Skip to content

Recent Articles


West Nile Virus Notes


2014 budget is $30,097,170 than last year.  Failing to solve the problem means more money and resources (personnel) involved the next time there’s a spike in temperatures and drop in precipitation.

Current drought map

Drought monitor archive

CDC West Nile Virus stats (2002-2012) PDF archives

Mother Jones (2012) interactive maps

The middle class suburban areas appeared to support the appropriate combination of vegetation, open space, and potential vector habitat favoring WNV transmission. Wealthier neighborhoods had more vegetation, more diverse land use, and less habitat fragmentation likely resulting in higher biological diversity potentially protective against the WNV human transmission, e.g. the avian host “dilution effect” [45].

CDC WNV stats 2002-2012 by state


 TIME 2/28/2014

The biggest indicator of whether West Nile virus will occur is the maximum temperature of the warmest month of the year, which is why the virus has caused the most damage in hot southern states like Texas.

The UCLA model indicates that higher temperatures and lower precipitation will generally lead to more cases of West Nile



2012 Scientific American

A nearly frost-free winter followed by the summer’s drought has worsened the epidemic


West Nile Virus outbreak map

west nile virus


Rubik’s cubes, Probabilities, and Patterns

One of the most interesting things to study is the question of “what are the chances of that happening?”  We hear about “an infinite number of monkeys could type up Shakespeare’s Hamlet, given enough time”… but teachers are unlikely to be able to buy up an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters (not to mention an infinite number of editors to look for the patterns of letters that are words in the play, “Hamlet”) on a teachers’ salary.

Understanding and using patterns is an important part of scientific inquiry and research.  The human brain tends to see patterns in all sorts of things (shapes in clouds, for instance, or star patterns) — some of which is just coincidence or culture and some of which is meaningful.   One of the most important activities in science is separating out patterns that are coincidence from patterns that are meaningful.  One of the simplest ways of teaching this is by using something that a teacher can easily purchase for a few dollars — a Rubik’s cube.

Show the cube to the kids and define the “solved” puzzle as the “scientific answer.”  Ask them what the odds are of having any one color (say, blue) land face up — and you can easily answer that it’s one chance in six.  Ask them to count the number of squares on each face (this will vary depending on what kind of cube you have.)

From this point you can:
* demonstrate percentage of color on surfaces and compare to the percentage of the “solved” cube
* have a number of students scramble cubes (have them all take the same number of “scrambling turns”) and graph the number of colors on each face and look for patterns
* talk about processes and patterns to solve cubes
* figure out how to make patterns (such as checkerboards or cube-within-cubes) on each face (this one takes a long time)

Some challenge patterns here:

An introductory video by Mr. Buffington (math teacher) on Rubik Cube probability is here:


Turning Classrooms Into Video Games

2013-05-19 10.23.03

One thing that teachers continually explore is “how do I make my classroom even better for the students.”  Teaching can be a very frustrating but very rewarding profession, IF you are prepared to deal with change.  Students have many different learning styles, students have many different abilities, AND our society changes how we learn and what we prefer as time goes on.  You (as a teacher) also have your own style, and learning “what works for me as a teacher” is all part of the training process for teachers.

The preferred way of teaching when I was little was similar to the first teaching methods:  make the kid sit still and repeat, punish them if they don’t do it right.  It’s brutal, but the result of this kind of teaching is that my generation is one of the best educated generations ever.

And it’s not going to work in today’s society.

So teachers, like Paul Anderson, are trying new strategies that work better in today’s schools

His TED talk covers a method being tried by a number of teachers across the nation: turning the classroom into a video game by going from teacher-centric to student-centric types of learning.  It isn’t a “magic bullet”, though, and he’s careful to point this out.  It requires a lot of planning on the part of the teacher and an understanding that reading sophistication may be a barrier to some of it.  He doesn’t mention it, but another consequence can be loss of control in the classroom (and other teachers and administrators getting on you because your classroom is noisy and disrupts other teachers so that they can’t teach.)

If you’re interested in trying this, here’s some links to get you started:

Things to think about:

Report from a teacher

Article on revitalizing education with games

A game using Algebra.  (Okay, all you Algebra-terrified people… come play.  Yes, even if you’re an adult.)

Using gaming to engage girls (I can go along with this.  I’m female.  I game.  Works for me!) Gaming can be used to revitalize girls’ interests


Playing With Science — Surface Tension

Water impact (image courtesy Wikipedia commons)

In 1648, William Chillingworth wrote humorously about a religious dispute over “Whether a million of angels may not sit upon a needle’s point.” Although we can’t do experiments with angels or spirits, you can amuse yourself with informal investigations on surface tension and liquids using an eyedropper (or a something like a bottle for eye drops), a penny, and ordinary liquids, including water.

The volume of liquid that you can “pile up” in a single spot (like a penny) depends on the surface tension of the liquid — the way the liquid behaves when it comes into contact with the air (or another gas). The greater the surface tension, the more drops you can put on a penny before the liquid spills over the edge of the glass (or the surface of a penny.)


The Science Challenge:

Use a dropper to drop water onto the face of a penny, one drop at a time. How many drops will the penny hold before the water spills?  Run the test three times — what was the greatest number of drops of water you could put on the penny before surface tension broke and the water spilled?

Once you know that, it’s time to see how your water “shapes up” compared to other liquids (such as the bottled flavored teas I drink sometimes)

Bottled water vs tap water
Tap water of different cities
Water vs milk
Water vs olive oil (or any other oil — the results may surprise you)
Water vs salt water
Water vs tea with sugar
Water vs detergent
Water vs soda
Water vs beer or wine
Soda vs beer or wine
Soda vs diet soda
Disinfectants vs water
… let your imagination run wild! Any liquid in any form can be tested against another liquid or against water.

Water is one of the stickiest substances around. If you put anything in water, the water will cling to it — in other words, it becomes wet. But sometimes we don’t WANT the water sticking to an object (like windshields or dishes) and in that case we turn to chemistry to look for a process or chemical that makes water less “sticky.”

Cleaning products like soaps that reduce the surface tension are among our most useful chemical compounds. To be a good surfactant (an acronym for SURface ACTive AgeNT), the chemical compound must have two parts on the molecule that react with water — a “water loving” (polar or ionic) and a water hating (hydrocarbon or fluorocarbon) part in the same molecule. These chemicals don’t combine with water to form a new compound but instead float on top of the water with the “water loving” part touching the water and the “water hating” part touching the air. The hydrocarbon or fluorocarbon parts of the surfactant interfere with the bonds between the water molecules at the surface of the water.


Pigging out at TRAC

I’ve been volunteering at Trinity River Audubon Center since 2009; long enough to be allowed to do “special projects” for them; projects that will start with research and end with publications in magazines and (hopefully) journals or conference presentations.

TRAC is 200 acres of a “blackfield remediation” site — an illegal dump that had polluted the Trinity and the neighborhood for over 30 years which was reclaimed and turned into an Audubon center.  A recent decision by the City of Dallas to turn a part of the Trinity River corridor area next to the center into a golf course has chased the feral hogs from there onto our property, with the result that we’re seeing a lot of landscape damage from these animals.



This is a section of the trail near the building, where the hogs have been rooting all along the gravel walkways.  The damaged landscape left by their actions is vulnerable to erosion, and any native plants in this area that are destroyed are often replaced by invasives, which represents a step backwards in the effort to recreate a “pristine prairie environment” similar to what would have been here fifty or a hundred years ago.   The idea that you can take a damaged piece of land and magically return it to a pristine state is a bit of a pipe dream — we have been fighting a constant war with invasive species since the center’s opening.

So, this is my new research — find out about the hogs on THIS piece of property and see if we can manage them — because they are also destroying the juniper forest, as you can see in the two photos below.


IMG_20131220_142132I’m going to focus on “manage them to minimize damage” rather than “eliminate” since much of the research indicates that they’re difficult to eradicate and that habitats free of hogs are just an invitation for other hogs to move in.

Here’s what I know:

* There are two to four different herds.  I’ve set up a cheap game camera (and am hoping it works) to start to get pictures of the pigs so we can identify them.

* the pigs are mainly going for areas with Johnson grass and areas with junipers (cedars).  There’s minor damage in other areas, but the Johnson grass places and juniper forest are the places that are most heavily damaged.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

* that it might be possible to landscape the area (brush piles and so forth) to make it less convenient habitat for the pigs.

* that when they tear up the invasive Johnson grass, they’re doing us a favor.  We can plant over those areas with native grasses and the hogs have done a lot of the removal and soil tilling work for us.

* would a maintained and controlled herd keep other herds from entering the land?

* Are there certain types of landscapes that the pigs don’t like?  In other words, do they avoid walking over cobblestone-sized rocks or do they avoid brush piles — what do they avoid and what do they prefer?

My research assistant, John Snodgrass, is hunting up web pages for me to look at on wild hogs, but so far the information seems to come down to: they breed rapidly, they’re destructive, trapping and killing are the best ways to get rid of them, and Wild Hogs Are Tasty.

So — I’m also soliciting thoughts and observations here — if you have a thought or an observation or an idea about hogs (remembering that this will be done by One Small Woman… so don’t advocate putting up 30 miles of barbed wire fence, ’cause it just ain’t happening), let me know and I’ll add it to my list.

Alternatively, if you have a game camera to loan me or want to help me come map the trails on the property with a GPS or help map the damage), let me know and you can be part of the team.



Hands-on STEM activities challenge students to define problems and determine solutions

It’s a system I’ve seen in eco-education that seems to be a growing trend in education — partnering with organizations to inspire and challenge students by giving them an opportunity to use math, science, and engineering skills to solve real-world problems.

A partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Griffin-Spalding County School system called “AMP-IT-UP”, is using a novel approach to encourage student creativity, and make these important courses come alive.

The new courses integrate basic science and math content with hands-on engineering design and construction. The idea is to get youngsters to think about engineering concepts by using math and science as they design and build projects — often for a specific “client.”  The project also monitors the students’ performance, collecting data to try to determine what the students learn, and whether the program is succeeding in engaging them.

For the AMP-IT-UP program, students will be challenged to defend their decisions and ideas with science and math.  The program plans to give them access to equipment such as 3-D printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters.

“These classes build upon traditional classes where kids actually made things, such as making wooden boxes in what we used to call ‘wood shop,’ but with the addition of math, science and engineering design,” says Marion Usselman, an associate director for federal outreach and research of the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Tech and co-principal investigator and program director of the AMP-IT-UP.  “The emphasis in AMP-IT-UP is on students learning to define a problem–an engineering challenge–and then constructing a prototype and collecting data to find out whether the design works. They then change things based on the data.”

“What we are looking at is getting all students engaged in the act of making things, which allows them to have a better contextualization of math and science,” says Jeff Rosen, co-principal investigator for implementation and partnerships for AMP-IT-UP and a program director for robotics and engineering at CEISMC. “The whole idea of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is great, but the object is not to just do advanced math and science. It’s really about doing it all simultaneously, so you can get a true solid understanding of how everything works together.”

AMP-IT-UP is among the more than 100 currently active projects supported by NSF’s Math and Science Partnership (MSP), which has funded about 180 partnership-projects with local school districts since 2002.  For more on this project, check the link below.


Walking with Light

My new ebook, “Walking With Light” is available for download.  The revised version will be up in September.

It can be read online here:

PDF download for reading is here:




Exploring Mongolia by Satellite — for Science!

This is a “crowd sourced” project, where you look at high resolution satellite photos and mark things you think are weird or interesting. The researchers study the identification tags created as people look at the maps and use that to decide if there are unusual or interesting features worth examining.

Here’s a section of map showing the response I got after I tagged a photo.  As you can see, after 30 or more people have worked on these photos, some features are fairly obvious (roads, rivers.)  Although this feedback seems relatively unhelpful, I have noticed that after doing this for an hour, I am better able to notice subtle features on the satellite images. And faint roads.

Finds like this structure are always exciting.  There is a problem of scale — it’s hard to say just how big things are in these photos.   The river in the image below suggests that the spiral is pretty big, but without knowing anything about scale it’s hard to tell.

As you tag, the scenes become more fascinating.  Although the positions aren’t given, you can clearly identify some geological structures like these volcanic necks.  At this resolution, you can even see waterfalls!

So if you have a little time on your hands, come explore Mongolia as a Citizen Scientist!  You don’t even have to apply for passports!



Science Newsfeed: Protecting National Park Soundscapes

America’s national parks provide a wealth of experiences to millions of people every year. What visitors see—landscapes, wildlife, cultural activities—often lingers in memory for life. And what they hear adds a dimension that sight alone cannot provide. Natural sounds can dramatically enhance visitors’ experience of many aspects of park environments. In some settings, such as the expanses of Yellowstone National Park, they can even be the best way to enjoy wildlife, because animals can be heard at much greater distances than they can be seen. Sounds can also be a natural complement to natural scenes, whether the rush of water over a rocky streambed or a ranger’s explanation of a park’s history. In other settings, such as the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, sounds are the main reason for visiting a park.

The acoustical environment is also important to the well-being of the parks themselves. Many species of wildlife depend on their hearing to find prey or avoid predators. If they cannot hear, their survival is jeopardized—and the parks where they live may in turn lose part of their natural heritage. For all these reasons it is important to be aware of noise (defined as unwanted sound, and in this case usually generated by humans or machinery), which can degrade the acoustical environment, or soundscape, of parks. Just as smog smudges the visual horizon, noise obscures the listening horizon for both visitors and wildlife. This is especially true in places, such as remote wilderness areas, where extremely low sound levels are common. The National Park Service (NPS) has determined that park facilities, operations, and maintenance activities produce a substantial portion of noise in national parks and thus recognizes the need to provide park managers with guidance for protecting the natural soundscape from such noise. Therefore, the focus of the workshop was to define what park managers can do to control noise from facilities, operations, and maintenance, and not on issues such as the effects of noise on wildlife, noise metrics, and related topics.

To aid in this effort, NPS joined with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and with the US Department of Transportation’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to hold a workshop to examine the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s array of parks. Entitled “Protecting National Park Soundscapes: Best Available Technologies and Practices for Reducing Park- Generated Noise,” the workshop took place October 3-4, 2012, at NPS’s Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. Protecting National Park Soundscapes is a summary of the workshop.


Science Newsfeed: What Happened to Dinosaurs’ Predecessors After Earth’s Largest Extinction 252 Million Years Ago?

Press Release 13-076
What Happened to Dinosaurs’ Predecessors After Earth’s Largest Extinction 252 Million Years Ago?

Fossil-hunting expeditions to Tanzania, Zambia and Antarctica provide new insights

Graphic illustration showing an artist depiction os Asilisaurus

After the ancient extinction, some animals, like Asilisaurus, had more restricted ranges.
Credit and Larger Version

April 29, 2013

Predecessors to dinosaurs missed the race to fill habitats emptied when nine out of 10 species disappeared during Earth’s largest mass extinction 252 million years ago.

Or did they?

That thinking was based on fossil records from sites in South Africa and southwest Russia.

It turns out, however, that scientists may have been looking in the wrong places.

Newly discovered fossils from 10 million years after the mass extinction reveal a lineage of animals thought to have led to dinosaurs in Tanzania and Zambia.

That’s still millions of years before dinosaur relatives were seen in the fossil record elsewhere on Earth.

“The fossil record from the Karoo of South Africa, for example, is a good representation of four-legged land animals across southern Pangea before the extinction,” says Christian Sidor, a paleontologist at the University of Washington.

Pangea was a landmass in which all the world’s continents were once joined together. Southern Pangea was made up of what is today Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia and India.

“After the extinction,” says Sidor, “animals weren’t as uniformly and widely distributed as before. We had to go looking in some fairly unorthodox places.”

Sidor is the lead author of a paper reporting the findings; it appears in this week’s issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The insights come from seven fossil-hunting expeditions in Tanzania, Zambia and Antarctica funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additional work involved combing through existing fossil collections.

“These scientists have identified an outcome of mass extinctions–that species ecologically marginalized before the extinction may be ‘freed up’ to experience evolutionary bursts then dominate after the extinction,” says H. Richard Lane, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

The researchers created two “snapshots” of four-legged animals about five million years before, and again about 10 million years after, the extinction 252 million years ago.

Prior to the extinction, for example, the pig-sized Dicynodon--said to resemble a fat lizard with a short tail and turtle’s head–was a dominant plant-eating species across southern Pangea.

After the mass extinction, Dicynodon disappeared. Related species were so greatly decreased in number that newly emerging herbivores could then compete with them.

“Groups that did well before the extinction didn’t necessarily do well afterward,” Sidor says.

The snapshot of life 10 million years after the extinction reveals that, among other things, archosaurs roamed in Tanzanian and Zambian basins, but weren’t distributed across southern Pangea as had been the pattern for four-legged animals before the extinction.

Archosaurs, whose living relatives are birds and crocodilians, are of interest to scientists because it’s thought that they led to animals like Asilisaurus, a dinosaur-like animal, and Nyasasaurus parringtoni, a dog-sized creature with a five-foot-long tail that could be the earliest dinosaur.

“Early archosaurs being found mainly in Tanzania is an example of how fragmented animal communities became after the extinction,” Sidor says.

A new framework for analyzing biogeographic patterns from species distributions, developed by paper co-author Daril Vilhena of University of Washington, provided a way to discern the complex recovery.

It revealed that before the extinction, 35 percent of four-legged species were found in two or more of the five areas studied.

Some species’ ranges stretched 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers), encompassing the Tanzanian and South African basins.

Ten million years after the extinction, there was clear geographic clustering. Just seven percent of species were found in two or more regions.

The technique–a new way to statistically consider how connected or isolated species are from each other–could be useful to other paleontologists and to modern-day biogeographers, Sidor says.

Beginning in the early 2000s, he and his co-authors conducted expeditions to collect fossils from sites in Tanzania that hadn’t been visited since the 1960s, and in Zambia where there had been little work since the 1980s.

Two expeditions to Antarctica provided additional finds, as did efforts to look at museum fossils that had not been fully documented or named.

The fossils turned out to hold a treasure trove of information, the scientists say, on life some 250 million years ago.

Other co-authors of the paper are Adam Huttenlocker, Brandon Peecook, Sterling Nesbitt and Linda Tsuji from University of Washington; Kenneth Angielczyk of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago; Roger Smith of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town; and Sébastien Steyer from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The project was also funded by the National Geographic Society, Evolving Earth Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the Field Museum/IDP Inc. African Partners Program, and the National Research Council of South Africa.


Media Contacts

Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734

Sandra Hines, UW (206) 543-2580

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget was $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:

NSF Home Page:
NSF News:
For the News Media:
Science and Engineering Statistics:
Awards Searches: