Archive for October, 2008

Introducing Gonzalo Giribet: A Curator of Invertebrate Zoology


Gonzalo Giribet

Dr. Gonzalo Giribet, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

If it is slimy, spindly, has more than four legs, maybe more than two eyes, is multi-segmented, and would be a critter worthy of a starring role in the next Alien movie, chances are, it is a friend of Dr. Gonzalo Giribet.  He loves all creatures that might terrify you at night.  A professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Giribet’s research focuses on a smorgasbord of creatures that most people would probably associate with a phobia.  Dr. Giribet loves his work, and it shows through as he speaks of his beloved creepy crawleys with a boy-like enthusiasm.

As a child, he assembled collections of mollusks and insects that he gathered along the beaches and in the forests of his home in southern Spain.  While both he and his collections grew, he became increasingly interested in taxonomy and evolution, and was gradually more and more determined to become a biologist.  Later, at the University of Barcelona, he specialized in both zoology and fundamental biology as an undergraduate, staying on to earn his PhD investigating the evolutionary relationships of arthropods, a phylum including insects, arachnids and crustaceans, through molecular genetics.  Dr. Giribet’s study was one of the first to employ this type of analysis called molecular systematics, though it has since become a mainstay of investigations in evolutionary biology.  For his post-doc, Dr. Giribet went to the American Museum of Natural History where he worked with the curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Ward Wheeler.

In 2000, he came to Harvard to investigate the phylogeography, or the genetic relationships of various invertebrate animals and how they relate to the geographic distribution of populations.  As a man who can’t decide what particular organism he wants to focus on, he just decided to study all invertebrates.  It has been a decision that has swung him all around the world into environments containing some of the strangest creatures on Earth.  When he isn’t teaching, Dr. Giribet spends most of his days sifting through leaf litter and turning over rocks and logs in the nether regions of the world.  He is in Australia studying centipedes one week and flies to Gabon the next to collect Cyphophthalmi, a primitive version of a daddy longlegs.  After that, he swings back to Cambridge to teach a couple of classes at Harvard before he shoots off to Hawaii to study orb weaving spiders or to collect a roundworm or two, stopping off in Sweden to grab a few mollusks on the way home. What he described as “perhaps, a little too much traveling,” is, to a normal human being, exhausting to think about.  “I can’t complain about my work,” he said, “but it is work.”  Invertebrates are everywhere, after all.

When asked where he will take his research next, his eyes grew unnaturally wide.  “Have you ever seen a velvet worm?” he asks.

Posted by Joseph, under biology  |  Date: October 21, 2008

The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch: Not Just for the Holidays


A scene from the glass pumpkin patch at MIT (Credit: MIT Glass Lab)

— by Jennifer Berglund

Deep in MIT’s labyrinthine innards, a small team of goggled MIT professors and students busy themselves around glowing furnaces and flesh-frying ovens.  It is the epicenter of the MIT Glass Program, and from its fiery furnaces glow its bread and butter, the great glass pumpkins.

Throughout the year, a group of volunteers comprised of students, professors and local glass blowers donate their free time to produce a colorful cocktail of pumpkins.  Come fall, the crop is gathered to sell in a peculiar fall market called The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch. This year is the seventh anniversary of this quirky MIT tradition. During the last weekends in September, students, faculty and the Boston community alike gathered at MIT’s Kresge Oval to pick over the harvest of the thousand or so pumpkins that were made.  Each pumpkin was unique, crafted by hand in varying shapes, sizes and colors, and created to generate funding for the MIT Glass Program.

Peter Houk, Vulcan of the glass studio, is the mastermind behind the event.  Serving his eleventh year as the program’s director and his sixteenth as an instructor, Houk has watched an interest in glass blowing blossom at MIT.  The two classes offered, Beginning and Intermediate Glass Blowing, are the two most popular extracurricular classes at MIT.  They have become so popular that admittance into them is decided according to a lottery.  For the 16 available spots in the beginners class, 120 students showed to sign up, “that means only one in every 8.56 students are admitted into the class – it works out to be almost exactly the percentage of applicants accepted into MIT,” said Houk in a very stereotypical MIT professor moment.

Although incredible numbers of pumpkins are made each year, the program itself doesn’t focus on the production of the Pumpkin Patch.  “I want to make it clear that the object of the program is not to make pumpkins,” Houk says, “that is strictly voluntary.” Once a student has participated in the beginner’s class, mastering the sequences of coordinated movements necessary to blow glass, or “the dance,” as Houk calls it, he or she can participate in pumpkin making, and, for this, there is no shortage of volunteers.

With the proceeds, Houk intends to one day move the program to a bigger and better lab, but it will take several more pumpkin patches to do so.  For now, most of the money earned pays for necessary equipment and materials, allowing for only a small fraction to be saved for expanding the lab.  Until then, the lab will remain buried in MIT’s basement – a not so secret secret that displays its bounty every fall at a most unnatural market.

Posted by Joseph, under profile  |  Date: October 13, 2008

Science on Screen Series Presents Psychological Thriller “Marnie”



The Coolidge Corner Theatre continues the fall season of its acclaimed Science on Screen series with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller MARNIE on Mon, Oct 13 at 7:00 pm. Before the film, noted psychiatrist Phillip Freeman will talk about Hitchcock’s use of the language of cinema to cultivate a sense of disorientation that lends depth to the film’s narrative of traumatic memory.

Alfred Hitchcock reunited with Tippi Hedren, his leading lady from THE BIRDS on MARNIE. Marnie Edgar (Hedren) is a habitual thief who uses her ample charm and good looks to gain the trust of her employers, only to rob them. She eventually meets her match in Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a publisher who decides to observe her more closely rather than turn her in to the police. After marrying her, Mark gradually uncovers incidents from Marnie’s childhood that are to blame for her split personality.

Dr. Freeman is a practicing psychiatrist a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. He has faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and Boston University Medical School, where he was director of Medical Student Education and a vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Freeman has published extensively on psychopathology, and applied psychoanalysis, and has also served as a consultant on films and plays in the Boston area.

With Science on Screen, the Coolidge presents a feature film or documentary with a basis in science, paired with exciting remarks by notable scientific figures. The Boston Globe has called this monthly series “one of the most accessible local forums for exploring the realities of the scientific world and how they’re depicted in mainstream culture.”

Science on Screen is co-presented by the Museum of Science, Boston and New Scientist magazine. For details and ticketing information, visit or call 617/734-2500.

Posted by Joseph, under For: Science Hobbyists  |  Date: October 8, 2008

The 100-Mile Diet


by Saw/iStockPhoto

Local produce fuels the 100-Mile diet (Credit: saw/iStockPhoto)

— by Nuño Dominguez

For decades, diets were designed to make people lose some extra pounds or push them into healthier lifestyles. Now, things are going holistic: Eat better while you fight global warming and save your local economy. It is the 100-mile diet.

Thousands of people looking for fresh and sustainable bites across the US and Canada are shifting to local food from a 100-mile radius from their homes. The local food networks are also getting bigger with hundreds of new farmer’s markets appearing every year. 

It all started in March 2005, when freelance writers Alissa Smith and James McKinnon ran out of food up in their holiday cabin in a remote region of British Columbia, Canada. Far from any road to reach the closest town, they decided to feast on what the wilderness had to offer. They fished a Dolly Varden trout in the nearby stream and harvested chanterelle mushrooms and dandelion greens in the woods. They also used some of the potatoes they planted in their garden the previous spring. “It was delicious, because everything was so fresh,” says Smith. Driven by the soft bouquet of wild trout and the juicy taste of those wilderness-thriving mushrooms, the couple decided that, for a year, they would eat only products within 100 miles of Vancouver, where their apartment is.

The couple quickly realized their shift to local food was not precisely a smooth change. As they figured out which products were inside their food zone, they found out there was no source of local wheat or rice, so forget about good old pasta or bread. Sugar – not your typical British Columbia produce – was also a bitter drop-out. Smith and McKinnon are mainly vegetarians -they only eat meat and fish once in a while- so their local diet had to stick to seasonal greens, which were scarce from March to late May. They mainly fed on kale, cabbage, turnips, rutabagas and leeks. There was also an ever present star: the potato. The couple had to wrack their brains to fight monotony in their dishes. A veggie sandwich using sliced roasted turnip instead of bread was one of their outstanding innovations. During the first six weeks, they lost 15 pounds.

Just as Smith and McKinnon thought they could not go on with their challenge, the new season started and fresh vegetables returned to markets again. From May, the couple enjoyed a culinary spring that turned into a tasty summer with juicy strawberries, crunchy carrots and multiple salad greens. Even in the midst of their green feast, they had a premonition of the long Canadian winter. Like in the old fable, they started playing the ant’s role and preserved as much food for the cold months as they could. Their one bedroom apartment became a small grocery store with boxes of sauerkraut under every chair, rows of chilli peppers drying in the closet next to their coats and a three feet tall by two feet wide cube freezer stuffed with reserves seizing most part of their kitchen. “It invaded our decor a little bit,” says Smith, who nevertheless says their new lifestyle was worth the starving and the hard work. “I learned that I didn’t want to go back to my old way of supermarket eating,” she says. Although the couple now consumes 85% of their food locally, they have indulged in some hard-to-leave goods like beer, olive oil and rice…… (Click here to read the rest of this story.) 

Check out farmer’s markets in the Boston/Cambridge area – Listing courtesy of

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: October 6, 2008

Why Biodiversity Matters



Evolution has solved a number of challenges humans face, for instance, flight. (Credit: Museum of Science)

— by Julia Darcey

Harvard undergraduates who take Noel Michele Holbrook‘s course on biodiversity often do not end up becoming scientists. The future lawyers and businesspeople listen thoughtfully to her lectures on preserving the variety of Earth’s species, but lacking the passion of a biologist, there is one critical point that they have difficulty understanding. One student finally approached  Professor Holbrook about it. The student explained that she understood that species were going extinct, and that habitats were disappearing, but she still had one fundamental question: “Why does this matter?”

Biologists like Holbrook now have a solid and penetrating argument that preserving biodiversity matters because of its benefits for human health. In a new book, world-renowned scientist Eric Chivian compiles hundreds of studies on how evolution has allowed snails, bears, frogs and trees to solve major medical problems facing humans. He presented the book, titled Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity during a public conversation with Holbrook last night at the Boston Museum of Science.

Despite the clear benefits of biodiversity, species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate due to a combination of pollution, development and climate change. Extinction can have a big impact on humanity, Chivian said, because the keys to solving many human health problems already exist in the natural world-we just have to figure out how to use them. 

One example is the medical possibilities in 40,000 distinct toxins made by the 700 species of aquatic cone snails. The shelled slugs bombard their prey with sharp, poison-coated harpoons, the most potent of which hijack the victim’s nervous system. The study of cone snail toxins has already produced the painkiller Prialt, which is 100 times more effective than morphine and does not lead to tolerance.

The trick to preventing disease associated with obesity may also exist in the belly fat of the polar bear.  The polar bear, Chivian said, becomes massively obese before entering its den to sleep for the winter, and yet never develops Type II Diabetes or other obesity diseases.  “If we lose the polar bear,” said Chivian, “we will perhaps lose the secret to a disease that kills 1.5 million people a year.”

A drug for peptic ulcer disease, which affects 25 million Americans, may have once dwelt in the rainforests of Australia, inside the stomachs of gastric-brooding frogs. Females of these species ate their eggs, which would slowly incubate inside the mother’s stomach. The eggs survived by secreting chemicals that stopped the production of digestive enzymes.  However, all research on these frogs came to halt in the 80s, when the only two species of gastric-brooding frog went extinct. 

“Those compounds-which may have evolved over millions of years-are gone forever,” Chivian said.  To him, this is an idea that everyone can understand. Numbers of species lost have not been effective in communicating the urgency of biodiversity loss, partly because it happens far from day to day life, often in rainforests or at the microscopic level.  When educating the public about biodiversity, Chivian said, “the most basic fundamental focus should be on what the impacts on us would be.” 

“We hope that the book will make the connection that humans are not separate from biodiversity,” he said. Written in plain language, it is designed to be used by scientists, the lay public, and even as a textbook. This is the first text that explains in great detail why biodiversity matters, and Professor Holbrook, for one, now includes it on her syllabus. 

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes  |  Date: October 5, 2008
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The Largest Canyon in the World


Michelle Ridgeway

Michelle Ridgway prepares for her canyon expedition. (Credit: Michelle Ridgway’s Blog)

— by Jennifer Berglund

West of Alaska is buried one of Earth’s most glorious and unexplored frontiers – the Zhemchug Canyon. The giant cavity, over a mile and a half deep, could consume the Grand Canyon with room to spare. When currents flow into the canyon, they slam against its walls before being thrust upwards towards the ocean’s surface. Within these upwellings, hordes of nutrients amass, feeding some of the largest concentrations of phytoplankton on Earth, which in turn nourishes a thriving cornucopia of life.

Into these dark depths, Michelle Ridgway made her descent.  Ridgway is a marine ecologist from Juneau, Alaska, and one of the last true explorers to plunge into a great unknown. As part of a public lecture series at the New England Aquarium, she shared her experiences in this final frontier earlier this week. Her story begins when she first sat in a tiny, eight-foot long research submarine resembling a backward forklift with pontoons. 

One year ago, Ridgway was on a mission to explore the deepest depths of the Zhemchug canyon and to document all traces of life that she could find. Out of a 200-person crew on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, she was one of only five pilots allowed to operate the tiny sub. This status gave her the privilege to personally explore the canyon’s depths. 

As Ridgway descended, she took her first glimpse of the canyon wall.  Spots of bright oranges, blues and purples filled her view. Although the water was just a few degrees above freezing, it was indeed coral, a staple of tropical reefs. With her sub’s robotic arm, she reached out and grabbed the end of a 9-foot-tall piece. Much of the coral Ridgway found in the canyon had yet to be described.

Nearby, the mouthparts of tubeworms lined the rock walls, resembling the mountainsides of tropical rainforests speckled with ferns.  Between the coral and tubeworms hid an orange speck – a tiny prickly crab.  It was the younger version of a giant King Crab, one of the most sought after crab species in the world. Only a few millimeters long as a youth, it can grow to be nearly five feet in diameter as an adult. 

Ridgway’s sub was soon a fifth of the way down Zhemchug canyon and suddenly incapable of handling the enormous water pressure. She began her retreat, stopping for a moment at the top of the canyon.  The seafloor below resembled a desert, sandy debris gathered in waves and what appeared to be the coral reef’s rejects moved sporadically on the floor around her.  A large greenish-brown flatfish stared with two eyes that seem to have bumped into each other on one side of its head.

As Ridgway ended her dive, she quickly gathered a few more samples. She found a giant brown ball resembling a rock, which, when later examined, turned out to be compacted dirt. It was determined to contain traces of various species of ice algae, many of which scientists thought to have been extinct for 15,000 years. 

Ridgway returned to her research vessel full of stories, specimens, and enthusiasm for her next big dive. It was only 1of 25 in this particular mission – the first of many fruitful expeditions to come.  

Upcoming Aquarium events include: “Whales: Candles, Cheeses and Pigs in Disguise” on Oct. 5, “Tuna: A Love Story” on Oct. 14, and “Journey with a National Geographic Photographer” on Nov. 10. 

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes  |  Date: October 3, 2008
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