Science

Archival Opinion: YouTube’s Educational Program Crash Course is Incredibly Important in Our Media Age — And Here’s Why

Archival Opinion: YouTube’s Educational Program Crash Course is Incredibly Important in Our Media Age — And Here’s Why

 

Originally Written in 2016 and posted on LinkedIn.
Revisited in 2018 with updated information.

Not Sponsored by Crash Course or its parent company, Complexly. 

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Six years ago, YouTubers John and Hank Green came together with others to create innovation. A free, easily accessible, learning program. It taught you the basics of American History, World History, English Literature, and much more. This wasn’t the first time someone had made a channel or website that allowed free education. Khan Academy had been around since September of 2006, but at the time, they only taught math. John and Hank Green began to make what education was available online more accessible and more varied, proving that education can be completely free.

 

The business is mainly funded by voluntary donations. Through the service, Patreon, subscribers can give as much money as they want towards Crash Course, allowing the company to continue going. In late 2014, they also became partnered with PBS Digital Studios, allowing them a bigger budget, which then allowed for them to have more and more content as the years have gone on. As of the writing of this article, Crash Course has gathered over 5 million YouTube subscribers, and over 450 million views. They’ve also created Crash Course Kids, aimed at younger viewers.

 

As of 2018, Crash Course broke off from PBS Digital Studios and is not under the parent company Complexly, run by the Green Brothers themselves. 

 

The videos Crash Course provides are used in various schools around the world. They have also begun to create worksheets to go along with their curriculum, and those are slowly coming out to help schools teach along with their programming. Including the one show produced on Crash Course Kids, there have been twenty-one different seasons of Crash Course, all varying in topics.  

 

All of the aforementioned information explains just the beginnings of why Crash Course is so important in our day and age. It is using a medium of innovation, allowing free education to anyone who has access to the internet. With its colorful cast of hosts, it’s amazing graphics team, Thought Café, and its topics of huge interest, it makes learning fun, easy, and most importantly, available to nearly everyone. 

 

From public and private schools, to those who are homeschooled, to those who haven’t had a formal education in any form. Education, in many cases, can be very inaccessible. From public schools that are shutting down, to incredibly expensive colleges that put people into debt, to places in the developing world who don’t even have access to schools in some cases. Crash Course is doing what it can to provide for the needs of those who can have access to the internet. Of course, this doesn’t account for everyone, but it is a huge step in the right direction.

 

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So, if Crash Course has been going on for this long, why are we bringing it up now? The company was under a little bit of fire in 2016 (when this article was originally written). A course by the name Human Geography came out on the channel, and after two episodes were released, the season was promptly removed from YouTube. Why? Inaccuracy. Now — before you think I’m about to debunk everything written above, I’m not. In fact, this is another reason why Crash Course is so important in this digital age.  

 

In a small video released on October 31st, 2016, John Green addressed the controversy. He said that Crash Course was “hitting the pause button” on the Human Geography course in order to re-work it. Without hesitation, Green went on to explain how the company attempted to grow Crash Course’s video content, and curriculum, without raising their budget and without increasing their staff.  “That,”  John Green said, “was a mistake.”  

 

This lead to factual mistakes, poor editing, and rushed production. John Green also said that the tone of the episodes were “too strident”, or harsh. Green went on to mention some specific mistakes made in the episodes. This mistake resulted in a product that hadn’t been as good as Crash Course’s previous series. 

 

“Crash Course needs to have a point of view, but it also needs to be intellectually rigorous and to acknowledge the diversity of opinion and research within a field, and we didn’t do that.”  - John Green
 

John Green went further to explain how they would address the problem. They’d work with more experts on the courses, and spend more times on the scripts. He then acknowledged that this change would slow down their production — and then he said something I found key. “Ultimately, I think it will also improve our videos.” 

 

This is exactly why, in this world where education comes along with greed, Crash Course is so important. Green admits to the flaws within their system with no defense and no poor attitude. They brought down the videos and explained how they were going to fix the problems. They also say they’re going to take their time.  

 

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Assuming this rings true, and Green and the rest of the staff at Crash Course do just this, what we’re seeing is rare. An apology without an excuse, and without a political answer. If this is true, we’re seeing a company put their product before their profit, and more importantly, we’re seeing a company put education before profit. This is rare, which is sad and frankly sickening, but it seems to exist somewhere, at least. That somewhere is Crash Course.

 

I’ve been following Crash Course since day one. I have not watched all their series, but the ones I have, I have enjoyed thoroughly. I have gained much knowledge from their videos, and I am thankful for them, too. It’s more engaging than an expensive textbook, and it encourages me to learn more. I’m not learning to pass a test — I’m learning for the sake of learning.

 

One of the series I did not see was Crash Course Human Geography. However, I’m glad I’ve yet to view it. With Green and the Crash Course team re-working the series, I have faith that it will come back as factual and much better. It’s not a blind faith, either, from viewing their other series.  

 

Green also thanked everyone who gave him and the team constructive criticism.  “You make the channel better for us and for all those who watch it,” Green said. “Snarky or abusive comments that don’t come from a place of generosity are really hard to respond to with anything but defensiveness, but we’ve been really lucky at Crash Course that there are so many kind and careful critiques, and we’re very grateful for them.”

 

It’s also worth noting that John Green only blamed himself. He said that if we’re mad at anyone, we should be mad at him. He didn’t blame anyone else for his mistake, and made sure to note that the presenter of Human Geography was not blamed for his misstep.

 

You can check out Crash Course on their YouTube Channel, here.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


 
 

Dinosaur Skeletons Are a Hot Comity — It’s Too Bad Science Can’t Afford Them

Dinosaur Skeletons Are a Hot Comity — It’s Too Bad Science Can’t Afford Them

Edited June 17th, 2018 -- Corrected typos.
 
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June 4th came and went, and with it, an almost complete dinosaur skeleton to a French art collector. 

 

The beast that lays nine meters long (almost 30 feet), and two-and-a-half meters tall (8.2 feet), went on auction in Paris, France on Monday, June 4th.  Some believe it could be the skeleton of a species that has yet to be identified, and it’s about 70% complete.  According to Quartz, this skeleton was excavated between 2013 and 2015 in Wyoming, USA.  

 

It sold to the aforementioned art collector for $2.3 million. 

 

The auction was criticized before and after it took place by many scientists.  The nonprofit organization Society of Vertebrate Paleontology argued in a letter that “scientifically important vertebrate fossils are part of our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust”, rather than left in the hands of any private ownership.  Why was this point argued?

 

The fear is that privately auctioned off skeletons can become lost to science — especially those of major discoveries as the Society believes it to be.  “…There is no guarantee,” said Voa News, quoting the organization. “That privately held pieces will be open to all scientists for research purposes.”  

 

That being said, Reuters reported that the unnamed buyer of this skeleton plans on lending it to a museum, and that will allow it to be studied by scientists.  

 

 

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But these kinds of auctions are becoming more and more popular and common according to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, David Polly, the president of the organization, told Nature.  In fact, the auction house that sold off this latest skeleton sold a Mammoth and another dinosaur previously, according to the Reuters’ article mentioned early. 

 

The more common these auctions become, and the higher the price margin goes, the less access scientists will have to the Earth’s history.  Even if the particular buyer of this skeleton does give scientists access to it, that doesn’t mean that every private buyer will.  The auction house also claims that some of the proceeds from this auction will go to two charities working with endangered wildlife, but the Reuters article that reported on that claim doesn’t mention which charities.  

 

The solution to this would be calling off these auctions, or giving more funding to museums and scientists so that they could afford these purchases.  Neither of which seem like they’re goals within reach at the moment. 

 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


 
 

China Thinks They May Have Found One Surviving Baiji Or Chinese River Dolphin

 Via Wikipedia

Via Wikipedia

 

CHINA — In 2006, a survey conducted in December found a species of River Dolphin — known as the Baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin — to be functionally extinct.  When an animal is classified as such, this means that there’s only a handful of survivors left, and that the odds don’t look good for the species to make a comeback.  12 years after the survey, China thinks they may have found at least one surviving member.  That could mean that, possibly, there’s even more out there.

 

 

What’s a River Dolphin?

 

A River Dolphin is basically what it sounds like.  It’s a dolphin that survives in freshwater; it only lives in rivers.  This is not a formal classification of dolphin, but it’s an easy way to distinguish between the kinds of dolphins most people are aware of, and the four recognized species of river dolphins (with various numbers of subspecies).

 

There’s a few reasons why river dolphins aren’t as well known to the general public.  For starters, they don’t have a wide range.  There are only a few different species of river dolphin, and they are all restricted to small habitat areas.  

 

Another reason is that there are not many river dolphins in captivity.  The reasons for this range, but some of the problem has been that getting the animals to reproduce while in captivity has not proven to be successful. On top of this, in the 1950s to the 1970s, many Amazon River Dolphins were captured and sent away to be placed in captivity across the world, but out of the 100 that were sent, only 20 survived.  Currently, only three river dolphins are in captivity; one in Venezuela, one in Peru, and one in Germany.

 

 

Why Are They Endangered?

 

We only know for sure that some species of river dolphins are endangered and face extinction.  For example, the data for the Amazon River Dolphin is data deficient, or in other words, we don’t have enough information on the species to list it on the IUCN scale of endangerment. 

 

However, with that said, many species of River Dolphins are extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction, which helps lead to their endangerment.  Because they have such small habitat areas, when part of that habitat is taken over or destroyed, it can effect the entirety of the species.  

 

This is exactly what happened to the Baiji river dolphin.

 

Waste from the surrounding area of the Yangtze river, where the Baiji was once found, covered the water.  Ship traffic became a huge problem, as the Yangtze developed because of economic growth in China.  Noise pollution also played a role as the area of the Yangtze became more and more populated.  

 

The last verified sighting of the Baiji was in 2004, two years before they were declared ‘functionally extinct’.

 

So …if China Did Find a Baiji, What Does That Mean?

 

Unfortunately, we don’t quite have the answer to that question.  It would take a lot of work to get to a time where the Yangtze river is save enough for the Baiji to thrive.  “…Destructive fishing methods such as high-voltage electrofishing, floating gill netting, and muro-ami, a technique that uses encircling nets with pounding devices, should be strictly forbidden, and any violation should be punished to protect both the dolphins and their prey,”  Said Hua Yuanyu, a scientist who has been surveying and studying the species since the 80s.  

 

Basically, the Yangtze River would have to become a protected area via the government if there is any hope to save the Baiji.  

 

That said, Hua also said that the “reappearance of the baiji is another piece of evidence of the improved Yangtze ecology,” which by all means, is a very good sign for this particular animal.  Another glimmer of hope is that the Baiji “does not live in solitude,” and live in schools, according to Li Xinyuan, who is a Baiji dolphin enthusiast and was there when the photo of what they think is the Baiji was taken.  

 

On top of all of this, several fishermen have been confirmed to have seen the Baiji for themselves. 

 

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


 

Science Communication: Consider the Source

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Previously Published in 2017

 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION -- We've all seen health products, mental health products, or other services claim that what they're doing is backed by real science.  Whether they're making wild claims about how much weight you're going to lose, or saying how much better they're going to make your life in general, they often times say that they're backed up by science.  Even dating websites claim they have science behind them.

 

These claims may do one of two things to you:

1) They may make you more skeptical about the product or service.

2) They may make you trust the product or service more than you might have originally.

 

Obviously, for the company trying to take your money, the latter option is more ideal.  But the average consumer needs to be more skeptical.  Just because some science is behind a product, that doesn't necessarily mean it's trustworthy.  You have to consider the source.  How do you go about considering the source of a scientific study, though?  How do you know what to look for?

 

Considering the Source: Where Did the Study Come From?

 

In 2017, Vox Media produced an article showing how companies like OceanSpray got away with saying that their cranberry juice could reduce urinary tract infections by 40%.  However, that study that OceanSpray boasted was co-funded by the company themselves.  On top of that, the study was co-authored by OceanSpray.  And the study and similar ones like it have had a lot of people fooled.  Doctors have gone as far as to suggest to their patients that they drink cranberry juice when suffering from an UTI.  The author of this article knows this from personal experience.

 

It wasn't as though the study was completely lying, either, which helped boost their supposed credibility.  Cranberries do have compounds that fight off bacteria, but you'd have to drink a LOT of cranberry juice to see any kind of result whatsoever. "People would have to continuously drink the juice twice a day in serving of 150 mL for an indefinite period of time."

 

When looking at a study, was it funded by the company promoting the product?  Was it authored by the company promoting the product?  Is the study helping promote the product at all?  All of these things should raise red flags when looking at a study.

 

Considering the Source: Is a Celebrity Talking About it?

 

The average person take celebrity opinions far too seriously.  Let's just admit that right off the bat.  This can be a huge problem, unfortunately.  It's lead to countless people attempting detox teas because Kylie Jenner posted them on instagram (and got massively paid to do it, too). Detox teas have unwanted side effects, and will mostly help you lose water weight more than anything else as they are a diuretic.  They're not the miracle weight loss product that celebrities and instagram influencers claim they are.

 

And the Kardashian-Jenner family aren't the only ones at fault here.  People like Gwyneth Paltrow have made a business surrounding products that supposedly have science backings.  However, Paltrow's website GOOP is being investigated for at least 51 deceptive health claims.  These claims hurt people on the regular, because if their favorite celebrity is doing it -- they should too!  It means it must work!  In reality, we have to remember that these people are not scientists and are getting paid to promote these products.

 

Considering the Source: Did you Find it on Social Media?

 

Social media is similar to the aforementioned celebrity point.  They may not be getting paid to promote these tweets, but they are getting the instant gratification of likes and retweets.  This was a an issue to Megan Lynch, a student of Economic Botany herself.  When I asked about what other ways we need to consider the source of scientific claims, she said she watched a lot of scientists retweet "spammy" tweets without questioning the fact that these tweets didn't have a source associated with them.  We're all susceptible to this kind of behavior, too, so we have to be aware of that and realize what we're doing before we do it.

 

Considering the Material: Peer Reviewed Articles

 

It's not just the sources of articles and "facts" we need to be wary of.  Even the articles we find we can trust the sources from have faults, flaws, and can be misleading.

 

Dr. Emma Yhnell brought this up to me when asked, saying "articles are often changed depending on reviewer comments".   And it's true.  On top of this, peer reviewed articles have other flaws such as the competition factor.  "Academic competition for funding, positions, publication space and credits has increased along with the growth of the number of researchers," Says a New Republic article written by Stefano Belietti.  "Science is a winner-take-all enterprise, where whoever makes the decisive discovery first gets all the fame and credit, whereas all the remaining researchers are forgotten. The competition can be fierce and the stakes high. In such a competitive environment, experiencing an erroneous rejection, or simply a delayed publication, might have huge costs to bear."

 

Because of the competition of science just to get into a journal, let alone have your study make it big, this can cause biases to be formed that could negatively effect the article.  Science should be neutral and unbiased, but it's not infallible by any means.

 

Considering the Material:  What was the Sample Size?

 

Is the article hiding important information from you?  Seeing how large the sample size was and how the variables were controlled is extremely important.  And a lot of times, the sample sizes to articles are small.  They're small enough that they can't really say for sure that the conclusions they came can be considered a scientific fact now.  But often times, despite this, that's how the conclusions from the research comes off, especially when being reported on by the mainstream media.  If the study doesn't even tell you how big a sample size was, or hides from you how the variables were controlled, that should be a warning sign for you to be more skeptical towards the study.

 

Science needs skepticism.  Without it, there would be no science at all really.  Without questioning things, finding sources, and doing your own research, you're blindly trusting in fallible humans.  And the bottom line is that we will realize that we made mistakes in our research, or made mistakes in promoting that research.  However, the more aware of it we are, and the more cautious we make ourselves, the more we can avoid promoting pseudoscience and faulty science as absolute fact.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


 

Help Us Donate to the Mars Generation!

 
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Last year, we did our best to help donate to the Mars Generation and to help them reach their goal of $20,000!  We were able to help them, and we raised almost $150 for them. 

 

This year, we want to raise 8x that.

 

 
 

The Mars Generation is a non-profit that helps kids get excited about STEM.  Started by Abigail Harrison, or as many know her, Astronaut Abby, in 2015, The Mars Generation has been helping children get into Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math ever since.  

 

This year, it's their 3rd Annual #TrainLikeaMartian challenge.  The challenge 'is a week of fun activities that brings awareness to the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education, space exploration, and physical fitness to students and adults around the world' according to their website.

 

Last year, FemSTEM got involved, and we want to get involved again.

 

We did some of the challenges ourselves, as well as started a fundraising page to help raise them up to their goal!

 

Here is our current fundraising page to help them out this year!

 

If you donate, all of the money goes directly to the Mars Generation -- we don't see any of it.  This is not sponsored by them in any way, shape or form, it's just a fun way to help our fellow STEM-lovers help others!

 

And -- if you donate $25 or more, you get entered into their daily prize drawings as well as their grand prize drawings.  You can learn more information about their prizes here.  On top of that, you'll get a handwritten thank you card from us no matter how much you donate (as long as you donate through our fundraiser here).  

 

What are you waiting for!!

 

DONATE NOW

 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.



STEM GEMS: A Review of a Book about Women in STEM

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    When kids think of the modern scientist — who do they think of?  Usually, Bill Nye the Science Guy will come to mind (and why not? His catchy theme song has infected the minds of all American kids since 1993).  That …may be it.  Some kids may know of Stephen Hawking, Neil Degrasse Tyson, or Michio Kaku.  

 

    The pattern?  All of these modern day scientists have one thing in common: they are all men.

 

    Stephanie Espy set out to change that.

 

 
 

    Stephanie Espy is a Chemical Engineer and author who decided to shine a light on 44 of today’s modern women scientists.  “I have always been passionate about STEM,”  She writes on her website about why she wrote the book to begin with.  “and I’m equally passionate about getting more girls and young women excited about STEM too. I wrote this book with a mission: to help girls and young women to see their future selves as scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, and to show them the many diverse options that exist in STEM.”

 

    With this book, she reached her goal and did it spectacularly.

 

    Out of graciousness, I was sent a copy of this book.  Because my life was so hectic, it took me a while to actually get around to reading it, but when I did — I had a hard time putting it down when real life called me to get some work done.  

 

    My first thought was: “Why is this not in every school library?”  

 

 

    These short biographies of these women in STEM give a fun look to their lives, their positions, and their passions.  However, not only did Espy provide 44 role models in STEM from all sorts of walks of life — she does something else for the readers, too. Past all of the bios is advice that Espy has written specifically for the girls who pick up this book.  Advice towards who to get started in STEM, and how to keep up with your goals in these fields.  Taking the stories from the 44 gems, and creating practical guidance from them.

 

    This books is excellently written on top of it all.  It kept my attention, and it taught me about these women effectively.  It’s bound to keep the attention of children in class, and it really should be required reading, or at least suggested reading for science classes.  It would also be an excellent choice for a book report.  

 

    I keep mentioning children reading this, but really, it’s fantastic for all ages.  The writing doesn’t talk down to the reader in the least, and everyone can learn something from it.  My guess is that most people who pick up this book haven’t heard of all of these women — if they’ve heard of any of them to begin with.

 

    Consider supporting Stephanie Espy in her efforts buy purchasing her book here.  You won’t be sorry you did it.  

 

*Mariah was given a copy of this book to read and review for free. This post is otherwise non-sponosered.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.



A Science Communication Consultation and Training Company Is On the Rise — and Needs Your Support

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Science Communication is something that is a hot topic these days.  The communication to the public about science is extremely important, because everyone is effected by science in their daily lives.  Proper science communication can change how the public looks at the world, how the world governments decide to act on certain issues, and can help in bettering the wellbeing of humans, animals, and plant life.

 

 

However, science communication is not the easiest thing in the world.  Not by a long shot.  There’s miscommunication, the boasting of bad studies, and some scientists don’t know how to go about science communication to the public at all.  While all scientists are definetely not required to communicate their science to the public, a lot of them want to learn.

 

 

That’s where SCIENCE ART FUSION comes in. 

 

 

Science Art Fusion is a ‘science communication consultation company that aims to bridge the gap between science and the creative and performing arts’, says Founder RK Pendergrass.

 

 

Earlier in March, she began a GoFundMe campaign hoping to raise money so that Pendergrass can create online courses “that goes into the nitty-gritty of narrative structure and what makes some stories so universally appealing, and helps science communicators figure out the best ways to apply these narrative skills to their outreach efforts”

 

 

Pendergrass herself is a professional performer and creative writer with over ten years of experience in these fields.  She says that she wanted to help share her knowledge with the science community “after seeing the importance of narrative being brought up time and again at science conferences and in discussions about science communication”.  

 

 

Pendergrass truly believes that there’s value in this knowledge for the science community, and believes that this type of art can be very helpful in getting this very important communication across.

 

 

In the two weeks that SCIENCE ART FUSION’S campaign has been online, Pendergrass has thus earned over $1,500 towards her 20K goal.  As she notes, starting a company is incredibly expensive.  Between the LLC cost, the cost of equipment, the cost of a website, and more.  Her hope is to raise $3,500 a month in order to support the website and herself up until August.    She wants to help hire and support other science communicators as well in the future to help continue to “bridge the gap” between the communications and their respective audiences.

 

 

Interested in helping out?  You can check out the GoFundMe here, or email RK Pendergrass at prelaunch@scienceartfuision.com for more information!

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.

 

Never Have Trouble Finding Places for Science on Your Vacation Again: Sci Sites!

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In January 2018, Dr. Lakshini Mendis launched a website for the purpose of inviting science to come along on your vacation.  While just about every large city in the United States, as well as across the world, typically has a science-related museum, or other science related activities to do while you’re visiting, sometimes they can be hard to find.

 

 

Dr. Lakshini Mendis is a trained neuroscientist, and now is a full-time science writer and editor herself.  After she gained her PhD, she traveled abroad a lot.  While she was abroad, she wanted to find these “STEM-related places” that she knew absolutely existed.  Finding them, though, was an entire adventure on its own.

 

 

Dr. Mendis found it to be a little frustrating and not very convenient that there wasn’t a place on the internet where you could go to see every science activity or public area in the location you were visiting.  Of course, you could Google things all day long, but the convenience just was not there. She wanted a “one-stop STEM related travel site”.  

 

 

VISIT THE SITE

 

 
 
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Sci-Sites.com is exactly that.  By noting where she has been on her science filled trips, and asking others where they have been, Dr. Mendis has created an easily-accessible space to fit her goal.  This site includes guest posts about these places, so that you’re not going in blind — as well as suggests science related spaces for every continent. No matter where you’re going on vacation, Dr. Mendis is making it so you have no excuse to not add science into the mixture.

 

 

Another wonderful thing about Dr. Mendis’ site is that it aids in visibility for not only STEM, and STEM-related public spaces, but also for the scientists and employees involved.  By allowing guest posts, scientists who have worked for specific museums and other STEM-related places can bring awareness to those said areas, as well as to the work that they do for that specific place. 

 

It’s another way, that’s totally different and completely unique to the current world of Science Communication, to get the science communication ball rolling.  It’s a great way to get the entire family involved with STEM and the people directly involved in STEM fields in a fun and relatable way.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.

Interview: Emily Beasley and the Behavioral Ecology of Gulls


 

When you think of scientists studying animals, the first think you think of might not be a seagull.  Especially since, as we mention later, gulls tend to get somewhat of a bad reputation.  You think of gulls and you think of annoying pests on the beach, trying to steal your french fries.  But this scientist doesn't see gulls as the average beach-goer might.

 

Meet Emily Beasley, a Behavioral Ecologist who is most interested in studying seagulls, and loves to do it.  We talked to her earlier this month, asking her about her job and how she entered the field in the first place, and what specifically she has learned in her study of seagulls.

 

 

Q:  First of all, to start things off, Emily, I want to say thank you for sitting down with me today and taking time out of your day to answer some of our questions! I know you've been extremely busy lately, so this means a lot! I’m sure our readers will enjoy this throughly.

 

A: It’s my pleasure!

 

Q:  I want to start off with a basic question about what you do.  So your field of study is Behavioral Ecology, which is the study of animal behavior as related to adaption, causation, and development, correct? 

 

A: Yes, that’s exactly right.  It also involves examining how environmental factors impact on changes in animal behavior.

 

Q:  Very cool.  This kind of science has always been right up my alley.  So I’m curious: How did you find yourself in this field of study and how long have you been researching animal behavior?

 

A: I’ve always loved animals and have had pets all my life.  I started riding horses when I was ten and eventually I got a job doing barn chores and teaching riding lessons.  But it really took shape for me when I was an undergraduate student.  I got the opportunity to work at a pet store that did a lot of animal adoptions, and we also hand-raised baby parrots.

 

For my undergraduate dissertation I did a research project on the impact of ecological validity in puzzle solving abilities of Congo African Parrots.  My supervisor at the time, Professor Maryanne Fisher, connected me with Professor Tom Dickens who runs a field trip to Lundy Island in the UK every year.  I did the field study and absolutely loved it.  I spent a lot of time with Dr. Rob Spencer  watching a gull colony on the island and I was hooked.

 

When it came time for me to apply to grad school, there was an opportunity to work with Tom and Rob again at Middlesex University in London.

 

Q: All of that sounds extremely fascinating and really, really fun.  Especially the opportunity to do the field study.  That must’ve been a fantastic trip — I can’t even imagine. What’s your favorite part about the process of studying animal behavior?  Do you have a favorite step, or something else about the research that you enjoy the most? 

 

A: It was wonderful.  I’ve been back to Lundy every year since that first trip and I still love it.

I really enjoy collecting data.  Being in the field is my favorite place to be, whether it’s in a city looking at urban wildlife or on a remote island watching seabirds.  A lot of work foes into developing and piloting a project before you can go out and collect data, so it’s really rewarding when you see all of your efforts come together.  It’s also a chance to observe the animals in their natural environment and see how they interact with each other and the environment.  You can learn a lot by just attentively watching your study species.

 

Q: Oh, I bet.  As kids, when you’re watching animals in your own backyard you can learn a lot, so I can’t even imagine how much you’d be able to learn on a trip like that!  Judging by your twitter, your favorite animal to study are birds.  And it would appear that you have a project going on right now to study gulls in urban areas!  What specifically are you hoping to learn with this project?

 

A:  Yes, they definetely are my favorite!

I actually just finished my Master of Science by Research degree from Middlesex.  I was studying a population of Lesser Black-backed gulls and Herring gulls in Bath, England.  I was interested in gull-human interactions, and gull populations dynamics across the breeding season.

I collected data for 5 months over the 2017 breeding season.  What I found was that the population of foraging gulls in the city fluctuated throughout the breeding season.

The phases in the breeding season were divided by major events that generally happen around the same time every year.  The phases are:

 

1 — Settling; when the adult gulls return to the breeding sites.

2 — Laying; when the females lay their eggs.

3 — Incubation; incubation of the eggs, which is shared by both parents in my study species.

4 — Rearing; once the chicks have hatched and the parents start to provision them.  And finally:

5 — Fledging; when the chicks leave the next and learn to forage on their own.

 

There tended to be more gulls in town during the rearing and fledging phases.  This was likely because there was pressure on the adult gulls to provision their growing chicks with more food.

 

The key findings with regards to gull nuisance behavior were that there was no gull aggression towards humans at all during the course of the breeding season. Gull nuisance occurred more frequently near the end of the breeding season, when the chicks were beginning to fledge, but even then I didn’t observe much nuisance behavior.

 

Gulls get a bit of a bad reputation, but they’re actually very intelligent, long-lived birds.  Also, all species of breeding gulls in the UK are considered birds of conservation, concern, and the Herring gull is red listed (globally threatened) due to severe declines in their national breeding populations, so it’s really important that people work together to help these gulls instead of vilify them.

 

Q:  Okay — so this project had already taken place then.  All of that is really incredible, actually.  And I agree with you; there are a lot of animals we tend to vilify solely because of ignorance.  But when you think about animals who have a bad rap, you tend to think of animals like sharks, or predator-creatures, and there tend to be more people on the side of trying to get them to have a better reputation than on an animal like the gull.  So I think this is really important research you did, and I need to admit it wasn’t even something I had thought about on my own.  I’d love to hear more about this at another time!  Are you planning on publishing this research?

 

And then, if you were to give advice to someone looking to enter the same field of research as you, what do you think you would tell them?

 

A:  I totally agree with you!  Thank you — there are a lot of great gull and seabird researchers in the UK trying to spread knowledge and I want to contribute as much as I can.  I would like to get it published.  I think it’s important to share what we’re doing as researchers with the rest of the academic community and with the non-academic community, too.

 

I’d say take opportunities as they come and always be open to new experiences.  Try to put yourself in situations where you are building skills that you would like to have, but also meeting people who are interested and already working in a field you want to enter.  You never know who you’re going to meet while you’re at a conference or volunteering.  Put yourself out there, do what you love, and share your passion with others.

 

Q:  I think that’s good advice!  Thank you so, so much for joining me again, Emily.  Really.  It’s been a really interesting chat, and I had a really nice time!

 

A:  I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you.  Thank you for your interest!

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.

Osteoarchaeologist Stephanie Jan Hamholfer Talks Her Career and How She Got Here

 

There’s a lot of ways that we can learn about our past and, in turn, our future.  One of those ways is by studying bones — our bones.  Or — rather — the bones of the deceased.

 

Meet Stephanie Jan Hamholfer. She is an Osteoarchaeologist based out of Canada.  She has an Associate of Arts degree in Criminology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of Alberta.  Currently, she is gaining her Masters at the University of Toronto.

 

Stephanie also has her own blog where you can read about her life and her studies here

 

Recently, I caught up with Stephanie and asked her some questions about her career in osteoarchaeology, and how she got there.

 

Q: I want to start off by telling you again how much I appreciate you getting in touch with us and your willingness to sit down and chat with me!  Thank you very much!  I really think our readers will get a lot out of learning about what it is you do! 

So your current focus is on human osteoarchaeology, or biological anthropology.  That seems to be kind of a unique field of study.  Would you like to briefly explain what that is for anyone who may not know?

 

A:  Sure!  Osteoarchaeology/Bioarchaeology is the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.  Basically we're archaeologists with specialized skills and knowledge in excavating and interpreting human skeletons.  I use a book analogy.  Our skeletons are like books written in a language osteoarchaeologists are trained to read.  So we can study skeletal remains and find out about things like height, illness, trauma, occupations, diets, places we've lived, etc.

 

Q: That’s neat! I think people can be generally unaware of just how much you can learn from studying human bones. Everything you mentioned there is really a lot of information!

So I’d like to ask what made you interested in human osteoarchaeology in the first place?  Was it a particular teacher you had, or something you stumbled across that peaked your interest?

 

A:  I definitely stumbled into it, hahaha!  I was actually studying criminology at university and I had to fill some electives.  I had always been a bit curious about archaeology, so I signed up for that.  During the same semester there was a forensic anthropology course being offered.  I had never heard of forensic anthropology before but the course description sounded interesting so I went for it.  And I fell in love!  I finished up with criminology and decided to start over pursuing osteoarchaeology.

 

It was a combination of course content and a fantastic archaeology professor which definitely cemented my interest.

 

Once I realized I loved forensic anthropology and archaeology I wondered if there was a way for me to combine the two.  I had the opportunity to write a paper about the Franklin Expedition and that was when I realized that osteoarchaeology was a real career I could pursue!

 
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Q: Isn’t that funny how those things work, and how you think you’re going one way until you completely fall in love with something else? That’s a cool story, and it’s great that you had an excellent professor on top of it. That always helps.

But your twitter bio and your blog even proudly state that you’re “shark obsessed”! Is there a particular reason you decided to go into criminology and later anthropology instead of maybe studying to become a marine biologist?

 

A: To be honest I wasn't really sure of where to find shark-related marine biology programs that weren't in Florida or Australia (which I wouldn't be able to afford to attend).  I'm a first-generation university student so a lot of my university-related time has been spent simply trying to understand how the system(s) work!  By the time I had sorted things out archaeology had definitely become a more attainable goal that I was passionate about.  So now I happily advocate for shark research and shark conservation from the sidelines.  Though I definitely would love the opportunity to head out on a research vessel one day…

 

I follow a lot of shark research groups and scientists on social media and that's a way for me to feel like I'm still part of the community.

 

Q: That’s nice, and it’s also a good example to show that we can be interested in several different kinds of scientific studies. We don’t have to just stick to just one.  Hopefully you will get an opportunity to be on a research vessel! I’d imagine that’s incredibly cool!

So, I had a question about when you decided you wanted to pursue this route, but you kind of already answered that with your story about how you stumbled across osteoarchaeology in the first place! So how about I ask you about how you were featured in Science Magazine!

That’s awesome that you were featured, by the way. Congratulations!

So you were asked to advocate for your field in six words or less by Science Magazine.  You said: “The past shows us the future”.  I think that’s a great answer.  Would you like to elaborate on your thought process a bit for our readers?

 

A:  Thanks!  Science was a happy surprise, I didn't realize they had featured my response until my husband's lab colleague texted him, who texted me, hahaha!

Our society today is built on decisions made and actions taken in the past.  Archaeologists are kind of like human time-machines - we have a unique ability to "go back in time" and see the outcomes of decisions and actions, and in many cases we can also work out what the influences may have been.  We can look at the many different situations faced by people in the past, see how they reacted to them (or sometimes how they developed them), and see what worked and what didn't work.  Our society today faces many similar situations.  So if we can see what worked/didn't work in the past, we might be able to develop strategies to mitigate the present (situations like disease en/epidemics, climate change, food production, etc.).

 

 
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Q: I think we can all agree on that. And I think it’s too often that we don’t take what we’ve learned about the past and apply it to our future. What you do is very important to our society today, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I truly appreciate the research that you do!

So what would you say to anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in osteoarchaeology like you have?  Do you have any particular advice?

 

A:  I would tell them to look for any opportunity they can get for hands on experience!  Try to find a university with osteology courses and be sure to take as many of those courses as you can.  And look for any volunteer experience you can get, don't be afraid to send out emails to profs to ask if they might have any projects for volunteers!

 

Everyone’s path is different so what worked for one person may not work for the next. So I would also say to develop a plan that works best for you, in your situation, and don't be afraid to pursue it!

 

Q:  I think that is some very good advice!

Thanks so much for sitting down with me today and taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. I’m sure our readers will really enjoy this, and it means a lot to me. It was such an honor and so interesting to talk with you about this for a little while.

 

A:  Thank you very much for the chance to talk!  I enjoyed it very much and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to help spread the word about this awesome field!

 

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.