Month: November 2018

Cubic Wombat Poop

One of the many reasons why I love biology is when a great and weird story gets told about some kind of living phenomenon. This week I was surprised to learn that wombat feces are cubic. Evidently it’s been known for quite some time that the wombat’s poop is cube shaped and it is hypothesized that wombats use it to mark their territories and the fact that it is cubed means that it doesn’t easily roll away, but it more likely has to do with attempting to conserve water and the structure of their digestive tract.

Dr. Patricia Yang and co-workers investigated the physical properties of the wombat intestine and determined that variation in the amount of stretch in different sections (by using an inflated balloon no less!) resulted in the cubic feces. As you can imagine, the wombat poop finding is receiving a lot of attention in the popular media. In my opinion the best headline goes to Vice.

Fun fact: Dr. Yang won the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for testing the biological principle that most mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds.



Planning a New Course in Science Communication

Next term I’m launching a new 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication. I’ve wanted to teach a course on this topic for a while as I think that teaching our students how to communicate science to a range of audiences will be useful to them. Ideally we’ll get to a point where they can enter into dialogues with others about science, rather than having the interaction be one sided.

It’s been fun to think about what topics to cover in the course and what order to present them to the students. I’ve also been developing assignments for the course that I’m hoping will be useful for the students to complete and am aiming to have them be interesting and enjoyable too. Several months ago I sent out a call on Twitter to crowdsource resources and ideas and I was not disappointed!

My own relationship with science communication has been an ever-changing journey. I recognized its importance when I was a plant biology graduate student during the mid-90’s and consistently found myself at parties having conversations with people about genetic engineering. Most of these conversations were frustrating for me as I felt that I wasn’t very effective at articulating my viewpoint and was very shocked by the beliefs (true or not) that other people held about the technology. I’d like to think that I’ve become a better communicator since then, but I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to my new class next term and will be learning a great deal of new content and ideas alongside my students.

I received very little explicit instruction or education about how to be an effective science communicator. I think that this is a skill of increasing importance, not only in academia, but in other career paths that my students may choose once they leave the university. I think that I have an obligation to engage with various audiences about my science and science in general due to the fact that my research is funded by the public. I also think that if we as scientists do not have a role in crafting the narrative about science and the process of doing science that other incorrect or harmful narratives will be offered up by others. I’m hoping that by teaching this course I will be giving my students some of the tools that they will need to be effective and engaging ambassadors for science and that this is a worthy endeavour.


Movies from my childhood: Not as awesome as I remember…

More often than not on Friday evenings my family has a movie night at home. My kids are 15 and 11 and we are finally at the point where we can regularly watch films that are rated PG rather than G. This has been pretty neat and recently we’ve been introducing our kids to several films that my husband and I really enjoyed from our own childhoods.

The first one up was The Last Unicorn. That movie really made the rounds at birthday parties in 1982/1983 and I saw it a lot as a kid. My family wasn’t particularly impressed and watching it recently made me aware that there are many themes in the movie that aren’t really kid friendly. I remember being terrified of the Red Bull (no, not the energy drink) when I watched it as a kid.

Our next film was Labyrinth starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of awesome muppets. It’s full of catchy musical numbers (Dance Magic anyone?) and the Bog of Eternal Stench. My kids enjoyed it, especially my daughter.

Recently we watched the entire Back to the Future series (1985-1990) which gets worse as you go along. The first film has a really clever premise and we all really enjoyed it. I seem to recall that numbers II and III were filmed back to back which was pretty revolutionary at the time, but is more common today for large productions like Lord of the Rings and Marvel movies.

After that we watched The Dark Crystal (1982). It has a somewhat complicated plot and my daughter was thoroughly confused by the ending of the film.

Our most recent selection was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) . This film does not hold up well over time. It’s funny to see Keanu Reeves actually emoting in a film and I found myself wondering whatever happened to Alex Winter. The fashion choices in this film are epic.

A few things have happened while we’ve watched these films. The first is the recognition that we have come a long way as a society in terms of social justice since the 1980’s. Some of what is in these films is hard to watch and literally had me cringing in my seat at times. Many of the above films are products of their times and feature harmful racial stereotypes, homophobia, sexism, etc. Rather than attempting to “protect” our kids by pre-screening these films, we’ve been watching them together and having conversations about disturbing and disappointing content as it comes up. My son in particular has been really appalled by some of the scenes in these films (especially a horribly homophobic one in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

I’m almost scared to watch The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink…