This Month in STEM: September 2014

September is wrapping up, and we’ve got your monthly STEM news! Here are some of our favorite stories.

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom

Researchers have discovered a brand new species of poison dart frog in Donoso, Panama. At 12.7 millimeters in length, the freshly dubbed Andinobates geminisae is tiny enough to fit on a fingernail and is distinguishable by its unique call and smooth, bright orange-colored skin. Scientists believe that habitat loss is a significant issue of concern for these newly found frogs, as it appears to only be found in scarce regions of the Panama rain forest. To guarantee the survival of their species, the creation of special conservation plans have been recommended. Read more here.

Under the Sea IconUnder the Sea

Several groups of fish in Antarctica have developed the ability to manufacture their own “antifreeze” proteins in their blood that help them survive in the icy Southern Ocean. Unfortunately, it appears that this evolutionary survival tactic has created some undesirable consequences. Researchers have discovered that the same temperature regulation proteins are helping internal ice crystals that accumulate inside the fish resist melting, even when the temperatures warm. Read more here.

Extreme Weather IconExtreme Weather

At least 36 people have been killed following the unanticipated eruption of Mount Ontake, Japan’s second largest active volcano. The eruption is believed to have stemmed from a kind of steam-driven explosion that scientists say are especially difficult to predict. Ontake had a minor eruption in 2007, but it’s first major recorded eruption was in 1979. Japan is considered by seismologists to be a hotbed of seismic activity. Read more here.

Medical Innovations IconMedical Innovations

Each year, over 2.5 million children die worldwide because they do not receive life-saving vaccinations. To combat this global issue, researchers at Michigan State University are currently developing a fingerprint-based recognition system that has the potential to save babies’ lives through vaccination tracking. Vaccinations are normally tracked by paper documentation. However, keeping track of babies’ vaccinations on paper is highly ineffective in developing countries because they are easily lost or destroyed. Researchers are hoping that, over time, the new electronic registry systems will fix the issues of lacking and lost patient information in third world countries. Read more here.

Robotics IconSpace

Water is crucial for sustaining biological life. Consequently, scientists believe that finding the original source of Earth’s water is crucial for understanding how life-fostering environments are created, as well as estimating the likelihood of finding other environments that have the potential to hold life. Scientists at the Carnegie Institution now believe that the water found on Earth is older than the Sun, and originated in interstellar space. Read more here.

Video Games IconTechnology

Harry Potter fans likely dream of owning an Invisibility Cloak. They may be excited to learn, then, that researchers at the University of Rochester, in New York, have discovered innovative new ways to use complex lenses to hide objects from view, in a process called cloaking. The so-called “Rochester Cloak” is realistically not cloak-like at all. Nonetheless, the cloaking device has been able to successfully make a hand, face, and a ruler disappear from view. Earlier versions of cloaking devices have been complicated and financially unfeasible. This new device breaks the mold, costing researchers little more than $1,000 in materials. The implications for these types of devices are broad, and researchers believe that they can be applied everywhere, from health care to the military. Read more here.

Okay STEM lovers, what stories did you enjoy? What stories did we miss this month? We want to hear your thoughts!

Inspire Change: Easing ‘Girls in STEM’ into the Roles of ‘Women in STEM’

There are many reasons for students to think about a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Perks such as job security, high salaries, and the possibility of innovation are all things to consider when prospective students seek a career in one of the STEM fields.

Jobs in the STEM fields are among the most in-demand and highest paying, but these types of openings often go unfilled for longer periods of time in comparison to non-STEM jobs. According to a Brooking’s study, the median duration of advertising for a STEM vacancy is more than twice as long as for a non-STEM vacancy. This indicates that the skills critical for working in STEM are low in supply, but highly sought after.

So if STEM is such a hotbed of potential, why are there not more men and women attempting to break into these fields? One major factor that may explain this discrepancy is the glaring underrepresentation of females in STEM fields. Women who attempt to pursue careers in STEM are often faced with a multitude of issues, extending from the mere fact that they are female, that hinders or discourages career advancement. There is, consequently, an untapped group of women, as well as a new generation of young women, who would otherwise be interested in seeking those careers, but are taught that STEM is for “boys only”.

According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, women make up 50 percent of the entire labor pool, yet they only hold 25-30 percent of STEM jobs in the United States. This underrepresentation of women proves to be socially relevant, as it demonstrates that the fields of study within STEM are still largely divisive and exclusively gendered to favor men.

Current women who work in STEM face many problems that help account for the overarching gap in female representation within these fields. One potential issue is workplace hostility or discomfort, which can strongly impact perceived levels of work enjoyability. Evidence of this ongoing problem is supported by the research findings of a three-year study done by Nadya Fouad, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Fouad and her colleagues surveyed more than 5,000 women who had graduated with engineering degrees from some of the top universities within the last six decades. They found that 40 percent of the women surveyed had either quit their jobs or never entered their engineering professions at all.

According to Fouad, the gender gaps have less to do about confidence, and more to do with the unaccommodating climate of the workplace.

“We found that even women who are staying consider leaving because they don’t have supervisor support. They don’t have training and development opportunities. And their colleagues are uncivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them,” said Fouad.

Yet, in elementary, middle and high school, the gender distribution of total students enrolled in science and mathematics classes is roughly even. Despite a relatively equal playing field to start off in, men, by far, dominate as the majority of those in careers related to STEM. This divergence visibly occurs at the college level, where only a small percentage of women attempt to pursue STEM-related undergraduate degrees. Female representation declines even more at the graduate level.

For whatever reason, it appears that girls are seemingly more likely than boys to fall away or lose interest with STEM. To remedy the issue, it is argued that it is crucial for educators and parents to encourage young girls to maintain interest in STEM by consistently showing them positive role models and providing broader opportunities to learn the skills that are necessary in the STEM fields.

The necessity of teaching today’s youth to develop the types of skills utilized in STEM has also been reiterated by President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly expressed the belief that the future of America heavily depends on the strength of the current education system to instill the new generations of students with the kind of critical thinking abilities that are an absolute necessity in STEM professions.

As the pressure to change the way women are viewed and treated in the STEM fields mounts, there has been a greater push for more initiatives that empower girls to participate and engage in learning about STEM. From engagement campaigns like Million Women Mentors that call for corporations, government entities and higher education groups to put more emphasis on mentoring young girls, to an entire video series dedicated to highlighting the accomplishments of various women in their STEM roles, there are many people currently working in STEM who are choosing to rally together to shed light on the gender issues within the STEM community.

These collective efforts, on the part of individuals and corporations alike, show that change starts from within. In this case, change starts by allowing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to be accessible to all, regardless of gender.

Who are the mentors in your STEM community? What do they do that helps encourage both boys and girls to study STEM? Answer in the comments below.


The Road to Dreadnoughtus: Cool Jobs Alumnus Dr. Kenneth Lacovara’s Titanic Journey

Lacovara headshot“When I get back from Patagonia I’ll have close friends that won’t recognize me until I’m up close… My skin is leathery, my hands are sometimes bleeding because they’re so cracked and cut up, and I usually drop about twenty pounds when I’m in the field.” Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, paleontologist, professor of geology at Drexel University, and Cool Jobs alumnus, is the man behind the recent unveiling of perhaps the largest land animal to ever live on earth—the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus. Dreadnoughtus is quickly becoming a household name, known for its tremendous size (weighing in at 65 tons) and the completeness of its skeleton.

Though Dreadnoughtus has been a media rockstar these past few weeks, I found myself more interested in the story of the man behind this gargantuan discovery. It was he, after all, who explained in his original Cool Jobs article that many of the most profound moments of his life had come in times of discomfort, and the road to the Dreadnoughtus media frenzy was definitely ripe with such experiences. Yet the rewards of Dr. Lacovara’s efforts seem proportionate to the discomfort he endured. If “studying sauropods is like taking out a mortgage,” there’s no doubt that Dr. Lacovara’s investment in Dreadnoughtus has just yielded incredible returns.

Photo Source:

Photo Source:

And an investment it was. A 9 ½ year investment of time and resources that included four expeditions to Patagonia, several years of negotiations with the Argentinian government, 16 tons of fossilized bones, 4 years of prep work on the fossils, 2 years of anatomical analysis, thousands of hours of 3D scanning, and finally, a year of writing and editing the publication that has caused such a media buzz during these past few weeks. Couple these logistical details with the fact that much of the time in the field involves sleeping in tents, spending a large amount of time cold and hungry, and engaging in manual labor that rivals the most physical of professions, and the circumstances surrounding this discovery start to sound quite torturous. Yet what appears as utter misery to one person can manifest as an adventurous thrill ride to another with the introduction of the secret ingredient: passion.

In his original Cool Jobs article, Dr. Lacovara described the number of different hats his profession requires. He moved seamlessly through these different identities as he spoke, slipping on his professor hat when explaining the mechanisms through which a dinosaur as large as Dreadnoughtus adapted to keep its temperature down, then his scientist hat when discussing the gravity of finding a specimen as intact as this one. Yet underlying each of these professional identities was the palpable passion I remembered from the last time we spoke. In this STEM-Works interview, Lacovara discusses how his passion guided his 9 ½ year journey from the moment he first laid eyes on Dreadnoughtus to the time he stood at the press conference podium and felt the weight of the endeavor lift from his shoulders.

When I first heard of your unveiling of Dreadnoughtus, I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s got to be what every scientist dreams of when entering his or her field.” Was this discovery a dream come true for you?

I can’t say that I dreamed of the publicity, but I think every paleontologist has dreamed of one day discovering something like Dreadnoughtus. Being able to figure it out and name it… I don’t think it gets any better than that for a paleontologist.

In your previous interview you mentioned something that stuck with me. You talked about the fact that some of the most profound moments of your life have rarely taken place while you were comfortable. Do you think that the process that went into the discovery of Dreadnoughtus speaks to this idea?

The entire project that led up to the publication of Dreadnoughtus involved a huge amount of discomfort. Where we were working, down in Patagonia, is a really difficult place to work. I remember that during the first expedition down there I had provisioned cereal for the team to eat, which seems like a pretty simple, reasonable thing to do. But we soon discovered that we couldn’t eat cereal in that environment because the wind is so strong that it quickly blows it off your spoon.

During expeditions we were outside for weeks at a time—we only went to town about every two weeks—and it was really cold. We were pretty close to Antarctica, so we’d wake up in the morning and be cold, dig up rocks all day and be cold, then go to sleep at night and still be cold. After experiencing consecutive days of never warming up, it’s easy to get worn down.

Also, just working with these giant sauropods—some of them weighing many tons—and figuring out the logistics of moving them around is pretty hard. Every part of this project was difficult. But, you know, when you get to the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it. You’re not going to get a result like this sitting on a couch.

I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about the glamourous side of jobs like yours, but it really is important to note that discomfort, and the fact that—as another cool jobs alumn said—“you have to work for your discoveries.”

What gets me on television is that they’ll see the scientist at the press conference or the exciting moment of discovery, but that’s such a small part of the process. When doing fieldwork, a lot of your day is worrying if you have enough wood to cook dinner tonight or finding a place to go to the bathroom. Do I really want to get out of my tent to see what is underneath, poking me in the back, or do I just deal with it? Those types of questions guide much of your day.

So once the buzz and the hype about Dreadnoughtus die down a little, what does this discovery mean for your field?

What has gotten the most media attention about Dreadnoughtus is obviously its great size—it’s the largest land animal for which we can calculate a mass. But what is more scientifically important is the completeness of the Dreadnoughtus skeleton. Previously, the largest animals on land were only known from very fragmentary remains—in some cases literally 1, 2, or 3 bones. With skeletons that incomplete, scientists find it difficult to gain a good understanding of their biology. Dreadnoughtus, because it’s about 70% complete, really gives us our first look into the nearly complete skeleton of one of these super giant land animals. People have made speculations about how they walked, how they held themselves, how they regulated body temperature, and other such things. Yet these speculations were all based on very little evidence. Now, because of Dreadnoughtus, we’re going to be able to address many of these questions in a more meaningful way. Dreadnoughtus gives us a chance to really understand these super giants as animals as a biologist would understand a raccoon or a bear.

That segues into my next question: what’s next for Dreadnoughtus?

I imagine that 200 years from now scientists will be reevaluating the bones of Dreadnoughtus. When new specimens are brought to light, scientists start making comparisons between the new discovery and the older discoveries. Also, as new technologies emerge we can go back and use those techniques on the existing specimens. I imagine that in the decades to come there are going to be technological developments that allow us to recover soft tissue from ancient fossils and sequence the proteins and see who is related to whom. There’s no doubt that scientists are going to constantly revisit Dreadnoughtus and learn things in the future that we’ve only dreamed of.

What does that knowledge mean in a larger perspective? What does studying dinosaurs mean for our world?

In terms of biology, we want to figure out how life on earth works. Whenever you’re trying to figure out how a system works, you want to look at the extremes. The smallest and simplest things, and also those that are the biggest and most complex. When looking at dinosaurs like Dreadnoughtus, we’re really looking at something that is pretty close to the end of what is biologically possible. We don’t know for sure what the limit is, but it’s got to be somewhere close to Dreadnoughtus. I’ve worked with Dreadnoughtus for years—this dinosaur is my old friend now—and I have an immense amount of respect for this creature. The problems that these dinosaurs had to overcome on an evolutionary level in order to get so big are just amazing.

For example, if you look at land animals today, we can plot their weight vs. their core temperature of their body and find a pretty solid relationship between the two. The bigger they are, the hotter they are inside. That’s fine up to the size of an elephant—an elephant is pretty warm inside but the high temperature is not going to hurt the animal. If you look at Dreadnoughtus on that plot at 65 tons, the correlating body temperature is a temperature that would cook meat. Yet Dreadnoughtus wasn’t cooking inside due to a number of adaptations that help it get off of that curve and to remain nice and cool. Its long neck and long tail give it additional surface area to help it shed heat. The spinal column has lots of holes and honeycomb-like areas where air bladders connect to the lungs—AKA pneumatic invasions—so Dreadnoughtus was able to gather a lot of heat in those air pockets and send it out through its nostrils.

Paleontology, in addition to being fascinating, puts our existence and our lives into perspective. When you have a really good view of the ancient past—when you realize that there’s been life on earth for 3.8 billion years and homo sapiens appear on the fossil record only 200,000 years ago—that really gives you a lot of perspective. We’re not what it’s all about. There’s a history of earth that doesn’t involve us, and we’re not at the center of things.

There has been a lot of other news about dinosaurs popping up in the past couple of weeks. Do you think discoveries like this will continue to be made, indefinitely?

The future is wide open. If you’re a kid today and you’re interested in paleontology, the one thing you don’t have to worry about is if there be fossils left for you. Dinosaurs were around for 183 million years and have left fossils on every continent. Paleontologists have only been digging those fossils up for 150 years. We’ve only—literally and figuratively—scratched the surface. I have no doubt that we will discover far less than half of the dinosaurs that ever walked, maybe even just a tiny fraction of them. There’s no end in sight.

Well, once again congratulations on this incredible discovery!

Thanks, it feels good. There must have been at least 200 times during the last nine years that I thought that this wasn’t going to happen. I thought that either something mechanical or bureaucratic was going to get in the way. Even when the paper was set up for publication, I lived in fear that maybe someone else has made the same discovery and is going to publish three weeks before I did.

It sounds like there’s a lot of fear when you’re working on something that is so important to you—fear that your project may not be relevant at the time you publish or that a number of other things can cause the project to go wrong. How do you keep going and work through that fear?

It can be super stressful. I spent a lot of nights lying awake worrying about what could go wrong with the Dreadnoughtus project. Many paleontologists choose not to work with sauropods for this reason. There’s a joke in paleontology that working with a sauropod is like taking out a mortgage. Many of my students are smarter than me because they dig up small dinosaurs. With small dinosaurs you can dig them up, conduct your analysis, and publish a paper a year later. Yet I am fascinated by these big giants. I also like the physical aspect of the work—my father was a carpenter and I grew up doing things with my hands. I find physical labor much more satisfying that sitting at a computer. And that’s something that I tell kids all the time. If you’re a really active person and you like to work with your hands, paleontology is a great field to go into.

So is it your passion for it that keeps you moving to the next step?

Oh, it has to be. If you did what I did and you didn’t like dinosaurs or science, it would be horrible. It would essentially feel like you’re cold and hungry and homeless as opposed to being on a thrilling expedition to dig up a dinosaur. If you didn’t have a passion for this, it would just be difficult. But when I looked at my watch coming up the podium at the press conference and saw that it was 9:00… It’s difficult to describe the weight that I felt lifting off my shoulders at that moment.

STEM Works Remembers 9/11

It’s impossible to go throughout this day, September 11th, without acknowledging the extent of the impact that the terrorist attacks had on America and its citizens. In the wake of the 13th anniversary of the attacks, those of us at STEM Works wanted to show how STEM has been utilized throughout the aftermath processes of identifying victims, surveying the  damage and rebuilding Ground Zero.

Identifying Victims with Forensics 

After the initial attacks, at least 1,115 out of at least 2,753 victims remained unidentifiable, even after scientists analyzed DNA samples provided by the families of those with missing loved ones who never came home or were never identified. Despite painstaking work over the years from scientists in New York to match bone fragments to an actual identity, restraints in technology left many victims unidentified. However, recent technological advances in DNA testing and forensic identification have given both scientists and families a renewed sense of hope as these DNA tests yield results that would have been impossible 10 years ago. Scientists previously faced the challenge of identifying victims using bone slivers that contained DNA that had been damaged by fire, sunlight, bacteria, or jet fuel. Using the new technology, scientists are able to go back to the same bone fragment and attempt to extract the damaged DNA for testing. Read more here.

Engineering a Better World Trade Center

Considered a testament to the perseverance of the American spirit, the five-year re-construction projects of the new World Trade Center and National September 11 Memorial and Museum are shown in this behind-the-scenes documentary, made by PBS, in cooperation with NOVA, to demonstrate the many various challenges and high expectations that engineers and architects faced to build a stronger, taller, and safer World Trade Center. Watch Engineering Ground Zero

Engineers played a huge role in both clean up and re-building. PBS has also created a number of valuable resources to teach the public about how engineers assisted with rescuing victims, surveying the damage, and preventing unstable structures from falling and potentially injuring more people. Check out these resources here at Engineering the Clean-Up.

Other 9/11 Lesson Plan Resources

  • The National September 11 Memorial & Museum partnered up with New York City’s Department of Education and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to develop a different sets of K-12 lesson plans to teach about 9/11. Find them here.
  • Scholastic has created and collected a number of resources to teach 9/11 to the younger kids. Find these resources here.
  • Pearson has created guides and online modules for both elementary and middle school students, parents and teachers. Find them here.
  • McGraw Hill offers a number of activities and lesson plans to teach students about 9/11. Find them here.

Tell us, STEM lovers, how are you choosing to remember 9/11? Comment below.

World Water Week Awareness

This week is World Water Week. Let’s take this opportunity to inspire change and bring awareness to the world’s water problems!

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge + Water Challenge

As the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took the Internet by storm over the summer, water has certainly had its fair share of time in the spotlight. The stunt has already raised over $100.6 million for ALS research, so it’s a fair assumption that A LOT of water was used to pull these challenges off! In fact, it’s been estimated that over 6 million gallons of fresh water have been used to pull these ice bucket challenges off.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has brought some much needed attention to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and research, but it’s also a great segue to bring awareness to the fact that over 780 million people in the world have no access to clean water. If you enjoy the Ice Bucket Challenge, take a look at the Water Challenge, which helps fund water projects at schools and community centers in Africa. It’s a simple concept of “drink water to give water”!

Study STEM: Water Innovation

Scientists around the world are looking to bring clean water to those in need by coming up with innovative ways to purify water, like a direct-contact membrane distillation (DCMD) system, which removes the salt out of otherwise undrinkable ocean water; or a Midomo machine, which holds and filters water while the machine is rolled. The machine’s innovation is based on the fact that the daily average distance a person in Africa travels for water is 3.7 miles.

Working on the Water Crisis in America

The lack of available water impacts millions around the world, but we don’t have to look far to see the effects of the water crisis in America. California is currently in a declared state of emergency as it faces its third consecutive year in one of its worst dry spells in the past century. California is no stranger to wildfires, but the current conditions have resulted in about 1,000 wildfires more than usual in the past year alone. Experts estimate that California’s agricultural industry will face over $2.2 billion in losses as a result of the drought. Although California lawmakers have already established fines for wasting water, there is a critical need for us to be proactive about water conservation. Luckily, small adjustments in daily water use patterns can make a huge difference. Inspirations for over 100 different ways to conserve H2O are available here.

Alright fellow STEM lovers, what are you doing to save water? Do you have any additional tips? Comment below.