Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spotted on Sunday: Spring Fling

Outdoor Afro has initiated a new Sunday Meme - Spotted on Sunday (SOS)!

These posts are a fun way to help make visible people of color outdoors enjoying all types of recreational activities.
Anyone can submit a photo to Outdoor Afro via email, if you first obtain:
consent to take and share the picture
name(s) of the individuals — last names not required
location and brief description of the activity
I’ll select one SOS photo to post each weekend, but all submissions are entered into a monthly drawing to win an Outdoor Afro ceramic travel mug, through July 30, 2010. Winners will be notified via email.
So…join the SOS effort to help make people of color be visible in America’s natural spaces and get a chance to win some cool OA swag!

These are pictures of my niece, enjoying herself at the the Missouri Botanical Garden. She's a burgeoning naturalist, just like her Aunt. (Smile)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Right under my nose: Dr. Rubye Torrey, Sister in Science

I met Dr. Rubye Torrey (yes, with an e) as an undergraduate student at Tennessee Technological University. I had seen in the University Center, walking along the Quad, in the Administration building and at football games. She was the Assistant Vice-President of Research at the University, but that meant nothing to me, although I was studying science and doing research with live animals. At the time I had absolutely no appreciation of research administration, research protocols, policies, animal care (IACUC), review boards ( IRB), or the role of administrators like Dr. Torrey – that would eventually occupy my days and nights as a graduate student. No, I officially met her for the first time on a blustery winter’s evening in 1994. I was attending an interest tea and she was the sorority advisor. She struck me as a very formal woman. She had a sweet face, but I immediately sensed she was no nonsense. I was quite right.

My three years under her tutelage and supervision in Xi Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., were perhaps like anyone else’s who belonged to one of the Divine 9 organizations. With little exception, undergraduate sorority and fraternity members are adolescents: cocky, self-absorbed, indestructible, know-it-all-kids full of energy and excitement about belonging to a grand sister/brotherhood. We want to conquer it all. The job of these selfless, giving (and no nonsense) advisors is keep droves of crazed, impetuous, souls from running amuck, unintentionally despoiling our sister/brotherhood, and simultaneously prepare us to be responsible citizens who serve mankind – all for free. I cannot say I was better behaved (or appreciated how much a labor of love it is to be a graduate advisor), though my brand of cockiness was a more passive arrogance. I was brat, but I didn’t know it then. But that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t know.

I graduated from college, with a degree in Animal Science. I continue my studies and obtained a Master’s degree in Biology and I later went on to study at the doctorate level. Fast forward to March 2007. I’m sitting in a workshop at the National Science Teachers Association National meeting. I’m sitting next to a lovely woman, who favors my maternal grandmother. We strike up a conversation and I learn she is a Biology professor at Howard University -- Dr. Geraldine Twitty. I am beaming and excited. Never before had I had the opportunity to meet an African-American Woman who was scientist. She asked me about my educational background and schools I have attended. She then asks if I know Dr. Rubye Torrey. I immediately sit up, surprised that anyone else other than my sorority sisters know who DT is (as we called her). Dr. Twitty tells me that she and Dr. Torrey are long time friends, from Sigma Xi conferences of years past.

It hits me. Dr. Torrey is a scientist! It’s not like I didn’t know she wasn’t a PhD in Chemistry. Once she shared a story of her carrying a sulfate chemical on the bus in Nashville – where she was studying for her Master’s. But it just didn’t hit me, until this very moment. I had only known Dr. Torrey as my sorority advisor and not once did I give pause to ask what brought her to us or what academic and professional hurdles did she jump to be in a position to advise us. Not only did I never realize that she was the very first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Syracuse University (in 1963), but she was an upper-level university administrator. As the top science administrator on our campus she had to sign off on my undergraduate research project. Right under my nose, I had access to an African-American Woman Scientist and I never knew. It’s probably because at the time, I didn’t know I’d be where I am today – preparing for an academic career in science, following in the footsteps of Dr. Torrey. Now that I’m on this side of the path, I appreciate her more. She was thorough, effective, and sharp. My sorority sisters and I couldn’t get away with a thing. Nothing. But that’s precisely what makes one a great scientist and a great research administrator. If only I had known then what I now know: science is an endeavor of accuracy and precision. If one is thorough in one facet of life, it’s likely to carry over into others. Dr. Torrey was a consummate professional. It’s a real shame my adolescent stubbornness didn’t allow me to recognize her as the mentor she could have been and how much of an amazing scientists she is. I missed out. I missed out big time.

I learned more about Dr. Torrey, Dr. Twitty, and other women scientists from this amazing book:
It's a perfect book to learn more about the contributions of women to science and engineering

Additional online references to Dr. Torrey:
The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science, AAAS Report 1976.
Her engagement announcement from the Washington Afro-American, July 16, 1957

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Understanding push-pull market forces and promoting science to under-served audiences

Whenever a news source or blog community claims to be a go-to source of information for African-American audiences, I take a quick look at the tabs or regular feature titles and I always find one major subject area lacking: Science.

To be fair, science coverage across all media outlets has been severely cut back. However, long before the threat of extinction of print media, Black Newspapers and Magazines didn't have much to offer in the area of science coverage. And when online media became more popular, the trend didn't change. Where's the science? Other than the occasional Black health update and the annual Black History Month profile articles, Black periodicals do not feature science news. The lone exception is if the article has a Black angle, in other words, if the article can be tied directly to issues that identify with the African-American community, such as disparity statistics or African-American firsts.

Acknowledging some past confrontations with research communities, there is a general uncertainty when it comes to science and science research within the African-American community. However, I don't understand how or why this has translated to an overwhelming lack of coverage of science-related topics altogether.

My time teaching science to inner-city high school students as a NSF GK-12 Fellow really opened my eyes to something every science communicator should understand: I needed to relate the information to them in a way they would understand and in a medium they would readily consume. As my efforts to share science with under-served audiences grew, I realized that I needed to carry my message to them, not wait for them to come to me.

A year ago I published two articles in the St. Louis American, a local Black weekly paper. These articles were well-received by the editor and the public. I was invited to submit more articles. I did. I saw writing for this news outlet as a chance to share interesting and relevant science with a general audience. I was carrying the message - science news - to them - a demographic that was probably not subscribed to other popular science media, but might be modestly interested in some general science topics. However, none of my other submissions were as eagerly accepted as my first two articles. I concluded that these latter articles may not have been as attractive because they lacked an obvious 'why it matters to Black people' angle. I never received any formal feedback for my submissions, so I'm not sure.

Although, I write about science issues in a way that (attempts to) directly engage (s) the African-American community, I felt dismayed by the perceived pressure to always 'African-American-ize' the stories. Race or politics or socio-economics factors aren't always the hook for Black audiences. Or is it? Perhaps it was my lack of skill in writing science-related articles for general audiences. I twice applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program and was twice turned down. I figured I needed to learn 'how' to write for general audiences in a professional manner. Again, I received to no feedback on my denial, so I concluded my interest in learning how to communicate science to target audiences was too narrow for AAAS, but I don't know.

So, I was left with my expertise in science and my passion for science outreach, yet no vehicle to deliver the message directly to my target audience. Then I read blog post by Bora that articulated all of deepest thoughts and feelings about this matter, emphasis mine.

The problem is with the "push" versus "pull" models of communication. Many scientists communicate well, but are only allowed by the mainstream media to use the "pull" model which attracts only those who are already interested in science. The examples of "pull" media for science are popular science magazines, news sections of scientific journals, science sections of newspapers, science blogs, science-related radio shows, science-related shows on cable TV, i.e., all those places where people have a choice to seek this information or bypass it.

It is the mainstream media that controls all the "push" venues - the most popular print, radio and TV venues that are seen by everyone and where science could, potentially, be mixed in with the news coverage of other areas of life, thus delivering science stories to people who otherwise would never seek them. And it is there that the scientists have no access, certainly no access on their own terms, and thus it is there where the science communication is blocked. Scientists communicate all the time, and do it well, but only to the already receptive audience which actively seeks them - in special sections, or self-made media, carefully quarantined away from the mainstream news. The corporate media
actively prevents the scientists from access to the non-receptive yet potentially interested audience.

Image credit:

This so true. Looking specifically at this issue via an African-American or urban community lens, the pull forces are relatively weak compared to coverage about economics, politics, and celebrity gossip. However, outlets such as weekly Black Newspapers, Ebony/Jet, AOL BlackVoices or even BET TV and Radio One have amazing push power on their readership/listenership/viewership. Very large numbers people loyally tune into these media outlets and if they dared to include more science-related coverage people would consume it (and use it to inform their lives). Plus, it would make huge inroads to closing the science literacy gap (and eliminating anti-intellectualism) within some parts of the African-American community.

Just my thoughts,

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How a dissertation defense (in science) goes down

Last Wednesday, I defended my dissertation. A dissertation is a relatively large written work, consisting of 3 or more original essays by an advanced level graduate student. In science, the essays are actually research experiments and literature review papers about lots of other experiments. To defend my dissertation the professors who oversee my work and other guidance (called a committee) approve my projects from the beginning and monitor my progress along the way. Once, I was told that I collected enough data, I stopped doing experiments and I started to analyze the results (in other words, did lots of math) and wrote up the papers. If they like what they read, they give me the thumbs up to present the research to the university. That’s what I did last Wednesday; and I did something few people dare to do…I did before the entire world wide web. See Science Careers Blog A Dissertation Defense, Live-Streamed and Tweeted (with an Update).

Dissertation Defenses are public events. That means anyone can come, such as your family (mine was there), the professors on your committee, fellow classmates, and other professors and college administrators. I decided to simultaneously live stream my defense online for 2 reasons. One, one of my committee members couldn’t be there so that was the only way to defend or else what until he returned to town in May (no way). Two, I’m an online science outreach evangelist. Of course, I was going to share this part of the scientific process with the public. It’s what I do.
According to all feedback received thus far, the live stream went well. At one point a little over 100 people were tuned in watching the defense, including some local professors who wanted to make it but couldn’t. The feed blanked out for a few moments, you can’t see me at all in the feed (but you can hear me crystal clear), and the recorded portions are in three pieces. Nonetheless you can get a pretty good handle on my dissertation and my presentation style.

If you’re interested in my research, the links to the recorded video feed are below as well as my slides from the presentation. Big thanks to all of the twitter feed contributors and Boing Boing for spreading the word.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Oh, and you can call me Dr. now.

Related links:
Wordless Wednesday: Stack of Papers
Countdown to my Defense: T-minus 5 days

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

#LeeDefense Day 3/10/2010

An Investigation of Behavioral Syndromes and Individual Differences in Exploratory Behavior of Prairie Voles, Microtus ochrogaster
photo credit:
photo credit:

Okay, it's not wordless. Has it ever been? I'm preparing for my big day and I keep running lists through my mind.

* The talk is ready.
* The tech was been worked out: I've made a successful Skype call to the out of town committee member. The video feed logistics seem to be working. Not only does it live feed, I can record it and folks can check it out later.
* My mom and family are in town and checked into the hotel. (There was some drama there, aaargh! But it all worked out.

Really the only thing I need to do now is get my hair done and pick out an outfit. And rest. Rest is definitely in order.

But I keep thinking I need "to study" for my defense tomorrow. After the public defense, the committee questions me privately about my research, why it matters, and whatever else they like. I keep thinking some one will ask me about quantum physics or neurobiology. Aaaarghh! Panic sets in.

The public defense begins promptly at 10 am CST.

The defense will be video streamed at:
I'll start streaming around 9:30 to get things set up. Big THANKS to my labmate L. Kent and her husband T. Kent for all of their assistance with the technology.

You can follow me at The video stream should allow twitter feed; however I will not be doing any twitter correspondence during my talk. (Sorry, not quite ready for that much social media accessibility). Please use the hashtag #LeeDefense when microblogging. I can answer questions you post here in the comments, and I'll get to them after the smoke clears.

If you plan to see the defense in person, I recommend arriving on campus no later than 9:30am. This place is a maze and parking is a beast. Link to Campus maps. The building is on North Campus. Link with additional info about the research and defense location.

Thank you all for your support and thank God for his Grace.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Countdown to my Defense: T-minus 5 days

On Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 10 am I humbly submit myself and the fruits of my intellectual endeavors to a body of critics.

My research will be presented before a public body of critics (any and everyone who wants to show up and listen, namely the students and faculty of my science department, my friends and family and passer-bys in the hall) AND a private committee of professors who will question will me about the methods employed, results gathered and interpretations concluded before I can become apart of the illustrous clan of 'terminally-lettered scientists'. That's alot of fancy talk that basically means I've giving the most important school report presentation of my life so far.

I've spent the last several years of my life doing my dissertation or doctorate level research. What exactly is research? For me it involved lots of reading, explaining things, handling animals, running experiments on those animals, presenting my results, re-designing experiements and running more experiments, traveling out-of-town to conferences to talk about my experiments, doing lots of math, writing, more writing, more math, waiting, writing, more reading, more math, chasing people down for signatures, and more waiting for this upcoming moment.

The official announcement has been posted on the university website. Wed, Mar 10, I present myself and my body of work to the public (and my committee). I am presently working on live streaming the defense for anyone who cannot make it. In the meantime, here's a summary of what I did.

I'm getting ready for that. Am I a nervous? Of course. But it's an excited, happy nervous. I am also applying for post-docs, teaching positions, too. What am I looking for? Hands-on undergrad teaching in general biology, animal behavior, evolution, anatomy & physiology; outreach with at broader audiences, doing informal science.
Hey, if I could earn a living doing what I do on the blog - online sharing and real-life presentations, I would do that hands down. Cable TV, you know you want me to host your next big science show. Call me!

I'm willing to go almost anywhere, so geography is not a barrier.
Finally, this blog was selected by the Riverfront Times as one of St. Louis' fave local weblogs: A Blogger's Baker's Dozen: The RFT staff presents a sampler of St. Louis' must-read contributors to the blogosphere (I'm on page 3). If you live in the St. Louis Metro area, pick up a printed copy of the paper. The paper also did an online follow-up on each of the featured bloggers. So, please also check out my personal selection of The Three Best Blog Posts from Urban Science Adventures! ©.
Feel free to leave a comment. Do you agree with my selections? What are you faves?
And to cap things off, Daily RFT Invites You to Happy Hour today (March 5th) at Blueberry Hill in the heart of the Delmar Loop. It's like they're having a pre-celebration for me. Yay!

Thanks for all of your support!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Honey Bees Buzz with Individuality

I'm going to do something a little extra today - present a research paper to you. It's about a common urban species - Honey Bees; and the topic is related to what I study - individual differences in behavior.
by: Sarah D. Kocher, Julien F. Ayroles, Eric A. Stone, Christina M. Grozinger

Study Summary
The researchers examined a behavior in honey bees known to regulate the social behavior of the hive – the retinue response. Retinue response is the amount of time and attention worker bees pay to the queen because of a special pheromone or chemical she sends out. This chemical keeps the hive socially connected. In any group of animals, individuals will behave differently. Some worker responses have a very high retinue response – spending a lot time very close to the queen and picking up the pheromone; and some others have a very low retinue response. The authors set out to measure the amount of individual differences in behavioral and physiological (internal body function) responses to queen pheromones.

Normally, the Queen pheromone is spread over the hive by daughter worker bees. However, there are some worker bees who either don’t prefer the pheromone or avoid the queen altogether. When that happens, physiological changes occur and these daughters have somewhat developed ovaries. These stand-offish daughters have been known to lay their own eggs (usually a no-no in polite Hymenopteran society) which can develop into reproductively capable sons. That doesn’t often happen because other sisters who find nephews (and not brothers) in the bee nursery have been known to discard or destroy the eggs or pupae.

Worker honey bees from two different sub-species (or races): Carniolan and Italian bees were observed. These are very old and well-known races of bees that are morphologically distinct (different physical appearance and shape). The researchers studied 5 colonies of the Carniolan bees and 4 colonies of the Italian bees.

Carniolan queen bee with attendants on a honeycomb. from Wikipedia

Each colony in this study was comprised of full sister worker bees. In bees (and in other Hymenoptera like wasps, hornets, and ants) full sisters are related to each other by 75%. Unlike people (and other mammals), full bee sisters are more related to each other than they are to their mom. I got half (50%) of my chromosomes from my mom, and half (50%)from my dad. Any of my full siblings get the same percentage, but not necessary the exact same chromosomes, so we’re related to each other by 50%, too. In bees, mothers give their daughters half of their chromosomes (50%), but dads give daughters everything – the whole set of chromosomes (100%). So it’s a family affair in the bee hive. With that being said, the authors set out to know how can full sisters that are so highly related still behave so very differently from each other?

Drops of diluted queen pheromone were placed on a slide and introduced to smaller groups of bees (from each colony). The researchers counted the number of worker bees that came into contact with the pheromone and the number of times each bee visited the slide over a period of time (25 minutes). They did this for 5 consecutive days, doing it in the spring and again in the fall.

What did they find?
Well, first not all worker bees behaved the same. There was considerable variation, some visited the pheromone more than others, but there were no big differences between Carniolan and Italian bees. However, they did find worker bees that visited the pheromone less were the ones who had better developed ovaries than sisters who visited the pheromone more. Not only were there behavioral differences among sisters, there were also internal changes that corresponded to this behavior. The researchers confirmed that retinue response to Queen hormone is important for suppressing worker be ovary development which keeps them from having their own baby bees sons.

So what could be driving these differences? Like I mentioned before, all of study bees were full sisters to each other so it can’t be the genes, right? Well, not quite. The researchers did identify the genes they believe responsible for retinue response. What they found was that although the sisters may have been similar to each other in the types of genes they had, gene expression differed from bee to bee. It’s one thing to have the same gene as another person. It’s something else to have that gene actually work and perform in your body. The same gene in your body may do more work (or less work) than that same gene does in my body. This is called individual variation in genetic expression and that is what seems to be at play with the bees. Retinue response is correlated to ovarian development which is correlated to gene expression.

They were the same, but different – inside and out.

Why does any of this matter?
In a natural colony of honey bees, the hive must survive. Though most of the time the Queen is laying eggs to make more worker bees, change does come. Queens don’t live forever. When the old queen dies, worker bees go into fast action to raise a sister queen bee – who will have the next generation of bee babies. Who does this important work? Worker bees with higher retinue response. They raise the next and future queen. They make sure any eggs already laid get the necessary nutrition (royal jelly) to put them on the fast track to the throne. (Worker bees and queen bees are genetically similar, the time to develop and type of food fed as a pupae is what makes them physically, physiologically, and behaviorally different from each other).

On the hand, worker bees with lower retinue response, those with better developed ovaries, are able to lay eggs and produce sons. Now, raising nephews is not as big of a deal since they will soon leave the hive and go and mate with other queens when he becomes mature. In this way, bees are able to reproduce and spread the love or genes around.

Full Citation: Kocher SD, Ayroles JF, Stone EA, & Grozinger CM (2010). Individual variation in pheromone response correlates with reproductive traits and brain gene expression in worker honey bees. PloS one, 5 (2) PMID: 20161742

Related articles: Urban Wildlife Watch - The Buzz about Bees

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