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Updated: 2 hours 43 min ago

2018 Spark Science Reading List!

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 2:00am

Written by Jonathan Flynn

Science communication as a career and hobby as we see it today would be nothing were it not for the journalists, scientists and researchers who took it upon themselves to bring the news and happenings of the scientific community, often seen as technical and inaccessible to outsiders, to the world at large. For many of us here at Spark Science, the works of these authors are what inspired us to go into science in the first place. That is why I have decided to deviate from the usual opinion piece you read every week and pay a small tribute to these writers by sharing with you the top science fiction and nonfiction books as chosen by the Spark Science audio and writing team!


  • The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood by Dr. David Montgomery. “I love this book because it applies geology to lore and mythology. It is astounding how many natural phenomena are not only intertwined in religion and mythology, but are explained by modern geologic events or processes we witness today.” -Andra Nordin, Audio Engineer.
  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan. “Beautifully written and poetic approach to the wonders of the universe. Scientifically accurate and hopeful about the future, for once.” – Natalie Moore, Chief Audio Engineer and Assistant Producer.
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. “Carson basically began science communication with her writing. This book is so compelling and accessible, and it really allows the everyday reader to understand the consequences of our impact on the environment.” -Tori Highley, Scheduling and Production Assistant
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. “It’s a historical account of Mary Anning, who discovered some amazing fossils in the UK in the early 1800s.” -Sarah Francis, Graduate Student Blogger. She also says that anything by Jane Goodall is a must!
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. I can’t recommend this story enough, and the movie is just as good. It tells the story of three “human computers” named Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who, amidst many other incredible feats of mathematics, worked on calculating John Glenn’s flight path by hand. Recommended by our host Dr. Regina Barber-DeGraaff!
Katherine Johnson, one of the human computers that worked for NASA in the 1960s. She was profiled in Hidden Figures.
  • For our last nonfiction book, I’d have to say that Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions is my personal favorite. It helped me come to terms with my departure from Catholicism when I was in high school, and Carl Sagan’s elegance, passion and optimism for the universe ultimately pushed me to become a student of science. It is my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to have their worldview challenged while learning a lot about the philosophy of science.

Honorable mentions from the author: Failure Is Not An Option by Gene Kranz (the flight director of Apollo 13); A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

A view of the moon from the damaged Apollo 13 lunar excursion module Aquarius.

Science Fiction

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s probable that most of you have read it already, but nonetheless, it deserves a mention here. It tells the story of a young genius named Ender who is sent to a zero-G battle school to help defend Earth against the next attack from “the buggers”, a mysterious insectoid species from beyond the solar system. “Page-turning, quick read, and interesting character study in an alien warfare setting.” -Natalie
  • The Last Questiona short story by Isaac Asimov. “This short story presents basically the coolest science fiction explanation for the birth of the universe. It throws a lot of wrenches at you and then quickly starts to tie together. You just have to read it to find out.” -Andra
  • A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. “This book starts a fantastic sci-fi/fantasy series. It puts a scientist in a fantasy world and shows what this looks like to the fantasy creatures. It’s also full of puns and great observations about the world, and later books in the series are just as great.” – Tori
  • Tori also recommends A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle. “This book opened my eyes to physics and the wonders of the universe. It brings fascinating ideas to life, and it shows how including different kinds of people can really be important in doing great and vitally important things. The entire series is a great read.”
The cover of A Wrinkle In Time from the 1970’s.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series. These were recommended by Dr. Regina Barber-DeGraff, and I have to say, these are two of the best out there. If you are just beginning your foray into science fiction and space operas, Asimov is the perfect place to start.
Three of the book covers from the original Foundation Trilogy.
  • Last but certainly not least, my pick is The Martian by Andy Weir. It is an incredible story of isolation, problem solving and survival that changed the way I approach challenges in science and beyond. The audiobook is great for long car rides, and the movie is just as good!
Matt Damon as Mark Watney in the movie adaptation of The Martian.

Special mention: the Dune series by Frank Herbert. I’m also going to plug his son’s work, which has filled the gaps that his father left after his death. Like Foundation, it is a galaxy-wide story filled with political intrigue, backroom assassinations and planetary domination. I’m currently working my way through the entire series, which constitutes 23(!) books intertwined with short stories that give even more depth to an incredible universe.

Where Outer Space Meets the Mountain: How I am using cosmic energy to learn about glacial erosion

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 11:00pm

This place was very different from my familiar Midwestern home. I stared out the car window, squished in the backseat of our Subaru hatchback. I had camping gear piled up on the seat next to me, spilling over onto my lap as we wound around sharp curves, descended into wide valleys, and climbed up and over steep hills. Sharp mountain peaks loomed above. I was captivated. Never in my life had I seen a landscape so steep and so majestic.

We parked our car at the trailhead, and I huffed and puffed, forcing my body up, and up, and up towards the overlook. The view was stunning. In front of me, I saw the tallest mountain in New Zealand, with sharp, grey peaks jutting out of its snowy blanket. I saw an enormous river of glacial ice filling the valley below, and a lake colored like milk with small icebergs bobbing up and down.

Can you tell I’m having fun?

After that, I never looked back. I was hooked. The steep descent back to the car left my knees trembling and my feet blistered, but the next weekend, I came back for more. I knew that this was where I wanted to be: I wanted to explore this incredible landscape and learn more about the forces of ice that had shaped it.

Fast-forward four years, and I am pursuing a master’s degree in glacial geology. My fascination with glaciers and mountain landscapes morphed into a passionate dedication to pursue a challenging research project in a remote, mountainous field area: The Twin Sisters Mountains, just across the valley from Mount Baker in the North Cascades. I wanted to learn more about how the Sisters Glacier had shaped this stunning landscape. To do this, I searched for a special type of helium called “helium 3” in the mountainside. Helium 3 is created by energy called “cosmic rays” that come from exploding supernovas in outer space. These cosmic rays fly through our atmosphere and strike the surface of the Earth, jumbling chemical structures and creating helium 3 in rocks.

A beautiful conceptual image of cosmic rays cascading through the atmosphere.

Think of the cosmic rays like lasers from outer space, that strike the surface and “burn” the rock, creating helium 3. As the rock sits at the surface, it gets struck by more and more lasers, creating more and more helium 3. Most of the lasers just strike the outer surface of the rocks, but some move faster and are able to penetrate a few inches below the surface. Some move so fast that they can create helium 3 up to six feet below the surface. The result is a gradient of helium 3 accumulation, with the majority of helium 3 concentrated at the surface, and less and less, deeper into the rock.

A cross-section gif of a mountainside where helium 3 (red dots) are being created by cosmic rays (red squiggles).

After being struck by cosmic rays for thousands of years, the mountainside was covered by the growing Sisters Glacier that moved and ground away at the rock beneath for about 2,000 years. Within the last few centuries, the glacier melted away, leaving behind rocks that were once below the surface. These rocks should have less helium 3 than expected, based on the fact that they were exposed to cosmic rays for about 9,000 years. Measuring the amount of helium 3 in these rocks will tell me how much rock the glacier eroded away.

A cross-section gif of a mountainside where the glacier is eroding away at rock with accumulated helium 3.

Collecting rock samples from this area was quite a challenge, to say the least. The terrain was extremely rugged. Just getting to the field area required eight hours of bushwhacking: climbing over rotting logs, splashing through cold streams, and scrambling up steep scree. When we finally made it, we were rewarded with stunning scenery. I made three separate trips out there with my field team. We scrambled around the steep, rocky slopes, hammered out precious rock samples, took detailed notes, showered in frigid snowmelt waterfalls, and cooked some delicious homemade pizza over our camp stove.

Here’s me hammering out a rock sample An iconic view of glacially-scoured bedrock in the Twin Sisters, with Mount Baker looming in the background Me with my field team, taking notes as we hammer away to extract a rock sample. Here we are cooking up some delicious backcountry pizza over a camp stove.

My question remains unanswered. I am currently crushing up my rock samples for analysis and sifting through a pile of data. It’s a fascinating puzzle, and I hope to soon unlock the secrets that the mountain holds. Only then will we discover how the forces of ice morph and shape this stunning mountain environment in the North Cascades.

Talented and Gifted

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 8:45am

Opinion piece by Jonathan Flynn

Nobody ever said it would be easy to become a scientist. I was well aware of that as I stumbled through high school chemistry, silently vowing myself to a fate that yes, while I told myself I inherently sucked at the subject, I believed my drive to become a doctor would help me jump that hurdle.

I won’t pretend that I struggled in the same way many of my peers had. Both of my parents are college educated. My father has been a doctor for twenty-five years, and because the Navy paid for medical school, my mother was able to raise brother and me at home while he worked. As a result, when I entered college, getting help when I was upset, frustrated or overwhelmed was only a phone call away.

Yet here I am, six years later, in my last year at Western Washington University completing a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. I’m not going to be a doctor anymore. Instead, I’m going to become a public school science teacher. I just couldn’t take the stress or the toxicity of the pre-medicine lifestyle, and if I couldn’t do it — a straight white male with an incredibly supportive and financially stable family — then how could someone who did not have that privileged upbringing succeed?

These past six years have been exhausting. For a long time, I was living under the impression that the only way I could help others was by becoming a doctor, which meant up to twelve years (including college, medical school and residency) of long, tedious nights in the library, enduring stress-induced stomach ulcers, and the occasional panic attack.

Looking back, the self-doubt and bad case of imposter syndrome I felt was very destructive, and after two visits to the counseling center at the university, I didn’t feel any better. And while my friends became the comforting support network that encouraged me to keep going even at my lowest points, I can’t say that I received the same support from my fellow students and the scientists who were tasked with teaching me. In fact, the atmosphere in my introductory science courses was quite the opposite. I following phrase was pervasive in every classroom and every laboratory:

“Either you can do it or you can pick another major.”

It’s a phrase that undermines everything science stands for. After all, weren’t we told that if at first you don’t succeed, try again? That science is all about learning from your mistakes?

Despite that philosophy, teachers and administrators continue to deliver a torrent of assignments, exams, and hours of redundant homework that cascaded into our childhoods every week. All of this in the hope that progress can be quantified. And what do we have to show for it? Well, in 2015, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that the U.S ranks 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. The numbers show it – the system we have just isn’t working.

The Programme for International Student Assessment’s results. (Source: OECD)

For those with a strong support network, with parents and friends who are there for them, that system is merely a series of hoops that one must jump through in order to become qualified for a professional career. But for others – namely our underserved communities – that system is a seemingly insurmountable mountain. For someone who received a C in high school physics, do we discount them as someone who “just isn’t a math person”, or do we recognize that the system just isn’t built for them? That these students have been fighting an uphill battle with a pack full of damaging assumptions and destructive beliefs that have been impressed upon them since they entered kindergarten (if they were able to go)?

But the fact is that even with that support network, I had a very difficult time. I did not feel welcome. I did not feel comfortable forming study groups with peers who were socialized to see me as competition for a place in medical school. Even then, I helped perpetuate that feeling. Whenever I compared test scores with a peer and found that I scored a few points higher, I silently congratulated myself for moving up in the ranks, however small that gain was.

This isn’t meant to be a scathing expose on the culture of the pre-medicine track. The path to medical school is inherently difficult and I commend those who decide to stick with it. However, we do very little to help those travelling that path. We demand they dedicate what little free time they have to studying and productivity. We make them fret over the smallest mistakes even when they succeed, and when they fail, we do little to encourage them to get back on their feet. Many of my friends have had their professors tell them to drop a class simply for receiving a bad grade, and that they’re just not a “science person” or “math person” (a myth that has been disproven time and time again).

There’s no such thing as a “math person” or “science person”. (Photo credit: Women on the Fence)

We need to change how we teach science. In fact, it’s already happening. Inquiry-based learning, the method of learning by in-class, hands-on activities, is gaining traction in progressive STEM programs nationwide. But more needs to be done. We need to change this toxic culture for those students who, in spite of the negativity and cutthroat environment we’ve established in secondary and collegiate STEM programs, decide to pursue the noble goal of becoming a doctor, researcher, engineer or professor. We especially need to reach out to those who have been forced to navigate this seemingly hostile environment without any aid because of their various identities. After all, we are the scientific community. Let’s learn from our mistakes.

March for Science, Bellingham WA 2017.

Who gets to be a geologist? The problem with field studies in geology.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 11:00pm

Story by Sarah Francis

“What got you interested in geology?” is a common question that people ask me on a daily basis. I usually respond that I love learning about large-scale processes such as mountain-building, and how oceans grow and shrink over millions of years, but it is also because I love studying and learning in the outdoors. The study of geology is rooted in outdoor exploration, making the field very attractive to some students, but unfortunately makes it quite alienating to others.

Historic photos of Oregon State geologists doing field studies in 1958, 2013, and 1938, respectively.

Many studies have shown that increased diversity in problem-solving groups results in more creative innovation and greater productivity. Unfortunately, the geosciences have the lowest racial and ethnic diversity in all of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields at all levels of higher education. According to a 2011 study, “Between 2000 and 2008, underrepresented minorities (Hispanic, black, and and American Indian/Native Alaskan students) earned 16%–17% of STEM degrees and only 5%–7% of geoscience degrees.”

Dr. Jackie Caplan-Auerbach is a geophysicist at Western and has spent a great deal of time in both physics and geology departments throughout her career.

Dr. Caplan-Auerbach enjoying the view near the ocean entry on Kilauea volcano, 2000.

“Geology is not very diverse, in part because we advertise it as an REI catalog. We aim for a specific community,” Caplan-Auerbach said.

From my own observations as well as observations of my peers, that specific community is (primarily) composed of white men who like to go camping, like the folks in the photos above. For anybody who falls outside of that category, getting into geology can be a challenging, and often unsafe, endeavor.

Dr. Robyn Dahl is a paleontologist at Western and has had her own challenges to deal with throughout her career and education.

“I do a lot of field work in very conservative, rural areas of Utah and Nevada, and my visibility as a queer woman of color requires me to always consider my personal safety,” Dahl said. “I have often brought other women and students of color into the field as field assistants, and it is immediately clear when we are welcome and we are not. We usually are very welcomed, but there have been some incidents that prove we aren’t, so I always pay attention.”

Most students who hope to earn a Bachelors of Science in geology are required to take Field Camp, an intensive field-based course where students go camping and learn to make geologic maps for up to six weeks straight.

“[Field camp] is a burden for a lot of students, financially, and it’s exclusive too, it’s not very inclusive because if you’re differently abled, etc., there’s a lot of different issues that go into that” Dahl said. “I’ve talked to students who had really bad field camp experiences, non-white students, for a lot of different reasons, mainly being less experience outdoors, were made to feel unwelcome. And that’s not cool.”

Dr. Robyn Dahl

With the rise of the #metoo movement, safety for women during field studies has been particularly present in the media. Unfortunately, stories of sexual harassment and assault, often targeted at women, are far too common in these settings. “You’re not going to succeed if you’re not safe and happy,” Dahl said. For this reason (among others), far too many women end up leaving science. “We’re not really having trouble recruiting women into geosciences now, but there is a retention issue, for so many reasons,” Dahl said. This retention issue is true for women and all other combinations of underrepresented minorities in the geosciences.

Although many people face challenges in the geosciences, we are working hard to change things. Dr. Caplan-Auerbach notes that, “At the very least, we as a community are recognizing, not recognized, but we are getting there, to have more equity among our faculty, to have opportunities for people to see that anybody can be successful in this field.”

One tangible way we can begin to improve equity in geology is to address the problem with field camp. Here at Western, several faculty are working on creating an alternative field camp course that will be more accessible to all kinds of students. Dahl is one of them.

“We’re hoping that this camp will help address these larger issues of diversity and inclusion in geoscience, and we hope that it attracts students from Western and other institutions. We envision it as more a “lab camp” than a traditional field camp” Dahl said. “Modern geoscience requires a broad range of skills that don’t necessarily include traditional field mapping, so a lab camp could be fully accessible to students of all abilities and teach skills that don’t require roughing it in the wilderness all summer. We hope that this program would help nontraditional geoscience students build skills and find their place within the large geoscience community.”

It’s a bit ironic that the very thing that attracted me and many others to the field of geology is (at least partially) responsible for perpetuating the problem of diversity in geology.  I love that I have been able to do some incredible field work as part of my geology degree, but I also understand that this should not be a foundation and requirement for the study of geology. Addressing the field camp problem is not the only solution, but it is a tangible step that we can take to make geology more accessible to all kinds of people. Hopefully, we will continue to find more ways to improve equity in geology, ultimately resulting in new ground-breaking discoveries within the study of the Earth.

Ethnobotanist - Dr. Rosalyn LaPier

Sun, 04/15/2018 - 8:49am

This episode features the first of our interviews from our annual SACNAS National Convention show. This conference is the largest gathering of scientists of color in the nation and we had the honor of interviewing keynote speakers.

Today's speaker is Dr. Rosalyn LaPier who is an award-winning writer studying the environmental and religious history of indigenous plants. The conversation veered from her background in physics, what are the stereotypes when it comes to indigenous scientists and ended with a great tip for all foodies.

Please enjoy.

This interview was recorded on location in Salk Lake City, Utah in October 2017

An Ode to a Lab Rat

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 1:23am

Story by Jonathan Flynn

In front of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, stands a six-foot-tall statue of a rat. She stands on her hind legs with a cloak draped around her back, spectacles sliding down her nose while she knits together the unmistakable double-helix structure of a deoxyribonucleic acid molecule, or as it is commonly known, DNA. Perhaps the most notable feature is her face, frozen in what I call the “lightbulb face”, an expression one makes when a discovery is made for the first time. In the words of her artist, Andrew Kharevich, “It combines the image of the laboratory mouse and a scientist because they are related to each other and serve as one case.”

She embodies an often-overlooked aspect of science, as she represents a large and rather uncomfortable pill that we students must figure out how to swallow. She is the unsung hero of science, representing the countless rodents, houseflies, and fish in their hurry to make a discovery or publish a paper stepped over and robbed of credit. It can also make one think of (but not equate) the human subjects who have been taken advantage of by science due to marginalized status.

Biology cannot exist without her. Many of us wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for her, and some claim it is undeniable that we will always need her.

Photo by Anna Gorbunova.

I will never forget the first time I was given the responsibility of dissecting an animal. I’m not talking about dissecting a cow’s eye or a sheep’s brain in your seventh-grade science class, I am talking about having a fully grown, dead animal beneath your scalpel. I was 18 years old when I was given a cat to dissect for the month of May in my senior year of high school. At that time, I was set on becoming a doctor like my father, a man who has dissected countless animals (and even humans) for the sake of his knowledge. I was incredibly excited, and as the scent of formaldehyde and desiccating flesh filled my nostrils, I began my work.

Yet in the face of this excitement the class felt, there was always an atmosphere of introspection that fell upon us as we began to meticulously dissect and study our animals. Open up the abdominal cavity of a cat and you will see that the organ placement is nearly identical in humans. Prodding its four-chambered heart and feeling its larynx proved to us that humans aren’t so different from the rest of the animal kingdom. That could be me on the table. A deep reverence for our dead subjects came with that humbling realization, and we became protective of them. We handled them as if they were still alive, and we felt an intimacy with these animals, unlike anything we’d ever felt before. We understood their mortality and soon came to understand our own (in a very limited way). You cannot be a surgeon without practice, and the same logic goes for all of science: you have to get your hands dirty if you are to truly understand what you are doing.

Photo by Jonathan Flynn.

Once, my father told me of the work he did when he was an undergraduate in a lab at the Evergreen State College. A part of his research required that he cut the hearts out of rats while they were still alive. As a result, the grotesque nature of the research, combined with the fact that he was attending quite a liberally-minded school, required that he give a cover story if asked about his research. Now, as horrible as that sounds, you have to understand that the greater goal of the study was to find a method to create a non-invasive way to get immediate results of information pertaining to the subject’s blood and its components. Results in science are rarely immediate, and as a result, my father simply had to tell himself that the work he was doing could save lives and that the dirty work, while horrible, was necessary.

Science is not without sacrifices; rather, it is built upon them. However, it falls to the mercy of the public, which is quick to judge a topic it knows nothing about. Scientists seem to cast as specialized professionals in an entirely separate career field, portrayed vastly different than a businessman or a teacher or even a doctor. Popular culture would have them illustrated as scholars of an amoral field, calculating and hypothesizing, caring more for their test tubes and discoveries than public advocacy. In the world’s eye, they are given little room for spirituality, and to a sensitive public, it cannot abide. When the Russians were able to successfully launch a dog, Laika, into orbit, the world was outraged that they couldn’t bring her back. The scientists and engineers who worked on the project were cast as heartless villains, rejoicing in cruelty. Yet were it not for Laika and the others who died before her, Yuri Gagarin would have met the same fate. Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury 7 never would have left the ground. There would be no moon landings, or space shuttles, or an international space station from which innumerable life-changing discoveries were born. No one denied the tragedy of the dog who rode the rocket, least of all the scientists who put her there.

If we appear to be cold and heartless towards these animals, it is because we are defending ourselves from the gruesome reality. We justify the deaths of these animals because we must. Every single researcher and lab assistant who has to kill a rat for observation is well aware of its mortality, and most certainly feels their stomach drop every time they enter that room. We all tell ourselves, we tell each other, that we must use these animals so that our journey towards understanding will continue, and that we might use that understanding to do some good in the world. And should it come to it, I will join the ranks of my scientific siblings in this somber duty.

As I enter my room after a three-hour lab period, smelling of formaldehyde and my appetite gone, I look over to my mouse. His name is Algernon. He isn’t a real mouse, but rather a stuffed animal that I keep on my dresser. He is my statue. He serves to remind me of every discovery and breakthrough that has been made in order to get us to where we are today, and that many such extraordinary discoveries came about from such extraordinary sacrifice. It is to him and all of his forebears who participated in this grim pursuit that we owe our success, and our failures.

“It is hard to understand,
But sometimes painful things like this happen.
It’s all a part of the process of exploration and discovery.
It’s all a part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted;
It belongs to the brave.”
-President Reagan, on the Challenger Disaster, 1986

Stories of Changing Glaciers in the North Cascades told through Stunning Watercolor Paintings

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 11:00pm

Story by Sarah Francis

It’s no secret that our climate is changing, and there are serious consequences for human civilization all over the world. Scientists are hard at work studying how climate shifts are affecting people and the environment. Scientists are also faced with the challenge of communicating their findings to the public, and some have come up with brilliant and beautiful strategies.

Changes in climate are especially evident in the mountains near my current  home in Bellingham: The North Cascades. Alpine mountain environments are especially sensitive to warming temperatures, and scientists have shown that temperatures are rising much more rapidly at high elevations. These warming temperatures are resulting in shrinking glaciers.

Glaciers are formed in areas where snowfall accumulates year after year, becoming compressed into a dense block of ice. Glaciers are remarkable because they are able to move and flow under their own weight, like silly putty spreading out on a table surface. They are like very cold, slow-moving rivers. In the North Cascades, glacial meltwater feeds our rivers during the summer months when precipitation is sparse. Here, as well as all over the world, glaciers provide drinking water, crop irrigation, energy, cultural resources, and more to millions of people.

Jill Pelto, a glacier scientist and visual artist, has created stunning watercolor paintings documenting glacier changes as well as her experiences researching glaciers in the North Cascades.

Jill Pelto writes: “Skirting the Crevasse is a watercolor inspired by my field sketches and experience working on North Cascade glaciers in Washington. Here three members of the North Cascade Glacier Project, including my father Dr. Mauri Pelto, founder and expedition leader, my brother Ben Pelto, and field assistant Justin Wright are depicted hiking around a gaping crevasse on Lynch Glacier, Mt. Daniel.”

Several of her pieces include actual data from her research. Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance is one of my favorites. If you look closely, you’ll notice that this painting is actually a line graph showing how ice mass in the North Cascades has decreased in the last thirty years.

Jill Pelto writes: “Measuring Crevasse Depth is a watercolor inspired by my field sketches and experience working on North Cascade glaciers in Washington with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project. I received funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research to purchase equipment that helps me measure crevasse dimensions. In the watercolor I am using a Cam-Line Measuring Tape, designed to determine well depth, to find the depth of a crevasse. These measurements have allowed me to study the variance in crevasse size across the glacier, and analyze their changes over time.”

Moments of Observation also includes data points, showing how a glacier has shrunk in the last few decades.

Jill Pelto writes: “I believe that spending extensive time in nature encourages the development of observation. Within the sunglasses you can see the image of the glacier landscape, reflecting the graphical lines that denote where the glacier used to extend only several decades ago. The figures are taking the time to look and to reflect. Each of them may be noticing a different change in the glacier, but they are all taking in its retreat. It is important to pay attention to what is happening on our world; be aware, open to learning and understanding.”

This final piece shows Jill Pelto measuring the depth of a crevasse in the North Cascades. She used measurements like this to monitor crevasse changes over time.

Jill Pelto writes: “Measuring Crevasse Depth is a watercolor inspired by my field sketches and experience working on North Cascade glaciers in Washington with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project. I received funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research to purchase equipment that helps me measure crevasse dimensions. In the watercolor I am using a Cam-Line Measuring Tape, designed to determine well depth, to find the depth of a crevasse. These measurements have allowed me to study the variance in crevasse size across the glacier, and analyze their changes over time.”

Scientists are still hard at work learning more about glacier change in mountain environments all over the world. Hopefully, with the help of wonderful paintings like Pelto’s, more people will begin to understand the importance of this challenging research field, and provide support to the scientists behind it all.  To see more of Jill Pelto’s works, check out her Glaciogenic Art website.

Sustainable Tiny Houses

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 9:52pm

This episode features work at WWU to create homes sustainably on a smaller scale. We talk with Dr. Imran Sheikh and Kellen Lynch from Project ZeNETH (Zero Net Energy Tiny House) about environmental science, who is really a "scientist" and the need/audience for tiny homes.  


This episode was co-produced and edited by WWU student Andra Nordin

The Challenge of Caring for Coral

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 11:00pm

Story/Opinion Piece by Jonathan Flynn. 

Coral reefs have captivated the eyes of tourists and scientists alike with their astounding beauty and vibrant colors for years. However, their elegance is delicate. With the many problems that our oceans face due to climate change, corals are in growing danger. A study published in Science on January 5th has found that bleaching events are becoming more and more frequent, drastically altering reef ecosystems over time.

Reefs are slow-growing organisms that rely on zooxanthellae, tiny single-celled organisms, to survive. Zooxanthellae collect along the outside of the coral, forming a thin film that converts sunlight into energy for coral. However, when water temperatures rise above a certain threshold, the coral may become stressed and expel the organisms, and a bleaching event occurs. As a result, the coral is at a much higher risk of mortality from disease or malnutrition.

Image credit to National Geographic.

The average surface temperature of Earth has risen 1 degree Celsius since the 1880s and shows no signs of stopping. While that may not seem like much, it means life or death for many ecosystems across the globe. In the face of the seemingly infinite number of problems brought into light by global warming, it is hard to agree on any one solution. What can we do that’s effective in both conservation and cost?

The Nature Conservancy has ten steps for everyday folk to help coral reefs. Most of these focus on reduce/reuse/recycle, activism and living with an environmental conscience. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is involved in a number of restoration projects encouraging the building of reef resistance and protecting existing reef sites. However, even with these measures, reef territory shrinks every single day. Our carbon output is just too high.

That’s the catch. For every environmental problem that arises, excessive carbon dioxide emissions are often the culprit. While pledges like the Paris Agreement make governments feel like they’re headed in the right direction, the fact is that these emissions are not going away. They’re growing at a faster rate every year and there is no single, comprehensive plan in place to halt or slow them.

Projected greenhouse gas emissions from four different emissions pathways. The RCP 8.5 represents a pathway where emissions continue to increase at their current rate, whereas the RCP 2.6 represents a pathway where emissions are immediately reduced. Figure credit: Representative Concentration Pathways Database.

What are people doing about this? Scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have begun adding artificial reefs in the shape of cube frames to provide an additional foundation for coral-dependent organisms to thrive upon. While this doesn’t address the carbon dioxide problem, it’s a step in preserving and expanding a fragile yet essential ecosystem. As of January 2018, the Australian government will be investing $60 million into protecting the Great Barrier Reef to address damages from cyclones and coral bleaching. They will focus on reducing the impact of invasive species like crown-of-thorns starfish, pollution, and boosting the number of field personnel directly caring for and monitoring coral health.

In the face of ever-rising carbon dioxide emissions, nations around the globe are re-evaluating the statuses of their native ecosystems. As of 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List stated that nearly a quarter of all mammals on Earth are threatened or extinct. It’s not going to get much better. In many cases, conservation has become less of a question about how a species can be saved and more about which species can be saved.

Cassini Mission: Celebration of Life

Sun, 03/25/2018 - 6:35am

Friday, September 15th, 2017, Spark Science and the Planetary Society held a public wake at the Shakedown in Bellingham, WA, to celebrate the life of the Cassini Mission -- a 19-year space mission to study Saturn and its many moons.


This episode features the eulogies read by Planetary Society’s Director of Space Policy Casey Dreier, NASA scientist Melissa Rice, Author George Dyson and music by Scary Monster and the Super Creeps.


Enjoy the ride.



Image credit: NASA

Check out pictures of the wake on our Instagram page @sparkscience & Twitter @sparksciencenow



Ken Liu: Talking Science & Fantasy

Sun, 03/18/2018 - 3:00am

In this episode, we talk with award-winning author Ken Liu.  His short story, "The Paper Menagerie", recently read by Levar Burton, is the only story to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.  We talk about how this moving tale has touched so many people and also learned more about how Liu’s work weaves science into wonderful storytelling.


We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we enjoyed having it.  


Image Credit:
© Lisa Tang Liu

The Story is in the Rocks: A Taste of Some Local Bellingham Geology

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 11:00pm

Story by Sarah Francis

Many Bellinghamsters can recall going for a walk at Larrabee State Park and admiring the beautiful sandstone formations along the beach. The interesting structures are formed by a process known as “honeycomb weathering” and draw the attention of many visitors, but these rocks tell an even deeper story beyond the surface.

Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

Today, I want to dig in (pun intended) to the origins of the bedrock in Bellingham. The sandstone found at Larrabee State Park is part of the Chuckanut Formation, which is a layer cake-like mass of sandstone, shale, conglomerate, and thin coal seams (!!).

The Chuckanut Formation tells a fascinating story about what this area was like 50 million years ago. This was during a time period called the Eocene, about 15 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. During this time, a wide, flat river system meandered towards the coast.

Sadly, this image was not taken during the Eocene, but is a modern example of the kind of environment that may have formed the Chuckanut Formation.

The river carried sandy sediments eroded from the mountains to the east, depositing fine layers that later turned into the Chuckanut sandstone.

Behold, beautiful sandstone layering in the Chuckanut Formation. Photo taken along the Rock Trail in the Chuckanut Mountains. Image by Sarah Francis.

The presence of coarse-grained conglomerate hints at a tumultuous past. Conglomerate is composed of a mixture of large and small grains, showing that large and sudden floods frequently roared through the river flat.

A perfect example of coarse-grained conglomerate in the Chuckanut Formation, with my hand for scale. Photo taken along the Rock Trail in the Chuckanut Mountains. Image by Sarah Francis.

The climate was subtropical, supporting numerous swamps around the river flat. Year after year, plants died and dropped their leaves, forming layer upon layer of dead plants in these swamps. The acidic environment halted decomposition, preserving almost all of this plant matter. Over millions of years, these layers of dead plants were compressed into peat, and further compressed to form coal. A “coal seam” is a layer of heavily compressed dead plants. Coal is found in thin seams within the Chuckanut formation, and has been exploited by humans from mines in and around Bellingham.

An artist’s rendition of what a subtropical swamp in the Eocene may have looked like.

In several locations, beautifully-preserved fossils of these ancient plants can be found within the Chuckanut Formation. There are palm fronds galore, ancient ferns, alders, and sycamores, and even some footprints from prehistoric birds and reptiles.

Here’s a palm frond from the Chuckanut Formation, with a hammer to show scale.

To learn more about the Chuckanut Formation, check out this recent publication by the Department of Natural Resources, or check out some cool field trip sites on your own (such as Racehorse Creek, where you can flip over rocks and find all sorts of fossils in the riverbed). Maybe you’ll even find your very own palm frond fossil.

Geek Girl Con 2017

Sun, 03/11/2018 - 10:46am

Attending Geek Girl Con is now a tradition for Spark Science.


This time we are featuring famed science communicator and creator of the DIY Zone (at Geek Girl Con) Dr. Raychelle Burks. We also had the pleasure of speaking with awesome astronomer Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (also known as twitter's @noiseyastronomer), the Bug Chicks, SciFi writer Astrid Amara and more.


We hope you enjoy listening to these amazing women.

Breaking Bad Assumptions

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 10:00pm

A day in the life of a chemistry professor at Western Washington University.

Story and photos by Jonathan Flynn.

A group of undergraduates gathers around Dr. Jennifer Griffith in the organic chemistry laboratory as she begins to explain how to use the RotoVap, a complex machine reminiscent of something from Frankenstein’s laboratory with its glass coils and network of switches. Today, the students are responsible for separating caffeine from tea through a long series of chemical reactions. Griffith’s responsibility is to make sure they do it right.

Griffith has called Western Washington University home for many years. She began her scientific journey at Everett Community College where she worked towards completing the pre-medicine prerequisite courses. She then transferred to Western and began to pursue a chemistry degree after she realized that she could hardly stand the sight of an open wound. Years later, she is now a lecture instructor and professor of chemistry at Western.

Griffith feels that her high school science experience failed to adequately prepare her for college. But once she enrolled at Western, that all changed.

“I totally remember the exact lab that got me.” She leans back in her chair and laughs. “I had two unknown compounds, a neutral compound and an acid, the two of them mixed together, and I wasn’t given any direction on how to separate them. All that it said was ‘you have to separate these two things, figure it out.’ And that was the first time in my academic career that I was asked to figure something out.”

Griffith explains how a reaction proceeds.

The struggle Griffith experienced is not uncommon. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment ranked the United States 24th out of 71 countries in science and 38th in math. In 2017, 47.6 percent of students who took the AP Chemistry test received a 2 or lower. Despite being able to claim that we put the first human on the moon, the U.S. consistently lags in math and science education.

Griffith thinks that, simply put, we make science and math too scary.

“One of my students even said it best: that chemistry isn’t hard, we just put a lot of scary-sounding words to these things. So if that part was simplified, it probably wouldn’t be too bad. His best example is ‘I’m going to go elute now.’– that means ‘fall out the bottom’. But we have to make it sound scary in chemistry. And that’s really what it is! All these very simple things that we put these big scary words.”

Ominous warnings can be found on nearly every piece of equipment in the laboratory.

Organic chemistry gets a bad reputation in college. It is credited with being incredibly difficult and is commonly believed to act as a filter that separates successful scientists from everyone else. Griffith believes this presumption may scare students away before they get a chance to succeed.

“I hear a lot of people come into [organic chemistry] hearing how terrible it’s going to be, and I get a lot of feedback that it wasn’t as bad as someone they knew had made it out to be” Griffith said.

Griffith’s lab sessions go against the preconceived notion that a laboratory is a no-nonsense place of intense work and no play. Instead, she drifts from station to station, cracking jokes and talking with students about their lives as she teaches. Music radiates from the back of the lab, creating an apparently relaxed atmosphere that contrasts with the rigid sterility of the students’ lab coats and rubber gloves.

As the reactions proceed, Griffith checks in with every student to assess their understanding of the day’s work. In one instance however, she diverts from formulas and compounds, instead speaking with a student about raising chickens.

“I try and do that when I teach too. I try and chat with my students, give it a personal level, let them know me more personal than just the scary instructor at the front because I know that’s what helped me when I was in these two classes” Griffith said.

Dr. Jennifer Griffith, Professor of Chemistry at Western Washington University.

Jonathan is an environmental science major at Western Washington University and an aspiring science communicator. He is also the science editor at the Planet Magazine. He intends to be the second journalist to ever go into space.