wonderment.

I already wrote about the amazing community at the Guarda workshop. But let’s be honest, the scenery was pretty great too. Here are some of my photos. Click to enlarge.

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a sense of community.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp. other photos are mine unless otherwise noted; click to enlarge to better quality.

I recently returned from a weeklong evolutionary biology workshop in Guarda, a small village in the Swiss Alps. Now that I’m back, people are asking, did you learn a lot?

Well, yes. But that’s not exactly the point of the workshop. There’s an “armchair lecture” from a member of the staff every night after dinner, 45 minutes of speaking from the sofa with no powerpoint or visuals. Other than that, the workshop is about how to work together to develop scientific ideas, and it’s about the process of, well, thinking about science. I think that’s an incredibly important thing to work on, every bit as important as sitting in a classroom listening to lectures – if not more important.

And this style of workshop got me really excited about science after a long spring doing a project that really burnt me out in a country where there’s so much paperwork and administration that it’s sometimes hard to focus on research. No internet, no resources? At Guarda, you had to use your head and your logic to think about scientific questions. And it was really fun.

More than that, though, I was incredibly inspired by the people around me. Both the professors and the 26 students made up a very diverse group. It surprised me how much this meant to me since I am in an international masters program with students from all over the world. The whole point of my masters is to bring diversity and provide a wealth of different opportunities in various areas. But in MEME, I am one of the oldest students. With only a few exceptions, most of the students have come straight out of their universities. Yes, the academic experiences we have had are diverse, and the countries we come from are many, but there still seems to be, for the most part, one path towards a career in science: undergraduate, masters, PhD, beyond.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

By contrast, look at the picture above. We’re all white, we’re all from Europe and North America. In that sense, not diverse. But these were the people I lived with in a flat for a week and we had an amazing wealth of experience. The photographer, Marie-Eve, is from Quebec. She went to culinary school and worked as a baker for a while. On the left is Lina from Switzerland, the only one to go straight through. Robyn, in the blue shirt, took time off to work some conservation jobs at home in England. Raphi, in black, owned a bar and managed ten employees before returning to science, and also works as a sound engineer for bands at live performances and helps run a music festival. Ewa studied pharmacology and started working at a community pharmacy for a few months before, as she likes to joke, “I knew that if I had to keep standing there handing out aspirin pills I would kill myself.” Instead, she’s now doing a PhD trying to find better model organisms with which to study the complex mental health diseases that appear in humans and have no analogs on which to test causes and treatments.

Then there’s me.

where should we go? photo: me.

where should we go?

Spending a week with these people was like a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time. They were all so passionate about their research areas, and also just lot of fun to be with. One of the professors had studied music before becoming a computational biologist, and is an amazing cello player who was having a concert the day after the workshop ended. In Guarda, nobody judged you for not taking the straight path to a PhD. Instead, they appreciated what additional insight these life experiences might have brought you, or the fact that you must have returned to science because you were really motivated – after all, it would maybe have been easier to keep being a pharmacist, a bar owner, a baker…. a ski journalist…

So we worked hard on our projects all day, trying to reason our way through tough questions and find model organisms for our projects. We bashed heads, agreed to sorta-agree, moved on to the next step, started over again. It was exhausting. At lunch we would slink back to our flats for lunch and then head out into the mountains for the rest of the break, breathing in the cool alpine air and letting the endless diversity of floral shapes and colors inspire us some more.

The first lunch break was amazing. We still barely knew each other, but here we were, wandering around this paradise. It took me about five minutes the next morning to run the same distance that we made it up the trail that first lunchtime, because we spent so much time stopping and taking pictures. All around us was so much splendor, it was hard to keep moving.

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Usually I think of hiking or walking as an opportunity to go some significant distance; I want to get exercise, and I take in the views at the pace of a run or walk. But I had absolutely no problem wandering off into a meadow and realizing 20 minutes later that I had barely moved.

IMGP1741Nevertheless, the next day we were determined to cover more ground, see more sights. We walked past the meadow that had diverted us the day before and climbed steeply up through the trees. It was sort of hard going, especially with the altitude, but the reward was that after not so much distance, we were already high above the village. We found a small pond and lingered for a few minutes. In one corner there was a nursery of tadpoles and we enjoyed watching them swim around frantically until the water seemed to be boiling every time a shadow passed over the water.

That day we did cover more ground. But there was a healthy dose of botanizing and naturalist-talk too. One of the things that was so fun about hiking with these other students was that so many knew something about plants or animals. There were birders and botanists. I was behind the curve trying to translate my knowledge of Rocky Mountain flora to Europe; sometimes I’d recognize a genus or a plant that looked to similar to something in Crested Butte that I would swear it must be the same species.

But few people were complete experts on alpine flora and fauna. Instead, they brought hefty volumes of Flora Helvetica and we would all gather round, peering over each other’s shoulders as we identify that purple orchid in the boggy part of the meadow. We’d see a beetle or a frog or a butterfly (or a dead mouse in the trail) and the default response was, how cool!

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Curiosity was the theme of the week. That, and making the most of these new friendships that we had for the week – no internet to distract us, no e-mail to the outside world, just enjoying each other’s company on adventures both intellectual and alpine.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. photo: Christina Holm.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. Not every day do you stand around drinking beer with Stephen Stearns and Robert Trivers. photo: Christina Holm.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

I'm pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

I’m pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

Solo in the Siskiyous.

Today was my first solo work trip. It was fun in a lot of ways, lonely in a few ways, and mainly a milestone: my bosses now trust me enough to send me off with a field vehicle and a list of stiff to do, and they think I can actually do it without supervision! Are they making a mistake? I don’t think so, but you never find out until later…

At 6:45 I hopped in the Prius and started the trek down to Selma, Oregon, where we have a site at the Siskiyou Field Institute. It’s about three hours from Eugene, and the first two were very gloomy. I began to regret not bringing warm clothes until, as usual, I reached the town of Sunny Valley, where it never fails to all of a sudden be sunny. It’s kind of creepy, really. You’d think the spot where the weather would changes would switch at least a little bit from day to day… maybe the happy citizens of Sunny Valley have made a deal with the weatherman up in the sky. Having such a perfect name must make for good tourism.

By the time I was halfway done with my fieldwork, the temperature had climbed to 91 degrees. There’s no shade in the sites, and half of the plots are heated by 3 degrees Celsius, so they were closer to 96 or 97 degrees. Thank goodness it’s not humid, but basically, I was dying. I was working slower and slower, getting dizzy when I stood up from looking at plants, sweating profusely, the whole deal. I chugged water but when you’re out in the blazing sun in 90+ degree weather, you can only be more comfortable or less comfortable – there’s no just plain comfortable.

The heat was taking a toll on our plants, too. I was looking for two annual species in each of the plots: Navarettia pubescens and Clarkia purpurea. The last time I was down here, they were hard to find. This time around, I found many we had missed – the other plants were dying back, making anything still remotely green stick out like a sore thumb.

The pink flowers of the Clarkia were definitely not the norm: look at all the dead thatch around this plant!

The Navarretia didn’t stick out quite as much, but luckily their really unusual shape makes a good search image. There isn’t much else you will get confused with this plant.

I eventually finished work (well, kind of – the heat was out in one of the plots and I couldn’t figure out why, so there was nothing I could do to fix it, which felt very unsatisfying) and climbed back into the car with the air conditioning on. The site is about 15 miles down the road from the Illinois River Trail, a 27-mile backcountry trail which supposedly is incredibly beautiful. I had been planning on doing a long run, maybe 15 miles total, out and back from the trailhead after work since I didn’t have any coworkers who wanted to go home, but after a day in the heat, I just couldn’t do it. It would have been a bad idea. (and driving, of course, wasn’t….)

So I guess I’ll save the trail for later. It was a little disappointing, but I had a nice quiet day of work, and 11.5 hours which means I don’t have to work a full day tomorrow! Weekend here I come.

Gardens, flowers…. stigmas, saffron rolls (& tons of pictures)

My trip to Atlanta – which I’m now back from – was excellent for many reasons. I had a great time with my grandparents, who I haven’t seen nearly enough of in the last few years. College was too busy for me and so the last year or so has allowed me to catch up with my family, finally.

But while I would have been happy to sit at their house and simply spend time with them, my grandparents had more in store for me. On Tuesday grandfather Pete and I went to a Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the High Museum. I saw more than 200 amazing black and white photographs – many of Cartier-Bresson’s native France, many set in the U.S., some from India – including from Gandhi’s funeral – and a photo-essay about the Great Leap Forward in China, among many other settings. The photos were beautiful and many showed unusual and artistic composition. It was a huge treat. I miss the days when people made prints in a darkroom.

On Thursday, we went to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

I will never think of a botanical garden the same way again. I pictured, well, just a big garden with lots of plants and signs telling me their names. I love plants and flowers, both because of my scientific interests and because, like anyone else, I appreciate beauty – so I was excited for the trip, but I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I found a happy, dynamic space – which even included a whimsical, educational children’s garden – full of not only flowers but sculptures and statues, ponds and fountains, trellises and plenty of creative landscaping.

I also didn’t expect that the botanical garden would have a large herb, vegetable, and fruit tree section which fed the hungry. Way to go, botanical garden! For some time now I’ve had a dream that more Americans should have small gardens. Maybe incorporating edible plants

We spent a lot of time in the Conservatory and Orchid Center.

Walking into the conservatory was like entering a new world.

Orchids reigned supreme. So did rainforests.

Color. Shape.

And so it was only appropriate that the last thing I cooked for my grandparents came from flowers.

My grandfather had been requesting saffron buns all week, so we finally picked up some saffron at the store and I got cooking. Saffron is frequently touted as being the most expensive spice in the world. Its price tag is thanks to the labor required to produce it: saffron threads are the stigma, or pollen-receving reproductive parts, of a Crocus sativus plant. Each crocus has just three stigma, which must be painstakingly collected.

My grandmother had a recipe for saffron buns, but she said that it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It also had lard in it. The only thing I ever put lard in is pasties, and I wasn’t quite ready for lardy rolls. So I looked elsewhere for inspiration, settling eventually on Scandinavian Santa Lucia buns, even though the season isn’t quite right.

I think that when I was in elementary school and read about the Santa Lucia tradition, it was the first time that I wanted to be Scandinavian. I wanted to be one of those blonde-braided girls dressed all in white with a wreath of candles on my head. Since then, I have accumulated many much better reasons to wish that I was Norwegian or Swedish. (Sidenote: I am ashamed to admit that I learned about Santa Lucia by reading Kirsten’s surprise, an American Girl doll book. Because my parents never got me one of those dolls, they seemed super cool. Thanks, though, mom and dad, way to stay strong. I learned about Swedish immigrants anyway.)

The saffron threads are red, but as soon as I dropped them into hot milk, they began spreading their signature yellow color.

Eventually, I had made up a dough that used not lard, but butter – thank goodness! After a bulk rise, I quickly shaped the buns into their signature scrolls in the eight minutes left before dinner (a shrimp alfredo made by my grandfather – yum!) hit the table.

And then I baked them while we ate dessert. In fact, I forgot about them while we ate dessert. But at some point I remembered them and after being terrified that they would be burnt into blackened lumps, I found that they were unharmed, and shiny with their quick egg glaze (it’s my new favorite way to make sweet breads look fancy). The smell when they came out of the oven was tantalizing. Even though we had just eaten dinner and dessert, we split one of the still-hot rolls between the three of us.

When it’s by itself – which it was in these rolls, which lack any other spices – saffron is noticeable, but subtle. It’s not a flavor that I have often encountered, but I loved these rolls. They are unique. And honestly, even if saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, you can splurge on a packet to make some rolls every once in a while. It’s not going to break the bank.

Definitely submitting this one to YeastSpotting!

Santa Lucia Saffron Rolls

adapted from Lunches Fit For A Kid, a blog loaded with cuteness

1 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp saffron threads
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 egg
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour

glaze: 1 egg, and a bit of water

Start by heating the milk until it’s almost boiling. Add the saffron threads, crushing them with your fingers as you sprinkle them onto the milk. They will immediately dissolve a bit. Stir and let sit for ten or so minutes. The milk should still be fairly warm after this. Add the yeast and let sit another five minutes. I do all of these steps still in whatever vessel I heated the milk in so that it can retain as much of that heat as possible. Then, pour the milk-saffron-yeast mixture into your actual mixing bowl. Add the egg, beating well, and then the melted butter, sugar, salt, and one cup of flour. Stir until you have a lumpy but fairly uniform mixture. Add two more cups of flour and stir again. Add more flour until you have a dough that is cohesive and kneadable without making too much of a mess on your hands. Turn dough out onto a floured counter to rest while you wash out the mixing bowl and smear it with butter. Then, knead the dough for five minutes, place it in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Next, divide the dough into quarters. Divide each quarter into three equal-sized portions and shape each portion into a rope, eight or ten inches long and of a uniform thickness. Shape the rope into the S-shape shown in the pictures above: start wrapping one end into a circle which coils around itself. When you have used a third of the length of the rope, switch and wrap the other end up in the opposite direction. Push the two spirals toward each other and wrap further, if necessary. Transfer all of the rolls – there should be twelve – to a greased baking sheet and let rise for another hour at least.

Finally, brush with an egg glaze made of one well-beaten egg and a glug of water, whisked together. You can brush it on with a pastry brush or just your fingers. You won’t even come close to using up the whole egg, but that’s a problem I haven’t yet figured out how to deal with. Bake the rolls at 400 degrees for 15 to 25 minutes, or until they seem done.

Things Are About to Get Nerdy, or, I Was Right.

Every once in a while I read something that really gets me excited. There can be multiple reasons for this: maybe it’s really good journalism, or maybe it’s just an interesting and unusual story. Maybe it’s amazing science.

I recently read a Grist article: “Leaked document shows EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags.” I got really, really excited. It was the most exciting thing I had read in at least a week. And let me tell you, that was no small feat, considering the excellent piece of Nat Herz’s that I was asked to edit.

The article was about how, despite the fact that their own scientists believed that the pesticide clothianidin is toxic to honeybees, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushed through approval of the pesticide, and it now being used on millions of acres of staple crops like corn throughout the U.S.

As the title suggests, someone leaked a document showing the EPA scientists’ concerns over the pesticide – and the shoddy science that had been used to justify its safety. Thanks, Grist; that is good journalism. The EPA definitely hasn’t been the watchdog that it ought to be in the last, well, long time. You should read the piece just for the muckraking.

But besides the good journalism and interesting story, I got excited about something else. The whole scientific premise of why clothianidin is bad for bees is that it is expressed in plant pollen. The bees then eat the pollen, and, well, probably die. End of story.

Why is this cool?

A long time ago – or it seems that way to me – I had an idea. I was out in Colorado the summer before my junior year of college, working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and trying to brainstorm ideas for me senior thesis, which I’d be working on the next summer. After wandering around in the mountains a fair bit, I formulated a hypothesis and presented it to my advisor.

The Rockies are littered with old abandoned mines: silver mines, nickel mines, gold mines, molybdenum mines, copper mines, you name it. The tailing piles at some of these sites are filled with metal-rich soil, on which plants eke out a tough existence. My question was, what if the plants take up the metals into their tissue? And what if those metals are expressed in nectar and pollen? And what if bees forage on that nectar and pollen? What then? Do they have higher body metal loads? Do they die? Do they evolve tolerance?

My first vision was of running around catching bees and testing them for body metal loads. This was immediately rejected as impractical. First of all, bees have a very wide foraging range, so trapping one that happened to be flying through a mine site wouldn’t mean that it hadn’t just eaten a nice pollen snack from a pristine flower on the other side of the ridge. Secondly, bumblebees – the bees I was most interested in – are generalist foragers. So basically, you’d have to catch a lot of bees before you could be sure you had some who were actually foraging on the plants you cared about. And given the expensive nature of metals testing, that wasn’t much of an option.

I went on to do some really fun and interesting research looking at this issue from lots of different angles, but testing the metal loads in pollen and bee bodies didn’t happen. There were too many difficulties, not enough money, and after all I was only writing a thesis, not a PhD dissertation.

But. I’ve still wondered. What if those bees are carrying around a bunch of metals?

Now we’re getting back to the Grist article. The whole neonicotinoid family of pesticides works by being expressed in pollen and nectar, and then kills pests when they eat that pollen. The problem is that they also kill non-target pollinators, like bees. And we can’t afford that.

But do you see why I’m excited? Something bad is expressed in pollen! And the bees eat it! And then it’s in the bees!

Granted, metals are not pesticides, and pesticides, and their structure and expression sometimes approximate things like hormones – that’s why they are so deadly.

But there is hope for my hypothesized mechanism.

Maybe someone will investigate it.

Or give me a bunch of money to investigate it. Simultaneously with the several other jobs I am doing.

That would be cool.

If this has put you in a science-y mood, here’s some other cool stuff you could read.

– A research trip to the Antarctic via Nature magazine

– An entertaining piece on musk oxen from NYT

– Or, just read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s a good book. It makes me want to do fieldwork again.