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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.


This has been a hard week for everyone who considers themselves a part of the online science communication community. There has been racism and sexism, sexual harassment, and ultimately the resignation of a leader in our group. I’ve been stewing over whether or not to add my voice to those weighing in on recent events, and I decided to write because I feel very strongly about a few things.

I’ve seen a lot of people on twitter and in blog posts, male and female, wondering what to do, what action can they take in light of the sexual harassment that has been revealed in our professional community. I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but I will tell you one very simple thing that you can do – look at it. If you do nothing else, I’m asking you not to turn away.

This is actually a very hard thing to do because it is dark, sad, embarrassing, and a bunch of other things that I think all of us are at first inclined to step away from, to turn back from because who wants to look at something that makes them sad and uncomfortable? Look at it anyway. If you want to help, but don’t know how, one of the best things you can do in my opinion is to tell the community that you won’t turn your back – and mean it.

When we turn our backs on a situation that we believe is wrong, we are admitting that we can do no better. I’ve seen enough men and women sharing stories and having thoughtful conversations about sexual harassment in the last few days that I truly believe that we can make changes in all of our behavior, as a group, that lead to increased inclusiveness.

I have felt very torn and guilty in the last week. This article by Priya Shetty calls out our community for staying silent after Monica Byrne came forward and revealed Bora Zivkovic as her sexual harasser. I’ve seen arguments on different sides saying people did speak up, saying people didn’t speak up, saying people want to speak up but don’t know what to say.

I feel so guilty that when Monica came forward, I said nothing. I very much wanted to believe that Bora, who I do consider a mentor, did not do this. Yet, in my gut I felt it was true, that isn’t evidence it is just a feeling. Then Bora himself, confirmed it was true. Still I didn’t say anything. I wanted it to be an isolated incident. I had a very hard time trying to see that someone I looked up to, and who had my back when I tangled with sexism myself, was also perpetrating sexual harassment against my friends and colleagues.

These things are not mutually exclusive – one person can, and has, gone to bat for women against sexism and sexually harassed at the same time. Big shocker here, but, people are complicated. They can do good and bad things. Just because they have done good, doesn’t mean we can dismiss the bad.

I feel very guilty that it took Hannah Waters, who I am familiar with and have interacted with online coming forward before I said anything. Then, all I did say was that to Hannah, and Monica “you have my full support.” Really, all that amounts to is my refusal to look away. It is me saying, I won’t make you feel like you have done something wrong for calling this out.

After I tweeted my support, I had a conversation that really upset me. Someone I look up to made the argument that talking about sex, in a way that makes someone uncomfortable, doesn’t really count as sexual harassment. That perhaps Hannah shouldn’t have spoken up because it may very well cost Bora his job. That maybe I shouldn’t have spoken up in support either because Bora supported me.

I feel like this argument dismisses Hannah’s feelings, her experience, and the fact that she earned her career herself. It says that I betrayed someone who helped me. I read this, I went home, and I cried. I cried the ugly cry, where my makeup was running and my face was red and my contacts got all gooped up and I had snot flowing in a way that make tissues sort of inadequate. I cried for a long time.

I’m not sure how telling someone who has experienced sexual harassment (and yes, being made to feel that the only value you are adding is not your work but your physical attractiveness is sexual harassment) that you believe them could be perceived as the wrong thing to do.

It felt like this person who I respect was telling me to be quiet, she was telling me to look away. Perhaps because I, like many other writers, was supported by Bora in a way that led to increased success and recognition as a member of this community. I am grateful to Bora, I always will be, but I do not owe him my silence. I don’t owe my voice to anyone.

One of the things that has stuck with me over the last few days, is something that Janet Stemwedel tweeted, I’m paraphrasing here, but the idea was that if you are really someone’s friend, you call them on their shit. You don’t look away. Hold the people you care about accountable, and help them to be better, that is what it is to be someone’s friend. That is what I am trying to do.

I want to say that I respect the women who have walked this career path before me, and have faced sexual harassment even more blatant than what I’ve personally encountered. But, just because we have come far from the days when women even working outside the home was taboo, doesn’t mean that the status quo is acceptable. I don’t think the current practice, dismiss bad behavior until someone “we” (who counts as we?) deem “reliable” (again, who counts as reliable?) names names – then cut the perpetrator off at the knees, is a good way to go about dealing with harassment. We need to acknowledge, and demand better, every time.

I  feel very guilty that on the handful of occasions where I’ve heard people in our professional community say or do things that either made me uncomfortable or could have made others uncomfortable I said nothing. The only thing I can say in response, is that I am resolving not to look away anymore. I promise you, that I am listening, and I want to think and understand beyond my own point of view. I hope others will do the same.

There are a lot of people talking about these issues, and I hope you will click on some of the links in this post, read, think, look at these problems. I specifically would like to call out the tweets started by Karen James under the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt (wow, did the knowledge that people feel as if not being harassed is a sign that they aren’t pretty enough make me sad) and the collection of harassment stories put together by LadyBits on Medium. I’m also amending this to include the most recent post regarding Bora’s behavior by Kathleen Raven. Please look.

Is Meat Eating In Our Genes?

I ate a steak yesterday. Thanks to Patricia McConnell’s class on human and animal behavior and ethics and Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat the experience troubled me greatly.

I come from a family of meat eaters, yet have dabbled with vegetarianism before. I was around 15 and I stopped after three months because didn’t have the time between school and extra curricular activities to educate myself about nutrition and what my body needed, therefore was not doing it right. Though some college students might disagree, one cannot subsist on Ramen Noodles alone. So I went back to eating the same meals as my family, and thus eating meat.

Beef cattle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When I came home for the summer last week, I was more than happy to expound upon my new found interest in animal ethics and why we should or should not eat meat. One of the first things my brother said to me was “Oh God you aren’t going to start with the vegetarian thing again are you?” While the answer is no, I don’t have any immediate plans to give up eating meat all together, I certainly find the experience less appetizing than before and I have a lot of opinions about how the animals we eat should be handled and treated.

I haven’t figured out where I stand ethically on the idea that it is wrong to expect another living thing to sacrifice its life (a basic interest if you will) to appease what Herzog refers to as “the carnivous yahoo within us.” My desire to eat meat is peripheral, I don’t need it to be healthy and in fact would be healthier if I substituted some of the meat I eat for more healthy vegetables or grains. But at the same time I find there to be some merit to the idea that without meat-eating those animals wouldn’t exist or have lives to sacrifice in the first place, and also with no demand for healthy animals farmers have one less reason to treat their animals properly.

So I don’t know. Right now I’m into the idea of eating less meat and living closer to the earth, trying to be as sustainable as I can and not support factory farms or farms where the animals live under duress. This means consuming locally raised meat, from farms that I have researched and know how they treat their animals. Lucky for me, my hometown has such an extensive farmer’s market, I can see there is some background checking in my future.

But the real reason I bring up my food-choice lifestyle is because I am intrigued by the idea that meat eating is a desire programmed into us through our DNA. The “its our heritage” excuse for meat eating has several logical threads running through it. Humans are animals, and other animals eat meat. Human are at the top of the food chain, therefore we should be the top carnivores, because the animals highest on the food chain are carnivores. Humans and chimpanzees’ share 98% of our genetic make-up, and chimpanzees’ eat meat. If you believe in evolution (which if you read this blog, you know that I do) you can say that if we diverged from a common ancestor with chimpanzees’ and they are carnivores, clearly we should be carnivores too. As much as I find meat tasty, I find these arguments to be baloney.

Chimpanzees are predators. The reason I decided to write this post is because I saw the article “Chimps hunt monkey prey close to local extinction” by Michael Marshall for New Scientist. The article explains new research that has shown the statistical significance of predation by chimpanzees on the declining red colombus monkey population in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. It has previously been proposed that chimps have been damaging the monkey’s population, but new research by Thomas Struhsaker from Duke University has demonstrated that chimpanzee predation had the biggest impact on the 89% decrease in the red colombus population. Other factors that had a smaller impact include habitat changes, disease, competition with other monkeys, and predation by crowned eagles.

Its no secret that chimpanzees eat meat, or as the chimpanzee/red colombus monkey study shows, that they eat a lot of it. But does that give humans carte blanche to kill other animals at will? I don’t think it does. After sitting through so many lectures on the ethical treatment or animals and learning so much about our relationships with food this semester, I find the “its in our genes” argument less than compelling.

One of the things we humans lord over other animals is our big brain. We have it, and we flaunt it. Therefore, our big brain can’t just go out the window when it comes to the issue of what we eat. We have the ability to think about the ethical implications of our behavior. While research has shown chimpanzees to be very intelligent, we don’t know if they have that kind of internal life. But, if every act that humans did could be excused by genetic or biological urges what would stop crimes like rape or murder? As a society we have said that it is not okay to just follow your urges and do what you want. Humans are held to a higher standard, because we have the ability to control ourselves. Because we have those big brains. People who choose not to control themselves are usually labelled as criminals.

Now I’m not saying that meat eating should be criminal. Please don’t misunderstand me – I eat meat, and I don’t consider myself a criminal. BUT I don’t think the idea that we are biologically driven to consume meat it a good reason to support meat-eating. We are also biologically programmed to be able to override our urges, it isn’t easy and many people fail, but many people also succeed on a daily basis.

If you really want to get into the biology of meat consumption you could argue that humans are actually developed to not eat meat. Just look at how sick we can get from eating meat that is not cooked properly. Wolves and bears don’t have similar concerns. Their guts are made to deal with the bacteria that can be found on uncooked meat. Ours aren’t. Meat could kill us. But then again, there has also been deadly spinach, so vegetables aren’t always safe either.

The point is if you want to eat meat, you need to come up with a better reason than being on the top of the food chain. I’m still figuring out how I feel about my food, but I do know that I consider myself an animal – a smart animal with responsibilities to other animals. We’ll see where that thinking gets me.

What’s the Matter with Antimatter?

Now I’m not really a physics person, considering my less than stellar attempt at high school chemistry, I have never attempted a physics class, though I know enough to get by with my writing. The holy grail of physics these days in the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. This week researchers from CERN are reporting that they have successfully captured the first antimatter atom (of antihydrogen.)

This is important because antimatter is a largely unexplored field in physics. The idea is that each atom has a counter particle made of antimatter (sort of like having an evil twin) but these antimatter particles have been difficult to study because they are typically destroyed by coming into contact with their real matter counterpart. Researchers don’t know why the universe is largely made of matter instead of antimatter, but with the ability to trap and study these particles, they may be able to find out.

Stem Cells On The Brain

Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

An interesting clinical trial just began in Russia, where doctors intend to inject stem cells into the brains of stroke patients to see if the cells can serve as a potential cure for the negative effects of a stroke. The BBC article: Stem Cells Used in Stroke Trial

So far only one patient has been injected with the stem cells (which are embryonic pluripotent cells) but it is notable because he is the first patient to ever have stem cells injected into the brain as a potential cure. It is also controversial to use humans for this type of study considering how much still remains to be learned about the brain and about stem cells.