Archive for the ‘Science education’ Category

Shattered pitch with hammerA career as a scientist is many things: it is fascinating, ever-evolving, intense. Whatever images came to your mind when reading those words are probably nothing like the images a scientist would paint for you about his/her work day. Along with investigation and discovery, one of the major themes in a scientific career is patience. Some experiments are faster than other, e.g. one assay to measure enzyme kinetics can take less than seconds to achieve results (not including prep time), whereas it may take months to observe a mouse phenotype that may or may not change following a gene mutation. No matter what the experiment, scientists spend a considerable portion of their careers waiting.

However, no amount of waiting I have experienced in my scientific career can quite compare to the waiting that must be endured by the scientists monitoring the Pitch Drop Experiment in progress at the University of Queensland in Australia. Pitch, which is a derivative of tar, appears to be a solid and even brittle at room temperature. In 1927, scientist Thomas Parnell decided to create a demonstration to show that things are not always what they seem.  He heated up some pitch and placed it in a glass funnel with the bottom fused so it could not leak through. Professor Parnell let the pitch settle into its new formation for a full three years (!) at which point he cut the bottom of the funnel stem and the experiment began to prove that pitch is a highly viscous liquid. Now here is an important lesson about patience and perseverance: the first drop did not fall from the funnel until 1938- a full eight years after the stem was cut! 86 years after the Pitch Drop Experiment began, only eight drops have fallen from that funnel, about one drop each decade. A record and proposal for modeling pitch drops can be found here: http://www.physics.uq.edu.au/physics_museum/pitchdrop.shtml

Professor Mainstone with Pitch Drop experiment

Professor Mainstone with Pitch Drop experiment

Professor John Mainstone began supervising Queensland’s Pitch Drop Experiment in 1961. He missed drop seven by about five minutes when he stepped out for a refreshment. Although a camera was set up to capture the eighth drop fall in 2000, equipment malfunctioned while Professor Mainstone was overseas and the data were lost. Sadly, Professor Mainstone passed away in August of 2013 without ever witnessing a drop fall.

No one has ever witnessed the drop of pitch actually fall from the funnel, but you could be the first! In, perhaps, the best way to help non-scientists understand the excitement of waiting, there is a live webcam recording “The Ninth Drop” as it descends into the beaker below. It was expected to fall in late 2013 (13 years after drop 8), but is still hanging on.  If you want to be part of history, be sure to register on the website!

Researchers in Dublin, who began a similar pitch drop experiment in 1944, scooped the Queensland scientists. They first witnessed a drop of pitch fall from their funnel in July of 2013 collecting the first official evidence that pitch is, indeed, a liquid. You can catch a time lapse video of the drop falling below.

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weather blog

Gone are the days when the phrase “educational TV” would inevitably send shudders of dread through kids and teens. Quite the contrary, many of today’s educational programs are fast-paced, expertly narrated and full of surprising, fun, and visually engaging facts and science trivia. But while no doubt entertaining, are these programs still any good at their core function, namely teaching the kids actual concepts useful for understanding modern science?

The long-running PBS educational series, NOVA, aims to satisfy this goal by providing not only standard teachers’ notes and lesson plans to accompany its shows, but also by investing in extensive and realistic online laboratories in which students can explore actual scientific datasets. A good example of this approach is provided by the NOVA Cloud Lab, which is actually far more exciting than it sounds, as one of its main sections concerns the formation and study of storms. (more…)

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4621CAIt’s a question I’m asked probably once a week. “What wavelength do I select on my luminometer when performing a luciferase assay?” The question is a good and not altogether unexpected one, especially for those unfamiliar or new to bioluminescent assays. The answer is that in most cases, you don’t and in fact shouldn’t select a wavelength (the exception to this rule is if you’re measuring light emitted in two simultaneous luciferase reactions). To understand why requires a bit of an explanation of absorbance, fluorescence, and luminescence assays, and the differences among them.

Absorbance, fluorescence, and luminescence assays are all means to quantify something of interest, be that a genetic reporter, cell viability, cytotoxicity, apoptosis, or other markers. In principle, they are all similar. For example, a genetic reporter assay is an indicator of gene expression. The promoter of a gene of interest can be cloned upstream of a reporter such as β-galactosidase, GFP, or firefly luciferase. The amount of each of these reporters that is transcribed into mRNA and translated into protein by the cell is indicative of the endogenous expression of the gene of interest. (more…)

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Image used with permission of Dr. Hongdi Liu.

Image used with permission of Dr. Hongdi Liu.

Recently Promega hosted a special guest from Duke University—Dr. Neil. L. Spector, one of leading scientists in the field of breast cancer research. In a simple way  Dr. Spector presented advances in this field of cancer research and informed us of new treatments that have the potential to improve patient lives. (more…)

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spiral_primes1Warning: This blog post deals with mathematics, but not the math you may remember from school. But by virtue of it being mathematics, some people may be tempted to skip over this post. Don’t let this happen to you – there’s too much wonder here to miss out on.

Warning 2: The websites mentioned here use WebGL interactive 3D graphics: They only display correctly on browsers that support WebGL, such as Google’s Chrome browser. If you haven’t already done so, consider losing yourself for a few hours in the chrome experiments website.

Back when I was a mathematics graduate student in the early 1990’s, I felt that I had to sift through tomes of tedious formalism and obtuse notation to get at the few rare jewels of genuine mathematical insight. Or so my memory tells me. Then again, I also remember having to trudge uphill both ways through monstrous snow drifts to get to classes, so I can’t quite vouch for my memory (actually, that last part may have been somewhat true of the math department at the UW Madison, in the winter at least). In any case, my sense of mathematical wonder ebbed, and I eventually turned to the pursuit of more tractable goals, like finding a decent job and starting a family. In effect, I had built a mental wall between me and mathematics.

This wall only began to crack earlier this summer, when I saw a short but amazing presentation at the Eyeo festival in Minnesota. (more…)

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Copyright by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon from “The Stuff of Life” (2009)

A few years back, when my wife and I were moonlighting as amateur comic artists, we would set up our table at local comic conventions. At one of these, we found ourselves sitting not too far from a charming comic artist by the name of Zander Cannon. His black-and-white artwork was gorgeous to behold. But what really drew us to him was a modest hardbound book on his table, entitled The Stuff of Life: A graphic guide to genetics and DNA that he co-illustrated with Kevin Cannon and whose script was written by Mark Schultz. It turns out that illustrating educational comics is one of Zander’s true passions. Of course, we bought our own copy. (more…)

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BannerA new exhibit opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Friday, June 14: “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” to recognize the 60th anniversary of Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix and the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. The goal of this temporary exhibit is to educate visitors about DNA in general, the technological and scientific accomplishments of the HGP and implications of new knowledge gleaned from the complete human genome sequence, including many ethical, legal and societal issues such as potential genetic discrimination by employers and insurance companies, the use of DNA for human identification, prenatal genetic screening and privacy concerns.

A few of us here at Promega were fortunate enough to view the exhibit the night before it opened to the public. There was a lot to see and do, with plenty of interactive displays to keep even career scientists interested and amused. What were some of the highlights?


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