Thomas R. O'Donnell

Mucking about the Des Moines River with Project AWARE – and getting some science to boot

In Government, STEM on July 17, 2016 at 6:16 pm
One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River during Project AWARE July 11-15.

One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River on Project AWARE.

I was waist-deep in chocolate-brown water, my feet sunk ankle-deep in gooey Des Moines River mud, and I was gripping the waterlogged backrest of an overstuffed recliner, helping wrestle it onto the floor of a green fiberglass canoe.

It was my first day on Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) on the Des Moines River through Van Buren County in southeast Iowa. My wife and I had paddled for only an about hour before finding ourselves drenched and grimy as part of a canoe and kayak armada helping clear the river of an amazing assortment of garbage, big and small.

And this was our vacation. We were among hundreds of volunteers who took time off work for the event’s 14th annual edition, July 11-15, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with help from numerous sponsors.

It’s dirty, smelly work, but paddling the river also can be serene and picturesque, and it’s a terrific chance to meet like-minded, outdoorsy and friendly people. It’s no wonder volunteers return year after year, each time on a different river segment. It’s like RAGBRAI on the river, without the crowds and mass partying.

A healthy dose of Iowa science – and history – also is imparted over the four nights that volunteers camp along the route. During our time on the project, we learned more about the natural history of the area where we now live part-time.

Moniz: Mother Nature could persuade climate change deniers; will it be in time?

In Government, University research on May 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

For a while now, I’ve puzzled over something: Why does a segment of the population – and an even larger portion of Congress – disavow the evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change?

Weather records show temperatures are increasing, with each year seeming to set a new record. Oceans are rising. Violent storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather-driven phenomena are happening more often and with greater force. Scientists who study the climate overwhelmingly agree we’re changing the atmosphere for the worse.

So why do so many people deny the evidence? And, more importantly, how do we change people’s minds and get them to take action before it’s too late?

I don’t have many answers and my small forum can’t do much to correct the situation, but last week I talked to someone who does have answers – and the power to do something about it.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came to Iowa, I got a moment to ask him about this. While his answer was reasonable, it was a bit disappointing.

Those wild and crazy snails are back, with lessons about sex

In University research on April 27, 2016 at 11:50 am
 In a study involving multiple generations of a freshwater snail in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Iowa found that polyploidy doesn't appear to be an asset—nor is it a drawback—for females bearing offspring without the help of a male. Instead, it's the snails' sexuality that creates the advantage: Asexual females, the study found, grew twice as fast during the late juvenile phase and reached reproductive maturity 30 percent faster than female snails that mated with males. Photo by Justin Torner.

In their cups: University of Iowa researchers grew multiple generations of tiny freshwater snails in the lab to study whether having multiple genomes provides advantages. Photo by Justin Torner from the U of I news website.

The snails are back. Or more precisely, researchers using snails as a model to understand the biological benefits of sexual reproduction are back with results.

I wrote about the research about two years ago, when conservative news outlets began ridiculing an $876,000 National Science Foundation grant to study “snail sex.” Two University of Iowa researchers, Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon, were among those receiving the grant.

Although multiple conservative outlets had reported and commented on the grant, none had asked the researchers to explain its significance. I was the first writer to contact them for any more than a cursory question. To me it was an example of a gap in science reporting in Iowa and conservative bias against government spending.

The bottom line: The tiny New Zealand snails are good models to study the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction, the true purpose of the study. The snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, have two genetic lines, one that reproduces sexually and another asexually, allowing the scientists to compare their genes for signs of advantages or disadvantages to sex.

Now results are coming out of this and related snail research, and the results are surprising. Sex and its biology, it turns out, aren’t as simple as scientists thought.

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