Category: Science For Six Year Olds

Scientist of the Month Jan 2014:Bryan Clark

Hi Everyone! I am so happy to be able to introduce you to our January scientist of the month, Bryan Clark. (I’m sorry for being late, I know January is almost over!) Bryan is a researcher who studies poisons for a government group called the Environmental Protection Agency. You can read his guest post Q&A below, and if you have any questions for him be sure to leave them in the comments.

Guest post: Bryan Clark

What type of scientist are you?

I’m a toxicologist, which means I study poisons. Toxicologists study a lot of different types of chemicals that can be poisons, from pesticides (the chemicals used to protect crops or your house from insects or weeds) to new medicines that have to be tested to make sure they are safe, to the exhaust that comes out of cars and factories (and many more). Some toxicologists mostly try to understand how chemicals affect people, but I am an ecotoxicologist – I study how the chemicals that humans produce affect wild animals. Also, I am a mechanistic toxicologist, which means that I don’t just try to find out how much poison in the water will make a fish sick or kill it, but instead I try to learn how the chemical causes the changes inside the fish’s body that can cause it harm.

It takes a long time (or at least a lot of school) to become a scientist. What is one of your favorite memories from school or things that you learned while in school?

In elementary school we learned about raptors (birds like owls and hawks) from the county naturalist, and she brought us owl pellets. When raptors eat something like a mouse they swallow it mostly whole because they don’t have teeth to chew it, but they can’t digest the bones. The bird packages up the bones and other indigestible parts into pellets and regurgitates them (kind of like throwing up). Scientists use the pellets to learn about what kind of food the raptors have been eating. The naturalist let us pick the owl pellets apart, and we were almost able to put together a whole mouse skeleton from the bones we found!

Bryan and a former labmate (Dr. Cole Matson) collecting mummichogs at a polluted site in Portsmouth, VA. Courtesy of Bryan Clark.

Bryan and a former labmate (Dr. Cole Matson) collecting mummichogs at a polluted site in Portsmouth, VA. Courtesy of Bryan Clark.

Another great memory is from when I was in graduate school. I was working with a team of two other researchers trying to develop a tool for controlling genes in living fish eggs. It had never been used in wild fish like the one we studied. The team had spent years trying to get it to work, and we were getting close to giving up and moving on to other things. One day I was sitting in a dark room, staring into a microscope expecting to see a bright red glow in a mummichog egg that we had treated (which would mean that it still wasn’t working). Instead, I saw almost nothing! After checking to make sure I had actually turned on the microscope, I ran down the hall to high-five my teammates because we finally succeeded.

Where do you work, and what do you do on a typical day at work?

I work at a research laboratory in Narragansett, Rhode Island that is part of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA). The EPA is the part of the government that is in charge of keeping the air you breathe and the water you drink clean and safe.

Two mummichogs embryos with a chemical that glows red collecting in their urine. Courtesy of Bryan Clark

Two mummichogs embryos with a chemical that glows red collecting in their urine. Courtesy of Bryan Clark

I study populations of a small fish called the mummichog that have evolved to survive in extremely polluted places where other fish can’t live. The pollution at these sites is so bad that even a small amount of mud from the polluted site will very quickly kill fish that didn’t grow up there. I am trying to learn how the fish have adapted to survive this severe pollution. On a typical day, I spend a lot of time reading about the results of other scientists’ experiments and planning new experiments with my labmates. Then I do those experiments in the lab, which these days means trying to learn if the adapted fish have a unique version of a gene that interacts with chemicals inside the fish’s cells (we have the same gene in our cells). I also visit our fish in the lab. We have an amazing fish room that pumps seawater straight from the bay, and we have many fish from all over the Atlantic coast living in the lab (we even have some from New Jersey!) Throughout the year I also get to go to the estuaries (places where freshwater and saltwater mix) and catch new mummichogs to come live in the laboratory. A lot of our research is about how chemicals affect the young fish while they are still developing as eggs.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Bryan using a micromanipulator to inject an embryo (< 1 hour old and only 2 cells) with a gene function blocking agent called a morpholino. Courtesy of Bryan Clark

Bryan using a micromanipulator to inject an embryo (< 1 hour old and only 2 cells) with a gene function blocking agent called a morpholino. Courtesy of Bryan Clark

I have always wanted to know how things work, especially living things. As I grew up, I learned that this is basically what scientists do – they try to learn how everything works. I was also lucky that both of my parents are scientists and I got to “help” with experiments when I was very young. My father is an ecologist; when I was in elementary school I got to ride along while he tracked radio-collared raccoons using a big antenna on the roof of a pickup truck. That’s when I realized that as an environmental scientist I could study science and spend a lot of time outside and around animals. I couldn’t imagine anything better!

What is your favorite thing about your job?

I get to work with and learn from really smart, fun people while researching things that are important for keeping our planet clean and safe.

What is something you’ve found about either being a scientist or the subject you study that you think most people don’t know?

I think a lot of people don’t realize how creative scientists are. Many people think that science is just boring, repetitive, and all about learning lists of facts, but those facts are really just the building blocks that scientists use to help them reach new discoveries. Research scientists are usually trying to discover something that no one else in the whole world knows, which requires a ton of creativity. To make discoveries, scientists have to look at the world in a whole new way and think of questions no one has ever asked before. Often, scientists study animals and places and other things that no one else has ever studied or create a specialized piece of equipment that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

What are some of the things you like to do for fun? 

I like all kinds of outdoor activities, especially camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, and fishing (I don’t just do it for work!). I have a great golden retriever who comes with me on most of my outdoor adventures. I also like to play team sports; soccer is my favorite. I really like cooking too, which actually has a lot of similarities to doing scientific experiments. Like many scientists I know, I drink a lot of coffee, so now one of my hobbies is roasting my own coffee from green coffee beans.

Thank you Bryan for guest posting as the January scientist of the month! The scientist of the month segment was inspired by the stories shared on the twitter hashtag and tumblr I Am Science.

Scientist of the Month Dec 2013: David Shiffman

Hi everyone! I’m a little late with the December scientist of the month, because we did things a little differently this time. Normally, I ask a scientist who volunteers via Twitter a couple of questions, and my buddies in Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class will go over the interview, talk about it, and come up with their questions. They pose the questions in the comments, and the scientist answers them directly. You can see examples from earlier this school year here.

While this is a fun and productive set-up, this month I was able to connect our scientist David Shiffman, directly with the class over Skype. So, rather than post an interview with David, I’m just going to tell you a little about who he is, his science outreach activities, and recap a few of the questions the students asked him.

David is a marine biologist studying sharks through the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami. From the lab’s website: “The mission of RJD is to advance ocean conservation and scientific literacy by conducting cutting edge scientific research and providing innovative and meaningful outreach opportunities for students through exhilarating hands-on research and virtual learning experiences in marine biology.” Essentially, their focus is ocean science, but the lab and its members are also concerned with conservation, technology, and education.

David (bottom left) Skyping with first graders in Mrs. Podolak's class.

David (bottom left) Skyping with first graders in Mrs. Podolak’s class.

The last piece, education, is why I asked David to Skype with the class directly – he’s a pro at it! In addition to being a scientist, David is also a prolific science communicator; he blogs at Southern Fried Science, and is active on Twitter @whysharksmatter and Facebook. He provides a scientists’ point of view and expertise about shark conservation for mass media outlets like Slate, Wired and Scientific American. Additionally, he regularly works with students of varying ages, answering questions about sharks and ocean conservation. Including Mrs. Podolak’s class, David Skyped with an estimated 500 students in 2013!

So what kinds of questions did the first graders ask him about sharks?  I’ve listed a few below, with David’s answers.

  1. How many sharks are there in the world? Answer: There are over 500 different species. There have been new species discovered every two weeks or so for as long as you guys [the students] have been alive due to advances in deep sea exploration.
  2. How big can sharks grow? Answer: The smallest shark is about nine inches long, and the largest (a whale shark) is twice the size of a school bus. It is also the largest fish in the world.
  3. Do stingrays sting sharks? Answer: Yes, the stinger on a stingray is a defense mechanism. Sharks are one of the few predators of stingrays, which means that they do sometimes get stung.
  4. When did people first discover sharks? Answer: Aristotle wrote about sharks in ancient Greece. Scientists also know that sharks were around 250 million years longer than the dinosaurs.
  5. Why does a hammerhead shark look like it does? Answer: Hammerhead sharks have two extra senses. One, called ampullae of lorenzini, are jelly-filled pits on the nose that are sensitive to electricity and allow them to detect animals that are hiding under the sand. The other is a lateral line that detects vibrations.

These are just a few of the many questions that David answered for the students during their Skype interview. If you are interested in having David talk to your own students, or have a question for him you can contact him at or on Twitter @whysharksmatter. Thank you, David for being our December Scientist of the Month!

Also: shameless plug for this segment, but if you’d like to be one of our Scientists of the Month, I’m currently accepting volunteers for 2014! I alternate months between men and women; you don’t have to be a PI or have your own lab, and I’m open to featuring any science field. You can contact me on Twitter @erinpodolak.

Scientist of the Month November 2013: Elisabeth Newton

Hello first graders! I’m excited to introduce you to our new scientist of the month Elisabeth Newton. When I was a kid, the first book I read that made me fall in love with science was all about astronomy, I even still have it! I loved space, and looking up at the stars at night. While my work has nothing to do with space, it is still one of my favorite topics – so lucky for us, Elisabeth studies space!

Courtesy of Elisabeth Newton

Courtesy of Elisabeth Newton

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Elisabeth: I’m an astronomer, and I use telescopes to learn about small nearby stars, which are called red dwarfs. Astronomers study all kinds of things in space, from the explosion of stars, to asteroids in our solar system, to the formation of galaxies. Some astronomers are like me, and use telescopes to make observations. Other astronomers use computers to try to model what we see.

Erin: It takes a long time (or at least a lot of school) to become a scientist. What is one of your favorite memories from school or things that you learned in school?

Elisabeth: It does take a long time, and I’m still in school! (Thankfully, as a graduate student in astronomy, I actually get paid to go to school, which I think is a pretty good deal.) My favorite memory so far is using a telescope for the first time, which was during my first year of graduate school. I had never used a telescope before, and the first one I used was in Chile. It was so beautiful! The best part was at dawn, when I got to watch the telescope being shut down for the day while the sun rose over the mountains.

Erin: Where do you work, and what do you do on a typical day at work?

Elisabeth: A typical day for me is spent in my office. I analyze my data, I make plots, and I read about the science other people are doing. I also spend time talking to my fellow scientists and discussing ideas for new research, or a new result that’s just come out. But sometimes I get to go on very exciting trips! I’ve been to Chile and Hawaii to use telescopes located on the tops of mountains, and to Germany and Maui to attend conferences. In the past couple of years, I also have helped to teach classes and taken classes myself.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Elisabeth: This is a hard one! I loved physics in high school, and I thought it was really cool how equations could help us understand how the world works. In college, I did research on galaxies and learned that I liked the day to day parts of research in astronomy: trying to understand data, writing computer programs, and writing about my results. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring students, and that’s also a big part of being a good scientist.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Sunset from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, courtesy of Elisabeth Newton.

Sunset from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, courtesy of Elisabeth Newton.

Elisabeth: I’m a graduate student right now and my main job right now is to do research and learn to be a good scientist, which is pretty cool. For me, the best part about being a scientist is getting to learn about the Universe, and just being in a place where new discoveries are made every day. My friends find planets orbiting other stars, model the sun, and work to understand how galaxies form.

Erin: What is something you’ve found about either being a scientist or the subject you study that most people don’t know?

Elisabeth: The closest star to the sun is called Proxima Centauri and it’s a red dwarf star, one of the type of stars that I study. In fact, red dwarfs are the most common type of star in our entire galaxy. But they are also really, really faint: not a single one is visible by eye in the night sky!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Elisabeth: The main things I do for fun are rock climbing and playing board games. Recently, I’ve been learning how to make bread, applesauce and ice cream, so I’ve had a lot of fun in the kitchen over the past few months. I also like to do arts and crafts; my favorite thing is making earrings, but right now I am trying to learn how to sew.

What do you think first graders? I hope you enjoyed reading my interview with Elisabeth, and don’t forget if you have any questions you’d like to ask her, be sure to leave them in the comments. Grown ups – if you would like to learn more about Elisabeth, you can find her on twitter @EllieInSpace. I’m always taking volunteers for scientist of the month, so let me know if you’d like to participate!

The scientist of the month segment was inspired by the stories shared on twitter and tumblr from I Am Science.

Scientist of the Month October 2013: Terry McGlynn

Hello first graders! I know you’ve been learning about what a scientist is, and I’m thrilled to be able to introduce you to different scientists throughout this school year. Our first scientist is named Terry McGlynn. I hope you will enjoy reading my interview with him, and if you have any questions be sure to leave him a comment!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Terry with his son Bruce McGlynn (a fifth grader) in the field this summer.

Terry with his son Bruce McGlynn (a fifth grader) in the field this summer.

Terry: I’m an ecologist, and I work mostly on ants in tropical rainforests. That means that I am trying to figure out how differences in the environment might affect ants, and also how the ants can cause differences in the environment. Depending on the situation, I might say that I’m a tropical biologist, an entomologist, or a myrmecologist which is a special term for someone who studies ants.

Erin: It takes a long time (or at least a lot of school) to become a scientist. What is one of your favorite memories from school, or things that you learned in school?

Terry: When I was in elementary school, an education team from NASA visited. This was in the early days of the space shuttle program. They brought a ceramic heat tile like the ones used on the shuttle. A volunteer was brought up on stage to hold the tile from one side, while the educators used a blowtorch to warm the other side of the tile.

Terry: Another amazing thing I remember from when I was a kid was the La Brea Tar Pits, which have fossils from the Pleistocene when people coexisted with creatures like giant ground sloths, mastodons, dire wolves and giant jaguars. There is a great exhibit at the tar pits, which is still there, with a whole wall filled with the skulls of dire wolves retrieved from tar pit excavations. They appear all so similar but like all organisms have slight variations. This display in a single glance tells the story of evolution, the history of life, the events that brought wolves to the tar pits, and the importance of museum collections and the people who put them together.

Terry: One more memory – when I was in college what I loved most about studying science were the field trips, up to the mountains, out into the desert, and on a research ship in the ocean. I got to learn all about plants, animals and the natural world from people who were so excited about life and were a great inspiration to me.

Erin: Where do you work and what do you do on a typical day at work?

Terry with students in Costa Rica.

Terry with students in Costa Rica.

Terry: I am a professor at California State University Dominquez Hills, which is in Los Angeles. Every day I spend some time on the computer writing, communicating with students and searching for information. Some days I teach, and some days I also work with elementary and secondary science teachers so that we can all become better scientists and better teachers. I often meet with my students who are doing research to keep up with their progress and advise them, and when I’m really lucky I get to go into the lab and sort through our research samples of ants. It is a little hard to describe a “typical” day!

Terry: For about one month per year, I also work in a Costa Rican rainforest with my students from my lab, where we are working long days to run our experiments and collect data and samples to analyze when we get back home.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Terry: I became a scientist because I was excited about all of the questions that don’t have any answer. I saw that the whole world is an unsolved puzzle, but with no picture on the top of the box. When I was in college, I thought I was going to become a doctor. In my last year of college, I realized that I wanted to be a field biologist instead of a doctor, right in the middle of a medical school interview. Looking back, I have no idea why I even went down that path, especially when I was most excited about classes in evolutionary biology, biogeography, insect biology and conservation biology.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Terry: The people! I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to work with so many wonderful students over the years, many who have become good friends of mine. I have been able to bring a lot of students to conduct research in the rainforest, at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. It’s wonderful to see how the experience in a diverse rainforest, combined with immersion in a community of field biologists, can be a transformative experience. The other scientists I work with – both at my university and my collaborators from around the world – are really fun and interesting. I also really enjoy being able to travel to many kinds of places, for research and attending conferences. But I have to admit that some of the most exciting moments have happened when I’ve been working at the computer analyzing data. Once in a long while, suddenly while looking at the computer screen I learn a new and surprising fact in need of further explanation. Those thrilling moments often propel my research into new directions and provide me fuel for working long hours on new experiments.

Erin: What is something you’ve found about either being a scientist or the subject you study that most people don’t know?

Terry: Most people don’t know that all worker ants are females!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Terry: Science is fun! While studying ants is my job, I also do it for fun. I enjoy  other things too, of course. I love hanging out with my family, spending time outdoors, camping, reading fiction, and I spend plenty of time in museums, including some volunteering.

What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Terry about ants, the rainforest, or being a scientist?

For my adult readers – you can catch Terry on twitter @hormiga. This post, and all others in my Scientist of the Month series were inspired by the tumblr and twitter thread I Am Science.

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I’ve loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, BeckyMichael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school’s out for the year – I’m happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?
Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.
When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.
I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.
Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.
At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?
Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.
Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true. 
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?
Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?
Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.
What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!
Now that we’ve come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids’ questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I’ve decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!