aren’t the only species to turn to alcohol after social or sexual rejection. The paper Sexual Deprivation Increases Ethanol Intake in Drosophila, published last month in Nature, explores the influence of reward pathways on sex, drugs and social interactions — and gives a whole new meaning to the term “barfly.”

The brain’s reward system is designed to reinforce behaviors necessary for survival. Both natural “highs” and highs that result from drug intake can trigger this reward system.  Abnormal regions within reward pathways are often associated with addiction.

We can do it! Protecting the Earth in troubled times

“We are the stars burst into consciousness.” This is my favorite bit of wisdom from evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme. His words are not simply metaphor; we truly are made of the stars. While stars are initially composed of just hydrogen and its fusion product helium, at the end of the star’s life carbon, oxygen, and all the rest of the elements are rapidly formed before the star’s last massive explosion into both nothingness and everything.

Swimme spoke at this year’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, CA after a screening of his new movie Journey of the Universe: An Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth, and Human Transformation.  (As a side note for those of you interested in environmental advocacy, conservation politics, and edge-of-your-seat epic adventures — think free-soloing El Cap and class V white-water in the crocodile-filled Nile — I highly recommend next year’s festival).  In just 57 minutes, Swimme’s movie highlights 14 billion years worth of history, from the Big Bang to the beginnings of life and finally to our current precarious place on this planet.  But as environmental pressures mount to historically severe levels, Swimme says in his post-screening talk that it is difficult not to fall into despair if you are an intelligent and aware human being.

Leaping lizards

Do animal tails assist with “in-flight” stabilization?  It’s probably not a question you ponder every day, but it’s exactly what Berkeley graduate student researchers Thomas Libby and Evan Chang-Siu set out to find when they built a tailed robot  and drove it off a ramp.

Libby and Chang-Siu’s project made news when their paper Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots, and dinosaurs made the cover of the latest issue of Nature. Their project is one of many exciting biomechanics projects underway in Berkeley’s Center for Interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration in Education and Research, or CiBER, led by Integrative Biology professor Dr. Bob Full.

Inspired by the observation that Red-headed Agama lizards stabilize themselves in free-fall with controlled movements of their tails, the researchers built a lizard-sized robot with wheels and a “tail” (metal rod) and tried to  mimic the ability to stay upright during a fall. Unlike previous attempts to build self-righting robots, their robot tail used a control mechanism called active feedback.  Active feedback occurs when the robot is able to respond to its environment by making instantaneous movements in accordance to the in-motion changes perceived by its sensors.  In contrast, previous work focused on feed-forward robots, which rely on pre-programmed movements to compensate a predetermined trajectory. Tom Libby explains the difference in terms of picking up a milk jug: if you expect the jug to be full, you will initiate an appropriate amount of muscle power as you pick up the jug; this is feed-forward.  If, upon picking up the jug, you realize that it is empty, the system you use to change the amount of power you input (thereby preventing yourself from getting smacked in the head with the jug) is feedback control.

It’s a turkey vulture, it’s a plane, no … it’s a California condor!

I really want to see a California condor.

When I learned that there were 19 released—and commonly sighted—California condors in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, where I would be traveling over break, I decided to brush up on my bird identification skills to avoid excitedly mistaking every turkey vulture for a condor. According to a recent article in KPBS in San Diego, four California condors were just transferred from the San Diego Zoo’s captive breeding program to the park for acclimation and quarantine; they are scheduled to be released in April. In the end, I had no confirmed sightings of a California condor, but I did learn more about them and the near ubiquitous turkey vulture.

The first give away of a California condor is its sheer size. Weighing in at a whopping 25+ lbs, the California condor commands the skies with a wing span of nearly 10 feet from tip to tip, the largest of any bird in North America.

Human Genome Variation Symposium 2012

If you’re a scientist at Berkeley, you’ve found a great place to be. There is no shortage of conferences, symposiums, lectures, and workshops in which to learn more about your field of interest. Today, the Center for Computational Biology hosts a symposium on Human Genome Variation, the first event to be held in the not-yet-re-opened Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical Health. Stay tuned as I attempt my first live blog from this sold out symposium.

Berkeley researcher Saul Perlmutter wins the Nobel prize in physics

Berkeley Labs has been abuzz with excitement over Tuesday morning’s announcement that LBL and UC Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter won this year’s Nobel prize in physics, most notably for his research into dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe.  Saul is the 11th LBL scientist and 9th UC Berkeley faculty member to be awarded a Nobel prize, and he brings UC Berkeley’s running total of Nobel prizes to a whopping 22.

Earlier this year, I attended a lecture that Perlmutter gave to a public audience at the International House entitled “Stalking Dark Energy and the Mystery of the Accelerating Universe.” Every seat was taken, but that didn’t stop overflow attendees from sitting in the aisles and peaking through the doors. The rock star treatment was a testament to the public’s interest in Saul and his fascinating research topic.

It has been known for some time that the universe is expanding, but whether or not it would eventually stop growing had long remained an open question.  One popular theory at the time was that the expansion universe would eventually stall out due to the inward pull of gravitational forces. But Perlmutter surprised the scientific community by showing – through the observance of light from supernovas – that not only would the universe continue to expand, but that it would do so at an accelerating rate. For the universe to accelerate outward past the collapsing force of gravity, there must be another force propelling it away.  That force is what we now call dark energy, the “mysterious something” that comprises 73% of our universe.

Congratulations to Saul.  A comment given by Bob Cahn, head of the cosmology group at LBL, sums it up nicely: “This is the biggest discovery in the history of science, and will remain so forever, since it only leaves 25% for everyone else.”

Nature’s orchestra: Bernie Krause on what we can learn from the sounds of the wild

What’s in a song? More than just music to our ears, according to bio-acoustician Bernie Krause. Krause is a musician turned scientist who uses his musical talents to record, analyze, and synthesize the sounds  of the natural world.  Last week, at one of the UC Berkeley Integrative Biology department’s weekly seminars, I had the pleasure of not only listening to Krause talk about his work, but also of listening to his work itself.

Krause was involved in music from a young age, spending a year as a member of the band The Weavers, and is among the pioneers of New Age music and Electronica.  He experimented heavily with synthesizers during their burgeoning years, composed natural soundscapes for Hollywood movies, and in 1970, released Wild Sanctuary, the first album to use natural sound as an integral component of orchestration. Since then, Krause has made a career out of combining music, nature, and conservation and has defined the field of soundscape ecology.

Krause believes that our very concept of an orchestra is inspired by nature. In wild habitats, different creatures – like different instruments – vocalize using distinct pitches and rhythmic patterns so as not to compete with each other. Nature may sound chaotic to the untrained ear, but it is not an auditory free-for-all.

Humans – Are We Just Another Primate?

Inspired by Chris Holdgraf’s recent post comparing humans and computers, I decided to discuss another aspect of humanness—our biological heritage—and why we are unique to our animal counterparts.

For this, I present to you Robert Sapolsky: Stanford professor, neuroscientist, and author. I adore Sapolsky’s witty style of writing, and when I found out he would be speaking at the California Academy of Sciences, I reserved my ticket immediately. It was no surprise to find that Sapolsky’s style of lecture was as richly conversational, intelligently humorous, and sparklingly scientific as his books.

In his lecture, “Humans: Are We Just Another Primate?”, Sapolsky discusses how alike humans and animals are, and tells story after story about animals (particularly primates) behaving in ways that we once reserved as uniquely human. Humans did not reinvent the brain, so in a world where we share mostly the same neurotransmitters, structure, and genetics with flies, what is it that gives us our humanness? In Sapolsky’s words, “When are we special, and when are we anything but?”

Geologic carbon sequestration, life-cycle assessment, and what to do with not-quite-perfect solutions

It is easy to be skeptical of initiatives aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Biofuels seem great until you factor in all the land and water they require; wind turbines are clean, but they pose a threat to birds; electric cars are often charged by coal-generated electricity; recycling can be helpful, but… well, you get the point.

Given how easy it is to play the role of a skeptic, I find it important to balance my views with a healthy dose of optimism. After all, in face of the daunting challenge of meeting our long-term energy needs while reducing carbon dioxide emissions, I am a firm believer that no action is too small and that even modest efforts are worthwhile.

One strategy recently placed on my radar is geological carbon sequestration (GCS), in which carbon dioxide emissions are injected into geological structures deep within the earth. GCS came to my attention when I attended a talk by research scientist Thomas McKone of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. In his talk, McKone discussed his outlook for GCS, specifically GCS in brine-filled aquifers found in sedimentary basins. (His talk was part of Carbon Cycle 2.0, a series of lectures by LBNL researchers working toward a carbon-neutral energy future.)

Jellyfish sex 101

Monterey Aquarium Jellyfish

Some animals have made a name for themselves for their reproductive habits. Take seahorses, for example. They form life partnerships, dance together every morning, and the males are the ones that get pregnant. These unusual behavioral patterns, coupled with their aesthetic and emotional appeal to the general public, have made seahorse mating rituals anything but arcane knowledge. Jellyfish reproduction, on the other hand, hasn’t entered the public consciousness in the same way.

Jellyfish reproduction entered my consciousness several months ago when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The main purpose of my visit was to see an exhibit called The Secret Lives of Seahorses, but what really ended up stealing the show for me was the beauty of the jellyfish display. Entranced, I tried to learn as much as I could about these mysterious creatures. The descriptions the aquarium provided, however, were incomplete; while seahorse mating rituals were described in great detail, I could not find a thing on how jellyfish “did it”.

So, upon returning, I carried out on my own investigation and found this aptly titled special report from the National Science Foundation: Jellyfish Reproduction: The holy grail to Understanding Jellyfish Blooms.” The following is a summary of what I learned.