Thursday, December 22, 2011

Popular Teens, Friendly or Mean?

This past Saturday Dr. Lara Mayeau, a developmental psychologist, came in from Norman to speak to us about her research on teenage popularity. 

Dr. Mayeau explains that being popular is not the same thing as being well-liked.

We had a smaller than usual group - maybe the last weekend before Christmas Break people are busy? - BUT, it was a great group of kids and parents, full of really good questions and insights, as usual!

Dr. Mayeau's research has verified what many of us observed in school - that the popular kids are not necessarily well-liked. She also uses the mathematics of statistics to uncover some unexpected patterns, or correlations in teen popularity. 

For example, popular boys have an easier time staying well-liked than popular girls. Also, popular kids sometimes use physical or social aggression against other kids. These behaviors seem mostly to come about after popularity is achieved. Perhaps it's part of how they stay popular - or perhaps being popular, they can just get away with it more than other kids. (More studies are needed to really understand this!)

Yours truly, pontificating about something.

How does Dr. Mayeau uncover these patterns of teenage life? By asking! We all got to fill out a survey similar to the one she used in a longitudinal study of kids as they went from fifth grade through 9th. The survey includes a roster of names attached to codes. For each question we listed the codes of the kids who fit. The questions included: Who do you like? Who is popular? Who do you not like? Who pushes other kids? Who excludes other kids?

The difference with our survey was that the names on our roster were not fellow students, but famous actors, characters, athletes, musicians, etc - just for fun. Guess who was most often selected as popular but not well-liked? Justin Bieber. Ouch.

My usual photographer and lovely wife Lisa couldn't be with us on Saturday, so my daughter Evalyn stepped into the role. Thank you Evalyn, for taking photos!!

Really, Evalyn? Really?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Popular Teens This Saturday

Dr. Lara Mayeux

Howdy Friends!

You do not want to miss our next Born to Do Science program, because it's all about you! This Saturday the 17th, 10:00 am at the Stillwater Public Library: "Popular Teens, Friendly or Mean?"

Our guest scientist is coming all the way from Norman. She is Dr. Lara Mayeux, a developmental psychologist from the department of psychology at OU.

Dr. Mayeux will speak about her research on social status among teens. We'll discuss a study she ran following students from 5th through 9th grades to determine what kinds of kids become popular.

Her research explores many questions, including: Is there a difference between being popular and being well-liked? What are the benefits and risks to being popular? How do teens' social status change over time? What role does aggression play in gaining and keeping popularity? Does all this work differently for boys than it does for girls?

We'll be asking what methods Dr. Mayeux uses to study teens, and what further questions might she explore. We'll take a survey similar to the kind used in actual research, and with Dr. Mayeux's guidance we'll design our own research on teenage popularity.

As always, I'll kick things off with a brand new song, and I've been having a lot of fun writing this one. It's called "I Wanna Be Popular!"

Please register with the library if you plan to come. Even if you've registered before - they want to know how many to expect. The program is open to kids in 3rd-7th grade and their adults. It's a rare opportunity to enjoy something with your tween-ager! We hope to see you there!

For more information about Dr. Mayeux you can check out her blog: Mayeux Research: Conversations about Peer Relations, Popularity, Developmental Psychology, and Aggression.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Second Podcast Episode Recorded

Many thanks to everyone who has downloaded BTDS Podcast Episode One - more than twelve hundred so far! And extra thanks to those who let me know they liked it! We are off to a great start!

I recorded Episode Two on Saturday with kid host, Evalyn, and guest scientist, Dr. Jennifer Byrd Craven, a developmental psychologist. I'm editing now and I will post the new episode here sometime this week! Please tell your friends!

Kid Host, Evalyn

Dr. Jennifer Byrd-Craven

Evalyn, Monty, Jennifer - photo by Eli

Monday, November 28, 2011

Podcast Episode 1: "My Molecular Eye"

Dr. Wouter Hoff shares his research into how bacteria sense light, with kid host Liza, featuring the song "My Molecular Eye."

Listen / Download the Podcast

Subscribe on iTunes

Feedback, please! 
Please post comments below or write to btds at - What worked for you? What didn't?
I will incorporate your feedback as I tweak the format over the next few episodes.

Also, please post your questions about the science!! They will be answered!

Get the song:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Podcast Launch - 11/28!
The first episode of the Born to Do Science Podcast has been recorded!

I will post it here on Monday, November 28, for free download.

I want to gather the biggest audience possible for Episode 1.

Please Help! 
These are my goals for November 28, updated every day:

- 100 supporters on (need 46 more!) 
- 52 subscribers to the podcast email list (need 43 more!)
- 100 likes on the BTDS facebook page (need 59 more!)
- 75 followers on Twitter (need 54 more!)

Please share with your friends:
If we reach any of the above goals by November 28, then along with the podcast I will also post the featured song, "My Molecular Eye," as a FREE download for one day! 

But wait there's more! If we double any one of these goals, OR if we reach all four goals - I will post the entire Songs From the Science Frontier CD as a free download for one day!!!

Please tell your friends! Thanks!!

Guest Scientist, Dr. Wouter Hoff, Host Monty Harper, Kid Host Liza

Discussing the "script."

Setting up microphones.

Muons, Electrons, and Quarks, Oh My!!

We had a great program Saturday! (I always say that, but it's true.)

My song was called "Quarks and Electrons." Everything we can touch or see in the universe is made of quarks and electrons. Yet that represents only 4% of what we know is out there!

For the first hour Dr. Flera Rizatdinova spoke with us about the Large Hadron Collider - the world's largest machine! - and the Atlas Detector. We also explored the Standard Model of particle physics and learned about some mysteries of the universe such as: What is dark matter? and How do particles get their mass? These are questions the LHC was designed to help answer.

Dr. Rizatdinova describes the superconducting magnets inside the ATLAS detector.
Then we took a break to look for muons! Muons are elementary particles similar to electrons, but heavier. They are formed when high energy protons (cosmic rays) smash into the Earth's upper atmosphere. A shower of particles are created. This is basically the same thing that happens inside the ATLAS detector! Muons happen to live a relatively long time, so they are the ones that make it all the way down to the Earth's surface. There are thousands of muons passing through your body every second. They are way to small for us to see or feel them.

Peering into the cloud chamber looking for muon trails!
So if they are too small to see, how were we looking for them? With a detector of our own - a cloud chamber. This is a tank filled with alcohol vapor. The vapor is cooled at the bottom of the tank by dry ice until it's almost ready to condense. The cooled vapor is so unstable that a muon passing through it triggers the condensation. What you see then is a cloud of alcohol droplets. Each cloud appears spontaneously, taking the shape of the path of the muon that triggered it - usually a straight line - then drifting to the bottom of the tank.

It takes a while for your eyes to adjust their focus to the right area of the tank, near the bottom.

We could see two or three events happening every second or so!

It isn't hard to make your own cloud chamber. You can find instructions on YouTube.

After our break, for those who were interested in learning more, Dr. Rizatdinova spoke about her particular role in the LHC and the research that's being done there. The ATLAS detector is like a giant camera that records each proton collision, tracking all the hundreds of particles that fly out. There are about six hundred million collisions per second to record, and the data fills 15 million gigs of hard drive space every year!

Dr. Rizatdinova's team designed a piece of electronics that converts electric signals from passing particles into light, which is piped out of the detector in fiber optic cables and then converted back to electric signals. Why is this necessary? There are 80 million channels of data coming out of each pixel module! If these were each carried out by wire, well you can imagine the mess - there isn't room for it!

Dr. Rizatdinova's team also wrote the software to interpret these signals, determining whether top quarks are present. Top quarks are heavy particles that might indicate the presence of a Higg's Boson.

The Higg's Boson is one of the reasons the LHC was built. It's the last of the fundamental particles in our Standard Model of the universe that hasn't actually been observed yet. If it really exists, as we think it does, the LHC will find it. The Higg's is important because it is thought to explain how particles get their particular masses.

Here's how the searching works. The LHC accelerates protons to very close to the speed of light and then smashes the together and records all the particles that come out. Even though protons are relatively lightweight, much heavier particles can pop out when you collide them at such high energies. This is due to the conversion of that energy into mass.

The heavy particles that are formed don't stay around very long at all - nearly instantly they decay into a shower of smaller particles, which also decay into showers and on down the line. The detector isn't fast enough to actually "see" a Higg's Boson before it decays, but it can see the top quarks and other particles that it decays into. If the right pattern is detected, we'll know the Higg's was there!

As I said, it was a great program! Everybody's head got stretched a bit, and many great questions were asked. As I reminded the audience several times, it's natural to have trouble picturing all this! Sub-atomic particles are unlike anything in our human-scale experience. Even particle physicists have trouble visualizing what's going on down there in the quantum world! I sure enjoy trying, though, and I think the kids yesterday did as well.

Our next program is about something almost as difficult to fathom: Teenager Psychology!! Please join us December 17!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pieces of Protons - Coming Saturday 11/19/11

The proton-accelerating tube underground
at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)
Howdy friends! I've been looking forward to this coming Saturday's program for a long time! Here is the official description, then I'll tell you more about why I'm so excited...

Ramping Up the World's Greatest Physics Experiment
Dr. Flera Rizatdinova from the Oklahoma State University Department of Physics will speak about her work on the ATLAS detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The ATLAS is a marvel of technology built to explore dark matter, gravity, the standard model, and other deep mysteries of the universe!

We will be talking about the fundamental building blocks of the universe! Did you know that everything you see and feel around you is basically made out of super tiny particles called quarks and electrons? Those are two of the fundamental particles that make up our Standard Model of the universe. 

Dr. Rizatdinova was kind enough to drive all the way to Texas and back to pick up a piece of equipment called a cloud chamber that detects other fundamental particles called muons. Muons are similar to electrons. They are generated by cosmic rays and they are zipping around us all the time - we just can't see them. 

But when they zip through the cloud chamber - we will see their trails!

That's one reason I'm so excited. Another is that the ATLAS detector and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are FAMOUS!! If you listen to any science news then you will hear them mentioned a lot.

The ATLAS is like a gigantic microscope, for looking at the tiniest things! And it's the world's largest physics experiment! 

There are several new things physicists might discover with the ATLAS. One of them is the famed Higg's Boson, which is the last missing piece in our Standard Model of the universe. If they find it, we'll have a complete understanding of how the universe is put together. If they don't, then our Standard Model is wrong, and we'll have to come up with a new one to explain how things work. 

Either way is exciting! And the Higg's could literally be discovered any day now. So we are witnessing history in the making!

I've been studying particle physics to get ready for this program, and let me tell you, it's weird! If you don't understand everything on Saturday, don't feel bad. Even the physicists who study this stuff don't really quite understand it. But that's what makes it so much fun!

If you want to prepare for Saturday, here are some websites to visit. In fact PLEASE visit these sites and learn all you can! I think you'll enjoy them...

Have fun exploring and I'll see you Saturday, 10:00 AM at the Stillwater Public Library!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Intrepid White-Footed Mouse

Dr. Karen McBee is an environmental toxicologist at OSU. She and her students study the area of Northeast Oklahoma known as Tar Creek, a superfund site where 100 years or so of mining left huge piles of chat everywhere. (See the previous post!) 

The basic question she asks is, how does this affect the wildlife?

We began the program with a new song, as usual - "What Goes On?" which asks:

What goes on - after we’ve left such a mess?
What goes on - how does nature handle stress?
Humans come to alter every corner of the land
Yet we rarely come to understand
Once we're gone, what goes on?

Then we learned some background about the Tar Creek site and the animals that live there, and animals that live in nearby less altered habitats. We talked about different tools and methods scientists use to study populations in the wild. Then I asked the kids to think about what kind of research questions they might ask. 

We had so many great questions and ideas that the conversation went long beyond our usual ending time. I think everyone enjoyed speculating about why the white-footed mouse is so adept at living in the affected area, while other small rodents have disappeared, and thinking of ways to try to figure it out.

Photos below...

Dr. Karen McBee, Curator of Vertebrates with the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University.

Voucher specimens from the collection.


Gathering round to see the mice!

Hands on!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Intrepid White-Footed Mouse

Coming this Saturday, October 15!

The Intrepid White-footed Mouse
How Toxic Waste Affects Animal Populations and Diversity
Dr. Karen McBee, Curator of Vertebrates with the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University, will speak about her research into what makes some animal species more resilient than others at the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

Here's a view of Picher, OK from the air - all those white blotches are mounds of chat left over from 100 years of lead and zinc mining! During our program you'll get to think like a scientist and help design a study to try and understand how area wildlife is affected by this.

See you Saturday!

Dr. Karen McBee

The White-Footed Mouse

These voucher specimens are a research tool that allows biologists to compare populations in the wild with animals from different times and places.

The mammal collection is getting a new home! The mice were still packed away when I visited, but Dr. McBee will bring some samples for us to look at on Saturday.

This was one huge armadillo - see the pen by its tail? That gives you an idea of its size!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vaccination Innovation

This Saturday was our first Born to Do Science program of the season! We had a good turnout with 28 people to see Abbie Smith, a graduate student (of ERV blog fame) at the OU Health Services Center speak about viruses, vaccines, why there is no HIV vaccine, and how we might be able to make one.

Basically vaccines work because they mimic actual pathogens (viruses, bacteria, etc - anything that makes us sick). These fake pathogens fool our immune systems into making antibodies, which we can use to fight off the real germs if they ever show up.

Normally when we get sick it takes about two weeks of trial and error for our systems to evolve effective antibodies against the disease. But if we've been immunized so that we've already made those antibodies once, or immune systems remember how to make them again, and we can fight off the disease right away.

All of this works because our bodies can recognize a particular virus and call up the proper antibody to fight it off.

The problem with a virus like HIV is that it keeps changing. If you have HIV virus in your body, and it takes two weeks to come up with an antibody, by the end of that time you'll have hundreds of new HIV variations and the new antibody will not be able to fight them off. Basically your immune system can never catch up with all that rapid change!

Abbie's idea for getting around this seems pretty simple on the surface. Just put lots of variations of fake HIV into a vaccine, so that our systems will learn how to make lots of different HIV antibodies!

But here's the rub: in order to cover all the possible HIV variations in one vaccine, you would need to put in a mind-boggling number of different fake viruses. That number is something like a one with 61 zeros after it! (And that's only one way of counting them - other types of variation are possible too!)

If you were to get a vaccine shot containing just one of each possible variation of fake HIV in it, you would need to use a gallon-sized syringe!

Luckily if you can make an antibody for one type of HIV, your system can quickly come up with antibodies for similar types. That means we don't need ALL the possibilities to go into one vaccine, just a relatively small portion of them.

Abbie is working on how to create a mixture of fake HIV types that might work as a vaccine. She has been testing her methods to make sure that all the different variations she put in actually work to produce different antibodies. She is just about ready to start testing the vaccine on mice to find out if it really provides protection against HIV.

Maybe we'll be able to get her to visit again one day and let us know how that turned out!

Since Abbie's work involves a lot of time spent manipulating DNA (to create and test all those different fake HIVs!), we ended the program with a hands-on activity that lets you actually see your own DNA in a test tube!!

You can do this yourself at home - it's really easy. Here are instructions (thanks to the Science Museum of Minnesota).

And here are photos from our program. We hope to see YOU at the next one!

Abbie Smith explains how viruses work. 
Me swishing water vigorously to dislodge cheek cells. This is the first step in our activity, which allowed each participant to extract and view their own DNA!

Second step - add soap and mix gently. This bursts open the cells and sets the DNA free.

The third step is to add some chilled alcohol. This forces the DNA out of solution.

See that cloudy bit dangling beneath the cap? That's a glob of my very own DNA!

Show us your DNA! Cheers!

Abbie is extracting the DNA from the top of the test tube to put it in a small capsule for safekeeping. It lasts longer if you freeze it.

Our next program:

October 15
The Intrepid White-footed Mouse
How Toxic Waste Affects Animal Populations and Diversity
Dr. Karen McBee, Curator of Vertebrates with the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University, will speak about her research into what makes some animal species more resilient than others at the Tar Creek Superfund Site.

See you then!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Vaccination Innovation - This Saturday!

I'm getting excited and I hope you are too - our first program for the new school year is coming up this Saturday, 9/12/11, at the Stillwater Public Library at 10:00 AM! 

Our guest scientist is Abbie Smith, a brilliant young virologist. I've seen her speak, and she's a lot of fun. She'll be talking about a new approach to vaccines that may lead to protection against viruses that evolve rapidly, such as HIV (parents, don't worry - we won't really talk about the disease, just the virus itself) and the flu virus. (Imagine only having to get the flu shot once and you're good for life!) 

I'm working on a new song, so hopefully we'll get to kick things off with that. Then after a bit of background information we'll give the kids a chance to think like scientists and share their ideas. All the programs are very interactive, so you get some real face-time with a real scientist!

The library has provided me with an awesome flyer to help with promotion. If you are planning to participate, please print a flyer and stick it on the fridge to help you remember. (Plus maybe your friends and neighbors will see it too!) Feel free to print extra copies and post them anywhere people might see them. Thanks!! Here it is: