Does math ever seem simpler to you — or at least tidier — than history, English, and other subjects? Sometimes it can be comforting to work on problems that have one correct answer. The idea that math is grounded in simple, unchanging rules reassures people looking for straightforward, or at least right (as opposed to wrong) answers.
How have these fish evolved to survive heavily polluted water? Alter and her colleagues investigate answers to this question by examining the guts of the fish they catch. Alter’s team cuts the fish’s intestinal tube into pieces, adds tiny beads, and mixes it up at high speeds, creating a “little fish-gut milkshake.” Then they examine the DNA of the bacteria in the “milkshake,” identifying different species. “Does the fish gut harbor any particular species that we know are good at breaking down certain compounds?” “I’m hoping that these questions help us understand what biodiversity exists in New York in these polluted but recovering ecosystems” and how to make the city’s environment more friendly to different forms of life.
How can a scientist get close enough to a group of animals to observe and record their behaviors but stay far enough away to allow them to feel safe? How does she make sure that the animals don’t become so accustomed to her presence that they change their behavior, developing a close relationship with the scientist watching them?
Computers do amazing things these days. They help us figure out patterns of contagion, identifying places where people are getting sick. And they play key roles in space exploration. Software Architect Erik Antelman helps design and explore computer systems to make these things possible.
Windsurfing is not the usual way to find a science career, but for Oceanographer Emmanuel Boss, it was on a windsurfer in the Mediterranean that he first found the inspiration to study the deep blue sea.
Matthew Brennan uses virtual reality technology to allow people to experience places such as the San Carlo a la Quattro Fontane church in Rome as if they’re actually there, simply by standing in a lab wearing a special virtual reality headset.
How did the cliff swallow cross the road? Read on to find out how Behavioral Ecologist Charles Brown discovered a way that many cliff swallows avoid being hit by cars.
Without bees, bumblebees, and other insects flying from flower to flower, spreading pollen, many plants, including blueberry bushes, would not be able to make the food we eat. Scientists have studied these pollinators for many years, noting that the fruit yields of flowering plants can depend on them.
You might be surprised to know how many scientists are employed by the government of the United States. From NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to the USGS (the U.S. Geological Survey), scientists explore everything from distant planets and stars to the land beneath our feet. Growing up in Washington D.C., Nicholas Carrera occasionally took summer jobs working for the U.S. government, as clerk-typist, mail carrier, and chemist at the Bureau of Standards. But during the school year, passionate high school teachers inspired him to plan a career in physics and Carrera did not imagine that he would one day return to government work as a diplomat scientist.
Imagine the planets and stars located throughout the universe. Each one moves according to one set of rules, studied by physicists, astronomers, and astrophysicists. Gravity, for instance, applies to objects in space in one way which changes according to laws of physics we understand. Larger bodies (like Earth’s sun) create stronger forces of gravity. The further you are from any very large objects in space, the less you pulled by gravitational force.
Idaho’s Snake River, which flows into the Columbia River system, “is our lifeblood,” says Water Resource Engineer Cynthia Clark. In Idaho, as in many parts of the American West, water can be hard to come by. Who decides who gets water and how much they can use? Civil Engineers like Clark, hydrologists, geologists, and the rest of the team at the Idaho Department of Water Resources do the work that helps make those kinds of decisions as fair and practical as possible.
“I work on Google Earth and one of my specialties is computer graphics,” says Software Engineer Malik Coates. Working with programming languages like C++ and Java, Coates and his colleagues help users explore the Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, and beyond. Sounds like fun? So do Coates’s previous jobs at Dreamworks Animation and at Reactrix Systems, Inc., where he helped develop games.
How do the people of Madagascar use the land in what is now a conservation areas? Can they grow food on that land and make a living without destroying the rainforest? These are the kinds of questions Ecologist and Evolutionary Biologist Georgina Cullman, an environmental anthropologist now working at the American Museum of Natural History, asks.
When many people live together in a city, state, or nation, it becomes necessary to create systems and structures to help them move around safely and find the things they need to survive comfortably (shelter, water, power, and food). Civil engineers like Rachel Davidson help design and maintain these systems.
Your nervous system helps your brain communicate with the rest of your body. Neuroscience is the study of the brain and the rest of the nervous system (including the spinal cord and the large network of nerve cells — neurons — that travel through most animals’ bodies). Theoretical neuroscientists like Brian DePasquale use computers and mathematics, as well as the results of experiments done by biologists, to improve our understanding of neuroscience.
Thanks to Eugene DeSombre, choosing how to treat breast cancer is often as easy as seeing whether it lights up. DeSombre is a biochemist, which means he’s spent his career solving mysteries about how our bodies work on a tiny scale. He figured out how estrogen, a hormone that usually affects the reproductive system, binds to its target cells, and for half a century now his discovery has been saving the lives of people with breast cancer.
What does fish poop have to do with the student cafeteria at Allegheny College? Or, in Environmental Scientist T.J. Eatmon’s words, “Can an indoor food production system that utilizes conservation methods while promoting healthy eating practices and community interactions be profitable and sustainable?”
Have you ever made up a code, creating a secret language that only you, or perhaps only you and a friend understand? Read on for ways to make up sophisticated, one-way codes.
“People think of math as being about numbers,” says Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg, but it also includes cryptography. Cryptographers create codes so sophisticated that even people using them to disguise messages cannot decode them. And math includes information theory, the study of the ways we use computers and other electronic equipment to send information. Information theorists identify the content of signals used in telecommunication. Mathematics also includes the work of mathematical physicists who explore the idea of curved space. “There are all kinds of things mathematicians do.”
“This is where you’re going to lose your grade point average,” warned Nuclear Physicist Renee Fatemi’s friends as she entered her junior year. “I loved literature and I loved religion and dance. And I loved theater.” Renee’s mom had made her choose between a girls’ school and a magnet school for science and technology. “I wasn’t all that into science and technology, but my mom said ‘Either you’re going to private school or you’re going here’ and I wanted to go to school with boys.”
Small electronic controllers show up in many of the devices that we use every day, including some that you might not expect. Electrical engineer Michael Form designs small, energy-efficient circuits for all sorts of applications, from industrial forges to soap dispensers. “Anything with electronics or that’s electrical,” he says, even a kitchen appliance or an audio amplifier, has some kind of controller to make it do what people want it to do.
“If we wake up tomorrow and all of the parents — all the grownups — suddenly realize that mathematics is not what’s being studied at school then I guarantee you that the curriculum will be changed,” suggests Mathematician Edward Frenkel. But wait: don’t nearly all schools teach mathematics? Don’t most children learn math in school? And why does a professor of mathematics at the University of California’s Berkeley campus want us to “wake up” and change the way schools teach math?
What are microorganisms good for? The world of bacteria and other microbes fascinates Microbiologist Sean Gibbons, whose exploration of that world takes him out of the lab and into people’s homes and public restrooms.
Evolutionary biologists explore how species come to be and how they vary in appearance and behavior. Amanda Kyle Gibson studies the relationships between hosts and their parasites to understand why individuals and populations vary in their resistance against diseases.
Combining science with art can be shocking. Read to the end of this description of Molecular Geneticist-Turned-Artist David Goldes’s work to find out just how shocking it can be.
Every spring and fall, millions of birds migrate long distances across North America: song sparrows, oven-birds, common yellowthroats, black-and-white warblers. Some, like the black-poll warblers, venture as far away as South America, and as self-taught ornithologist Laura Gooch found, many may traverse your own backyard.
Where do you usually buy food? Have you thought about the ways that the choices available to you at that gas station, superstore, farmers’ market, or grocery store affect how you eat and how healthy you are?
Nutrition Epidemiologist Alison Gustafson, a registered dietician, thinks about these questions a great deal. She researches the shopping habits of teenagers and adults, looking at the choices they make and the food available near their schools and homes. A professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, Gustafson does “research to understand how people shop for food and how the choices they make influence their dietary intake.”
Have you ever crawled through a tunnel at the zoo and popped up through a hole in the ground, pretending you’re a prairie dog? Real prairie dogs dig complex systems of underground tunnels. Their burrows can be as deep as five meters (about 15 feet) and as long as 20 meters (about 60 feet). Since 1974, Behavioral Ecologist John Hoogland, a Zoologist, has been watching prairie dogs pop in and out of burrows in states such as Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
Applied Mathematician Fern Hunt uses probability to help us better understand how computers work, how information and disease spread, and patterns in certain kinds of bacteria. The mathematical tools she applies to her work include Markov chains, vertex covers, greedoids, and other complicated ways of analyzing information. Hunt’s interest is in random, or stochastic, processes — things that seem unpredictable.
Electrical engineer Kevin Hurlock spends a lot of his time thinking about how electronics break and how to fix them. He grew up in Jamaica, where the high humidity in the air meant that his father’s electronic music equipment, like speakers, amplifiers and synthesizers, would break often. His father taught him to solder—to melt soft metal onto two other metal parts to make an electrical connection between them—when he was just eight years old. A couple of years later, young Kevin was helping to repair his father’s electronics, then repairing them on his own.
If you drink juice, water, or milk from a box, you probably take it for granted that the paperboard that the carton is made of won’t let the liquid it contains leak out. And when you reach for a paper cup filled with hot cocoa, coffee, or tea, you certainly don’t want those beverages to soak through the paper and burn you or stain your clothes. There are precise chemical recipes used to treat different types of paper used to make juice boxes, coffee cups, and other useful paper products. These innovative chemical formulas are discovered by analytical chemists like William C. Johnson, who works for Ecolab. Johnson does experiments to figure out what kinds of chemicals paper-making companies can add to their products to make them safer, more effective, and ecologically sustainable.
Many people, stuck in a cubicle job in a nondescript office park somewhere, dream of a job that will allow them to travel the world and eat chocolate. Well, Aditya Josyula (known as “A.J.” to his friends) has managed to find just such a job. A Food Technologist by profession, he’s a Senior Process Development Engineer for Mars. In this position, he gets to travel as far as Indonesia and eat all the yummy chocolate he wants. And guess what? He loves chocolate.
Anne Knapp liked science when she was a kid, but she always wanted to be a dancer or an actor. She trained in dancing and theater until college, where she started as a theater major at Central Michigan University. After some time, though, Anne decided that she should “really get a degree in something that wasn’t theater,” even though she “could still do theater if I wanted to.” She knew she was interested in nature, so she changed her major to biology.