Embodying Emotion, Performing Gender

Nicole Noll, left, at a Web Start Women class. Photo courtesy of Littlest Finch on Flickr Creative Commons
Nicole Noll, left, at a Web Start Women class. Photo courtesy of Littlest Finch on Flickr Creative Commons

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

“Take your pen, do this.” Nicole Noll said as she reached into her backpack for a pen, and placed it horizontally between her teeth. “Don’t let your lips touch it.”

I did as she demonstrated. Noll and I were in the Harvard Science Center, sitting in the first-floor hallway. As we held our pens in our teeth, two men passed by and gave us puzzled looks.

“OK. Now,” Noll took her pen out and stuck one end in her mouth. I followed, letting my lips wrap around and grip my pen.

“So when you hold it like this,” Noll placed her pen horizontally in between her teeth again, “what are you doing, essentially?”

“You, you’re almost like smiling,” I ventured.

“You’re almost like smiling, right!” Noll went on to explain how people, who were asked to rate how funny a set of cartoons was, gave higher ratings when they held a pen in their teeth and lower ratings when they held a pen in their lips – more like a pout – in a 1988 study. “What this research says is, I can change what I’m doing with my body and it will influence my internal feelings.”

Noll, a post-doctoral fellow in social psychology at Harvard University, researches such “embodied emotion” with a specific interest in gender-linked behavior. “One of the very common findings in this type of research is that men take up more space,” said Noll. On the other hand, women tend to have more “closed posture,” which is generally associated with submission and a lack of confidence. In 2011, while trying to start a business, Noll observed that some of her research findings in gender-linked behavior affected women’s work skills, even in something like coding for the web. To address that, Noll co-founded a company, Web Start Women, that provides coding classes specifically for women.

Noll’s interests in psychology began with how situations and physical movements shape human behavior. While she focused largely on how arm movements can influence mental states during her doctoral work at Temple University, her research gravitated towards gender studies after  she met Margaret Thomas at a social psychology conference five years ago. Thomas, now an assistant professor in social psychology at Earlham College, researches gender behaviors and how individuals perceive and perform gender. Thomas and Noll share a common interest in women’s studies. According to University of California, Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler, gender is a performance that men and women learn rather than inherit. “It’s something that we do, in the way we dress, in the way we act,” said Noll. By studying men and women in commonly-held postures, Noll and Thomas are trying to collect data for Butler’s theory.

Through a long-distance collaboration, Noll and Thomas designed a set of four studies to collect data on how people’s feelings of masculinity or femininity changed after they either read descriptions, saw drawings or photographs of people in, or held postures that were masculine, feminine or neutral.  For example, participants who sat with one leg folded under the other felt more feminine while those who stood up with legs apart and hands in their pockets felt more masculine. Surprisingly, when participants held ‘neutral’ category postures, such as simply sitting upright with legs slightly apart, they ended up feeling more masculine. This suggested that even postures that are commonly perceived to be gender-neutral are in fact masculine ones, a likely product of modern society’s androcentricity.

Being a dancer and a runner, Noll carries herself with a tall, straight back and open shoulders. As she walked with me to her Web Start Women introductory coding class, I realized that I had remembered her to be taller than she really is. In a conference room on the 13th floor at the Cambridge Innovation Center, Noll, ten women sat around a long table with laptops.

Almost every business in today’s internet society has, or would benefit from having a website. When Noll considered starting her own business in 2011, she met with other women who had their own businesses, but realized that they did not have a website, or did not have control of their websites. According to Boston University’s chair of computer science, Mark Crovella, a gender gap in coding and computer science exists because “girls get messages early on” that the field is not interesting, desirable or appropriate. Noll learned about the gender gap through a close friend, Susan Buck, a programmer and instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Together, Noll and Buck identified a need for women to learn how to code within a welcoming learning environment in which they felt comfortable and founded Web Start Women.

In class, Noll strives to make sure that everyone has fully understood the material that she just covered before moving on to the next section. In a typical male-dominated coding class, the atmosphere tends to be competitive. Buck recalls times in her high school computer science club where she would be working on taking a computer apart but the boys in the club would take it from  her. “Here, let me do it,” they would say. In Web Start Women classes, Buck and Noll try to create a “no-stupid-question environment” to support  women who get overwhelmed or  frustrated. “They want me to be there, they want me to do well,” Phoebe Sinclair, a student in Noll’s class told me. “The confidence you get from being in that environment is significant.”

Growing up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, Noll recalls her mother telling her that she should never “let someone tell you, you can’t do something because you’re a girl,” but would also refuse to let Noll throw hay bales, because that was not girls’ work. Noll believes that our posture and behavior gets “corrected” in certain ways – that girls should keep their legs crossed while sitting and boys should pick themselves right up after a fall – and that these corrections influence the way we think of ourselves and what we believe we are capable of doing. Following Web Start Women’s success, Noll hopes that more classes like this will be available to all children before they get “corrected.”

Time To Face The Thorium

Rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium. Image courtesy of Peggy Greb, Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture.

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Love your smartphone that delivers clear sound and bright colors but still fits in your pocket? Give thanks to neodymium, a rare earth element that makes the magnets in your phone so powerful that it can be as small as it is. Wind turbines and electric cars need the unique magnetic properties of dysprosium, another rare earth element. Virtually every form of clean energy technology today needs rare earth elements to function.

But the rare earth elements come with an unavoidable by-product: thorium. Thorium, named after the Norse god of thunder, is a mildly radioactive element. Digging up rare earths creates thorium waste, a huge liability for the mining industry. And because only China tolerates thorium’s environmental hazards in storage and disposal, ninety-seven percent of all the rare earth elements that we need come from China. Yet, we don’t have to cede rare earth production to China: the rare earth elements can be mined and produced domestically if we safely dispose of or even find uses for thorium.

Rare earth elements, a group of seventeen metals, are essential in the manufacture of devices ranging from cars to wind turbines to laptops.  These elements contain special magnetic, electronic and optical properties found nowhere else in the periodic table. For example, gadolinium has  magnetic properties for enhancing MRI images; dysprosium is critical for miniaturizing while helping permanent magnets remain strong and magnetic; yttrium improves fuel efficiency in vehicles and reduces pollution, and europium oxide produces a bright red color in television and computer screens. Take away those seventeen metals and the technological world as we know it becomes slower, bulkier and massively crippled.

The term ‘rare’ is a misnomer: rare earth metals can be found scattered in small amounts all over the world. The extraction of each of the pure elements involves extremely tedious, repetitive steps with costly chemicals, which is why they are deemed ‘rare.’ To reach those elements, one has to work past thorium; in fact, detecting the weak radiation from thorium is a method used to find the metals.

In the mid-1960s to 80s, Mountain Pass mine in California, owned by Molycorp Minerals, was one of the largest supplier of rare earth elements for the world. The company was forced to cease production in 2002 because of thorium-contaminated wastewater and competition from China. Over the last three decades, almost every other country has wound down its rare earth production, while China expanded the industry on every front, from academic research to industrial processing techniques.

China’s dominance of rare earth production comes with a price. Radioactive wastewater and thorium-tainted tailings have found their way into the Yellow River and Yellow Sea, polluting a water source for some 150 million people. China’s monopoly on the global rare earth supply also threatens the security of the global rare earth supply. During a dispute with Japan in 2010, China withheld dysprosium, a crucial rare earth element to the Japanese technology industry. The move destabilized the rare earth market as prices skyrocketed. China has also forced companies like Magnequench, General Electric and Ford Motors to relocate some factories, if not entire businesses, to China.

In March 2012,  the United States, European Union and Japan filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization against China for unfair restraints on exports of rare earth elements. The solution, however, is not to blame China, but to mine the rare earths domestically and find ways to handle thorium. Last year, Molycorp Minerals reopened the Mountain Pass mine, using modern methods to minimize thorium pollution, such as mixing solid tailings with concrete and recycling wastewater in a closed-loop system. But as more and more rare earth is produced, there will be even more thorium to process.

Another solution would be to put thorium to good use in nuclear power generating emissions-free energy. In recent years nuclear power experts have advocated taking a new look at a power generating system that can run on thorium fuel, an inherently safer technology than conventional fission reactors. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory successfully tested a molten-salt reactor for three years beginning in 1965, but President Richard Nixon de-funded the program because it did not produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Some may argue that nuclear power is not viable; that and we should stick with the true renewables like solar and wind energy. Yet those and other renewable technologies depend on rare earth elements. When we find uses for thorium, not only do we eliminate a waste problem, we can help technology move towards a cleaner and more secure future.

Have An Energy Efficient Thanksgiving

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Thanksgiving dinner (and football) are the biggest part of today. Americans across the country will be cooking up storms in their kitchen and there will be plenty of turkeys in ovens. In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $25 million on electricity for roasting turkey in an electric oven (not counting people who don’t use electric ovens) alone, according to a report by TXU Energy. This year, pick up a few tips to make your Thanksgiving dinner’s carbon footprint, and utilities bill, smaller.

1. Roast a small turkey

OK that may be difficult given that an average Thanksgiving dinner feeds around ten people. But hear me out. A 10 lb turkey takes about 4 hours in the oven, while a 20 lb turkey takes 6. Electric ovens consume about 2kWh of electricity when used at 350 degrees for an hour, so by cutting down 2 hours of oven cooking time, you save 4 kWh of electricity. To make enough turkey for everyone in your party, add cut up turkey (and you could add more dark or white meat according to your family’s preferences) to the pan. That way, the turkey takes less time to cook and there will be enough meat to go around.

2. Do away with stuffing the bird

Stuffed birds take around thirty minutes to an hour longer to cook than unstuffed ones. Again, reducing oven cooking time is always a good idea, and stuffing is actually safer if prepared outside of the turkey since it eliminates contamination from uncooked meat.

3. Don’t baste. Oil.

A trick provided by a fabulous interactive spread on Essential Thanksgiving by the New York Times: if you oil the turkey, you don’t have to baste it. Not basting means less work for you, and less opening of the oven doors. Each time the oven is opened, the temperature drops up to 25 degrees and the oven then has to work to bring the temperature up again, wasting energy in the process. That also means reduce peeping; use the oven light instead.

4. If you have more appliances than an oven and stove-top, use them.

Especially, the microwave. Microwaves use less than half the energy compared to an oven and usually cook for a shorter time. Some sides can be sped up or cooked entirely in a microwave, like potatoes (pricking them with a fork before putting them in a microwave) and then mashing them. Other appliances, if you have them, like a crock pot (gravy), rice-cooker that can serve as a double boiler (steamed veggies) or toaster oven (toasted bread) can be put to good use while reducing the load on the oven and stove-top.

5. Contain the heat: use a lid.

Lids reduce the time it takes for food to heat up in a pot by containing the heat and not letting it escape. This reduces the amount of time it takes for water to boil, for example. To take things up a notch, pressure cookers trap so much heat that they get the job done much faster: I’ve seen my roommate boil potatoes in her pressure cooker in 10 minutes. Here’s a recipe for 6-minute pressure cooker mashed potatoes if you have one and would like to break it out this Thanksgiving.


There are many other things that you could do to make your Thanksgiving energy efficient, such as using an icebox rather than the refrigerator for drinks (reduces the amount of time your refrigerator is open), turning down the thermostat and letting the oven heat your home and using ceramic or glass pans as they retain heat better. That said, food is energy too, and an estimated 5 million tons of food waste is generated between Thanksgiving and New Year’s in the United States, according to the World Watch Institute. So make all the work you put into today’s celebratory meal count: carve the turkey cleanly, save leftovers and distribute them among your guests, compost food scraps. And above all, have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Pumpkin in Pumpkin Spice Lattes: None

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

This morning the New York Times had a new video, What’s In It: Pumpkin Flavor, which explained how stuff like pumpkin spice lattes get their signature flavors. Not too surprisingly, there’s no pumpkin involved. Pumpkin provides more texture than flavor, and I’m pretty sure a pumpkin-textured latte wouldn’t be a seller. In the Times video, narrator Michael Moss explains carefully that instead of pumpkin, common pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are used to provide flavor. Then, he goes on to reveal that more likely those spices don’t make it into a pumpkin-flavored beverage, but a concoction of chemicals carefully chosen to mimic pumpkin pie.

I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s a nice mix of responses, many like @TexasKidDoc, but also a healthy number like these:

I don’t think many of us who pick up a pumpkin spice latte expect anything more than added synthetic flavors in the cup. Many processes, including pharmaceuticals, begin from biological, or natural, components, and as human population and demand grew for those biological things that come from trees and animals, it just made more sense to develop synthetic processes for them. Don’t forget that ultimately, a natural product from the sap of a tree is a mix of molecules, and if chemists can replicate that mix accurately so that a much larger number of people can have access to the product safely, I don’t see why not. But kudos to the Times’ video for revealing to such great detail what’s really in a pumpkin spice latte, now that we know better, I’d be curious to see how related products are going to be affected. I think not.

Starcbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte is a seasonal treat. Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons user meganmillscrm.
Starcbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is a seasonal treat. Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons user meganmillscrm.

A Farmer’s Best Defense Against Drought

Corn in Hoekstra Farm, Illinois, left, and corn in a neighboring field, right, in the summer of 2012. Photos courtesy of Iroquois Valley Farms LLC.
Corn in Hoekstra Farm, Illinois, left, and corn in a neighboring field, right, in the summer of 2012. Photos courtesy of Iroquois Valley Farms LLC.

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

In the summer of 2012, during the worst drought in twenty years, Danforth, Illinois, went for six weeks without rain but the corn in Hoekstra Farm grew tall and green. The corn in the neighboring fields was almost a foot shorter. While farmers across the Corn Belt watched their crops shrivel and die, Harold Wilken of Hoekstra Farm made enough money from his crops that summer to pay a bonus rent to his landowner.

Wilken did not use special drought-resistant seeds, and his fields did not get more rain than his neighbors’. What Wilken did, for the last eight years farming at Hoekstra, was take extra care of the soil in his fields.

Wilken is not the only farmer paying special attention to his soil. Although  researchers have long tried to address drought by creating drought-resistant plants, more and more farmers, soil scientists and university extension staff are starting to realize that healthy soil is more effective in dealing with ruinous dry spells.

For the last two decades, scientists from major biotech companies like Monsanto and DuPont focused their research on engineering drought-resistant seeds. The idea of a plant that can survive on significantly less water was an attractive solution that required no extra effort from the farmers.

But drought-resistant seeds have  limitations. Corn, for example, is particularly vulnerable. It must have sufficient water during a critical seven-day period within the growing season, if not it will be unable to produce kernels.

Because of these limitations, a growing number of farmers are staying with traditional methods, focusing on their soil, not seeds. Healthy soil can retain moisture, providing a steady supply of water when rainfall is sporadic and helping crops survive until the next rain. It has a loose, pliable structure and contains about three to five percent organic matter. Organic matter, which comprises carbon-based material like compost or manure, acts like a sponge. According to soil scientists, organic matter can hold up to over six times its weight in water. A loose, crumbly soil structure allows water to infiltrate deep, to be  slowly released until  the next rain.

Ross Wilken, left, and Harold Wilken, right, of Hoekstra Farm in Illinois. Photo courtesy of Iroquois Valley Farms LLC.
Ross Wilken, left, and Harold Wilken, right, of Hoekstra Farm in Illinois. Photo courtesy of Iroquois Valley Farms LLC.

At Hoekstra Farm, Wilken has a rigorous soil fertility program. He spreads manure on his fields to maintain organic matter content and uses a complex crop rotation to replenish essential plant nutrients. In 2011, he planted alfalfa on his corn fields, wheat in 2010 and soybeans in 2009. Different crops use up different nutrients in the soil, so by changing crops for three years, Wilken replenished the soil’s nutrients before planting corn again. Additionally, plants with deep roots like alfalfa can loosen up the soil and enhance water infiltration right before planting a water-demanding crop like corn, according to Joe Pedretti, an organic education specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

During the winter, Wilken plants cover crops such as oats and alfalfa to protect his soil from being eroded by the wind. According to Eileen Kladivko, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University, farmers usually don’t harvest the cover crop, but kill it during the spring with either herbicides or ploughing it down. In this way, the cover crop returns to the soil as organic matter.

Photo courtesy of Alvin Smucker.
Excavated water and nutrient-saving membrane. Photo courtesy of Alvin Smucker.

Alvin Smucker, a professor of soil biophysics at Michigan State University, has developed a membrane that can be placed in the root zone of plants to retain water. Dubbed SWRT for Sub-surface Water Retention Technology, Smucker’s membranes are made of polyethylene. An installation machine inserts folded membranes into the soil one foot apart and in two layers, 14 and 22 inches deep, where the membrane opens up in the shape of a trough. According to Smucker, the corn in his fields with the SWRT yielded 170 percent more than the control corn crops. The test fields had “at least double the water capacity than the control soil,” said Smucker.

Challenges remain, especially because soil health takes a long time to build. The practices that help soil become resilient to drought don’t pay out in the short term, usually taking several years depending on how healthy the soil is. In contrast, genetically-engineered seeds like DuPont’s Aquamax tend to attract more attention because brown, withered Aquamax corn does turn green again when rain finally comes, according to Mark Rhorbach, a sales associate for seeds involved in field tests. But even genetically-engineered seeds can only take so much stress: if the rain just doesn’t come, the crop won’t survive. Rhorbach agreed that paying attention to soil health and using methods like planting cover crops can help reduce the effects of drought in ways that Aquamax can’t.

As for Wilken, the forecasts for drought in the coming years don’t daunt him. “We’re not doing anything different this year than last year,” said Wilken. “It takes moisture, and it takes good soil. All the genetics in the world will not replace Mother Nature.”

Scientists Report First Step Away From Fertilizers

Nodules - small, rounded bumps - on the roots of a soybean plant. These nodules contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can produce nitrogen compounds from atmospheric nitrogen for the plant. Photo courtesy of user Terraprima on Wikimedia Commons.
Nodules – small, rounded bumps – on the roots of a soybean plant. These nodules contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can produce nitrogen compounds from atmospheric nitrogen for the plant. Photo courtesy of user Terraprima on Wikimedia Commons.

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Before synthetic nitrogen fertilizers existed, plants and bacteria worked together to return nutrients to the soil. A type of bacteria living in plant roots, called nitrogen-fixing bacteria or Rhizobia, enriches the soil with nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to the host plants. But not all plants can host Rhizobia, because the plants’ immune systems repel the bacteria. Scientists have long believed that only legumes, or plants like soybean, pea, and alfalfa, could chemically communicate, and therefore accept, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Professor Gary Stacey from the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Gary Stacey.
Gary Stacey, Professor of Soybean Biotechnology from the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Gary Stacey.

Recently, Gary Stacey and his team of researchers from the University of Missouri found that that might not be true. In an article from Science, Stacey and his group reported that legumes are not the only ones that can chemically communicate with Rhizobia. Their finding eventually could be important to farmers as a viable alternative to synthetic fertilizers.

In centuries past, farmers used manure or crop rotation to introduce nitrogen in the soil. They would spread limited quantities of manure on their fields, or plant legumes in between crops like corn or wheat to replenish nitrogen. With the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers about a century ago, getting nitrogen to plants became much simpler and more reliable than spreading manure or crop rotation. But synthetic nitrogen fertilizers created problems such as water pollution.

Scientists like Stacey have recognized that if they can figure out how the relationships between Rhizobia and legumes work, they can begin to expand the use of this 60-million-year-old partnership in farming.

The relationship between Rhizobia and legumes begins with an immune response, or the lack of one. As Rhizobia approaches plant roots in the soil, the plants treat Rhizobia as a threat and activate their immune systems. Rhizobia then sends out chemical messages that the legumes recognize, called Nod factors. The target plants withdraw their defenses and let Rhizobia infect them. The infection triggers a sequence of events that leads to Rhizobia settling inside special nodules in the legumes’ roots. From there, Rhizobia produces nitrogen for the legumes while the legumes provide food and shelter for Rhizobia.

For decades, scientists believed that non-legume plants like corn, wheat and tomatoes could not work with Rhizobia because they did not respond to the chemical messages and lower their defenses.

A transmission electron microscope image of the cross-section of a root nodule, showing the nitrogen-fixing bacteria living within plant roots. Image courtesy of Louisa Howard, Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility on Wikimedia Commons.

Stacey and his research group learned otherwise, by accident, when they were studying plant immune responses. They showed that Arabidopsis, a non-legume plant commonly used in biological models, responded to Nod factors and lowered its immune defenses. This response was overlooked as it was commonly accepted between scientists that non-legumes could not recognize Nod factors, according to Katherine Gibson, a plant biologist at University of Massachusetts Boston. They also found similar effects with corn and tomatoes — signs that non-legumes can understand Rhizobia’s messages. Furthermore, with Arabidopsis, Stacey and his team identified a plant receptor that was highly likely to be responsible for recognizing Nod factors. “This is a very exciting finding,” said Gibson, explaining that a wider group of researchers studying plant immune responses would be interested in the receptor.

While Stacey’s findings brought researchers one step closer to understanding the Rhizobia and legume partnership, there is still a long way to go until a practical application of their research is available for farmers. Even though Stacey and his team found that Arabidopsis, corn and tomatoes all understood Rhizobia’s messages and lowered their immune responses, that only led to a small, localized infection, instead of triggering changes in the plants’ roots for Rhizobia to settle in. “That’s the step we need to focus on,” said Stacey. With further research, scientists like Stacey can help drive modern agriculture’s dependence on chemical fertilizers back to biological, benign ways to fertilize the soil.

Carbon Day 2013

16 October 2013, Boston, MA - A sign thanking Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for passers-by to sign at the Carbon Day 2013 exhibition in Copley Square. Photo by XiaoZhi Lim
16 October 2013, Boston, MA – A sign thanking Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for passers-by to sign at the Carbon Day 2013 exhibition in Copley Square. Photo by XiaoZhi Lim

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

A treat for passers-by at Copley Square yesterday: Carbon Day 2013! Co-sponsored by Boston University Sustainable Neighborhood Lab and the City of Boston Greenovate, Carbon Day is a public exhibition event to promote awareness about carbon and educate the public about steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint, according to organizer Linda Grosser from Boston University.

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Extended captions:

Advocates for Literacy in Environmental Sciences, Boston University

Andy Reinmann is a graduate student in biology at Boston University and a member of ALES, a student group at Boston University aimed at helping graduate students and scientists improve in communicating science. At Carbon Day 2013, the ALES booth was designed to allow members of the public try hands-on experiments to learn how various carbon measurements are obtained in scientific research.

Solar Personal Rapid Transit, South Shore Mobility

Solar Personal Rapid Transit is an ambitious plan for public transit to be personalized and sped-up. Here’s an example of Personal Rapid Transit in Heathrow Airport:

According to Judeth Van Hamm, President of South Shore Mobility, the biggest challenge is to increase public support for policy to “provide private service on public right of way.” Currently, private companies that are willing and able to help with financing the solar personal rapid transit project are not able to help because no such option exists in law.

The Great Methane Escape, Boston University

Margaret Hendrick and Bahare Sannie are graduate students in Earth and Environment at Boston University who worked on a project tracking natural gas leaks all over Boston. According to Hendrick, they found that some 38.8 million dollars a year’s worth of natural gas is leaking out of pipes in Boston and currently, providers like National Grid and NSTAR have no financial incentive to repair the pipes. Follow this link to hear the project’s principal investigator, Nathan Phillips, professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University and director of Sustainable Neighborhood Lab talk about the problem on NPR.

100 MPG Priuses, ConVerdant Vehicles

Randolph Bryan is an entrepreneur in a for-profit company, ConVerdant Vehicles, that specializes in refitting Toyota Priuses. ConVerdant’s services include installing a large battery in a Prius to up its efficiency to as much as 100 miles per gallon and installing an inverter in a Prius that would turn it into an emergency generator for homes. Especially after Hurricane Sandy, Bryan says that people have started to take notice of ConVerdant’s work.


350MA is a local group for 350.org, an organization working on building a social movement for climate change. Some of their current campaigns include Tar Sands Action against the Keystone XL Pipeline and anti-fracking No Gas Mass. 350MA is about 3000 people strong, one of the biggest 350 local groups. “We’re pretty progressive, but we can do better,” said Sophie Robinson.

At the end of Carbon Day

Julian Phillips, professor Nathan Phillips’ son, is one of 350MA’s youngest workers and their best recruiter, said Sophie Robinson.

Did Human Activity Cause Lobster Shell Disease?

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Here’s a treat for lobster-lovers: a video from the American Chemical Society featuring the New England Aquarium director of research, Dr. Michael Tlusty, explaining why they turn red when they’re cooked, but also introducing shell disease, a problem that has been troubling lobsters for a while. This was one of the videos that I produced with colleague, Kirk Zamieroski, while I was on internship with the American Chemical Society over the summer.

A lobster with a severe case of shell disease. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Tlusty, New England Aquarium.
A lobster with a severe case of shell disease. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Tlusty, New England Aquarium.

While we were making the video and researching lobster shell disease, Kirk described the lobsters afflicted with shell disease as looking like burn victims. I couldn’t agree more. Those lesions, even though I think it’s unclear whether lobsters feel pain or not, look painful! Shell disease occurs when bacteria in the ocean start to attack the lobster shells, eating away at the shells so that the shells become weakened and can no longer protect the lobster from predators.

The only way for lobsters to get out of shell disease is to grow a new shell and shed the diseased one, a process known as molting. During our interview at the New England Aquarium, Dr. Tlusty showed us a molt from one of their lobsters that had shell disease all over its body (the lobster shed and survived.) When we held up the molt to the light, the diseased parts were almost entirely transparent.


A female lobster with eggs. Females afflicted with shell disease that are carrying eggs are at particular risk of dying from the disease. Photo courtesy of NOAA from Wikimedia Commons.

However, molting in lobsters occurs less and less frequently as they grow bigger, and for females carrying eggs, they will only molt until their eggs come to term, so it becomes almost like a dilemma for the mother. If she molts, the eggs drop; if she holds the eggs, a predator might attack her while her shell is weak or the disease might continue to advance. In very advanced cases, the diseased shell fuses to the lobster, and try as it might, it will not be able to shed its shell. Then, it dies of the disease.

What does humans have to do with the lobsters’ problems? It’s unlikely that we put the bacteria in the ocean. After talking to Dr. Carla Guenther, currently a fisheries science and leadership advisor at the Penobscot East Resource Center in Maine and a long-time lobster biologist, I thought that it seems, just maybe, we might have caused it without knowing it.

To begin with, shell disease in lobsters was first described by scientists in 1937, but was not noticed by fishermen until 1996 in New England waters south of Cape Cod when it started showing up more significantly. The disease became more prevalent very quickly; by 1998, over 20% of Rhode Island’s lobsters and 80% of egg-bearing females were afflicted with the disease. In 1999, some 70% to 90% of the Long Island Sound lobsters died, with “up to a foot of dead lobsters piled on the bottom of Long Island Sound,” as a Washington Post article reported. Since then, the lobster fishery south of Cape Cod hasn’t seen much improvment, according to Guenther.

Several events prior to 1996 could have contributed to shell disease. In January 1996, the tank barge North Cape and the tug Scandia ran aground in southern Rhode Island, spilling some 800,000 gallons of oil meant to heat homes. Scientists estimated that about 9 million lobsters died during the event. Another factor that many fishermen and some scientists have begun to suspect was the pesticides that were introduced in storm drains to fight the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. A few studies have shown that some pesticides can suppress adult lobsters’ immune systems and bioaccumulate in their organs, especially the eyestalks.

According to Guenther, the southern New England waters also had a “simultaneous warming and low oxygen event,” which may have compromised lobsters’ immune systems further. In 1999, Long Island Sound waters reached temperatures higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Guenther explained to me that lobsters are cold-blooded animals, which means that they cannot regulate their own body temperatures like we can; they just have to go with the temperature of the water surrounding them. Lobsters thrive in temperatures ranging from 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Between 52 to 56 degrees Fahrenheit, they can get livelier and grow faster, but their immune systems will start to become compromised.  At about 62 degrees Fahrenheit, lobsters start to get really stressed out, like the equivalent of our heatstroke, and above that would be fatal.

Taken together, it looks like all the events combined could very likely have caused the shell disease outbreak and mass lobster die-offs. Shell disease is a bacterial disease, and as Guenther put it, “the bacteria is not more present.” It is more likely that the “lobsters became more susceptible” to the bacteria that they’ve lived with for a long, long time. However, I have to stress that no scientific study has found that those events caused shell disease in lobsters, although many small studies have found strong correlations.

To me, the important part is what comes next: over the past summer, some reports have appeared that cited shell disease moving northward towards Maine. While Guenther reassured me that in Maine, the rates of shell disease are still below 0.1%, it is something that the lobstermen and researchers like Dr. Tlusty are monitoring and studying very carefully. Maine didn’t have the pesticide event, the oil spill event, but Maine waters did see a temperature spike last year by 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. And while it would be very reassuring for me as a lobster-lover if scientists could quickly get to the bottom of shell disease and figure out a way to help lobsters with it, for now, it might be better to tread more carefully in this world.

Take a Mushroom Walk Through Lincoln Woods

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

LINCOLN – It was an hour of trekking in the Lincoln woods with George Davis, a retired chemist and president emeritus of the Boston Mycological Club, before I finally spotted our prey: mushrooms. They were right beneath my feet, almost impossible to distinguish from the fallen leaves that covered the ground. Davis quickly classified the bright yellow mushrooms, with rounded caps and rings around their stems, as Amanita, a group of fungi in which many members are known to be poisonous.

The mushroom walk was hosted by Trish Adams, a Boston Mycological Club member, on a recent Sunday morning at her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Adams, now retired, has been hosting these walks, followed by a mushroom-themed potluck, for the club annually for about six years. “I just put in my name,” said Adams, “and thought it would be fun to have lunch, too.” People brought all sorts of mushroom dishes: salads, noodles, quiche, pastry filled with mushrooms and ricotta cheese, and even mushroom-shaped meringues. Most dishes used store-bought mushrooms, but some were made with wild mushrooms.

George Davis, right, explains a mushroom to a small group of people with him on the mushroom walk.
Oct. 21, 2012 – George Davis, right, explains a mushroom to a small group of people with him on the mushroom walk. Photo by XiaoZhi Lim

The Boston Mycological Club, founded in 1895, is the oldest club of its kind in America. According to club president Susan Goldhor, the members are mushroom amateurs with varying interests and backgrounds. “We have the rocket scientists and the plumbers,” said Davis. Over 400 members participate in a variety of club events, including mushroom walks, identification classes, lectures and celebrations. During the summer and fall seasons, the BMC typically holds mushroom walks for its members every Sunday morning, at various locations in the Greater Boston area.

Some BMC members, like Adams, want to be able to pick and eat mushrooms from the woods around their homes. The U.S. has over 3,000 species of mushrooms, and only about 250 species are edible. Americans eat about four pounds of mushrooms per person every year, most of them the bland, white buttons sold in supermarkets. More exotic varieties have appeared on the shelves in recent years. Earthy shiitakes and fleshy portobellos can be found in grocery stores like Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s, while leggy little enokis and flat, stem-less oysters are more commonly seen in Asian supermarkets like Super 88. Relatively few Americans hunt for wild mushrooms, but those who do tend to avoid store-bought mushrooms. It is “very important to use what nature has provided,” said Adams, who has stopped buying mushrooms and only eats what she finds.

Not all BMC members are solely interested in edible mushrooms. Some BMC members are artists who want to learn more about mushroom anatomy in order to draw mushrooms accurately. One distinct group of members, with eastern European heritage, participates to reconnect with their ancestral histories of mushroom foraging. “The people are as interesting as the mushrooms,” said Marcia Jacob, corresponding secretary of the club.

My Sunday mushroom walk was followed up with an identification class on Monday evening at the Harvard Herbaria Seminar Room.

Mouse-over to find out more about some features of mushrooms to pay attention to. Illustration by Aaron Batista, infographic by XiaoZhi Lim. All photos courtesy of Wikimedia.org

Identifying mushrooms picked during a walk is a large part of the club’s activities and, according to Davis, a “service that is available to people” in the club. Outside the Harvard Herbaria, a sign hung from the door, reading “BMC,” with a buzzer next to it.

I was let in by Jason Karakehian, the club’s librarian, and we were joined by Davis, who brought a basket with about ten specimens of mushrooms to be identified.

“What do you think of this?” said Davis, holding out a brown mushroom with a thick cap and stem.

“Oh, beautiful,” said Karakehian, taking the mushroom from Davis and turning it over to reveal the mushroom’s well-defined gills.

“What is that?”

Identifying mushrooms involves the matching of observed information about a mushroom such as its appearance, smell and taste to documented information in books. It is easy to put the mushroom in a group, but “winnowing it down to a point, the identity,” is very difficult, according to Karakehian. “But you can make a pretty good guess,” said Davis, and the mushroom was classified as a member of the Tricholoma group, based on the groove that it had around its stem where the gills joined the cap.

Karakehian broke the mushroom open and held it to his nose. “It smells like pencils,” he said, handing a mushroom half to me. It did not have the woody, nutty smell of the mushrooms I was familiar with. Instead, it had a synthetic smell that was difficult to place.

Karakehian then bit into the mushroom, chewed it for a while and spat it out.

“Was it bitter?” asked Davis.

“Just a little,” said Karakehian. “It tastes like soap.”

One hour and four fungi books later, Davis copied a name onto a piece of paper. He still needed to Google the name and find more information before he could definitively identify the mushroom. For most amateur mushroom hunters, the things that Davis and Karakehian used to tell if a mushroom is edible or not, are simple things that they can observe. “Things like size, shape, color and smell; things people use without even thinking about it,” said Davis. “But sometimes, you can get fooled.”

A few weeks later, I returned to Adams’s house with two other classmates for a follow-up mushroom walk and interview. Adams had found a small cluster of late fall oyster mushrooms growing on the trunk of a maple tree, and we had the good fortune to film Adams cutting the mushrooms off and bringing them home. Back in Adams’s tidy little kitchen, she quickly separated each oyster mushroom from the group. Without washing them, Adams drizzled olive oil generously over each mushroom before placing it in a box and adding some pressed garlic to marinate. We didn’t stay long enough to see Adams cook the mushrooms, but before we left, she gave us some frozen black trumpets and hens to bring home. That night, we made angel-hair pasta with just the wild mushrooms sautéed in olive oil.

The flavors of the mushrooms were rich and intense, earthy and nutty, and Adams was right: “You don’t need much to flavor a sauce.” Still, it will be a long time before I dare to start hunting for my own mushrooms.

Illustration by Aaron Batista

Updates to this post has been made as follows

Sep. 22, 2013 – Additions of photo, infographic and video. The video was filmed in late November 2012 and produced for a science documentary class with Poncie Rutsch and Matthew Hardcastle.