Category Archives: Earth & Environment

When People Go Viral Over Plant Viruses

We tend to think of viruses as nasty germs that we try desperately to get rid of, whether they’re in our bodies, or in our gardens.

Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania. TTulip breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)
Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulips sold during tulip mania. Tulip-breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, only a small percentage of the many viruses are pathogens, said Marilyn Roossinck, professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, and biology. Roossinck recently gave a talk about plant viruses at the Millennium Café, a weekly coffee break and science chat at Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex.

In fact, most viruses can work with a plant, as well as fungi, to improve plant health. They can boost heat and drought tolerance of certain plants, for example. Viruses can give plants beauty makeovers, too, that — by the way — can lead to economic bubbles. It was this type of viral artistry that helped create Tulip Mania in Holland during the 1630s.

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‘Like riding a bicycle’? I beg to differ

National Bike to Work Month is coming to an end today. I’d like to take a moment — and this blog post — to reflect on bicycling to work.

Photo: Christian Mercat/Wikimedia Commons

I know many people who bike to work, and use biking as their main mode of transportation in general. I have friends who biked to work when I lived in Center City Philadelphia. I imagine they still do. My man bikes to work, about three miles each way. To me, this seems awesome yet terrifying at the same time.

I love the idea of the bicycle. It kills three birds with one stone — you’re exercising, you’re getting places faster than if you had walked, and you’re helping the environment! Finding parking for your bike is probably not as annoying as parking a car, you don’t have to pay for it, and you can often get closer to your destination before needing to park.

Yet…the bicycle and I are not friends.

This fact seemed to be glaring at me over the past few weeks. As mentioned, the entire month of May is dedicated to bicycling to work. Also, my department was reminded that our offices will be moved to a location that is not easy to get to by bus (my current mode of transportation to work). And I was writing an article with Penn State kinesiology researcher Melissa Bopp about active commuting.

Bopp’s study found that those who actively commute — read: walk or bike to work — can have a significant influence on their partners and co-workers to do the same. Whether or not an employer supports active commuting and availability of sidewalks and bike paths are also important factors.

And it turns out that men are more likely to actively commute than women. Why is this? Bopp’s current research doesn’t address the why, but I could guess. The appeal of arriving to work sweaty and with helmet hair is indeed overwhelming. And how does one bike to work in professional clothes and successfully still look professional when arriving to work? I know some people can do it, but this is yet another deterrent for me. But mostly, it’s that I haven’t been able to get over my bike-riding phobia.

My boyfriend has been trying to get me on a bike for a solid two years. I haven’t been on a bike for nearly 20. But one day a couple weeks ago, I told my boyfriend I was ready to attempt biking. He immediately got on Craigslist and found a bike. “It’s a pretty green color,” I replied…

We went to look at it, where boyfriend told me I had to ride it before we bought it. I’m pretty sure my apprehension was tangible. I’ll spare you the details, but just know there were tears of frustration, eventual pedaling by me while boyfriend held onto the bike and jogged along next to me, and a purchase, mostly because we were embarrassed by the whole fiasco and the amount of time this nice man let us take up on a Sunday.

I have gotten on a bike twice since then. However, I would not say I’ve achieved success quite yet. Or even close. But I’m not ready to give up. I am jealous of everyone I see riding a bike with ease these days. Maybe that will boost my determination, and I can join the ranks of people who encourage their coworkers to bike to work, too! Maybe. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Aloha Mahalo

Yes, I’m in Hawaii.  No I’m not really on vacation.  I’m attending a Society for American Archaeology meeting.  Penn State is well represented at this meeting by faculty, students and former students who are now faculty at other universities.

Each year, sometime during the meeting, there is a Penn State gathering.  There’s usually a theme.  The year after Bill Sanders died, film footage of him in Mexico and Central America formed the backdrop of the party.

This year is another occasion, or rather two. Dean Snow, professor of anthropology and former head of the department is really retiring after teaching part time for a while.  In conjunction with his retirement, he and his wife are setting up the Snow Award in Archaeology to honor and recognize outstanding academic achievement by an undergraduate student whose studies are focused in archaeological science in the College of the Liberal Arts.  They have put aside $10,000 to be matched by donations from others.  Twenty thousand dollars are needed to establish a fund for student support.

I received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the department and Dean Snow was on my dissertation committee.  I’ll undoubtedly donate in his honor.  But I was thinking, he isn’t the first faculty member to donate money to his department on retirement.  Apparently many of our faculty think enough of our students and the university to donate upon retirement or at some other time.

The Penn State Anthropology party at this meeting is always fun.  I get to see people I went to school with and to catch up a little.  I found out one of my classmates made tenure.  Another moved to South Carolina.  Many people who are usually here did not come because of the cost, and those that do come are obviously well employed in the field, so it isn’t a perfect indicator of how the department is doing.  However, I’m always impressed by what these former students are doing now and how Penn State influenced their research and their choice of jobs.

This year I also spent part of the party time interviewing a professor because just that morning I’d received a notice that he was publishing a paper in 5 days.  I sent him an e-mail only to find out he was at the conference.  So I took the time to do the interview.

I don’t usually do interviews in the middle of a party, but we sat down at the dining room table and began to chat.  I do always have a reporter’s notebook in my purse.  He is an environmental archaeologist and doing some really interesting things.

Douglas Kennett was at the University of Oregon before he joined Penn State a short while ago.  During that time he was looking into dates of Maya sites and made arrangements with the University of Pennsylvania to sample a door lintel they had in their museum.  Then he moved here as a full professor and is now publishing on that work out of the Pennsylvania State University.  So as he told me, it is a Pennsylvania story.

But it is really about the Maya city of Tikal, sapodilla trees, radiocarbon 14 dating and linking the Long Count calendar to the European calendar.

Ambitious, but truly fascinating and likely to provide hints not only of what the Maya faced climate wise, but what we may face in the future.

A Banner Weekend for Penn State Research

At the AAAS annual meeting last weekend I learned a lot, such as:

  • How our preconceptions of viruses as nasty things may have thwarted our knowledge of the long list of positive interactions humans have with these microbes.
  • How evolution changed us from furry creatures into lean, mean, skin-covered, sweating machines.
  • And how we can now take pictures and make movies of atoms. Actual atoms.
Dr. Jablonski addresses media questions at AAAS news briefing.

One thing I did not learn is that I am not a great photographer. I have known that for a long time. In fact, if you couple my lack of photographic skills with my out-of-focus iPhone camera, the pictures of the atom have finer resolutions and were much clearer.

But I tried.

Continue reading A Banner Weekend for Penn State Research

Wonder and Lightning

My dad has a habit of calling to tell me about random things he sees on TV. It is (usually) endearing because I know it means he’s thinking about me. Sometimes it’s to tell me about the awesome play Jimmy Rollins made in last night’s Phillies game; when I lived in Philadelphia it was often to tell me about the latest crime that happened somewhere in the city and to make sure I was still carrying the pepper spray he bought me.

The latest thing he called about was a tidbit he heard on the news: apparently your car is not necessarily a safe place to be during a thunderstorm. Cars have steel-belted radials! he tells me. Like I have any idea what a radial is. So Dad continues to explain — some tires have steel belts in them. If you’re driving while there is lightning outside, your tires might not be grounded because of these steel belts.

We were both a bit skeptical of this. But hey, it was on the news. It must be true, right? Since Penn State has an excellent department of meteorology right here on campus, I decided to investigate further.

I contacted Nels Shirer, an associate professor of meteorology, who has done some lightning research — including mapping lightning clusters.

“The answer is not a simple one,” Shirer starts. No, of course not.

It depends on lots of things, he says, like “the make of the car, whether or not it is wet, and whether or not you are in contact with any electronic devices, such as iPods plugged into the cigarette lighter.”

It never even occurred to me that my iPod could hurt me. In fact, according to the super-helpful web site Shirer directed me to, the National Lightning Safety Institute, you’re not supposed to touch any metal objects in your car during a lightning storm, like a metal door handle or metal radio dials. This makes perfect sense . . . I just never thought about it.

Shirer said, and the web site points out, the best thing to do during a lightning storm is to pull over, turn your vehicle off, and put your hands in your lap.

So the moral of the story is that whether or not you have steel-belted radial tires, your car is probably as safe as it can be, with metal accoutrements. This reassured my father, when I reported back. And I got to hear the story (again) about the time he was working for the New York state highway department and his truck got hit by lightning. But I guess when you’re a dad you have some prerogative to tell your stories as many times as you like. And he was fine, by the way — just a scorch mark in the bed of the pick-up truck.

I wonder what he’ll call about next.

Also, a shout-out to Paul Knight, the Pennsylvania State Climatologist and a senior lecturer in the department of meteorology, for directing me to Shirer. Thank you!