The eagles have landed!

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Something else awesome has been happening in South Bend, Indiana, this week besides the wake and funeral of Notre Dame legend Theodore Hesburgh. And while that something hasn’t had electric signs highlighting where to park, it’s a first-time-in-a-century event.

In short, the eagles have landed!

Drive a few miles north of Notre Dame’s golden dome, turn left off Route 933 and then park by the big barns at St. Patrick’s County Park. In addition to enjoying the excitement of snow shoeing and tubing, you can see the first bald eagle nest in St. Joseph County in over 100 years.

I was privileged to visit the site earlier this week as part of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources’ workshop, “Talking Science, Telling Stories: Natural Resource Journalism in the Great Lakes.” Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, the workshop brought together researchers, journalists, field workers and others to explore some of the cutting edge science and conservation challenges presented in and around the Great Lakes region.

St. Patrick’s County Park is host to the Environmental Change Initiative’s Linked Environmental Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or LEEF. The facility pumps groundwater up into a kidney-shaped pond, from which it flows into a stream and wetland. The system can also be configured in different ways to bypass different parts in that chain.

The aim will let researchers design experiments and test hypotheses under controlled conditions. For example, how long does it take DNA to degrade in a freshwater system? Or, what are the impacts of something upstream on downstream habitats?

Using land at the county park provides space that is close to campus but not otherwise readily available in the midst of classroom buildings, a basilica, library and expansive football stadium. The county park location also provides opportunities for public outreach. Those opportunities include teacher programs, field trips and public outreach days. In short, everyone can have a chance to see science in action.

“We wanted an environmentally friendly facility,” park director Evie Kirkwood told us.

The site was so environmentally friendly that it attracted the county’s first bald eagle nest in 100 years. Built from LOTS of twigs and sticks, the nest measures six feet across. After all, bald eagles are big—especially when they spread their wings!

As exciting as the new eagle’s nest is, it adds a few wrinkles to LEEF’s plans. Federal law restricts activities for up to 650 feet from an active nesting site. More stringent limits apply closer in.

If the eagles stay at the nest and make it permanent, the limits will continue to apply. If the birds leave, that would mean fewer restrictions on the new research facility and other park activities. Yet their departure would also deprive visitors of the chance to see bald eagles up close—or at least as close as allowed under federal law.

“The next few weeks will be critical,” said Kirkwood, adding that she was “surprised” more birders hadn’t come out to the park yet to view the bald eagles.

A Rewritable Screen That Stays On—Even When the Power Is Off

Let the power run down completely on your laptop, computer tablet, digital clock or other electronic devices, and the screen goes blank. Basically no power means no image.

That doesn’t have to be the case. A new optically rewritable LCD screen does not need its own power source. Plus, its images can appear in 3-D.

Once an image has been uploaded, the screen “does not need any power, of any kind,” to hold the 3-D image,” says Abhishek Srivastava, whose team of researchers developed the new screen at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Optics Letters published the team’s study on November 1, 2014.

So, how does the new LCD screen work?

LCD stands for liquid crystal display. Material in one or more layers of the display flow like liquid, but have a structure similar to crystals. In general, the material’s structure affects how much light it lets through. LCDs are in screens for many electronic devices.

As with other LCDs, the new screen makes pictures with pixels. Think of them as thousands of tiny dots. The more twisted the structure of the liquid crystal molecules is in a pixel, the more it lights up.

A dye in the top layer of Srivastava’s screen is sensitive to polarized blue light. A flash of that light makes the long molecular axis of the dye rotate in particular ways to form a 3-D image. Anchoring forces caused by the dye then hold the image in place until someone uploads a new one.

One advantage Srivastava notes is that the image is 3-D. Second, he says, “It needs less optical energy to update the image, and it is faster in comparison” to other LCD screens.

Beyond this, he says, “the image resolution can be extremely high,” although the LCD printer that uploads the image could be a practical limitation.

“Last but not least,” Srivastava says, “the power consumption is greatly reduced.”

The new screen could lower energy use for e-book readers, computers, power monitors and other electronic devices. The screen might also be used for rewritable credit cards or ID cards.

Other developments still need to take place before the screens make their way into computer devices, especially those with color and moving images. “Our technology is ready for the gray still image,” Srivastava says. “Hopefully full color might be available by next year.”

In any case, the study is a neat example of how physics, material science and engineering can come together to shine new light on technology.


Original journal source: J. Sun, et al. “Optically rewritable 3D liquid crystal displays.” Optics Letters. Vol. 39, p. 6209, Nov. 1, 2014.



3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Turkey

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will once again head over the river and through the woods—or onto the interstates and jam-packed jets, as the case may be. Millions more will stay home to host family and friends. Most will likely serve turkey. After all, it’s America’s traditional Thanksgiving entrée.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Long, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, here are three things Long shared that you probably didn’t know about turkey.

  1. There may no longer be any populations of the wild turkey that was the ancestor of the turkey most Americans will eat this Thanksgiving.

Long and other scientists from USDA, the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute determined that the ancestor of today’s Thanksgiving dinner turkeys was most likely a wild turkey from Mexico.

However, the only place the team could find that turkey was as a preserved specimen at the Smithsonian Institution. And that turkey was genetically distinct from today’s wild turkeys.

“The wild birds that are in North America are not genetically related to the commercial breeds that we eat,” Long says. The team published its findings in BMC Genomics in 2012.

Apparently, early Spanish explorers took the ancestral birds back to Europe. Farmers there developed different breeds. Later, English colonists brought domesticated turkeys with them to Jamestown. So much for a totally “American” tradition.

  1. Although many media photos of live turkeys show brown birds, the turkey on most Americans’ tables this Thanksgiving will have had white feathers.

Brown turkeys are tasty and edible. But they probably wouldn’t look that good to most Americans.

“At the tip of every feather that’s colored, there’s a bit of pigment in the skin,” Long explains.

That pigment causes dark spots on the skin. Rather than educate people about the meat’s wholesomeness, commercial turkey breeders just raise white turkeys instead.

  1. All turkeys for large-scale U.S. commercial operations must be artificially inseminated.

In a quest to get the most white meat per turkey at the lowest cost, farmers have bred turkeys to have “enormous breasts,” says Long. “A male turkey can up to get up to 70 or 80 pounds when they’re mature,” says Long.

However, those big-breasted males “physically can’t get where they need to be,” Long says. As a result, farmers need to help them along with artificial means. Because of poultry’s biology, however, achieving high rates of success is more difficult than it is for mammals.

I’m thankful that Long shared these insights with me, along with lots of other fascinating information for the article I was preparing at the time. That piece should be out this winter.

More generally, I’m grateful for all the patience and courtesies that researchers show to me throughout the year so I can better understand and write about science. And I’m thankful for readers who enjoy this blog, along with my books and articles for a variety of outlets.

Here’s hoping everyone has a blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving!



Sleeping Like a Baby

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Everyone knows newborn babies sleep a lot. At least, that’s what the books say–although many sleep-deprived parents might disagree. But why?

Scientists have mounting evidence to support the idea that sleep is necessary for effective learning and memory functions. Other research links lack of sleep to increased risks for different types of mental disease.

Now new research adds additional support for the broader idea that researcher Howard Roffwarg and his colleagues suggested as early as 1966–that infant sleep might help in the structural maturation of circuits in the central nervous system.

The new study shows those circuits aren’t limited to those needed for learning and memory. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation could last much longer than we think. Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania presented the research at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2014 annual meeting.

Sehgal first described how fruit flies are a useful model for sleep research. For starters, they’re practical. Fruit flies are cheap to use and breed in large numbers.

Second, fruit flies have many of the same behaviors that mammals do. And yes, fruit flies actually sleep.

Fruit flies have a simpler anatomy than mammals, however. As a result, it’s easier for researchers to do dissections and identify interactions in their central nervous systems.

And beyond all of this, fruit flies are useful for forward genetics work. They have distinct mutant phenotypes with less redundancy and compensation. Modify the genetic makeup, and the fruit fly usually won’t be able to make up for the change with other mechanisms. With these factors in mind, researchers have developed several specific strains of fruit flies to have particular characteristics.

The research team explored how differences in fruit flies’ neurotransmitter levels affected different aspects of sleep, such as difficulty in arousing them from sleep or “rebound” after a period of sleep deprivation.

Researchers also looked at fruit flies’ behavior. In particular, the team found that particular scent pathways that are necessary for effective courtship behavior did not function properly in mature flies if they had been deprived of sleep after being newly hatched.  Sehgal and her colleagues Matthew Kayser and Zhifeng Yue published the research in the journal Science in April 2014.

Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) ranted about NIH funding research “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” Sehgal said yes, her group’s research was what Rand was referring to.

But the study wasn’t about sex, she stressed. And while the study was done with fruit flies, their importance as an animal model means that human researchers can learn a lot from the results.

Bottom line: Much more happens in newborn sleep than we realize. And scientists now have measurable evidence to document some of what’s going on.

Of course, much more work remains to be done. Maybe some of today’s newborns will one day add to the growing body of scientific knowledge and understanding about the brain.

And maybe their parents will get to catch up on some sleep.


What’s for Lunch?

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

What’s on your child’s lunch tray? It depends on whether your child packs lunch or buys the full meal deal available under the National School Lunch Program.

Either way, the meal probably meets nutrition standards “almost entirely,” says Alisha Farris, lead author of a new study at Virginia Tech. The report appears in the November/December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Lunches brought from home were more likely to exceed recommendations for fat and saturated fat. They were also more likely to have dessert items, savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers examined both types of school lunches for kids in preschool and kindergarten after implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards. The results are mostly consistent with earlier studies that compared school lunch program and packed lunches for different grade levels.

“This is consistent with what we have seen,” says Beth Spinks, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the Berea City School District in Ohio.

Yet while packed lunches on average came close to meeting nutrition standards, there was still a lot of variation in what was in those lunches. At one point Spinks asked a grad student to evaluate packed lunches brought by fifth graders in that school district.

“They were all over the place in nutrients,” Spinks says. Indeed, some lunches packed by students themselves “just had chips and cookies.”

To the extent school lunches fell short in the Virginia Tech study, it was generally on the energy and iron recommendations. When it comes to calories, kids don’t have to take all the items offered by school meal plans, and researchers were focusing on what kids actually had on their trays.

Just having food on their trays isn’t enough, though. Kids actually have to eat the food to get the nutritional value, and the Virginia Tech team recognized this as a limitation in their study. Thus, one recommendation it makes for future studies is to gather food waste data and compare consumption for packed and school lunches.

Spinks agrees this would be worthwhile.

“When we watch the garbage cans, we see a lot of food from both the packed and purchased lunches being thrown away,” she says. “We need to figure out why. Planning a great lunch does nothing if the child does not eat it.”

Meanwhile, the study could be helpful to promote school meals and give parents suggestions for packing lunches, she notes.

And nutrition isn’t the only thing parents should focus on if they pack lunches for themselves or children. Food safety matters too, stresses Spinks.

Now there’s another topic for research….



Creative Minds in Medicine

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the "Dip Down" jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the “Dip Down” jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

What do the arts and medicine have in common? More than you might think.

This week’s Creative Minds in Medicine conference in Cleveland brings together a wide range of experts from both the artistic and medical communities. Presented by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the program spotlights some of the many ways art can contribute to better health outcomes and how health issues are influencing art.

Different forms of art therapy have been practiced for decades, but innovation continues. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a prime example. Founder Gary Glazner led the packed conference room through a spirited session using call-and-response, stories, and on-the-spot composition. The session showed how the project uses poetry to improve the quality of life for patients with memory loss.

Deforia Lane’s presentation on the healing power of music showed how and why music therapy is helping people of all ages dealing with mental and physical disease and disabilities. Lane directs art and music therapy at University Hospitals Case Medical Center’s Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland. Her rousing session had participants singing along, clapping, and even hand-dancing. (You had to be there.)

Research results support these and other forms of art therapy. But more is needed, stressed Sunil Iyengar of the National Endowment for the Arts. Toward that end, his office offers some grants and is partnering with other government agencies to increase funding opportunities for researchers.

But art doesn’t just help patients directly. It can help health professionals too—enabling them to serve patients better.

Toward that end, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Vital Signs program for healthcare professionals brings medical residents and students into the museum for focused programs. Rather than spending just a few seconds in front of an artwork, groups focus on them for about 20 minutes. They discuss pieces of art together, and questions help them see and appreciate different perspectives.

Artists and designers are producing products and services that help the medical community too. A design and innovation panel showcased mobile apps, custom-designed skull plates, and even adaptive clothing.

The program continues today in Cleveland. And artists and designers in Ohio and elsewhere will continue to innovate and contribute to medicine and other fields that touch our lives everyday.



Spooky Data?

Would you believe Minnesota’s Twin Cities rank first and second on a list of the United States’ 100 best cities for celebrating Halloween this year?

So says a new study from WalletHub, a personal finance social network founded by Evolution Finance. The same study ranks Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last, behind Anchorage, Alaska, and Detroit, Michigan.

Despite the study’s conclusions, though, you won’t see me booking a flight to rush to Minnesota, where the Twin Cities’ current forecast calls for sunny weather but a high of just 42° F. Nor would I flee Winston-Salem, where the high on Friday is expected to be 63° F.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

For one thing, jet-setting in search of the perfect Halloween city isn’t for me—nor for most people, I expect.

More importantly, the fact that one study ranks a city above or below others depends on the criteria. Yes, some things can be measured objectively. But the weight study authors give to different factors doesn’t necessarily reflect that I might value.

In this study, for example, the methodology assessed things such as weather forecast data, crime rates, percentage of the population under age 14, prices for Halloween party tickets and other entertainment, and even the number of candy stores per capita.

Certainly I would rank safety and the relative percentage of children as items that help make somewhere a good place to celebrate Halloween. Last-place Winston-Salem ranked 96th there, although 44th-place Scottsdale, Arizona, ranked 98th.

I also agree that weather is an important factor. Living in the Midwest, I often designed my kids’ costumes to allow plenty of room for them to wear warm jackets underneath. And a Halloween with torrential rain isn’t much fun for kids or the adults who take them around trick-or-treating.

In this year’s report, El Paso, Texas, tied with Las Vegas, Nevada, for first place weather-wise. Yet while El Paso ranked 22nd overall, Las Vegas placed 10th—even though the safety rank for Las Vegas was 76, compared to 29 for El Paso.

The reason: The study’s methodology gave Las Vegas a much higher “parties and activities” rank than it gave El Paso. But, duh! Las Vegas bills itself as a “parties and activities” destination. I wouldn’t want to take my kids trick-or-treating from casino to casino, though. Nor would I, as an adult, necessarily want to find myself in the middle of a huge costumed throng, trying to live up to the motto that what happens in Vegas stays there. Large parties and a vibrant bar scene are fine as far as they go. But I wouldn’t let them be a deciding factor in which city is “better” for celebrating Halloween than another city.

Other criteria in the methodology likewise seem irrelevant to me. The number of candy stores per capita? Sure, I’ve been in some superb confectionaries. Chatham Candy Manor on Cape Cod makes some amazing fudge, for example, and Malley’s is a venerable establishment in Cleveland. But for stuff to give trick-or-treaters, don’t most of us just head to the local supermarket for a name brand item?

The number of costume stores per capita seems irrelevant as well. The average person buying a costume may well spend more than $77 this year, and I understand the business can be a nice uptick for the local economy. But a costume store on every corner doesn’t make one city better than another for celebrating Halloween.

In short, the worth of any study depends on its methodology. And any survey combining and weighting different factors necessarily involves some value judgments on the part of the researchers.

WalletHub’s study is still interesting and worthwhile. As with any similar study, though, it’s important to look behind the rankings and dig deeper into the data.


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