Fulbright Travels, Week Seven

Fulbright Travels, Week Seven

Learning by trial and error.

I’ve heard people call this bad form when learning, but I have to disagree. Yes, sometimes it’s better to spend a rather long time learning a set of concepts to solve a problem or ask someone for help. But sometimes, it’s better (and faster) to learn through trial and error. This is a strategy that I’m taking with custom gas exchange setup.

Any custom gas exchange system runs into the same issues as designing an HVAC system for a building: pressure drops, flow issues, temperature control, etc. And as I’ve learned over the past week, the system is not only sensitive to the materials used to make the system, but also the order of the components. If you put a condenser in the wrong spot, humidity could get too high in another part of the system, or the temperature fluctuations could adversely affect your measurements. If you are pressurizing the system, the elasticity of the component tubes can affect whether you can actually pressurize the system. And lastly, where you put the impeller or fan can cause large problems with pressure fluctuations. Luckily I have a limited number of components in the system, and this is a case where trial and error can work quite well – it didn’t take long to rearrange the components and test whether the setup worked. However, I only recommend this when the problem is sufficiently small, or when there is no evidence or theory to use as a starting point.

Moving on from science, this past week I explored the climbing available in the Albuquerque area. Stone Age Climbing Gym is the largest climbing gym that I’ve seen, with  two large bouldering areas and roped climbing throughout. The routes range from being easy introductory problems for newcomers to advanced technical problems for the experienced climbing. There is a very supportive atmosphere, and if you enjoy climbing indoors, it is definitely worth checking out!

On the weekend, I went out to the Sandia foothills to explore the bouldering there. The rock is very much like concrete – unfortunately this means that it is not very pleasant to climb (which explained the complete lack of other climbers). However, the views from atop the boulders are spectacular.

I also went to the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, which is about an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque. Tent Rocks is a place that is sacred to a local aboriginal group, and was formed through a combination of flooding, volcanic activity, sedimentation, and erosion. The rock formations are absolutely beautiful. The hike takes about an hour to get to the top, and is of moderate difficulty for most people, but the views are worth it. At the top, it is very easy to understand why Tent Rocks is considered a sacred place.

If you are ever in northern New Mexico, the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is worth the trek. The pictures capture but a fraction of the beauty and the experience.

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

Fulbright Travels, Week Six

Fulbright Travels, Week Six

This past week I had the opportunity to go hiking in the Sandias, and the views from these mountains east of Albuquerque are spectacular.

picturesque-mountains
View from one of the Sandia trails.

One of the main attractions of the Sandias, is the Sandia Crest, two miles high. As a lowlander, moving around two miles up is significantly more strenuous, but totally worth it.

crestview
View from the Sandia Crest.

There is also a small trail that leads to a stone cabin on top of the crest, and even more spectacular views.

The forests on the Sandias smell of cedar, and it is really cool to see active forest management – they use thinning and controlled burning to prevent wildfires and control insect outbreaks.

And of course, an adventure isn’t an adventure without having your tour guide’s vehicle breakdown at the top of the mountain! But we managed to get home safely after a long tow through winding mountain roads.

But let’s move on to a more academic subject.

Public speaking. Graphic design. Storytelling.

What do they have in common? They are all useful skills for a scientist.

As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate your research, and while the primary outlet is through publications, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to verbally communicate your research in an engaging way – not only to other scientists, but also to everyone else. My philosophy is this: if you are being funded by someone’s tax contributions, it is your responsibility to answer any questions they may have your research (barring legal issues such as nondisclosure agreements, security clearances, etc.).

This past week, I had an opportunity to present my research at the weekly ‘brown bag’ seminar for the University of New Mexico’s Biology Department.

When giving a seminar or conference presentation, there are many elements that make a presentation good or bad, and whether those elements are good or bad can also be a matter of someone’s personal preference. But preferences aside, your audience should be able to follow your presentation, and remember, at the very least, what you did and what your conclusions were. So this week, I’m going to talk about a couple of the lessons I’ve learned over my (relatively short) scientific career so far.

Visuals: these need to be easy to understand, or at the very least, you need to bring them into your presentation in a way that your audience can understand. Generally, simple graphics are better, although I’ve seen a couple presentations where the speaker had a very complex graphic, but brought it in in a piecemeal way to make it very easy to understand. If you do have to use a complex graphic, incorporate it into your presentation as though you are an artist doing a live painting: sketch an outline, fill in the broad details, then spend time adding in the finer elements that really make your point.

The story: this needs to be engaging, and constructed in a logical way so that your audience can follow what you are saying. Ideally, by the end of the introductory section, your audience should be able to predict what your questions are – if they can’t, then you need a better intro. As for how the experiments are carried out, unless the methods are the focal point of your work, you only need to have enough information so that your audience knows what kind of data to expect – if they have any questions, there is usually time at the end to discuss this. A thoughtful, concise section on methodology should prime your audience for absorbing the results of your study. As for the results, this falls mostly under the advice for visuals above, but keep in mind that the data should flow in a logical way. I personally like to include recaps of each cohesive section of data (e.g. if I talk about a lot of photosynthesis data, I’ll recap those findings before moving onto growth data). The recaps serve two purposes: they re-engage any audience members whose attention has been lost, and they reinforce your take home messages. This repetition will help the audience to remember the conclusions for your presentation when you state them at the end, as at that point, they will have heard the conclusions at least twice.

Again, I need to stress that presentations are a matter of personal preference, but hopefully the above advice can help you develop more effectively seminar presentations!

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

 

Fulbright Travels, Week Five

Fulbright Travels, Week Five

This week has been another whirlwind week in the ABQ.

I started the week off with some field work at a USDA-certified organic apple orchard. Measuring photosynthesis in an apple orchard is definitely an experience I would recommend, as you get free access to the apples. I also managed to get some cool shots of the Licor 6800 Portable Photosynthesis System in action (see below).

My next step involves testing some of the assumptions underlying our current photosynthetic gas exchange theory, and for that, I will be setting up my first custom gas exchange setup! Of course, that requires learning about how circuit boards work.

circuitboard
Circuit board for a humidity sensor, made by Jeremiah

And I managed to finish the workweek by submitting a major portion of my thesis for publication!

This past weekend I had a chance to visit Santa Fe, where I learned what New Mexican rivers look like:

img_20161015_144645
A New Mexican river in Santa Fe

After exploring the city and going on a chocolate tour (which I highly recommend), I went to the immersive art venue, Meow Wolf. Their goal is to make an experience that stimulates all of the senses and makes you part of the art. Their Halloween event was loaded with actors, creatures, and an immersive storyline. If you are ever in Santa Fe, Meow Wolf is a must-see!

Well, that is all for this week. But seriously, check out Meow Wolf – it’s absolutely phenomenal!

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

 

Fulbright Travels, Week Four

Art. Culture. Ballooning.

This past week, Albuquerque hosted its International Balloon Fiesta, and what a fiesta it was! Each day of the week hosts different events and balloons.

I made it out to the Thursday special shapes day. To get the best experience, you have to arrive early, as in 6:30 am early. The air was cold, the balloonists were still arriving, the air charged with anticipation.

Balloonists ready.jpg
Balloonists getting ready

The sunrise was spectacular, and marked the beginning of the ascensions. The first ascension balloons carried an American flag as the national anthem played. Then, preparations for the mass ascension began.

Watching a hot air balloon inflate is quite captivating. There are a lot of people and work required to get the balloon inflated and upright. Huge roaring flames are used to heat the air and inflate the balloon.

roaringflame
Roaring fires are needed to heat the air

The special shapes included all manner of balloons, from cartoon-inspired Bugs Bunny characters, to dragons, pirates and birds. And in the late morning, there is a competition whereby balloonists need to pilot their balloon to a target field, and throw a weight as close to a target on the field as possible.

After being immersed in the balloon fiesta (and eating funnel cake of course!), it is easy to see why people travel from across the world to see it.

And just for fun, here is the mandatory balloon fiesta hat photo:

mequid2.jpg

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

Fulbright Travels, Week Three

Fulbright Travels, Week Three

Albuquerque is a beautiful city – from nearly any vantage point in the city’s east, the surrounding area twinkles at night, while mountains surround during the day.

This past week has been particularly exciting – my plants have started to grow (see below), I got the opportunity to get some field work (see below), and the data collection for the first stage of my project is almost complete! This post will focus on the field work aspect of my week.

bnapus
Brassica napus poking up through the soil.

Field work in Los Lunas

Preparation. Motivation. Passion. Stamina. The context? Field work.

As an ecophysiologist, whenever you need to answer a burning question, you first have to decide how you will collect the data: should you run computer simulations? Should you setup an experiment in the lab? Should you go out into the field? Should you do some combination of the three? And each method has tradeoffs.

For computer simulations you can quickly amass data and draw predictions, but you often have to rely on theory and data that others have collected, and those data may not be sufficient to answer your question.

For lab experiments, you can tightly control the environment to study mechanisms and physiology, and setup the experiment so that it fits with your schedule. However it is difficult to extrapolate to the real world, where the environment is dynamic and much, much messier.

For field experiments, you can study the biology in the real world to see what is actually happening. However, you have less control over environmental conditions leading to confounding factors and difficulty in interpretation, there are time constraints, and it can be physically demanding.

Arguably, the best approach combines all three, as each approach can amplify the effect of the others.

I do not consider myself a field biologist by any means, but this past week I had the opportunity to do some field work in a corn field for my Fulbright project. Our location was out in Los Lunas, and the drive out to the agricultural field was quite scenic.

We were out in the field early in the morning to prepare out equipment, and it was a nice, cool, New Mexico morning. By mid afternoon, the sun was quite intense, and it has given me a lot of respect for the biologists who do a lot of experimental work in agricultural fields: there’s no shade or conveniences of being in a building, and you have to remain mentally alert and focused to collect good data. This is all more difficult than it sounds when the sun is beating down on you.

Overall, the experience was really fun, even if it was demanding. Using equipment outside introduces a whole host of potential problems, especially with batteries, but we managed to collect all the data we needed.

As this first project wraps up, I’ve realized how important it is for me to be engaged in a fast paced research environment: the intellectual stimulation, competition, and demand for progress make me the best scientist that I can be. Besides, if you’re not pushed towards your limits, how can you possibly achieve your potential and contribute all you can to the world?

Stay safe and stay informed,

-Joe