Friday, October 31, 2014

NaNo Eve

October 31, for a lot of people this is Halloween, for me this is NaNo Eve. This is the last day before the frenzied, caution to the wind writing pace for the next, great/horrible novel! For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and takes place in the month of November. The goal is 50,000 words in the mere 30 day span of the month. I've been doing this since 2008 and I have no intention of stopping now.

This year I am attempting some science fiction in an oceanic setting, current working title is Fathoms. I've been plotting and planning all year and I only have it half outlined. Some of my research is unfinished, I've either not had the time to dive as far into as I wanted, or I've changed major plot points that have rendered all my previous research moot. Either way I have only half a poorly sketched out map to take me through this November.

Obviously, it probably sounds crazy for me to attempt this. After all, only recently did I say I was cutting back on my blog posting as I'm balancing two teaching courses, taking a course, doing research, and being a Mom. And for the first time in years I did consider sitting NaNo out. But honestly, I usually cut out all of my writing exercises for the rest of the year in favor of higher priority items. But November, egged on by the knowledge that thousands of other people are also neglecting their higher priorities, I give myself permission to raise my fun priority. I've not been disappointed yet!

Do I have 6 beautiful, publishable novels to show for it? Of course not! I don't even have 6 novels I'm proud of.. one of them I might never open again I'm so ashamed of how SUCKY it is. But I do have 6 adventures that pushed my creativity and gave me a sense of accomplishment. In another month, I will hopefully have 7!

Anyone else doing NaNo? My nick is SCUBAJfer, so if you are please buddy up with me and let me know who you are in the comments!!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fall Break

This week was Fall break for my Uni, no classes on Mon/Tues and because of the way the lab I teach works both my sections are cancelled this week. For the undergrads this means run away and play. But for me, it means extra lab time! Several of the procedures I need to do take multiple days and this week I had 3 days with no interruptions to my work day. I was able to get 2 full rounds of plasmid preps done.

One of the beautiful thing about Fall break is that the school is usually quiet. It's like a mini taste of summer. Parking is a breeze, plenty of spots. Common equipment is usually available. Email doesn't flood the box like a tidal wave. No interruptions for classes prep or grading. And I actually got some things done, feeling a bit more like a responsible grad student! :D

Friday, October 17, 2014

Epidermal Leaf Slides

Leaves are incredible. They are the primary site of photosynthesis, as evident by their nice bright green color due to being full of chlorophyll. In general the structure of a leaf includes a cuticle (waxy protective covering), upper epidermis, mesophyll (home of the chlorophyll), lower epidermis and another cuticle.

When we were at the science outreach day the other week, my Post-Doc showed me how to make leaf epidermal slides. And it is so easy we let the kids make their own slides! Which they loved. All you need are: a leaf, clear nail polish, clear tape, a slide, and a microscope.

The first step is to paint a small area of the underside of the leaf with the clear nail polish. The reason you use the underside is 2 fold: typically cuticles (that waxy layer) are thinner on the bottom side and this is where the stomata are which are really cool to see. They kind of resemble cats eyes,more on those later. Note that the polish has to dry completely before you can move onto the next step.

Step 2 involves carefully putting the tape onto the nail polish. Be sure it seals along the nail polish but you keep a hold of the edge of the tape so you can do step 3 easier.

In step 3, you rip the tape back off, like you're waxing someones eyebrows. You should see the nail polish and a layer of leaf cells came off on the tape. Simply put this piece of tape on the slide, smooth it out so there are no air bubbles, and fini!

Then you simply pop it onto your microscope and you see this beautiful epidermal layer, complete with stomata and cell walls. Stomata are the cells that open and close to regulate water and gas exchange between the leaf and the environment.
40x objective lens (400x total magnification)
For more information on the role of stomata, I refer you to the wonderfully written Frozen Parody Stomata Open the Door by my favorite plant blogger @JLRoose.

The rules above are simply the start point. To make this more than a simple observation with your kids, have them examine leaves from different species of plants. How do the epidermal layers differ? How are they the same? To do some quantification have them count the number of stomata in one microscope field and compare it among the different leaves. Those are just a few examples, I'm sure there are dozens of other ones!

If you give this technique a try, I'd love to hear about your experiences! Leave me a comment :)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fall Colors: An Inside Look!

The other weekend I attended a day of science outreach for the state. We put together a nice plant bio set up, showing different types of leaves and cell types with the microscopes. One of the things I created for the event was a poster entitled: Fall Colors: An Inside Look!

My son quickly informed me that people would look at this and say "That's a boring title"


Thanks kiddo, love you too. Well, I liked the title, after all the poster describes what occurs within the cells of leaves as they change from summer to fall to dead.

When leaves are green, they have lots of chlorophyll, which means lots of photosynthesis is occurring. Chlorophyll gives the leaves their nice green coloration. The leaves are doing photosynthesis and thus making lots and of sugars which can be sent out to the rest of the tree. The tree then sends water up to the leaves, keeping them hydrated.

As fall sets in, nights get longer and temperature decrease. This is a signal to the tree that it is time to start preparing for the approaching winter. The tree starts to close off the stem to the leaf, slowing down water flow and decreasing the amount of sugar that escapes the leaf. At this stage, chlorophyll starts to break down and anthocyanins are created. These anthocyanins are a protective substance, helping to protect the leaf from the upcoming stressors and stored in the vacuole. They are a nice bright red, color. Plants, such as maple, that have bright red leaves are rich in anthocyanins.

Colder temperatures cause water flow to cease and chlorophyll content to be negligible. Carotenoids, which are yellow/orange pigments, accumulate in the plastids (the same organelle in the cell where chlorophyll is found). Anthocyanins also continue to acculumate and the leaf gets deeper and deeper red. If you have a plant, such as an oak, that only turn yellow that's from the accumulation of carotenoids and not anthocyanins. Now we have bright, beautiful fall leaf.

Now it's time for the leaf to be shed, the stem is completely sealed. No more anthocyanins accumulate and the carotenoids break down, leaving a brown shade. The dead leaf now falls away and the tree hunkers down til spring when it can produce more sun catching, food making, green leaves.

So as you watch the leaves change colors, remember, you are watching the leaf die. This is one of my favorite comics about the fall:
Fall Colors Comic by Awkward Yeti
Fall Colors by The Awkward Yeti

Friday, October 10, 2014

Penguin Citizen Science

Boo has a stuffed Penguin, Kowalski. We've had Kowalski since he was really young. This has left us both with a soft spot for penguins. For a while, they were his favorite  animal (now it's sharks). When Zooniverse announced their newest citizen science project, Penguin Watch, we were ecstatic. It is a Zooniverse just like several other citizen science projects we've shared here, so it does require a username/password.

This is a simple click and tag site. You look at pictures, answer some questions and click on the center of the penguin. First question is are there penguins or other animals present?

Then, you mark the center of adults, chicks, eggs, or other (non penguins). If there are a lot of penguins, it will tell you after 30 marks that you've done enough and can feel free to move onto the next image. The last question is did you mark all of them or were there too many penguins.


Very simple and straightforward. If your kids can use a mouse, they can do this activity. Boo absolutely loves it. I highly recommend this for meaningful, yet slightly mindless, clicking!