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Clever Steps Are What You Take – Walking
on the Marsh

Monday, April 27th, 2015

by Heather Soulen,
biological technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Image: Matt Kornis, during a day navigating a marsh (Credit: Matt Kornis)Imagine if you will, you arrive at a party and proudly parade your famous 7-layer dip over to the food table and with a satisfying smile, place your gastronomic masterpiece front and center as onlookers gaze through the glass at its layered awesomeness. You hardly finish removing the lid when suddenly someone swoops in with a tortilla chip, then another person, and then another and another. You back away from the table as you begin to feel a primeval and Velociraptor-like need to eviscerate these culinary offenders. Minutes later, the ravenous horde thins and the feeding frenzy slowly dissipates. You look back at the food table and what do you see? Nothing but a grotesque slurry of beige-brown with smeared, thin trails of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. It is a pale, unrecognizable shadow of its former layered glory.

Walking through a tidal marsh can figuratively and literally be like dragging a tortilla chip through a 7-layer dip. Unlike the dip, destroying the layers or landscape of a marsh can cause serious problems for scientists studying the ecology and biogeochemistry of marsh systems. Click to continue »

Beyond #ManicureMonday: Other Ways to Use Nail Polish in Science

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

by Heather Soulen, research technician

In mid-November of 2013, Seventeen Magazine’s #ManicureMonday was hijacked by Hope Jahren, an isotope geochemist and laboratory scientist studying photosynthesis at the University of Hawaii Manoa. She tweeted:

Hope Jahren-Take pic tweet

And then tweeted this picture of her well-groomed, unmanicured hands doing something #Science:

Jahren's nails are much  less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

Jahren’s nails are much less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

When following tweets asked “Why?” Jahren followed with:

Hope Jahren-Purpose tweet

Thus began an emotionally charged verbal tennis match about women in science, stereotypes, shaming, STEM and gender roles on Twitter and Reddit, as well as commentary featured in blogs like Slate Magazine, Scientific American and The Huffington Post.

While the #ManicureMonday #Science hijack seemed to begin with good intentions, it ultimately sparked controversy. But controversy is good–it makes us stop and think about our worldviews. It encouraged individuals to examine things like motivation, assumptions and perceptions of all kinds, including dichotomous thinking like “you can either be smart or manicured.”

There are plenty of scientists who enjoy adorning their fingers and toes with nail polish, but for many of us there is a practical reason we forego gilding. That is, doing some kinds of science simply destroys manicures and pedicures. Whether it’s from wearing nitrile (synthetic rubber) gloves all day, donning dive booties, deploying research gear (e.g. nets and samplers), scrambling around research boats, tromping around field sites (estuaries, streams, marshes and forests), or performing experiments in wet labs or outdoor mesocosms, hands and feet take a beating. Yet, we still use nail polish. We just use it in a different way.

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2014 in Review: The Good, the Scary and the Weird

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
Photo: Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (Credit: SERC)

Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

We sprayed pig’s blood on baby trees, studied a strange ménage a trois in the orchid world and met the father of marine invasions science himself. It’s been an odd year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. But we like living in interesting times. Here are 10 of our favorite stories from 2014. Here’s hoping 2015 is even stranger.

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Not Your Everyday Martha Stewart Glue Sticks

Friday, December 19th, 2014

by Heather Soulen, research technician

When I mention that we use “glue sticks” at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to help answer research questions about wetland ecology, I get looks of confusion and amusement. People often think I am using:

Glue Sticks (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC) or GlueGun (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC)

But, what I really mean is that I use these:

+ +

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Mathias Lab Opens New Era of Sustainability
at Smithsonian

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
Image: Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory (Credit: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

by Kristen Minogue

On September 19, the doors officially opened inside what’s targeted to be the Smithsonian’s first LEED-Platinum building: the Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

The vision for a more sustainable lab emerged in the 1990s. Six years ago, SERC director Tuck Hines shared the idea with the then-new Secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, on his first visit to the SERC campus.

“Tuck’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I told him then and there, you have my full support. We have to get this done,” Clough said. “But back then, it was just a dream….Today, six years from that first discussion, we’re here today to say, the dream has been fulfilled.”

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Why 900 Years of Ancient Oysters Went Missing

Friday, August 29th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Piscataway Indians lived on the Rhode River up to colonial times, though anthropologists believe they used the land for temporary campsites, not permanent settlements.

Piscataway Indians lived on the Rhode River up to colonial times, though anthropologists believe they used the land for temporary campsites, not permanent settlements.

For more than 10,000 years, Native Americans hunted and fished in the Chesapeake. Broken pottery, village sites, burial grounds and other artifacts bear witness to their near-continuous presence around the Bay. But one type of artifact—ancient trash piles called shell middens—hasn’t received as much attention. And these tell another important story.

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Urban kids, urban waterways: Citizen science improves lives and environment

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

Tony Thomas (left) supervises while Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

Tony Thomas (left), education program coordinator at the Anacostia Community Museum, supervises while students Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

“Is the net like a Spongebob jellyfish net?” student Cristal Sandoval asked.  Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), used another analogy to explain: “It’s like a bowl with holes in it for pasta.”  Light bulbs came on around the room and a knowing, “Oh,” escaped the lips of at least a dozen students.

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Marshes: Pollution Sponges of the Future

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

by Melissa Pastore, biology graduate student at Villanova University

Image: Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay. (Credit: Lori Sutter)

Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay.
(Lori Sutter)

What if we could create a giant sponge capable of soaking up nitrogen pollution? It turns out that the Chesapeake Bay, which has experienced a rapid increase in nitrogen pollution from municipal and agricultural sources over the last few decades, already contains a natural version of this sponge: marshes fringing the Bay. But global change—and the nitrogen pollution itself—could change how this natural sponge operates.

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Summer “Marshfest” gets all hands on deck

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

Experimental chambers and blowers give the marsh a spooky feel on this cloudy morning.

Experimental chambers and blowers give the marsh a spooky feel on this cloudy morning at SERC.

At first encounter, the marsh looks as if it came out of a Heinlein novel. Boxy white robots dot the wetland, igloo-shaped encampments litter the landscape, and thick black tubes snake across the mud—wait, did that one just move? On closer inspection, clusters of human beings appear crouched in the sedge, carefully taking measurements for the annual Global Change Research Wetland (GCREW) Summer Marshfest.

“These two weeks are the most important two weeks of the year for us,” said Smithsonian Environmental Research Center biogeochemist Patrick Megonigal. During Marshfest, senior scientists, postdocs, volunteer citizen scientists, interns, lab techs and visiting students all join forces to collect data for three experiments focused on climate change and nutrient cycling, all managed by Megonigal. Click to continue »

Intern Logs: A Summer Quest
to Understand Winter

Monday, July 21st, 2014

by Dejeanne Doublet

Photo: SERC intern Dejeanne Doublet heads out to sample marsh elder, a plant that in some zones coped surprisingly well with the harsh winter. (Credit Megan Palmer)

SERC intern Dejeanne Doublet heads out to sample marsh elder.
(Megan Palmer)

As we’re knee-deep in the marsh surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, working under the relentless sun during 90-degree weather with 90 percent humidity, sweat dripping down our faces, waving off the summer bugs and trying to collect as much field data as possible, the idea of winter becomes abstract and far-fetched. It’s hard to believe we are out here in the blazing heat of summer studying the effects of this past winter— one of harshest winters this area has endured in many years.

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