Thursday, September 13, 2018

500 Women Scientists Kicks Off in Boston

Posted by Tara Miller

Fifty people joined the September 5th kickoff of 500 Women Scientists in Boston.  The national group was first founded in 2016 to speak up for science and make science open, inclusive, and accessible.  Since then, many local and regional groups have sprung up across the country.  

Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays leads a discussion about the direction of 500 Women Scientists

The event started with short talks about climate change from women in fields as different as biology, public health, engineering, and landscape architecture.  The attendees then joined in a discussion about the future role of 500 Women Scientists in Boston.  People expressed interest in engaging in advocacy, education, and supporting women scientists around issues of sexual assault and harassment.

The panel of speakers answers questions from the audience

Monday, September 10, 2018

Variation in swamp rose mallow flowers

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Simplicity is the law of Nature for man as well as for flowers. 
Henry David Thoreau

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) is a spectacular wildflower, with multi-stemmed plants growing 6 feet tall and covered with dessert-plate sized flowers.  Large populations grow along the banks of the Charles Rivers, with over a thousand plants at one notable location. 

Rose mallow plants growing along the Charles River.

While most plants have pink flowers, other plants produce flowers that are light pink, very light pink, or even white.  In addition, some plants produce flowers with a red center, and other plants produce flowers without the red center.  Plants also vary in the size of the flowers, and whether the petals are bent strongly forward or slightly forward, or flared out at a right angle.

Three plants growing next to each other: on the left a plant with white flowers with a red center; in the middle a plant with light pink flowers with a red center; and on the right a plant with pink flowers and no red center. 

This striking floral variation is almost certainly genetic, as all of the flowers on a plant will share the same characteristics of color, presence or absence of the red center, flower size, and petal orientation.

A plant with white flowers and red center, growing next to a plant with pink flowers and a red center. 

There is also variation in leaf color with some plants producing bronze colored leaves.

White flowers with no red center. 

This species seems tailor made for studies of pollination ecology, genetics, and evolution. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Keep your eyes open

Posted by Richard B. Primack

The question is not what you look at but how you look & whether you see.
Thoreau in his Journal, 1851

Sometimes surprising things appear magically when you go for a walk with your eyes open.  

Orange, grass-killing fungus, or something else?

Walking across a large playing field in Newton Center, I noticed grass splayed out in a circle about a foot across, and outlined by a bright orange ring.  My first impression was that a fungus must be killing the grass plant, causing it to fall over from its central root, with orange fungal spores emerging mid-stem. Closer examination showed that many such orange circles occurred in a regular pattern across the field, and the orange seemed more like paint than fungus.  In fact, I soon realized, the orange color was spray paint indicating below ground irrigation nozzles. 

Close-up of the orange circle. Looks like paint!

Walking in the Hammond woods, I spied what seemed to be a blazing white gem in the shaded forest.  The gem, about a foot across and three feet above the ground, shimmered with brilliant white light, changing by the moment.  As I got closer, I could see that it was an unstructured three-dimensional spider’s web, backlit by a stray sunbeam, with the spider visible at the top of the web. 

Shimmering white gem in a shady forest.  See the spider?

Two amazing novelties during walks along well-worn paths.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Culture and Infrastructure of Biking in Italy

Posted by Tara Miller

When considering whether to bike to work or for pleasure, some concerns may make you hesitate.  Is it safe to bike?  Will there be enough space on the road, and will cars know to watch for me?  Is there somewhere to leave my bike when I arrive?

The bike-friendly regions of the Dolomites and South Tyrol in Italy have your answer: yes!  These regions, located in northeastern Italy, have developed a culture and infrastructure to cater to cyclists.

Many of the bike paths in South Tyrol follow rivers, offering a scenic and safe alternative to the roads 

An expansive network of bike paths connects many of the towns and cities in the area.  You can bike for dozens of kilometers without ever encountering a car.  The paths are well-marked, with frequent signs guiding cyclists to their destination.  As a plus, many of the paths roll along with beautiful rivers and streams.

The Italian cities offer bike racks in every shape and form.  Your wheels can rest in slabs of marble, notches in tree trunks, or even slip into slots in the cobblestones.  

When you get tired of biking, the regional trains easily accommodate bikes aboard. (©

The infrastructure, bike shops, and fellow cyclists all contribute to a culture that encourages people to get out and see the country on two wheels.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Merryspring Nature Center

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Two Primack lab alumnae walk into a midcoast Maine Nature Center…

On Tuesday, August 7, Amanda Gallinat accompanied me to Merryspring Nature Center in Camden, Maine, where I gave an outdoor lecture in a beautiful hexagonal gazebo. Back in April, Merryspring invited me to give a talk in their summer lecture series — they were interested in hearing about my postdoc research on alpine habitats in Maine. I brought along a giant pad of paper for an informal chalk talk that covered the methods and motivations behind my paleoecological field work in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park.

The talk covered my postdoc research: I spoke about the paleoecological history of tundra habitat in Maine and our recent fieldwork to collect new pollen cores from Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park. I also introduced my long-term goal of bringing together all the federal and state agencies and NGOs that work above treeline in Maine for cooperative conservation planning workshops. 

The weather was a stark contrast to my stories of coring through the ice on Chimney Pond last winter, but the breeze through the gazebo kept us (relatively) cool in the August heatwave. The small crowd of retirees and nature center enthusiasts had great questions & kindly complimented my sketches of alpine plants, mountains in Maine, and coring equipment. Thanks to Merryspring Nature Center for the invitation and thank you to Amanda for the photos and great company on the drive up Route 1!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Television video used for climate change research

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“I find that actual events, notwithstanding the singular prominence which we all allow them, 
are far less real than the creations of [our] imagination.” 
Thoreau in his correspondence, 1850.

Photo from the 2009 Tour of Flanders showing trees leafed out along the race route (Photo from

In a recent article, Belgian researchers examined television video archives from 1981 to 2016 of the Tour of Flanders, a bicycle race held each year in the beginning of April, to determine how climate change affects the leafing out and flowering phenology of 46 individual trees along the race route. Trees are leafing out and flowering earlier now than in the past, and earlier phenology is linked to warmer temperatures in the three months (January, February, and March) before the race. Spring phenology is not affected by temperatures in October through December, the amount of precipitation in months before the race, or tree characteristics. 

Still images from the Tour of Flanders showing bicyclists with trees in the background and areas with video coverage. (Figure 1c from DeFrenne et al. 2018)

This article demonstrates the scientific value of video archives for innovative scientific research.  Digital images are increasingly available from smart phones, sporting events, traffic cameras, and security cameras.  When properly analyzed, these images can provide novel insights into the effects of climate change on the phenology of plants in the spring and perhaps also in the less studied summer and autumn seasons

Trees are flowering earlier over time in response to a warming climate, as indicated by later phenology stages.  (Figure 2b from DeFrenne et al. 2018). 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Rooftop Gardens

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Why not take elevated and broader views, walk in the great garden, 
not skulk in a little “debauched” nook of it? 
Thoreau in Excursions

Flat rooftops are an increasingly popular location for city gardening. While growing ornamental plants on roofs provides enjoyment, vegetable gardens are a valuable source of fresh local produce. The Roof Top Garden at Boston Medical Center serves many functions, including providing vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots, and kale for their cafeteria, for employees, and for low-income populations.  

Roof Top Garden with the Boston Medical Center in the background.

In addition, the farm provides a place for patients and staff to relax and participate in a farming experience.  Student groups visit the farm to learn about agriculture, and recent immigrants work there to gain job skills.  

Water and fertilizer are applied directly to plant roots using a tube system that minimizes evaporation and run-off.

The Roof Top Farm also developes new farming techniques, involving soils, containers, watering systems, and pest control, that will be shared with others interested in rooftop farming. 

On the roof of the Stone Science Building, Sarabeth describes her research to Boston University freshmen.

Sarabeth Buckley, a grad student at Boston University’s Earth and Environment Department, carries out research on the biogeochemistry of rooftop gardening. She investigates if spinach plants grow faster if fertilized with carbon dioxide generated by students breathing in classrooms. 

Classroom air with a high carbon dioxide concentration is applied to spinach plants. Will they grow faster?