Tag Archives: biology

Better living through microbes at Hot Science – Cool Talks

Bacterial morphology diagram (Image credit: Mariana Ruiz with Wikipedia)

Bacterial morphology diagram (Image credit: Mariana Ruiz with Wikipedia)

Microbes have been in the news a lot lately, usually as part of a video or story about the problems they cause, as with the case of Listeria in ice cream.

Listeria is a terrible bacteria that lives in soil and water and can spread to and thrive in food processing plants. Getting rid of Listeria requires cooking and pasteurization, which helps before food is cooked, but not afterwards when it’s packaged. Listeria is hard to eliminate because it grows in cold temperatures.

But not all microbes are bad. Many, in fact most, are actually good.

As part of his TED talk, microbiologist Dr. Jonathan Eisen talks about how microbes play a role in our defense, boost our immune system, protect our auto-immune system, fight off stress, and more. In addition to Dr. Eisen’s video, here are more sites to help you learn about the benefits of microbes:

Better living through microbes

Better living through microbes (Image credit: UT Austin Environmental Science Institute)

Better living through microbes (Image credit: UT Austin Environmental Science Institute)

Microbes are all around us, and researchers are studying how microbes live and evolve to see how they can benefit us, such as to improve our health or create new products.

Dr. Lydia Contreras and her research group are studying how microbes live in toxic environments. (Dr. Contreras is an Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).) What they discover could help build new molecules to act as early warning systems for preventing disease.

Learn about the benefits of microbes with Dr. Contreras at the next Hot Science – Cool Talk presentation, Better living through microbes, on Friday, May 1, 2015. The lecture starts at 7:00 pm in the Welch Hall Auditorium on the UT Austin campus. Be sure to get there early because the community science fair with lots of fun activities starts at 5:45 pm.

Chemistry in high school is fun, but I really liked studying biology in high school, and I’m excited about learning more about microbes at this Hot Science – Cool Talks presentation on Friday.

ESI Third Annual Education and Outreach Dinner

 Dr. Jay Banner, Commander Ben, Dr. Chris Kirk, and Dr. Rebecca Lewis at the 2014 UT ESI Education and Outreach Dinner

Dr. Jay Banner, Commander Ben, Dr. Chris Kirk, and Dr. Rebecca Lewis at the 2014 UT ESI Education and Outreach Dinner

UT Austin Environmental Science Institute (ESI) puts together these awesome Hot Science – Cool Talks presentations that combine science, learning, and fun.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to support ESI, their outreach mission, and their program to educate future researchers in environmental science, you can get tickets to ESI’s third annual education outreach dinner, which will be on April 29, 2015, in the Google Fiber Space in downtown Austin.

Spring 2015 – Hot Science – Cool Talks

Here are some of my blog posts covering events for this spring semester. You can also catch up on Hot Science – Cool Talks past events.

The microbes presentation in May is the last one until this fall, so don’t miss it!

Your friend,

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Filed under Environmental Science Institute, Hot Science - Cool Talks

Periodic Table of Hot Science Selfies

Dr. David Laude's Chemistry Cool Talk at UT Austin

Dr. David Laude’s Chemistry Cool Talk at UT Austin

My friends and I enjoy taking selfies. I enjoy science, and I thought what better way to bring the two together (like an exothermic chemical reaction!) at last month’s Hot Science event about chemistry at UT Austin.

The first Hot Science – Cool Talk of the Fall 2014 semester, How I Learned to Love Chemistry, by Dr. David Laude was packed! There was a huge rainstorm before the event, but that didn’t discourage young and old chemistry enthusiasts from attending in force (F=ma).

I think this is the most people that have ever been to a Hot Science event. If anything, the rain made people more determined to learn, especially with the pre-lecture activities. Everyone came out, including friends that I haven’t seen in years. The entire Welch Hall main auditorium was full with standing room only. What density (D=m/v)!

Many people, including myself, a friend from school, and our chemistry teacher watched the event from the overflow auditorium. (I even arrived early!) Even with the time delay in the video simulcast, Dr. Laude’s talk was enlightening (c=2.9×10^8 m/s).

And now for the chemistry selfies!

Dr. Jay Banner, Director, UT Environmental Science Institute (ESI), is the best!

Dr. Jay Banner, Director, UT Environmental Science Institute (ESI), is the best!

Dr. David Laude, UT Chemistry professor, gave a lively and interactive talk about chemistry. Loves to blow things up!

Dr. David Laude, UT Chemistry professor, gave a lively and interactive talk about chemistry. Loves to blow things up!

Ms. Melinda Chow, coordinates fun events and activities for the UT Environmental Science Institute.

Ms. Melinda Chow, coordinates fun events and activities for the UT Environmental Science Institute.

Mr. Patrick Goertz, my great chemistry teacher!

Mr. Patrick Goertz, my great chemistry teacher!

More chemistry selfies

I am in an electron shell of knowledge with Theodore Gray's The Elements book

I am in an electron shell of knowledge with Theodore Gray’s The Elements book

Theodore Gray’s The Elements book in print and on the iPad is an excellent and fun way to learn about the elements in the periodic table. I’ve used his book to learn more about the elements in my high school chemistry class.

While I’ve enjoyed looking through the printed book, the app is more interactive and offers animations. To help dyslexic readers, I hope that the creators of the app, TouchPress, will publish an update that allows you to highlight portions of the text and use the iOS text-to-speech accessibility feature to have my iPad read the content out loud.

Bismuth, a cicada, and a live oak tree join me for a chemistry and biology mashup selfie

Bismuth, a cicada, and a live oak tree join me for a chemistry and biology mashup selfie

Bismuth (one of the most beautiful element structures), a cicada (at least its exoskeleton), and a live oak tree (Yea, biology!) wanted in on the selfies too.

Extreme weather at SXSW Eco

The next Hot Science presentation whirls in next Monday, October 6, 2014, with a special event at SXSW Eco.  Dr. Kevin Klosel will talk about Extreme Weather and Uncertainty in Forecasting.

During this year’s SXSW Eco event, you’ll learn about the science behind extreme weather, like tornadoes and superstorms, and how meteorologists factor in uncertainty.

Sounds like another super Hot Science is on it’s way, and the forecast for selfies with Dr. Klosel are favorable!

Update: Remember that this special event is free and is at the Austin Convention Center (and not at UT Austin.) The National Weather Service is bringing a tornado machine, and you’ll also be able to create lighting with a Van de Graaff machine and erupt snow to create an avalanche. Sounds like lots of fun!

Your friend,

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Filed under Chemistry, David Laude, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Environmental Science Institute, ESI, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Jay Banner, Melinda Chow, SXSW Eco, The Elements, Theodore Gray

How I Learned Biology with my Textbook, iBook and Audiobook

Miller and Levine Biology book on the iPad - A must!

Miller and Levine Biology book on the iPad – A must!

I finished up my high school freshman finals yesterday with a 100 on my biology final exam. Yea! My favorite subject this year was..yes, you guessed it…biology!

I had a fantastic time learning about biology, and here are just some of the topics that we studied during the year:

  • Ecology: Plants are autotrophs, which means they produce food from solar energy. They’re primary producers and very tasty to heterotrophs like us, since we get our food from consuming plants and other living things.
  • Cells: We have eukaryotic cells, which means our DNA is enclosed in a nucleus, unlike prokaryotic cells.
  • Genetics: A round of applause to Father Gregor Mendel for founding the science of modern genetics and for his experiments with pea plants. (They were easy to grow for the study dominant and recessive genes.)
  • Evolution: Ah. What fun it would have been to be on the HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin in 1831 and be able to explore nature, so new and mysterious. (I learned about Darwin’s Finches at a Science Under the Stars activity at the UT Brackenridge Field Lab a few years ago.)
  • Plants: CO2 + H2O — sunlight –> C6H12O6 + O2 (Photosynthesis, need I say more?)
  • Animals: Who knew cladograms could be so interesting? Cnidarians, like jelly fish and sea anemones, are the simplest animals to have radial body symmetry.
  • Human body: Thanks hypothalamus for monitoring concentrations of water in my blood and releasing more antidiuretic hormone (ADH) to let me know I’m thirsty.

Miller and Levine Biology Textbook, iBook, and Audiobook

We used the Biology textbook by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine. Although the book is wonderfully written with great illustrations, it wasn’t easy for me to learn from with my dyslexia. Fortunately, I was able to to get the iBook version from iTunes and the audiobook version from Learning Ally.

I liked being able to select portions of the iBook version and have my iPad read the text out loud to me. Unfortunately, it couldn’t read the text on pictures or diagrams, and that’s why it was helpful to have real people describing the drawings and reading the text in the Learning Ally audiobook that I also listened to using the Learning Ally iPhone app.

Miller and Levine Biology iBook quiz

Miller and Levine Biology iBook quiz

I also liked being able to take the quizzes with each iBook chapter to practice for my tests. (The iPad version is a lot lighter in the backpack too!)

Try this setup to be surrounded by all things biology: Have your printed biology textbook in front of you, your iBook on the iPad on your right, and your audiobook on your Learning Ally iPhone app to your left. Oh, and your herbarium on the wall in front of your desk!

(If you want to learn more about Learning Ally and what they and their many wonderful volunteers have done to help dyslexics and those with reading challenges, watch my YouTube video, The Sound of Reading.)

The iBook version of Miller and Levine’s biology book is only $15 on iTunes. Even if you’re not in high school, but you would like to learn about Biology in a fun and easy to understand way, the iBook version is well worth it.

As much as I love my iPad and audiobooks, I’m always going to treasure my printed textbook with all my notes, highlights, and well worn pages. Thank you Miller and Levine!

An awesome summer ahead

I’d also like to thank my wonderful teachers, especially my biology teacher, and my parents for all their help and encouragement this school year. I took a lot of walks with my Dad where we talked about what I learned in class, studied upcoming quizzes and tests, and talked about new advances in science. It was a great school year!

I really love science and I’m going to miss all the fun biology labs. (But I’m looking forward to some amazing chemistry labs coming up during my sophomore year.)

I hope you’ll join me for an awesome summer as I get caught up on my blog posts and videos on science, invasive species, and dyslexia. And I also hope you’ll help me kick off the summer at the first Nature Nights at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Thursday, June 12. I’m bringing my Invasive Hunter Academy to help train future invasive hunters and have fun with plants at the same time!

Your friend,


Filed under Biology, Dyslexia, High school, iBooks, Invasive Hunter Academy, iPad, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Learning Ally app, Nature Nights

Stop Monkeying Around: Primate Social Behavior

Amazonian Primate (Photo credit: UT Austin - Environmental Science Institute.)

Amazonian Primate (Photo credit: UT Austin – Environmental Science Institute.)

Science is my favorite subject, and this spring in my high school freshman biology class, I’ve been learning about plants, the diversity of animals, evolution, and more.

We learned about the common characteristics that all primates share: fingers and toes with nails, not claws; arms that rotate around a shoulder joint; binocular vision; and a well-developed cerebrum, which is helpful for complex thinking.

We’re now studying the different systems of the human body, including the nervous and skeletal systems. (We have 206 bones in our adult human skeleton!)

Primate evolution and the evolution of senses

When I was a young naturalist (younger than I am now), I had the chance to interview Dr. Chris Kirk before his “Your Eye, My Eye, and the Eye of the Aye-Aye” presentation. Dr. Kirk is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, and his talk was part of the Hot Science – Cool Talks series, presented by the UT Austin Environmental Science Institute.

Primate social behavior

There are more awesome anthropological presentations in store with Hot Science – Cool Talks! You can learn more about primate social behavior with Dr. Anthony Di Fiore during his presentation this Friday, April 4, 2014. A Professor of Biological Anthropology and the Chair of the UT Austin Department of Anthropology, Dr. Di Fiore will talk about the monkeys that he’s studying in the Amazonian Ecuador and how their native ecosystem helps to shape their behavior and society.

His presentation starts at 7:00 pm in Welch Hall on the UT Austin campus, but be sure to arrive early, because the pre-lecture fair, full of fun kids activities and learning, starts at 5:45 pm.

It’s the last Hot Science event of the spring 2014 semester, so don’t monkey around and miss out on this Cool Talk!

Your friend,


Filed under Anthony Di Fiore, Department of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Chris Kirk, Environmental Science Institute, ESI, Hot Science - Cool Talks, My Eye Your Eye and the Eye of the Aye-Aye, Primate social behavior

Dr. Damon Waitt predicts the next big invasive species to threaten Texas rangelands

Last year, Dr. Damon Waitt predicted the onslaught of Bastard Cabbage, an invasive species with mustard flowers that overran our Texas Wildflowers. With my latest interview with Dr. Waitt, you can learn more about Yellow Star-Thistle, the next big invasive species to threaten our Texas pastures, roadsides, and rangelands.

Dr. Waitt is a Senior Botanist and Director of the Native Plant Information Network at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.

I interviewed Dr. Waitt for this video during the Invasive Species Workshop for Citizen Scientists in June 2012 at the Wildflower Center.

It’s been only a few months, but I look much younger in my first video with Dr. Waitt, Advances in the fight against invasive species in Texas, that I filmed during the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Conference in November 2011.

Learn more about the invasive species that Dr. Waitt has talked about:

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Filed under 2011 Texas Invasive Plant Conference, Bastard Cabbage, Citizen Scientist, Damon Waitt, Invasive Species, Invasive Species Workshop, Invasive Species: Secrets Revealed, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Wildflower center, Yellow Star-Thistle

The Amazing Invasive Hunter Man

An accidental encounter with a plant grafting experiment transforms a geeky biology student into the Invasive Hunter, a hero to the ecosystem’s native species.

The Invasive Hunter returns to battle King Ranch Bluestem (KR Bluestem), an invasive species overrunning roadsides and fields and stealing lunch money. His powers, however, do not go unnoticed by his cranky professor.

This video is part of Commander Ben’s “Battles with Invasive Species” video series.

Learn more about the plants talked about in this video:

And don’t miss seeing your friendly neighborhood spider-man at the movies too!

Your friend,

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Filed under Battles with Invasive Species, Giant Reed, Grafting, Invasive Hunter, Invasive Species, King Ranch Bluestem, KR Bluestem, Spider-man, Texas Bluebonnets, Texas Live Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel

The Fascinating, Hidden World of Plants at Explore UT

There’s more to plants than you know! At this year’s Explore UT, Dr. Jennifer Moon gave a great presentation about how plants can detect light, respond to touch, establish defenses, and communicate with their kin. Here are some highlights from her talk.

How do plants know when to germinate and grow?

Importance of Red (R) Light and Far Red (FR) Light for Plants

Dr. Moon talked about the importance of red light and far red light for plants. If plants detect more red light, they like to grow or germinate. If there’s more far red light, like in shade, it’ll deter germination or cause the plant to grow tall or sideways to look for sunlight.

Will plants grow more if you touch them?

No. If you touch them a lot, they’ll stay short because they’re afraid that if they grow too tall, they’ll be pulled out of the ground, like from a passing animal or wind.

Do plants like to be talked to?

Yes, but it’s not because of what you say. They like the carbon dioxide (CO2) that you’re giving them.

Can a plant know which bug is eating it?

Dr. Moon described how a plant knows if you’ve cut it or if something is munching on it.

Plants can detect insect saliva

The secret is the plant’s ability to detect insect saliva.

Plants know the difference between mechanical and insect damage

They’re smart enough to know if you’re cutting it with scissors. If they detect that it’s a bug eating it, they’ll set up defenses.

Plants release protease inhibitors for defense

Some plants release a protein that causes insects that are eating the plant to starve and die. They can continue to eat the plant, but they can’t digest it. They’ll die and won’t be able to lay more eggs to create a new generation of pests to attack the plant.

Other plants can release a hormone that attracts wasps that will attack the insects or lay eggs on them.

Other plant defenses

I also learned that spices and flavors are part of a plant’s defense system. They may deter insects and some animals, but they make our food very flavorful. My favorite herb is basil, and my favorite spice is cinnamon.

Venus Fly Trap

Dr. Moon showed us some great plant videos by Roger P. Hangarter from Plants-In-Motion.

Watch this video that shows why it takes more than just a brief touch to cause a Venus Fly Trap to shut. It takes energy for a plant to close it’s leaves, so it’s best to do so when you think you have prey.

Venus Fly Traps need the nitrogen from insects, since these plants typically grow in bogs that have little nitrogen available.

Dr. Moon and Explore UT

Dr. Moon is a lecturer with the School of Biological Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences at University of Texas at Austin, and she has a cool website for the botanically curious at greenseedling.com.

Each year, the University of Texas at Austin holds a campus wide event with fun activities and education for kids and prospective students of all ages. This year’s explore Explore UT event was held on March 3, 2012.

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Filed under College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Jennifer Moon, Explore UT, University of Texas