Posts byHolly Williams

Putting a bird on it

Here at the Berkeley Science Review, the design team works hard to find beautiful ways to visualize data and deconstruct a challenging concept or large body of work into an infographic. Title images, however, are meant to capture the spirit of the article, and are often the place where the designers can let loose. While the cover

Nobel laureates at Berkeley

This holiday season, we will have many exciting Nobel laureate lectures to listen to at the 2014 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony (held annually on 10 December, the anniversary Alfred Nobel’s death). This year’s list of laureates includes awards for the creation of the blue LED, development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, and discovery of the brain’s

Particle Fever: a must-see hit

Two weeks ago, the Physics Department hosted a viewing of the critically acclaimed documentary, Particle Fever. This viewing was followed by a lively discussion with the director and producer, Mark Levinson (UC Berkeley Ph.D. ’83), as well as Walter Murch and a panel of UC Berkeley physicists. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the viewing; however,

The professor is in, AMA

In celebration of Astronomy Day, UC Berkeley professor, Dr. Alex Filippenko, participated in the popular Reddit interview series, Ask Me Anything (or AMA, if you’re hip on the slang). Check it out here. As part of an ongoing campaign aiming to increase the dialog between top-notch researchers and the general public, the subreddit r/science has been

Chemical X

A rather bright spotlight has illuminated the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in recent years, and with it, a torrent of new research, discussion, and activism targeted at leveling the playing field. It was this climate that started me thinking about how these issues affect our home base here at

A Spacetime Odyssey

“A generation ago, the astronomer Carl Sagan stood here and launched hundreds of millions of us on a great adventure – the exploration of the universe revealed by science. It’s time to get going again.” This past weekend, the highly-anticipated sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos premiered on Fox. Produced by Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane,

Give the Gift of Science, Donate Blood Today!

Our cells are regularly bombarded with bouts of DNA damage. Typical rates for double strand breakage, for example, are ten instances per day. While our excellent DNA repair machinery usually maintains the fidelity of our genetic code, this system is not infallible. A number of health problems, including cancer, immunological disorders, and premature aging, have been attributed to mutations and sustained damage. The propensity for unhealthy DNA is largely influenced by genetics, environment, and lifestyle; however, the ways in which these factors affect levels of DNA damage remains an active area of study.

In order to better understand what contributes to the health of our DNA, samples from a huge number of specimens need to be recovered and assessed. Until recently, damage was measured by looking at cells under a fluorescent microscope and manually counting DNA breaks. This approach is not only cumbersome and error prone, but ill-equipped for the purposes of large-scale sampling. However, Berkeley Lab scientist Dr. Sylvain Costes has found a way around this problem. He was able to write an algorithm to automate this process by having a machine scan samples and objectively count DNA breaks. Costes technique was so successful that he decided to launch a biotech startup in 2012, along with colleague Dr. Jonathon Tang, to make this technology available to the public.

CRISPR: A tour de force in gene-editing

Our story begins in the 1980’s, an era defined by big hair, shoulder pads, and Miami Vice, and an era whose closing days would see a rather curious, unassuming discovery. Around this time, scientists found that sections of bacterial genomes contained repetitive sequences with no readily apparent function. These patterns contained palindromic repeats separated by clusters of 30 or so assorted bases termed “spacer DNA”. Researchers learned decades later that these spacer regions contained bits of viral DNA. The tipping point for this peculiar case came seven years ago when a team at Danisco discovered that by exposing S. thermophilus to bacteriophage DNA, they could alter the phage resistance of the bacteria. In the years following, a rather astounding story would unravel, one spearheaded by UC Berkeley’s own Dr. Jennifer Doudna and recently named a top contender (for the second year in a row) for Science magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year 2013.


As you, dear reader, have indubitably surmised from the title, the story above alludes to the tale of CRISPR. More formally known as “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” CRISPR is a novel genome editing technique based on the inherited, adaptable immune system of bacteria which has become red hot in the past two years (and a favorite topic of the BSR!).

Pew Pew Pew! ChemCam Strikes Again…

…and again and again and again!


This past Thursday, NASA’s current Mars rover, Curiosity, passed yet another milestone. According to the rover’s very own Twitter account, its on board Chemistry and Camera instrument, adorably dubbed “ChemCam“, fired its 100,000th laser shot. These laser pulses have been aimed at 400+ soil and rock samples, returning thousands of spectra and over 1,600 images. Scientific achievements aside, I have to admit that I am intensely amused that Curiosity has decided that lasers make “pew pew” noises. I’m sure that there is a battalion of stormtroopers out there who are awfully proud.

But I digress. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of it, shall we?

Measuring three meters long and comprised of ten separate instruments, Curiosity is host to arguably the most cramped lab space in all the galaxy. Many of the instruments on board are new to space flight, and ChemCam is no exception, holding the title of first laser gun in space. Perched atop this assembly sits the so-called “rock-zapping” laser and telescopic camera components of ChemCam, giving Curiosity a distinct Wall-E design persona and, more importantly, the functionality to identify sample composition of snippets of the Red Planet. The core objective of Curiosity‘s mission is to assess the habitability of Mars, and ChemCam aids in this endeavor in a number of meaningful ways.

By analyzing soil composition, ChemCam is able to identify elemental building blocks, detect the presence of life-giving water, and help scientists better understand local and regional variations in soil. With a range of up to seven meters, it also helps researchers choose targets for the other instruments, which rely upon the rover’s robotic arm, and allows for study of samples otherwise inaccessible to the main body. ChemCam far outpaces neighboring instruments in terms of sheer workload, with a repetition rate of several scans per day (as opposed to multi-day scans). Nearly a year and a half after Curiosity‘s landing, ChemCam findings have been affiliated with 32 peer-reviewed journal articles and over a hundred conference abstracts. Quite the busy bee.

Summer Picks: Five Bay Area Science Adventures

Looking for something to do on your day off? Why not spend some time enjoying science from a different perspective! Science museums are a fun way to discover other areas of science, interact with fundamental experiments, and learn about the history of science and its pupils. When research takes a turn into the dregs, I’ve found that heading out to go on a mini-science expedition is a great way to rejuvenate my excitement for my line of work and light up that child-like wonder at the world around us. Sometimes in research, we get so lost in the minute details of the trees that we need a moment to step back and look at that amazing forest. Fortunately, the Bay Area is bursting at the seams with opportunities to wander out into the woods.

So, without further ado, I present to you my top 5 list of Bay Area adventures for the scientifically-inclined.

1. Exploratorium, San Francisco

The Exploratorium offers a great hands-on experience, to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Collections are extensive and include everything from microbes to the human body to psychology, Newtonian physics, the properties of light and sound, you name it. Demonstrations are frequent and, with its multi-leveled building, one can easily get lost in the experience of interacting with science face to face. The exhibits are playful and clever; the tactile experience is not one to miss. Put plainly, the Exploratorium has consistently sparked my curiosity and filled me with delight with all of their informative, puzzle-solving, thought-provoking features. Though a popular location, I’ve yet to find the Exploratorium stiflingly crowded. For those who would appreciate a more private and mature experience, adult events (After Dark) occur Thursday evenings. After Dark feature special themed demonstrations and ticket holders are able to wander throughout the premises until 10 PM.

Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10 AM – 5PM with After Dark events (18+) Thursdays from 6 – 10 PM

Cost: $20 (Bay Area Residents), $15 for After Dark

 2. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

CASLocated in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is a must-see. Complete with a multilevel aquarium (my favorite), four-story rainforest biodome, planetarium, natural history museum, and living roof, CAS is absolutely  heart-stopping. Excitingly, several exhibits and shows feature wildlife and natural features native to California. Visitors are also given the opportunity to hear a number of talks about various creatures living at the academy,  join scientists in their Project Lab to get a behind-the-scenes look at CAS, watch penguin feedings and coral reef dives, and join in on interactive interviews with academy scientists. Several exhibits, including the shows at the planetarium, are updated every few months, so there is always something new to see! Moreover, on Thursdays, the academy throws NightLife events, often featuring musical guests, for the 21+ crowd. Each week, different special guests come to mingle with ticket holders and private after-hours tours of the academy are available.

Modest Musings from an Amateur Science Blogger

concept-18290_640A new addition to BSR’s online presence, I began writing for the review largely to explore different ways to think about, communicate, and interact with science. Of course, this has also been a great deal of fun and much learning has been had upon the way. I’ve spent my fair share of time scouring the internet for writing advice, racking my brain for an article topic, agonizing over sentence structure, and worrying about how a post will be received. TLDR: writing for a blog is harder than it seems, BUT (spoiler alert!) well worth the effort. In an attempt to chronicle my journeys through the blogosphere, I humbly present to you an agglomeration of my present findings on this curious creature they call “Science Writing”.

Tracking chemical reactions with high-resolution microscopy


While working towards new syntheses of functional nanomaterials for use in molecular electronic devices, UC Berkeley chemist Felix Fischer and physics collaborator Michael Crommie came upon an astounding discovery. Using a technique called non-contact atomic force microscopy (nc-AFM), they were able to directly image Fischer’s reactions on a single molecule level in incredible detail. This ground-breaking work marks the first time single reactants and their consequential products have been visualized. Not only do the images afford sub-nanometer clarity, but regions of increased electron density (e.g. multiple bonds) are starkly apparent. Maybe as a chemist I am biased, but I find these images quite breathtaking.

Storytelling and Science: The Unifying Theory of 2 + 2

storyHumans are great consumers of stories. We are fascinated with them and storytelling is a dominating force in many forms of media, engaging people from all demographics. Stories resonate with us and have the power to profoundly change our perceptions of the inner machinations of the world around us. Simply put: stories inspire thought. Perhaps unexpectedly, particularly in the face of stereotypes of scientists as Vulcanesque creatures, science necessitates a high level of adroitness in communicating ideas and concepts in a provocative way. Scientists tell stories every day to wide types of audiences. We write proposals and papers, give research talks, and discuss our work with colleagues and non-scientists alike. Moreover, we are tasked
with the Herculean challenge of motivating why our research is significant to the body of human knowledge and merits study, despite the fact that we are often among only a few handful of people in the world who are experts on the matter.

Though communication of such ideas to other scientists can be difficult, improving public awareness and understanding of scientific pursuits is an ever increasing pressure. We are presently living in a time where great efforts are being made to better STEM education in schools across the country and the impetus towards diversifying the faces of the scientific community is at the forefront of many minds. The need to connect with the general populous has become vital to catalyzing many of these changes. Yet, depictions of scientists in media often skew towards what I call the “genius stereotype”, whereby some people are simply born to do science (apparently severely lacking social skills to boot) and if you happen to not be born that way, the implication is you simply lack the aptitude for science. I believe that we, as scientists, have a social responsibility to break this wall and start engaging the public in meaningful ways. As you, dear reader, have undoubtedly guessed by now, I think that one of the most promising approaches to this end lies in the act of storytelling.