Saturday, May 22, 2010

Science Blogging. Why we do it.

Jason G. Goldman over at The Thoughtful Animal has written an excellent piece on science blogging and how it benefits both scientists and readers:  Blogging in Academia: What Can It Do For You?

He notes a significant gap left by conventional science journalism which can be filled by science bloggers:
When mainstream media does write about science, it is often (not always) unnecessarily over-simplified, and it often (not always) contains serious mistakes or misleading conclusions. Mainstream science journalists are not always the most qualified people to place a new research finding in its proper context. And even the most responsible reader will have a hard time getting access to the original research papers covered by mainstream media. Many articles do not provide even the article's title or the journal in which it was published, and even if they did, the original research papers are usually stuck behind paywalls.
Helpfully, he gives advice on how to find good science blogs, making special mention of the Carnival of Evolution which I referred to in my previous post.

So have a read. If you're a scientist, it might inspire you get blogging. If you're interested in science, you'll find some great new blogs to follow!

(H/T to Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd.)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Gratuitous self promotion.

My recent post on the Evolution of Chloroplasts: endosymbiosis and horizontal gene transfer was featured in the May 2010 edition of Blog Carnival of Evolution, this month hosted by the official blog for Springer Verlag's journal, Evolution: Education and Outreach! I am delighted.

Thanks to Bjørn Østman for the invitation to submit my article. 

The Forest of Sabine: the first flowers

The Forest of Sabine is growing apace. There have been a few casualties, alas, among the Angophora hispida. Sabine tells me that she's had this problem elsewhere: they don't take kindly to transplantation.

Still, there is much new growth among all the other species, in particular with the Acacia parvipinnula. Tender new shoots, and in the last couple of days, flowers!

To give you a sense of size, the mature flowers above are around 0.5cm in diameter.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Forest of Sabine: a perfect symbiosis!

I have a confession to make. Over the last year or so, the demands of study and work plus my allergies to ticks, leeches and many pollens have kept me from giving the attention to our garden that it needs and deserves. My negligence has been compounded by a higher-than-normal rainfall over summer.

The result?


Vast tracts of bracken.

From verandah.

That disc-shaped object in the foreground of our front garden is a drowning bird bath. Many of the plants I've put in have struggled to get enough light to survive.

Bad, naughty, wicked Margaret.

But a month or so ago, I was in a queue for coffee at Macquarie, and noticed a woman standing near me whom I recognised by sight.... Perhaps a biology post-grad? So we started chatting, and I asked her how her research was going. Good, she said, but she was having a problem. She needed a site in Sydney to grow some plants for her PhD experiment and was having trouble finding one. What sort of site did she need, I asked. Oh, something near bushland, sandstone substrate, sandy low-nutrient soil. Hmm, I mused. How much land? Enough to plant around eighty plants, ranging from trees to shrubs, all Sydney natives.

And thus began the perfect symbiosis. The PhD student is Sabine Nooten, and here she is:

Sabine is doing her doctorate with Professor Lesley Hughes (the Head of the Department of Biological Sciences), in the Plant-Insect Interactions and Climate Change Ecology Lab (PICCEL). You can read about her research here. As part of her work, Sabine is attempting to predict aspects of insect herbivory in the future: how plants and insects will interact as a result of climate change when Sydney's climate gets as hot as it is currently near the NSW/Qld border. She's been growing huge numbers of specimens at Macquarie University's Plant Growth Facilities (where I've studied and worked over the last year or so) for her various sites, and in the last few week or so, she and sundry colleagues/friends have been planting many of them in our front garden. This will be her control for the experiment. First, of course, she had to ensure that the soil was right. Not too many nutrients, to make it representative of the natural soils of Australia. Unsurprisingly, it passed the test. 

(Side note: Australia's soils are really, really old. The last Glacial Maximum (ice age) ended around 10,000 years ago. Glaciers scraped the surface off the bedrock of Europe and North America, so all the soil that has been deposited there subsequently is really a bit of a baby. Australia, by contrast, has had a relatively stable geology for many millions of years. We don't have much topsoil, and what we do have has been subject to massive erosion and has been leached of nutrients. Our flora has evolved to deal with this, which is why, for example, Australian plants are intolerant of what in Europe and North America would be normal levels of phosphorus. Hence "native plant fertiliser"--low on the stuff that hurts our plants.)

Sabine and her mates have cleared the bracken and planted a number of species, most of which are indigenous to our general area of Sydney:
  • Angophora hispida (Myrtaceae), Dwarf apple or Banda in Cadigal (an Aboriginal language of Sydney). A mallee or small tree to 7 metres high.

  • Acacia obtusata (Fabaceae), Blunt-leaved Wattle. 0.5-3 metres high. (Couldn't find a decent photo of this online. Once Sabine's flower, I'll take a pic!)
  • Hakea gibbosa (Proteaceae), Needlebush. Shrub, 1-3 metres high. 

This species is in the same genus as a plant I recently propagated from seed, and am now growing in the garden, Hakea sericea. Both have similar large, tough seed-pods and seriously sharp, hard leaves.

Hakea sericea fruit
Telopea speciossima

And this is what the front garden looks like now:

From verandah
From verandah.

From driveway
From driveway.

Sabine is delighted to have a place to grow her plants where they're protected from vandals/wandering drunks/morons who don't quite understand how precious a PhD experiment is, and where they'll be watered and generally loved. (The fencing is to keep out the dreaded Swamp Wallabies.)

But she can't possibly be as thrilled as I am. All these plants! The bracken gone! What will essentially become a forest in our front yard!

Once the experiment is finished (in around 18 months), I'm going to put in some local understorey plants. But I'm quietly hopeful that they'll emerge naturally. The soil is full of seeds of local plants, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and grow. Finally, I think they might just get their chance.

So how win/win is all that?!

I'll update the process, once the plants start to take off. Watch this space, come spring.