Posts byJosh Shiode

Backyard science at Cal: see a supernova tonight

“Hey everyone, come and see how good I look!” says the nearest and brightest Type Ia supernova discovered in the last thirty-plus years, quoting the venerable Ron Burgundy.

Okay, not really. But all earthly observers with a small telescope (or even binoculars) can see just how good this recent cosmic explosion looks, as Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientist Peter Nugent describes in his sensational YouTube debut.

Tomorrow night (Saturday, September 10 starting after dusk), you can visit the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland to hear Nugent discuss the supernova in person while viewing it through their 36 inch reflector telescope.

This exceptional celestial explosion, known as SN 2011fe or PTF11kly, was discovered on August 24th, 2011 by the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), a collaborative astronomical survey relying on the work of astronomers around the globe, including many at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBL). UC Berkeley researcher Jeffrey Silverman highlights the rapid and collaborative nature of this discovery, explaining, “This thing was first observed in Palomar, identified as a supernova at LBL, given a supernova type in the Canary Islands, and confirmed in Hawaii and San Jose just hours later. With this big international collaboration, we can monitor its brightness hourly around the world, starting from basically the time of explosion.”

The Mathematical Duo: Steve Chin and Hugo Ramirez of the Professional Development Program

Every Coalition student I’ve met has at least one endearing story about Hugo Ramirez, and each staffer has at least one great idea from the mind of Steve Chin. Just as mathematics is a crucial component of all the science and engineering fields, this Mathematical Duo plays a central role in the Coalition.

Steve and Hugo represent the Mathematics Department’s Professional Development Program (PDP), one of the oldest Coalition programs. The team of PDP staffers, which also includes Tansel Pope, Diana Lizarraga, and Chris Noble, manage a suite of programs that support students from early high school through graduation from Cal. They work with high school math teachers, bring a group of high schoolers from around the country to Berkeley for a residential summer engineering institute, run intensive math sections for incoming freshman, and provide undergraduate research opportunities for students approaching graduation (a program appropriately titled NERDS). That PDP’s reach extends beyond Cal’s student population is a credit to the aptitude and enthusiasm of its staff, who are quick to embrace any opportunity to extend their support network.

PDP was founded in 1974 with one lofty goal in its founder’s mind: “Professor Leon Henkin wanted to support students coming from the most marginalized and underprivileged groups, to help them become PhDs, professors, and Nobel laureates,” says Steve. Situated at the hub of science and engineering fields, their program has seen nearly every Coalition student over the past 37 years pass through its doors. While PDP has been through many changes and challenges in the decades since its founding, the goal remains the same; as associate director and PDP alumnus, Hugo Ramirez, says, “We are still motivated by the idea, ‘Let’s get some Nobel laureates,’ some very powerful influential people who can make systemic changes in our society and our academic environment.” With Steve and Hugo at the helm, this project is in very capable hands

The SAGE: Marjorie Weingrow and the SAGE Scholars Program

The Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering is the “Justice League” of programs on campus confronting the problems of underrepresentation in math, science and engineering. The following post is one in a series, kicked off by this introduction, highlighting the work of each of the Coalites and the programs they represent.

Marjorie Weingrow

The SAGE, Marjorie Weingrow, spends more time at other corporations’ headquarters than her own office. Directing the several hundred thousand dollar Student Achievement Guided by Experience (SAGE) Scholars program without a dime of support from its founding university requires that she spend most of her time fundraising—something she wasn’t hired for or trained to do.

Marjorie has nonetheless led SAGE in graduating 100% of its low-income, first-generation college students over its eleven years in existence. And all have gone on to career jobs or graduate schools upon graduation. The program has achieved great success through expert-led workshops and classes in career-development, alongside myriad internship opportunities and personalized career advising and coaching. In fact, the SAGE Scholars are so successful in their internships that Marjorie has a hard time sharing the program’s wealth of opportunities with other students not in the program. “They want SAGE Scholars,” she says. “Companies ask for them by name.”

The perfect woman for the job

Armed with Montessori-teacher and executive- and life-coach training, Marjorie Weingrow has worked for a list of companies and organizations far too long to reproduce here, but it includes the likes of the American Cancer Society and the Alameda County Office of Education. The driving force behind what might seem like a random-walk of careers is the service of low-income students—those who lack the opportunities so many take for granted. She says, “I’m driven to answer the question: how can we introduce these students to careers they don’t ordinarily think about? How can we broaden their scope?”

The battle is a personal one for Marjorie. “I came from a very low income background,” she says. “My family did not encourage me to get an education. They said, ‘Oh, well you’re a girl; you’ll just get married,’ which only made me determined to succeed in something other than child-rearing. So I can relate to a lot of what many of the SAGE scholars and other low-income students go through.”

The Chairman: John Matsui and the Biology Scholars Program

The Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering is the “Justice League” of programs on campus confronting the problems of underrepresentation in math, science and engineering. The following post is one in a series, kicked off by this introduction, highlighting the work of each of the Coalites and the programs they represent.

If the traditional path to joining the UC Berkeley faculty is a well-traveled, strenuous uphill climb, John Matsui hacked his way up the side of K2 with a machete. “No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve had to create what I wanted to see in education,” he says. Some of the places John has gone, few of his faculty peers have ever been.

“My educational pathway has been anything but a straight line. The way they taught science in high school wasn’t in a way I was able to learn. So I came out disinterested in science and generally unprepared for a four-year college,” says John. So instead he spent three and a half years at community college before transferring to a four-year university. He would go on to earn a Master’s degree in Biology from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara, but during that time he took another unusual detour.

While finishing his dissertation at UC Santa Barbara, John took a teaching position at a local community college. Noticing a glaring lack of support for scientifically-inclined Latino students, John founded a bilingual biology program at the college, despite speaking no Spanish himself. This knack for taking the initiative, for creating, didn’t come naturally to John Matsui. “I’d always been told ‘You can’t. You’re not capable. That’ll never work.’ And I believed them because I was afraid, and I didn’t trust myself. But at some point I started saying ‘No, they’re wrong.’”

Impressed with his vision and his passion for addressing the needs of underserved populations, the Student Learning Center at UC Berkeley hired John to help run their academic programs. His work there grabbed the attention of the Dean of Biology, (now Emeritus) Professor Caroline Kane, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They recruited John in 1991 to help develop what would become the nationally-renowned Biology Scholars Program (BSP).

The Coalition: a not-so-secret society

In a back room of UC Berkeley’s Stephens Hall, a small group gathers around a circular conference table that dwarfs the modest room it occupies. They are plotting to change the world. Collectively known as the Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering, I know them simply as “The Coalition” (cue the superhero theme music). And I’m lucky enough to be considered one of them, as a representative of the Physics Department’s Compass Project (or, Compass Guy! if you prefer… not that I have an outfit or anything…).

Founded in 1992, the Coalition brings together programs on campus designed to promote exactly what the group’s title claims: excellence and diversity. Coalition co-founder and Emeritus Professor Caroline Kane recalls, “The Coalites, as I like to call them, came together in December that year after the realization that all our students overlapped in programs and in needs and experiences.” Each program has its own distinct goals and methods, but all share the common idea that quality mentoring and community-building are two keys to helping first generation students and those from under-represented groups overcome academic and social disadvantages (e.g., fewer or poorer preparatory classes and unfamiliar peer groups) and succeed in science, math and engineering.

It’s all in your head: a review of The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

I’ve been a voracious reader lately—a cookie monster of the written word. It started with Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, and continued with The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (which I reviewed here) alongside The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (yes, I am still a young adult, thank you very much). The latest to be devoured was The Belief Instinct by Dr. Jesse Bering.

I first found Dr. Bering’s work reading his often hilarious, always insightful blog Bering in Mind, and it was sci-love at first read. In The Belief Instinct, Bering investigates the genesis of humankind’s seeming instinct to believe in a higher power and tackles difficult questions: “Why do people often believe that natural disasters have meaning?” and “Why are humans, religious or not, so engrossed by the thought of an afterlife?”

A Wilder World: a review of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The rain has come and gone; you close your eyes and listen for birds. You hear one, maybe two, no—three distinct songs. And if it weren’t for those gas-guzzling metal canisters rumbling so indiscreetly by, you could be in The World Without Us, as Alan Weisman imagined it in his 2007 book. Weisman visits some of the most urbanized (New York City) and pristine (the forests of South America) sites on earth, as he explores our planet’s origins and imagines its future free of our domineering presence.

In thoughtful and intricate prose, Weisman takes us on a journey around the globe to show how our planet might react (or really, recover) if we were all to suddenly depart this pale blue dot. From the already progressing wild takeover at Chernobyl to the erasure of the Panama Canal, Weisman introduces us to our monumental, but fleeting legacies that barely manage to resist the oncoming wilderness. Such a detailed study of our planet could read like an encyclopedia, but in Weisman’s deft hands and diction, the story comes alive both tragically (“Eventually, coming full circle, we returned, so estranged from our origins that we enslaved blood cousins who stayed behind to maintain our birthright.”) and comically (“It was at least 10,000 years old, but unmistakably a turd.”).


Harnessing Nature to cure its (man-made) ills

When I think about harnessing the power of water, I think of the Hoover Dam in Nevada (where I’m from) or the awesome tide-harnessing turbines that are being installed along coastlines as we speak. As scientists concerned about the future of our planet, we are always looking for ways to co-opt natural processes to greenify (buzz-word!) our energy-producing endeavors. Recently, Greg H. Rau of UC Santa Cruz and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory described how we could appropriate and intensify the natural carbonate mineral cycle. This innovative work builds on existing proposals to use limestone and seawater to mimic erosion, which has the dual potential for cleaning up power-plant exhaust and mitigating ocean acidity.