Readers weigh in

Crop residue—the leftover stalks of a previous crop—acts as a mulch to conserve water and protect the soil from eroding away. Photo by Gene Alexander/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Crop residue—the leftover stalks of a previous crop—acts as a mulch to conserve water and protect the soil from eroding away. Photo by Gene Alexander/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Every now and then, we get notes or calls from readers of Research/Penn State about something that ran in the magazine. Sometimes the message is a thank you or a compliment; other times it’s more critical. Either way, it’s good to know that a reader cared enough about one of our stories or images to get in touch with us about it.

Soon after the Spring 2015 issue of the magazine came out, I got a call from a reader in Virginia pointing out a mistake in my story about biologist Dan Cosgrove’s work on plant cell walls (“Tear Down This Wall”). John Dickerson, who graduated from Penn State in 1969 and earned a master’s degree here in 1971, took issue with the statement that because we don’t know how to efficiently harvest the energy stored in structural parts of plants, crop residue such as cornstalks is wasted.

John knows what he’s talking about; he spent his career working for the USDA, in what used to be called the Soil Conservation Service. He agreed that the burning of massive amounts of crop residue, as happens with sugar cane in Brazil and elsewhere, is wasteful. But he said that, in the U.S. at least, residue from cornfields is generally not wasted. The stalks are either plowed under to help replenish the soil or are left on the surface to prevent erosion and help the soil retain moisture. If cornstalks someday become a good source of biofuel, corn farmers who sell their residue for that purpose will need to find some other way to prevent soil erosion and perform the other functions the old stalks are used for now.

We have revised the story accordingly and will soon post the amended version online, on our Research News page.

John also pointed out that biofuel crops such as switchgrass and poplar are perennials; they don’t produce crop residue every year as corn and other annuals do. The fundamental problem of how to break down their cell walls to more efficiently convert them into biofuel remains, however.

Another reader called a few days after John to suggest that biodiesel from algae could be the carbon-neutral fuel we’re looking for. While algae offer some promise, the technology for using them as a large-scale fuel source is still under development.

Thank you to both callers. It’s gratifying to know you’re reading our stories so closely.

To Infinity and Beyond: Celebrating Hubble at the Kennedy Space Center

So far, in three years, our Research On the Road speaker series has traveled many places to showcase Penn State research. From the halls of the National Press Club and the recording studios of Nashville, to Caribbean coral reefs and the apiaries of Vermont, we’ve been logging the miles to introduce the public and alumni alike to the stories and people behind our world-class research institution. However, until last month, we had never left the planet, let alone the solar system.

That has all changed now though, at least metaphorically. In late April, I traveled to Central Florida with Eric Ford, a professor in our Astronomy & Astrophysics department, for two Research On the Road events.


The first one gave Ford the chance to address colleagues and grad students in the University of Central Florida’s Planetary Sciences Group on the subject of planet formation theories. Despite my background in science writing, when a roomful of astrophysicists really let their hair down and talk shop among themselves, it’s a challenge to keep up!

11193234_10153213943412086_1235430090872154495_nThere was a lively question and answer exchange throughout the talk, including from those watching the event via  a live streaming feed.


The group seemed to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the chance to learn from and interact with Dr. Ford. And let it not be said that astrophysicists don’t have a sense of humor…


We had to move really quickly (I’m tempted to call it warp speed) to arrive on time at the offices of WMFE , Central Florida’s public radio station for Eric’s interview with  Matthew Peddie, host of the popular “Intersection” news program.  (Scroll down on WMFE’s page for the audio link with Eric’s photo next to it.) It was exciting to know that Eric was able to share his expertise and the strength of Penn State’s department of astronomy and astrophysics with such a large listenership—there are over 2 million people in the greater Orlando area alone!

The next day we drove out to the Kennedy Space Center where Ford had been invited to be a featured speaker in their Visitor Center’s “Astronaut Encounter” theater, as part of #Hubble25, a year-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, with events planned by both NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency.) You know you’ve reached your destination in Cape Canaveral when you see this:

IMG_0003We had a little time to walk around the impressive complex, and the “History of Space Exploration” exhibit—including the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis, which we learned was “displayed as only spacewalking astronauts have seen her before — rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and its Canadarm (robotic arm) extended, as it has just undocked from the International Space Station. ”

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Eric Ford and Melissa Beattie-Moss at the Kennedy Space Center’s Atlantis exhibit

We then headed over to the Astronaut Encounter theater where Eric’s name was in lights.


His hour-long presentation focused on the ways in which the Hubble Space Telescope has contributed to our knowledge of deep space.2015-04-25 12.22.14

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In addition to the general public, we were pleased to have some Penn State alumni in the audience, including this couple who chatted with Ford after the program.


After the dust had settled, we ventured over to one of the space-themed cafes for a bite to eat, where sandwiches are given names like Blast-off BBQ, and looked around a bit more before departing. That’s when I met the wandering astronaut (who I’d been informed can only stay in his spacesuit costume for 10 or 15 minutes at a time due to the Florida heat!) and grabbed a photo op.

Melissa meets Rocket Man


I sent this photo to my little girl who perhaps momentarily believed Mom had gone on a work trip to outer space with a real live space man. And, in a way, that’s how this “out of this world” Research On the Road experience felt!

Where will be blasting off to next? Tune in soon to find out.




At Large Winner—and New Contest

AtLarge Sp15

We have a winner!

The winner of our first At Large photo contest is Bernardo Niño, whose close-up shot of honey bees at their hive is so vivid that it makes us hear the buzzing and taste the honey.  Bernardo’s photo appears in the spring issue of Research|Penn State, which will arrive on campus in mid-April. In addition to publication of his photo in Research|Penn State, Bernardo will receive a high-quality print of the At Large spread, suitable for framing.

Bernardo was a research technician in the lab of Christina Grozinger at the Center for Pollinator Research from 2009 to 2014. You may have read about the challenges facing bees today, including deadly mite infestations and viral infections and loss of natural food sources due to habitat loss. Grozinger’s lab is investigating these threats and how we can bolster bees’ natural defense systems to keep them happy, healthy, and on the job as pollinators of some of our most valuable crops.

Thank you to all who sent images for our consideration. There are many good photographers here at Penn State!

And now, we launch the search for another superb research-related photo to run as our At Large feature in Research|Penn State magazine. As you can see from Bernardo’s image, the photo must fill a full two-page spread and be visually compelling. Magazine staff will write the short description of how the image relates to Penn State research.

Here are the ground rules for the contest:
• Images must be strong horizontals so one shot can completely fill a two-page spread.
• Images must be available at high resolution, at least 300 dpi (this is not the same as ppi). Keep this in mind as you shoot photos, especially through microscopes. We have had to eliminate beautiful images from consideration because they were not shot at a high enough resolution to be enlarged to publication size.
• Images must relate to research being conducted by someone at Penn State.
• Images can be scenics, close-ups, or micrographs. They can be realistic or abstract (such as a patterned structure), color or black & white or colorized. Archival shots will also be considered.
We do not use portraits. When we use a shot with a person in it, the person is small within the frame.

Please send your photos to me, Cherie Winner, at Lo-res versions are fine at this stage. If we select your image, we’ll ask for the hi-res version. Deadline for submission is Friday, July 31, 2015. For more information, use the contact form below or call me at 3-4750.

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