Archive for the ‘business’ Category

New Scientist Block Party


New Scientist Block Party

The judges prepare to declare the science trivia competition winners. (Credit: Joseph Caputo)

by Joseph Caputo

UK-based science magazine New Scientist stepped off the newsstands this afternoon and came to Cambridge’s Technology Square for a party. In a grassy courtyard surrounded by leading research institutions, locals sampled free drinks and food before heading over to a nearby Wii competition.

Although the Block Party was for advertising purposes only, (I am now the proud owner of Pfizer chapstick), New Scientist couldn’t help infusing some geekiness into their event. Dozens entered a science trivia contest to win prizes like a copy of “Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze,” a 1.5 G flash drive or an iPod shuffle. Questions on the closest platypus relative, deep-sea vents, and nuclear reactors kept the competition fierce.  (It is no surprise, however, that Team won the science in Massachusetts round.)

Those who haven’t heard of New Scientist should definitely pick up an issue. It is a weekly publication that covers the latest world news in science, space, technology and the environemnt. Their feature stories are often evocative and timely. Some of the latest include where to find black holes, the psychology of leadership and racing rockets. And unlike the more stuffy science publications, they are a strong supporter of fun.

Posted by Joseph, under business  |  Date: September 18, 2008
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A Business Lesson in Teaching Science


Knowatom Teacher Sophia Kruszewski

KnowAtom teacher Sophia Kruszewski explains wind turbines. (Credit: Francis Vigeant.)

First-graders in one of Mr. V’s after-school science classes can tell you all about F-5 tornados. After a short lesson emphasizing vocabulary, students receive a couple of empty soda bottles, glitter and a liter of water. Using these materials, each child builds his own underwater tornado and soon terms such as vortex and debris are flying throughout the room.

Mr. V., known outside the classroom as Francis Vigeant, 24, is in the business of demystification. As co-founder and program director of KnowAtom North Shore, LLC, he oversees the development of curriculum and projects that explain scientific concepts such as thermodynamics, chemical reactions and cell biology to kids. Once a one-person show starring Vigeant, the company now sends teachers to 31 elementary and middle schools for after and in-school programs.

For a child to take part in a 10-week afterschool class with a dozen other student costs $225, but parents are willing to pay the money because of the substance of the product says Vigeant. Based on the topic of the class, each child leaves with their own hand-made projects, which range from soda-bottle tornados to balloon thermostats. The materials are gathered from recycled materials and housed in a 4,000 square foot space in Essex, MA, which accounts for half the cost of the class.

The fee also covers teacher rates. KnowAtom currently has seven teachers covering locations throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. All have backgrounds in science and education, and after being trained earn competitive wages, they are responsible for traveling to their assignments, studying the topic of the day and structuring project building time.

Parents also pay for the work done by Vigeant’s behind-the-scenes team: A four member work crew assembles classroom kits and preps materials. Artists illustrate posters to accompany the lessons. Others check with the state’s science education standards to ensure content both within and above what is expected of the average student. They also write the handouts students receive as further reading if they want to learn more about a topic at home.

Being a company that works with children using hot glue guns and hammers, a less obvious expense for KnowAtom is insurance. Many companies rejected Vigeant’s unusual concept before he found one that takes risks on unique businesses. Though there has never been an incident he pays nearly $40,000 a year, which is also accounted for in the fee.

While Vigeant does not see his company as replacing the science educators currently in schools, he does see it as a meaningful and efficient way for a school to spend money implementing a science curriculum. With future growth, KnowAtom hopes to offer extracurricular classes for lower-cost to students who wouldn’t normally be able to attend. “We aren’t benefiting unless we’re benefiting others,” says Vigeant. “If a parent is willing to give us their child for an hour and fifteen minutes that is not an investment we take likely. We reinvest that into the world.”

Posted by Joseph, under business, science education  |  Date: June 3, 2008

How Not To Catch A Predator



Chemist Eric. M. Stroud demonstrates his shark repellent.Credit: Joseph Caputo/Science Metropolis

Eric. M. Stroud
Sharks didn’t become the terrors of the sea by looking cute. With a sixth sense to detect electrical signals, these creatures are natural hunting machines.

This evolutionary trademark may also be the key to keeping sharks safe from the fishing industry. According to, a marine advocacy group, 50-million sharks are unintentionally caught by commercial fishermen each year. While some survive, many die or are de-finned as a result.

The trouble is, both fishermen and sharks know where to find fish, so keeping sharks away from catch sites isn’t going to happen. The solution is to make a repellent, a chemical or bait that will keep sharks out of harm’s way.

SharkDefense, a six-year old organization of researchers that specializes in keeping sharks safe, now has evidence that certain kinds of metals and magnets may repel sharks by overloading their electricity-detecting sense.

“A magnet is all about electrons,” said Eric. M. Stroud, lead chemist and SharkDefense co-founder. The magnets he experiments with have thousands of times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. Put one near a human or fish – no effect. But place one near a shark and it can awaken from even the deepest rest. (See video below).

Stroud, also a Ph.D. student at Seton Hall University, discussed SharkDefense’s progress Tuesday night as part of the New England Aqiarium’s Free Lecture Series. In addition to magnets, sharks tend to avoid chemicals secreted by dead sharks as well as rare Earth metals.

The company’s goal is to apply this knowledge to baits that fishermen can purchase to avoid catching sharks, although the product has to be practical. One idea was to hang dozens of magnets from the side of a boat. The problem: Boats are made of metal. More promising is a hook that includes a small piece of magnet nudged between a sleeve and steel leader.

Although the technology is available, SharkDefense still needs to hook manufacturers. “As a small company, we can’t make the stuff,” said Stroud. He hopes to get the support of government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As far as keeping sharks away from humans. There is always a company like SharkShield, which sell electronic wave devices for “peace of mind.” Although, don’t spend too much – for every 50 million sharks captured by humans, only a dozen humans are caught by sharks.

Posted by Joseph, under business, environment  |  Date: May 21, 2008

Seeding Labs Volunteers Make A Difference


Seeding Labs Volunteers Pack Boxes

 — by Joseph Caputo

Researchers at The Southern University of Chile are watching the mailbox. Since a fire swept through four of the University’s science departments last December, they have been in need of equipment for their teaching and research laboratories.

“The situation is now critical,” wrote Maite Castro, a Chilean researcher. “There is no equipment and we’re being relocated to different places in and out of campus. But even when that happens, I don’t have any equipment to work with. All my things are gone, I really need help.”

It was a small group of Harvard Medical school students, alums and postdocs that came to the rescue. Wearing purple latex gloves and noting inventory on the back of thesis proposals, they volunteered two Saturdays in April to pack over 3,000 lbs. worth of used lab equipment, all destined for Chile. The shipment is valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

It was the largest packing event in the history of Seeding Labs, a volunteer-run non-profit that puts unused lab equipment from the fix-it shops and basements of research facilities into the hands of foreign scientists facing a lack of resources as basic as gloves and test tubes. Similar organizations exist to equip hospitals in need, but this is the first to aid research scientists.

“These are our colleagues,” says Executive Director Nina Dudnik, who co-founded Seeding Labs five years ago as a Harvard Medical School student. “What we throw away without a second thought can make a real difference.”

This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but as Dudnik explains, the process is a bit like recycling. Although scientists may support and be aware of the cause, without a little blue bin to remind them and reduce the effort, it won’t happen. Seeding Labs, which is based in Cambridge Massachusetts, provides the boxes and transportation for equipment so researchers can do the right thing without breaking a sweat.

“The equipment is a little bit older, but we try to fix and clean it up,” says Dudnik. “It’s still usable.”

Donors from all over Massachusetts, including Harvard Medical School and Biogen Idec, a pharmaceutical company, supplied the test tubes, pipette tips and occasional mystery machine for the Chile shipment. When the day started, the volunteers carefully organized the hundreds of pieces of lab equipment on the warehouse floor. Hours later, after rolled-up sleeves and some sweat, boxes the size of dryers filled the space.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but it gives you a nice feeling of accomplishment and a good work out,” said Melissa Wu, the event’s coordinator and a member of the Seeding Labs board. “Your research can go for years before you see anything tangible. With Seeding Labs, it’s easier to see your results.”

Now 5 years in operation, Seeding Labs has equipped 14 labs with nearly all of their equipment needs. One success story is a donation to Partners in Health, an organization that improves access to health care in developing countries. “In 2003, our five facilities in Haiti experienced approximately 655,000 patient visits. The laboratories work full time, so the donation, especially the microcentrifuge and the water bath, help us save countless lives,” wrote Dr. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health co-founder.

Currently running on volunteers and a shoestring budge, Seeding Labs is ready to grow. When asked about the organization’s needs, Wu verbalized an instant list: Warehouse space, tax lawyers, customs experts, boxes, vehicles, storage space, money, shipping donations, packing materials, lab equipment, volunteers, a parking space, and a moving company were just a few mentioned.

Dudnik, who became Seeding Labs’ first full-time staff member in January, is now dedicated to finding funding. The non-profit was recently selected as a finalist to receive $10,000 from, but they need votes to win the money. If you’d like to get involved, e-mail Nina Dudnik or visit the Seeding Labs Website.

Posted by Joseph, under business  |  Date: April 27, 2008

Popular Science Toys For Kids



Looking to foster a love of science in your favorite 8-year-old? Why not try replacing his or her favorite magic kit with a chemistry set? If that doesn’t work, there are a whole lot of options for science toys nowadays. You just have to know where to look.

One place you’ll have little luck is the mainstream toy store. When asked about their most popular products, a Cambridge KB Toys representative replied, “Aside from telescopes and microscopes, we don’t have a lot of science-related toys.”

Specialty toy stores like Stellabella Toys, located in Cambridge, and Zoinks! Toys, in Hanover, Mass., provide the widest selection of playthings for future scientists and doctors.

Scientific Explorer Kits are a popular line with customers at Stellabella. There are over three dozen kits to choose from, ranging from the basic “My First Weather Kit” to “Disgusting Anatomy: Brain,” which helps kids make their own gelatinous brain out of strawberry-kiwi Jello.

Another Stellabella seller is Snap Circuits. Using a plastic grid and snap-pn wires, kids explore their inner electrician by connecting AA batteries to doorbells, sirens, and AM radios. The kits range in difficulty from a Jr. version, which contains 30 parts, to Extreme – enough parts to make 750 projects.

Over at Zoinks!, the Gross Science series from Curiosity Kits is an easy sell. With projects like “Snot Science” and “Everyday Ooze” that look at the science behind mucus and bad breath, not only do kids learn about the human body, but apparently hygiene. “They’re mostly geared towards boys,” says Roisin, a Zoinks! spokeswoman, “but girls like them too.”

Another interactive biology product is DK Publishing’s “Alive: The Living, Breathing Human Body Book.” While not quite a toy, it does use fiber optics, pop-ups and sound to illustrate anatomical concepts for kids in the 8 to 12 age group.

“It’s great to start children young so they understand how and why things work,” says Roisin. It can’t hurt, and you never know, toy-inspired curiosity may be the first step to a Ph.D.

Photo from Action Products International, Inc.

Posted by Joseph, under business  |  Date: March 28, 2008