Posts byLiz Boatman

The organic food debate: “Interpret with caution”

One of the things that I both love and detest about modern news in the U.S. is its proclivity for sensationalism. Television weather forecasters can make the most moderate summer day weather (“Well, Bay Area, it’s another slightly overcast day in the mid-70s, so grab your jacket and head outside!”) seem absolutely thrilling. And if Lindsay Lohan wasn’t exciting enough when she was partying around the clock – now she’s sober! What a thrill.

But when it comes to reporting the major findings of scientific studies, particularly those with direct implications for consumer health and safety, I have a problem with journalist sensationalism. Several weeks ago, researchers from Stanford University published an exhaustive, investigative meta-analysis of other researchers’ explorations of the nutrition and safety differences between organic and conventional foods, including produce, grains, dairy, and meat. (Find the article here.)

By the time those findings hit the U.S. news media sensationalist hurricane, however, suddenly newscasters and internet journalists alike had spun the results into edge-of-your-seat terror. “Organic foods are not healthier, as consumers continue to pay top dollar!” The moment I heard that teaser blare from the TV (conveniently, just before the commercial break, followed by “stay tuned!”), I pulled out my laptop and typed “Stanford organic food healthier” into Google scholar. When the commercial break was over, I was already well into the results section of the paper.

A social revolution in the College of Engineering? Just maybe.

Courtesy californiawatch.orgLast November, a rather inciting petition was circulated among the women and minority student groups of UC Berkeley. Directed at the leadership of the College of Engineering (COE), the petition demanded marked improvements in the College’s social climate and a massive overhaul of the failing recruitment and retention plans aimed specifically at women and minority graduate students (also termed “underrepresented engineers” or simply UEs).

What follows is the recent social history of the COE, how the student-led petition came to be, where the COE’s efforts to enact change currently stand, and our prospects for meaningful social change in the near future.

The scientific exception: A whale of a problem

Image from news headlines have been splashed with stories of South Korea’s decision to begin issuing scientific whaling permits to its citizens. Earlier this month, South Korea publicly declared this choice; now, amid backlash, the country has indicated that it plans to reconsider.

The world over, societies have hunted whales for thousands of years. Historically, this was for the purposes of religion and survival. More recently, however, stories such as “Moby-Dick” have chronicled whaling as more a sport than a societal necessity.

In 1946, at a meeting in Washington, D.C., the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was inaugurated by nations across the globe. The purpose of the commission was to oversee and regulate whale populations, largely from the perspective of the commercial whaling industry, which had grown unsustainably large. Throughout the 20th century, however, as whale populations continued to decline, the IWC was forced to reconsider its position. In 1982, the IWC officially adopted an indefinite whaling moratorium, scheduled to go into effect in 1986. There were exceptions, however. Aboriginal societies were issued whaling permits, guaranteed as part of their cultural rights and heritage. Today, the North American Inuit population still whales for food and other heritage purposes.

Grads give Strawberry Creek a bit of attention

This past Saturday morning, a contingent of UC Berkeley graduate students awoke extra early, donned “play” clothes, and headed to campus to spend several hours giving our very own Strawberry Creek a bit of much-needed attention.

The grads enjoyed their morning in the campus sunshine, as they socialized with each other and uprooted invasive grasses. Later, the cleared area will be replaced with native plants, as part of a continued effort to return the creek to its natural state. Right now, the plants are just seedlings, being tenderly cared for in the Native Plant Nursery, by Giannini Hall.

Problematic prions and the history of Mad Cow Disease

Well, folks, it has happened again. A dairy cow from California was recently diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” The cow was already at a rendering plant when the diagnosis was made and, apparently, was never headed toward our food supply. The last confirmed BSE infection in US beef was in 2006, and in total, only four cows have ever tested positive in our country’s entire beef industry. Meanwhile, in just a handful of decades, over a hundred people in the UK have gone “mad” and ultimately died from consuming BSE-tainted beef. In addition, over four million head of cattle have been culled in the UK in an effort to eradicate the problem.

The history of spongiform encephalopathy, however, begins long before the relatively recent BSE crisis — and its victims have included everything from human cannibals to farmed mink. Yet, rarely does science news cover spongiform encephalopathy beyond the context of the grilled burger patty. Burgers are indeed delicious (I prefer mine with BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese), but trust me, the history of spongiform encephalopathy as a disease is way more interesting than this one dairy cow might lead you to believe.

Circa 1920, two German doctors, Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob, each individually identified the symptoms of spongiform encephalopathy in humans. Hence, the pathology was named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in their honor. The patients that the doctors studied, however, did not develop their diseases as a result of eating tainted beef. Rather, these patients “spontaneously” developed the condition as the result of a rare (and natural!) genetic anomale.

Berkeley grads get “trashy” at shoreline cleanup

This past Saturday, I rose early from sleep and donned my very best work clothes and boots in preparation to join eight of my fellow graduate students and two rangers in a morning event that could best be described as “trashy.” The rangers that joined us were representatives sent from the East Bay Regional Parks District. Together, the eleven of us spent three long hours in the warm morning sunshine recovering trash from the Emervyille Crescent Shoreline, which is a part of the Eastshore State Park network. This special shoreline cleanup event was organized by the new Community Outdoor Cleanup and Outreach (COCO) project, funded and sponsored by the Graduate Assembly (GA) of UC Berkeley.

The new COCO project is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort on the part of concerned graduate student Dillon Niederhut, the GA delegate from Anthropology, and the GA Community Outreach Workgroup that he was pivotal in founding. This cleanup was COCO’s trial event, largely organized by fellow Workgroup member Christopher Klein, the GA delegate from Astronomy.

The cutting edge in modern organ transplantation, from livers to faces

Richard Norris was recently the recipient of the most extensive face transplant ever performed. He was injured over 15 years ago in a shooting accident that caused tremendous damage to his jaw structure, nose, and tongue. After 36 hours of surgery, Mr. Norris now has an entirely new face, including a new jaw, new teeth, a new tongue, and a new nose. He is even shaving his new beard.

Mr. Norris’ surgery was funded by the U.S. Navy. In recent years, the military has invested substantially in reconstructive medicine, funding scores of face and hand transplants on civilians. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of recent war veterans who have returned home with severe facial wounds and countless more amputees. The hope for the military is that extreme transplant surgeries for faces and limbs will soon be available for these military veterans as well.

A plea for clarity in FDA labeling

Recently, I found myself staring at the ingredients list on the back of a pint of chocolate ice cream: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolk, and cocoa powder. Rarely do we see such short ingredient lists on manufactured foods, yet this ice cream, by Haagen-Dazs and aptly named five, is absolutely delicious. In fact, the ice cream’s ingredients list is used as an advertisement itself, incorporated onto the front in a cute little “front-of-package label.”

Misleading labels

In the case of five, the ingredients listed on the front of the ice cream pint also match those listed on the back. But many other food products use their front-of-package labels to mislead customers. For example, when brightly packaged frosted cereals for children place labels that say “less sugar” on their boxes, one ought to think — less than what? Well they don’t say, and that’s the point. In recent years, companies who target children with misleading front-of-package labeling practices have come under heavy FDA scrutiny.

Rhesus chimera: Cutting-edge science meets natural history

Say hello to Roku, Hex, and Chimero, three adorable rhesus monkey infants who have recently stepped into the Internet limelight. Aptly named, each of these tiny mammals was concocted early in fetal development by mixing the cell lines of up to six genetically distinct progenitor individuals. By scientific definition, these little guys are what we call engineered chimera.

The term chimera originated in ancient Greek mythology millenia before it was co-opted for modern scientific jargon. The Greek Chimera, in fact, was a terrible fire-breathing creature. Depicted as a lioness with a goat’s head protruding from her back and a snake for a tail, she was related to other (perhaps more famous) Greek mythological monsters, including Cerberus and the Lernaean hydra.

Western scholars also apply the term chimera to many beasts in ancient Chinese mythology. Depictions of the Qilin, for example, date back to the 5th century BC. While the Qilin’s construction has been altered slightly throughout the centuries, all Qilin are shown with a single horn on the forehead, a body covered in scales, and four hoofed feet. Other Chinese chimera include the Bixie and Tianlu, both of which were winged beasts.

While these early chimeric forms were mythological constructions of disjointed body parts merged into Frankensteinesque creatures, today’s chimera are a very real scientific sensation. Yet Western culture largely still associates chimera with the ungodly and unnatural. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Why white’s not so white, after all: The story of leucism

When I was a kid, visiting the St. Louis Zoo was one of my favorite weekend activities. My most beloved attractions included feeding leaves to giraffes (what huge tongues!), spotting tiny frolicking marmosets in the open-atrium forest inside the primate house, and watching the silly ways in which bears slumber during the hot, humid afternoons of the Missouri summer. Then, one year, the Zoo announced something I found new and exciting — and more than a little bit baffling.

White alligators. With blue eyes.

For weeks, I begged my parents to take me. Finally, they succumbed and we made our visit to the Zoo’s herpetarium. The facility housed a number of intriguing residents, like twenty-foot-long pythons and 200-pound tortoises, but they were no match for the white alligator. To me, the bizarre creature was nothing short of a conundrum of nature. You see, back then I knew, having raised many generations of gerbils of various colors, that albinistic animals don’t have blue eyes. In most albinistic vertebrates, the production of melanin is so lacking, that the eyes appear pink, reflecting the coloring of red blood cells in the capillaries. This blue-eyed alligator I needed to see for myself to verify these wild claims of iris pigment on a white animal.

Bridges made of spider silk? You can thank the goats for that.

Put simply, arachnids are amazing. For example, there are over 2,000 species of scorpions on Earth, and all of these species fluoresce under ultraviolet light (Why? Who knows?!?). Meanwhile, Harvestmen, also known as daddy long-legs, have scarcely changed at all during 305 million years of evolution, and they can detach their own legs to distract would-be predators. And besides being the primary vector for Lyme disease transmission to humans, black-legged ticks can live up to two years and eat just three times during their entire life cycle.

But perhaps the most amazing arachnids of all are spiders, who have managed to delegate the production of one of the strongest materials known to man, silk, to goats!

More precisely, these days, there are genetically modified goats that produce milk with spider silk in it. Spider silk is part of a class of materials known as biopolymers, which are protein-based materials of biological origin. Spider silk has attracted widespread interest from engineers in recent years, largely because of its impressive mechanical properties — stronger than steel yet thinner than a human hair. It’s not a new material, though. Fossil records indicate that spider silk has a history on Earth dating back to the Middle Devonion Period over 350 million years ago!

UC: University of Cheating

Long ago, before I enrolled in UC Berkeley as a student, I held this University high on a pedestal of academic integrity. Entering graduate school, I felt I was not only choosing one of the best materials science programs—I was joining one of the best institutions with one of the best climates and some of the best people.

In my first semester, however, I was confronted with a profound ethical choice. Despite how thoughtfully and diligently we completed our thermodynamics homework, my fellow first-year students and I were not earning A’s. Meanwhile, it seemed that second-year students were breezing through the class with genius-like ease. I was completely stumped; I humbled myself and sought my Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at his office hour.

“You won’t succeed in this course unless you find the solution sets and use them,” he told me. To survive my first semester of graduate school, I had a choice to make. I could either cling to my moral ground and risk failing out of my program, or I could abandon my academic integrity and cheat my way to success. I chose a compromise: instead, I attended my GSI’s office hours week after week, reasoning that if he checked my responses against the solution set and gave me explicit suggestions, that it was somehow less morally questionable, simply because I was not the one with the solutions in hand.

Science, the interdisciplinary catch-all for learning

Three years ago, I volunteered for a few months at a local shelter, helping elementary-aged children with their homework. Usually their work consisted of basic arithmetic, reading, and lots of worksheets. One afternoon, with twenty minutes left in our one-on-one session before his dinner time, the seven-year-old boy with whom I was working exclaimed, in a very whiney tone, “But whyyyy? I don’t want to read a stupid book.” Of course, as a volunteer I was in no position to go bending rules, so I countered in stern but friendly fashion, “Because this will be fun.” We walked into the house library, where I encouraged him to make his own selection. He chose a book on sharks.

Fifteen minutes later it was all I could do to stop helping him sound out the names of obscure shark species and instead to wash his hands for dinner. He was rather displeased with me for ending our shark-full reading session, which he was quick to let his mother know. “She won’t let me read more about the sharks! They have babies in mermaids’ purses and their skin is made of scales. I don’t want dinner; I want to read about the sharks!” That evening, when I left the shelter, I was quite happy with the day’s session. I even went home and Googled more images of shark eggs (for a cool video go here).

I have always been a firm believer that every child is born loving science. It’s simply our natural state of existence, as sentient and curious humans, to wonder about our world. Plus, there is not a four-year-old on this planet who doesn’t enjoy chasing pigeons or a seven-year-old who isn’t mesmerized by the colony movement of foraging ants. Hands down, of every subject on which we educate young minds here in the United States, science is the most accessible, the most relevant, and the most exciting.

More efficient cook stoves for Haiti: In lab with Katee Lask

Lighting a cook stove

Just up the hill at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), a handful of UC Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students congregate in warehouse-like Building 60 each week to cook up two gallons of rice and beans, flavored with salt and garlic to taste. The students aren’t especially hungry for this typical Haitian meal (in fact, they’re probably a bit tired of it at this point)–they’re conducting experiments on cook stove efficiency. Arguably, they are doing some of the most important research currently being carried out at Berkeley, all in a facility that is a far cry from what we usually think of as a high-tech engineering laboratory.

The team is part of the research group of Ashok Gadgil, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at UC Berkeley. One of his students, Katee Lask, recently gave me a tour of the group’s laboratory and spoke to me about their current efforts toward helping Haitian refugees.

Since the January 2010 earthquake, millions of Haitians have been living in refugee camps, displaced from their homes when the frail buildings collapsed. Critical resources, like charcoal for cooking, are difficult to obtain for a reasonable cost in the camps. Moreover, the cramped nature of the camps means that many kitchens burn charcoal in close proximity, polluting the air and presenting a potential health hazard for the refugees. UC Berkeley and LBNL engineers, including Gadgil and Lask, have stepped in to help develop cleaner and less costly means of cooking food for the refugees.

Gadgil originally became involved with cook stove engineering in 2005, with the goal of assisting war-displaced refugees in Darfur, Sudan. That project culminated in the Berkeley-Darfur Stove, a wood-burning stove with more than 15,000 units deployed to Darfur families by the end of 2010 alone. Later, a modified version of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove was designed for cooking use by families in Ethiopia, where wood is also used as the solid fuel source. As a result of these two projects, when the earthquake hit Haiti, the Berkeley team was uniquely qualified to assist with cook stove issues in the refugee camps.

Engineering: Throwing our ethics into the trash (literally)

Recently, while walking through my engineering building early in the morning, I came across an intriguing  sight: someone’s abandoned book entitled Ethics in Engineering resting on the lid of a trash can. Considering how little emphasis the engineering programs at UC Berkeley place on ethics, I found the sight startlingly ironic and grabbed the book.

That’s not to say the campus as a whole neglects ethics training. Scanning through Berkeley’s online course listings, I’m able to find ethics courses in Philosophy, International and Area Studies, Public Policy, Undergraduate Business Administration, Public Health, Anthropology, Journalism, Military Science, Naval Science, Political Science, and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. But Berkeley’s College of Engineering (COE), which includes 10 departments, 2,870 undergraduate students, and 1,564 graduate students, offers only one course that focuses on the role of ethics in our discipline (“BIOE 100 – Ethics in Science and Engineering”, a requirement for bioengineering undergraduates). Ethics training for engineering graduate students is similarly minimal, coming mainly from online Graduate Student Instructor training or in the required 300-level courses on teaching. In other words: in a modern world rife with complex ethical issues; in an era of stem cells, cloning, and DNA sequencing; in an age of devastating natural disasters and international war – UC Berkeley engineers are barely being provided the most basic tools to be able to address the tough decisions that must be made in the real world. And then we simply throw those tools away.

Plastic: It’s what’s for dinner

Conservation of mass often applies to college-level physics problems: in a closed system, mass can neither be created nor destroyed. In the case of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a gigantic section of the ocean littered with an unusually high amount of man-made trash — the system is clearly not closed. Yet conservation of mass is almost precisely what we see, both in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans: more than 20 years of waste plastic studies in these oceans have demonstrated that the garbage patches are neither growing in size nor shrinking. They have conserved their mass. While plastic production rates have skyrocketed, as well as human consumption of plastic-contained goods, the plastic masses in these oceanic gyres (very large circular current patterns spanning thousands of miles) are incontrovertibly the same now as they were in the 1980s.

Interesting. If the rate at which plastic enters the patch has increased while the total mass of the patch has remained constant, then there must have been a corresponding increase in the rate at which plastic leaves the patch, to balance. Some scientists have hypothesized that the depths of the oceans act as plastic “sinks” from which waste never returns. If this were true, huge collections of settled ocean plastic debris should be established across the world. But for all their efforts, scientists have not been able to locate such sinks. With no evidence to support the ocean sink hypothesis, researchers have been looking for alternative answers for decades. What they have recently found may surprise you.

In a recent article appearing in Nature News, marine chemist Tracy Mincer and colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) reported the observation of oceanic bacteria actively consuming bits of plastic recovered from ocean gyres. At a glance, their result are not so shocking. After all, we have long known that microbial communities can (slowly) degrade plastic in landfills, over many years. However, it had been previously thought that the ocean gyres were too nutrient-poor to sustain substantial bacterial colonies. Therefore, the group’s findings help shed light on what has been a rather intriguing puzzle to scientists.

Happy shark week! The history of cyclopes (and why the one-eyed shark is nothing special)

Recently, a one-eyed shark fetus was recovered from the body of its mother, caught in the Sea of Cortez just off the coast of La Paz, Mexico. This find created quite a stir among internet-based news sources and bloggers, even attracting the attention of some relatively prominent shark experts here in California. Our fascination with this shark fetus is not surprising (just take a look at the photos); it’s a reminder that human civilization, religion, and cultural folklore have been obsessed with cyclopesfor thousands of years.

Cyclopes are not just myth, despite what many “knowledgeable” figures on the internet largely seem to think. Cyclopia is a very real developmental condition that can even affect human fetuses, resulting in babies born with one large eye between where two normal eyes would normally be. These anomalies stem in part from holoprosencephaly, improper separation of the forebrain during fetal development. When born alive, these babies suffer extreme mental retardation, are effectively blind, often have improperly developed noses, and live very short lives.

Cal scientist keeps tabs on forest health: On trail with Jordan Zachritz


If you’re like me, then weekends are your excuse to escape the busy city life, throw the tent in the car, and hit the forest trail. But you don’t have to be an avid backpacker to notice the growing drab spottiness of the California hills and mountains. In certain regions, rapid tree death in our forests is so extensive that the dull brown hue and barren patches are easily visible from the highway–or even thousands of feet up, out your tiny plane window. Of course, California isn’t alone. In Oregon, the trees are also dying faster than new ones can grow.

Unbeknownst to many, California’s forests are under siege. Across the state, oaks and other tree species are gripped in a silent battle for life, and unlike animals and people, trees do not have the ability to fight off attacks. When we are bitten or scratched we bleed, our blood clots, and our immune system launches a fantastic array of responses to protect our bodies. When trees are bitten or hack-sawed, oozy sap may protect the wound and seal it off, or it may take months to years for new bark to slowly close over the wound. When we are threatened, we throw punches or run away. When trees are threatened, they can only stand there and wait for the inevitable. One consequence of this is that trees are terribly susceptible to new, invasive diseases.

One such disease is Sudden Oak Death, a tree disease caused by water molds in the Phytophthora genus. The name is misleading: it kills more than just California’s oaks – a whole suite of tree species and plants are affected. Phytophthora ramorum, the underlying pathogen, most commonly infects the tanoaks, coast live oaks, and several other varieties, but it has lethal potential to over 60 plant species. It was introduced to our regional forests in the 1990s, and already there are entire hillsides of dead oaks in some counties. Another silent killer, Phytophthora cinnamomi, which is of the same genus as Sudden Oak Death, attacks the root system of a variety of local tree species, including dogwood, hemlock, juniper, white pine, and American chestnut. Phytophthora cinnamomi causes rotting of the root system, which destabilizes the tree’s balance system, ultimately leading to foliage dieback and collapse. This Phytophthoran is also invasive, having been transferred from forest to forest by contaminated soil on boots and car tires. (Interestigly, some of the local tree species affected are invasive pests themselves, like hemlock!)

Graduate women in science and engineering: Our struggle for equality

The following post is a response to the NY Times article by Kate Zernike: “Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors.”

The University of California, Berkeley was founded in 1868. At that time, female faculty and students were virtually non-existent in all of higher education, not just in physical science and engineering disciplines. Here at UC Berkeley, women were not allowed to enter the Faculty Club unescorted by a male until 1915. Female faculty were still restricted from certain areas of the facility for another 40 years; at the entrance to the Great Hall, a large sign was hung that read “For Men Only”. (No wonder the females established their own social parlor next door, the Women’s Faculty Club!) Nowhere on campus, however, is the ongoing battle for equal opportunity as visible today as it is in the north-east corner. Our College of Engineering (COE) is ranked 3rd in the world, but the first female professor was not granted tenure in mechanical engineering until the 1990s.

I recently spoke with that professor, Lisa Pruitt, and she mentioned that the success in retention of women faculty in engineering disciplines goes up dramatically when women are hired in bunches. At the time, this was a radical concept to me, but later I thought about why I chose UC Berkeley for graduate school after doing my B.S. in physics: more women. I am still here now, many trials and tribulations later, and it is my female peers upon whom I rely regularly for support. Apparently, I have been unknowingly participating in this same sociological experiment, and the results are not surprising: like the female faculty, the female graduate students do better in bunches.

These days, there are female faculty serving as department chairs and in dean positions; clearly, science and engineering career paths for women in academia have improved. We can be thankful that there are now laws preventing gender discrimination in the form of unequal pay or lab space allocation. So, yes, the situation is better than it was in the 1800s (and it only took 140 years, give or take). The unfortunate consequence of “better,” however, is that female faculty in science and engineering now face an entirely new type of gender bias.

As Zernike points out in the NY Times article, the newly established collective successes and the rising numbers of women at MIT are now hurting their career trajectories and their credibility. The new-age face of gender inequity in science and engineering is the idea that women have been rewarded solely based on their gender. What makes this comical is the fact that the increased number of women in science and engineering is a very relative phenomenon: UC Berkeley’s mechanical engineering department boasts nearly 50 faculty and lecturers but only four are female. There are seven dean positions in the COE and only one is occupied by a woman. Are these numbers really sensational enough to call into question whether these women deserve their titles?

Before you pitch it, picture this

Cal students sort waste

As recycling and composting become increasingly popular on campus and in the surrounding community, a dedicated group of Cal students has shown that they are willing to get their hands dirty for a good cause. On March 9, the students performed a waste audit of University Hall, carefully sorting through 375.5 lbs of the building’s trash as part of a feasibility study for a campus-wide composting program. They found that out of 179 lbs of waste placed in receptacles destined for landfills, 50 lbs could have been recycled and another 24 lbs was compostable. The implications of their study are clear: our campus needs more clearly labeled and readily accessible options for pre-sorting our waste. We also need better education about how to sort our waste and about why composting is important.

When I first moved to Berkeley, my new landlord handed me a rental contract and a small green bucket for compostable kitchen waste and food scraps. I was impressed. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where the city had collected yard waste separately since I was a child. At my tiny liberal arts college in Wisconsin, we had a successful student-led composting initiative that was started in the early 2000s. But here, in Berkeley, was the first time anyone had handed me a cute compost bucket. This city, I thought, is serious about its biodegradable waste stream.

Oddly, though, the UC Berkeley campus has lagged in efforts to embrace such a beneficial and important practice. In 2007, one of my engineering graduate student peers informed me that she thought that filling her green bucket was a waste of effort–“doesn’t it all just go in the landfill anyway?” Well, no, it doesn’t! I referred her to an episode of Dirty Jobs I had recently watched (“Garbage Pit Technician”, premier June 27, 2006), in which host Mike Rowe works for a day in the San Francisco biodegradable waste-processing facilities. According to the show, the facilities produce enough methane from the fermentation of biodegradable waste (anaerobic bacterial digestion, as opposed to aerobic digestion that drives “composting”) to provide electricity for thousands of local residents per year.  In fact, nowadays methane fermentation tanks are becoming an increasingly common source of electricity generation for isolated rural communities throughout the world.

LBNL history goes digital

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) recently released an open access archive of online photos. The archive contains more than 70,000 photos documenting some of the most profound moments of the Lab’s history (as well as some of the more mundane). So let’s take a moment to explore some of our National Lab’s history and to appreciate the scientific legacy of our predecessors.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was founded by Ernest Lawrence, who won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the cyclotron. That’s right: the Bevatron, the Large Hadron Collider—they’re all the legacy children of Ernest Lawrence’s work. The element lawrencium (Lr) was discovered here at LBNL and named in the Lab’s honor. In fact, you could attribute a rather substantial amount of the periodic table to Ernest Lawrence and what he started here.

Take seaborgium (Sg), for example. Element 106 was discovered by Albert Ghiorso and E. Kenneth Hulet in 1974, here at LBNL. They named their discovery in honor of Glenn Seaborg—UC Berkeley professor, chancellor, and winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Seaborg received the prize in honor of his part in discovering the following elements: plutonium (Pu), americium (Am), curium (Cm), berkelium (Bk), californium (Cf), einsteinium (Es), fermium (Fm), mendelevium (Md), and nobelium (No).

Science at Cal Day

The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the kids were shooting 2L bottle rockets 30 feet into the air! Cal Day 2011 was an absolute hit with local families and college-seeking high school students. If you weren’t there, then you missed out.

Each year, the departments and museums of UC Berkeley open their doors to share all sorts of Cal-tastic projects, research, and activities with thousands of visitors. With the beautiful sunny weather, this year’s crowd nearly exhausted the hundreds of Cal students who volunteered their time… exhausted with fun, that is!

Outside McLaughlin Hall, a dedicated team of undergraduate students (CalSol) showed off their recently completed, street-legal solar car. With a price tag of $200k for the final product, this project brought together engineering undergrads from throughout the college, providing them with practical, hands-on experience in design. Meanwhile, in Hearst Mining Circle another group of undergrad engineers spent the afternoon grilling up hot dogs for hungry passersby. On Memorial Glade, kids posed for pictures with a larger-than-life Oski. And Sproul Plaza was packed.

E4K and Cal Day are for everyone!

In early March, over 1,000 faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students came together for a week-long celebration of everything engi-nerdy. In a festival of duct-taped professor competitions, trivia nights, and moon bouncer obstacle courses, Cal’s College of Engineering took part in a nation-wide celebration known as National Engineers Week. The capstone event, held on Saturday, March 12, was the annual Engineering For Kids (E4K) outreach science and engineering extravaganza. Hundreds of local families came to campus that chilly morning to introduce their 4th – 6th grade children to all kinds of engineering fun.

Graduate Women of Engineering (GWE) organized an elephant toothpaste activity and a foil boat competition.

BEAM: Cal engineering students take it to the classroom

Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) is an after-school science program run by UC Berkeley undergraduates for local K-12 students. Students who teach for BEAM can develop their own lesson plans and enroll for course credit (through DeCal), and they have lasting impacts on children in our local schools. Founded two years ago by Cal students who

“Duck, duck, goose!” Tilden Park is a hotspot for fun in winter

Tilden Park is one of our under-appreciated East Bay treasures. While it may not be prime barbeque weather, there is still plenty of fun to be had at Tilden. And quite a bit of it is family-friendly fun for all ages! To start with, they have a miniature ridge-top steam train. Nowhere else in the Bay Area lets you take an afternoon and ride a tiny train that goes, well, effectively nowhere. Steam trains, of course, are what our country was built on. BART, Caltrain, and Amtrak are all electric, but steam trains are where the real history is. The train runs on weekends and holidays.

If you prefer something more natural and picturesque, the Botanic Garden is the place for you. Home to a variety of endangered plants, the garden also boasts the largest collection of native California plants in the world. Some deciduous trees are still dropping leaves, and the cacti are greener than ever.

Elephant seals: It’s baby-making time

Last January, I visited Año Nuevo State Park for a ranger-guided nature walk of the elephant seal rookery. Thousands of elephant seals were sprawled along the beaches of the park. The largest males frantically attempted to guard their massive harems, while outcast males, who had lost the earlier territory battles, repeatedly tried to sneak in from the water’s edges.

Just as the ranger explained that male elephant seals can grow to the size of a Suburban, he guided our group across a path that looked like it had been carved by the dragging of a very large, heavy sack. Just 20 feet away lay a basking, multi-ton male.

Goodbye to the Bevatron

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) and staff say their final goodbyes to a special facility this month: the Bevatron. Opened in 1954, the Bevatron (otherwise known as Building 51) was an operational proton accelerator until 1993. In those 39 years, research at the Bevatron produced several Nobel Prizes, including the 1959 Prize to Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain for the discovery of the antiproton.

At the time of construction, the Bevatron was the leading particle accelerator in the world! It cost a whopping $9 million to build (don’t ask about the demolition cost).

Monterey Bay Aquarium will tickle you pink

Yet another thing I love about October: it’s breast cancer awareness month, so it is also the national month of pink. One pink thing we can all celebrate is the Hot Pink Flamingos exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is just one of several new works at the Aquarium; others include a sea turtle tank, an informational wing about how global warming affects ocean life, and a small flock of sea birds rescued from an oil spill. These energetic little birds are really enjoying their temporary stay in the kelp forest exhibit, which features hand feedings by divers twice daily.

Flamingos is centered around the idea that even our seemingly small daily choices impact our lives substantially in the long run. Take the example of food: for birds, their diet creates the vivid colors of their feathers, and for us, how we grow our food has substantial impacts on energy consumption and environmental health, among other things.

Blast-off to Chabot Space & Science Center

In 1883, a public telescope was erected in Oakland as part of an observatory open to the curious public. Today this same telescope still stands, but ten years ago it was relocated to the Oakland Hills where the Chabot Space and Science Center was built.

Chabot has dedicated itself to serving the scientific and educational needs of the local community for over a century. The hands-on science museum boasts over 160,000 visitors and an operating budget of over $9 million annually. The center’s dedicated and creative staff, as well as the enthusiasm of our local science-hungry public, make Chabot a success in its mission to inform children about space and science.

Cal Science & Engineering Festival – Save the date!

UPDATE: The festival has been postponed because of the rain forecast. Since there is no indoor location big enough to hold all the excitement we have about science here at Cal, we will have to wait for a dry day to reschedule. I’ll update again when they choose a new date.

October has been a great month for a long time now. The Germans brought us Oktoberfest. The Celts brought us Hallowe’en (sort of). Across the US the leaves change, the apples are picked, the rains begin, and the days grow short.

And now we have one more great reason to love October: the first ever USA Science & Engineering Festival will run from October 10 through 24 and includes festivals, concerts, and celebrations of science across the country. Of course, nobody does science and engineering like we do here at Cal!

Stargaze with the Lawrence Hall of Science

Many of you are probably familiar with the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) and its spectacular location in the Berkeley hills. During the day, the LHS provides a delightful scientific treat topped with a cherry-perfect view of the Bay Area. At night, however, that spectacular view takes on a new character: the city lights twinkle below, an earthly reflection of the domed star-sprinkled sky above. The view is, in a word, inspiring.

That view is exactly what inspired the free public stargazing nights that the LHS runs on the 1st and 3rd Saturday nights of each month, year-round.

Ocean science: An exciting wave in Cal education and outreach

In the spring 2010 semester, a class of Berkeley undergrads experienced a rather unique curriculum on ocean science and education. The course, Communicating Ocean Sciences to Informal Audiences (COSIA), was originally developed by the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence California (COSEE Ca), which is a collaborative partnership between our very own Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The course is aimed toward students whose studies relate to ocean science or whose career goals include science teaching and outreach. COSIA was designed as a program to foster creative science teaching methods, especially directed toward the general public. The curriculum has been so successful in the college classroom that 20 other institutions nationwide have now implemented it!

Planting the SEED for Science Education

About five years ago, the Berkeley Engineering Resources Collaborative (BERC) was born out of the collaborative minds of energy- and resource-interested students in the Haas School of Business. The founding goal of BERC was to promote collaboration among different departments and organizations at UC Berkeley. Today the Collaborative draws on mind-power from all over the UC Berkeley campus as well as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

The efforts of BERC extend beyond the higher-education and research community, however, with a unique outreach effort underway in local elementary schools: Students for Environmental Energy Development (SEED). SEED is run entirely by a group of science and engineering graduate students. Together, they have fully developed two complete after-school curricula: one on energy and one on water. During the school year, this same group of graduate students implements their lesson plans in classrooms at various schools in the Berkeley/Oakland area.


Cal Academy NightLife goes Extreme…Mammals

The California Academy of Sciences, located in the San Francisco Golden Gate Park, runs an evening program called NightLife every Thursday from 6-10 pm. Each NightLife has a unique scientific theme as well as a DJ, dance floor, and alcoholic beverages for purchase (you must be over 21 with valid ID to enter NightLife). Non-member tickets are $12 and can be purchased online or at the door.

I first visited the Cal Academy last year when NightLife was fresh on the table and the line to get in wrapped around the block, no matter how windy or cold the San Francisco evening. Even now, the event remains popular with hundreds of guests visiting every Thursday evening. The Academy’s current highlight is Extreme Mammals, which runs through September 12 this year, and it’s a must-see for adults and kids alike.