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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

 

Fulbright Travels, Week Two

Fulbright Travels, Week Two

This second week of my Fulbright exchange has been quite a whirlwind! Albuquerque has a booming philosophical underground – I went to a discussion group called Science and Meaning (only one of many that are available here) last Sunday that is organized by a physicist at the University of New Mexico. There were people from all walks of life there, and we were all united in our passion for one thing: philosophy. We discussed the philosophical implications of whether our universe is the only one, and why it is tuned (with or without agency) to harbor life.

From there, I discovered a wonderful coffee shop called Zendo in the Albuquerque core – if you ever need a creative space, Zendo is exactly that. It’s a very open-concept space with minimal, but comfortable, modern furniture. And the coffee – it is the best I’ve had yet while here (although the hunt continues), mostly because they take the time to figure out exactly how to brew each type of coffee bean with each brew method. Anyways, Zendo’s ambience turns on the tap of creativity, and inspired a SciFi short story that I plan on submitting to Nature Futures (rejection rate is high and can be due to the whim of the editor, and competition includes established SciFi authors, but that just means it’s an excellent test. Wish me luck!). If it doesn’t make it through, I’ll post it on my SciFi page!

It seems like every day, Albuquerque has something new and exciting to offer. Just on Tuesday, I found a mantis trying to get into the UNM Biology building (see below). Luckily UNM has sufficient security measures to keep these out and away from the delicious insects that other labs work with. My colleague Lauren Des Marteaux from the University of Western Ontario, who is very good and passionate when it comes to identifying insects, said it could be an Arizona mantis or Carolinian mantis – although it can be difficult from a picture alone.

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A mantis trying rather unsuccessfully to infiltrate Castetter Hall at UNM.

My research adventures continue to be very stimulating and rewarding: I think of an idea in the afternoon, test it in the morning, revise the theory, test again the next day. One of the key study organisms that I am looking forward to working with is Boechera depauperata, a super-heat tolerant plant that, strangely, requires a vernalization period for its seeds. Vernalization is a period of cold exposure that permits the seeds to germinate, and ensures that the seeds do not germinate prematurely. Amazing isn’t it? That a very heat tolerant plant requires cold. As I prepare the seeds and start growing the plants, I’ll be updating with pictures!

On Saturday, I met with the New Mexico Fulbright Chapter. It is amazing the diverse backgrounds from which Fulbright alumni come: artists, teachers, students, community planners, scientists – there was no lack of intellectual diversity at the meeting. The meeting kicked off with breakfast at the Barelas Coffee House, which serves excellent traditional New Mexican food (see below). Afterwards, we went to the National Hispanic Cultural Center to learn about New Mexican art and its cultural inspirations from an amazing docent, Doug Simon. We learned all about the Torreon fresco by Frederico Vigil – I recommend visiting it, as it encapsulates the history of New Mexico in one vast art piece that took 10 years to produce!

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The Barelas Coffee House, serving traditional New Mexican food.
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A traditional New Mexican Posole, complete with green chillies!
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The Torreon, near the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Inside is a gigantic fresco depicting New Mexican culture and heritage.

Now I have to speak about a traditionally Canadian conversation topic – the weather. The weather in New Mexico is gorgeous! Brilliant sunshine most days, with periodic monsoon rains (that don’t last long). I happened to be out at exactly the right moment to capture a picture of a double rainbow! It was strong enough to infer where the third ring should be (although that wasn’t apparent).

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Double rainbow after a monsoon rain in Albuquerque.

That’s it for this week. I look forward to the adventures that next week holds!

Stay safe and stay informed,
Joe

Fulbright Travels, Week One

The Fulbright. A scholarship designed to promote cultural and intellectual exchange between the United States, and over 160 countries.

I was lucky enough to have received a Fulbright grant to come to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to do some cutting-edge photosynthesis research with Dr. David T. Hanson at the University of New Mexico. I am deeply appreciative of having been given this opportunity from Fulbright Canada.

At this point, I’ve been in Albuquerque for one week, and it is already starting to feel like home. The people are friendly and polite here, and the city has a rich and diverse culture to explore. The city is full of cacti (see picture), small batch coffee roasters, craft breweries, and an excellent underground art scene. In other words, a millenial’s paradise.

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On the work side of things, I’ve had the chance to get my hands on the new Licor 6800: the next-generation photosynthetic gas exchange machine (see below). It’s a beautiful machine, and I hope to tap deeply into its potential over the coming months. It’s design differs from previous iterations in that it has much greater control over measurement conditions, reduces leaks (which can invalidate any data you collect), and provides an extensive interface for diagnosing problems on the fly. It is also, by far, the most aesthetically pleasing of the photosynthetic gas exchange tools available.

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However, the piece of equipment that I am really excited about is the tunable diode laser (TDL, below). While the Licor 6800 measures bulk carbon dioxide and water in an airstream, the TDL is capable of figuring out which atomic isotopes are present in the gas molecules. This allows us to dive deep into biological processes where the isotopic composition begins to matter. Few laboratories in the world boast a TDL optimized for use in biology.

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I will be learning how to use the TDL very soon (which is codenamed the “Millenium Falcon”). And I am sure that I will have an ecstatic update when that happens.

I am looking forward to see what happens over the next eight months!

– Joe

Don’t forget about plant sex: climate change can affect sex ratios in plants

Most climate change studies on plants are focused on how the growth or range of a plant species will response to a changing climate. The sex of the plant is usually ignored, and in some cases this is okay since some plants have both male and female structures on an individual. However, dioecious plants have a particular sex for an individual, much like dogs and cats. Males and females of dioecious plant species can have different physiology, and this may affect male/female responses to climate change in these species.

Petry et al. (2016, Science, 353:69-71) sought to determine whether males and females of a dioecious plant would respond differently to climate change. They looked at how the sex ratio changed across the entire range of the herb, Valeriana edulis, over the past 33 years. They found the proportion of males in the population decrease with elevation, but the proportion of males overall has increased by ~6% over the past 33 years. They attribute these results to differences in water use efficiency (the ability of a plant to conserve water while maintaining growth). The sex with the greater proportion in a population had higher water use efficiency than the other sex. However the reason for these differences is unclear.

The results of Petry et al. have significant implications for modelling. If we assume that both sexes of a dioecious plant species are the same, our models of plant migration or populations could be wrong. Modellers will have to take this into account when trying to predict migration patterns of plants, and potentially even carbon uptake. It boils down to one thing: sex does matter, and it can no longer be ignored in plant modelling efforts.

Stay safe and stay informed,
Joe