Monterey Bay Aquarium Blog Post

A blog post I wrote about the sea otter genome project has been featured on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Blog! I had a great time working on the post with Ken Peterson, the Aquarium’s Communications Director, and absolutely love the sweet infographic on the bottleneck designed by Tiffany Enriquez (courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium).




Monterey Bay

I just got back from a wonderful visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium – one of my favorite places in California. I have been going there since I was young, and this week I was thrilled to give an in-house seminar on the sea otter genomics project. The Aquarium has sent us samples and given great advice as we move forward with the project and it was a pleasure to get to tell them more details about the project and see such enthusiasm for otter genomics from the audience – which ranged from volunteer guides to the Aquarium’s scientists. Thank you to everyone at the Aquarium, but especially Athena Copenhaver who coordinated my whole visit and made me so welcome.

The day before my talk I went out on a whale watch and saw a large group of lunge-feeding humpbacks, dozens of common dolphins, and an ocean sunfish. Things got more intense when a pod of seven killer whales came onto the scene – the humpbacks trumpeted and became very defensive, and the dolphins scattered. One dolphin didn’t make it, and the orca pod efficiently and swiftly attacked it. I have never seen an orca predation event before, and it was as remarkable as it was grisly. They had a calf with them that was being taught to hunt by its mother and grandmother.

On the way back to my hotel, I passed a female otter and her pup in the harbor by Fisherman’s Wharf – it might have been “Bixby,” a female featured on the BBC/PBS’ Big Blue Live.

Keep an eye out for a longer blog post about my talk here and on the Aquarium blog!


Science Olympiad

I had a fantastic time volunteering at the regional Science Olympiad competition at Occidental College last Saturday.

Starting in sixth grade, I was an avid participant in Science OlympSO_logoiad, competing every year until I graduated from high school. I think these competitions provide remarkable opportunities for students to experience broader fields of science than the biology/chemistry/physics they learn in school. They can try their hands at engineering events (building trebuchets and bottle rockets) or become experts in astronomy, paleontology, forensics, and experimental design as they prepare for the knowledge events.

I think it gives them the best insights into different science careers, giving them a chance to  see how science can be used to answer real-world problems in a myriad of careers.

This was my first time on the supervising side of the competition, and I was thrilled to see so many passionate kids from all walks of life there to meet and compete with their fellow science gtentseeks.

I was the event supervisor for the middle school “Green Generation” event — a knowledge test covering topics in ecology, evolution and environmental science. This event is a spin-off of an event I competed in back in the day (“Water Quality”) in which I wrote an entire essay about eutrophication without being entirely sure what it was. (Came in third, so not so bad!)

First time supervising

First time supervising

Many of these kids were perfectly aware of the definition and implications of eutrophication, along with a host of other environmental threats to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The event was an excellent way to give students a grounding in environmental science while educating them about ways they can contribute to local solutions.

Thanks so much to everyone at Caltech and Occy for organizing this wonderful event — it is such a pleasure to be back!

Exploring Your Universe: Strawberry DNA

I had a fantastic time volunteering at the “Exploring Your Universe” event at UCLA this Sunday. Allison Fritts-Penniman and Johnathan Chang organized two great booths for the EEB department: a strawberry DNA extraction using soap and rubbing alcohol and a marine invertebrate touch-tank. During my shift, I taught children ages 4-18 about the concepts of DNA and the genetic code and led them through the simple extraction process. For some of the younger kids, the concept of DNA was a bit too abstract, but they still enjoyed getting to do some hands-on science by adding dish soap to strawberry puree, then watching the DNA precipitate into the isopropanol. Older children were more engaged with the actual concepts; one ten year old boy asked increasingly insightful questions as he began to understand the importance of DNA in heredity and evolution, and I was able to talk him through how DNA is an indicator of relatedness between individuals and of phylogenetic relatedness between species.

The best thing about the strawberry DNA protocol is that it can easily be done at home, and so I suggested that parents and their children carry out experiments to see what else they can extract DNA from (onion, banana, cheek swabs, etc.). The main advantage of using store-bought strawberries is that they are octoploid (eight copies of their chromosome set, as opposed to our two copies) making the quantity of DNA extracted very high and therefore easy to visualize, so I warned participants that other organisms they try to extract DNA from may not give such generous yields.

I highly recommend this simple DNA extraction protocol for teachers and parents — when I was in middle school, I carried out this protocol on a piece of onion at a family science workshop and became deeply fascinated with DNA and genetics. Hopefully some of the kids on Sunday were just as inspired!