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Archive for August 2010

$25,000 gift to support COPUS

We are pleased to announce the receipt of an unrestricted gift in the amount of $25,000 from The Whitman Institute to support the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) project.

Being involved in COPUS has been an extraordinary experience, but it is not all that easy to explain – probably because it is so simple. It is all about connecting people and ideas and the common thread is sharing science.

The idea for COPUS began in 2006 at UCMP with an NSF-funded meeting of a small eclectic group of people all perturbed by a growing anti-science sentiment. Eventually it evolved into its current form and the Year of Science 2009, but even more importantly it initiated new relationships and collaborations, most of which do not advertise any formal connection to COPUS, so it is kind of hard to see all that COPUS has and continues to accomplish. For instance, here at Berkeley, several of us got together to decide how our campus could use the concept of the YoS09 to promote the depth and breadth of science that takes place on our campus – as a result, the Science@Cal initiative was born. Now, each Cal Day, science units on campus coordinate their efforts; we are planning a science festival on campus as a satellite event to the USA Science and Engineering Festival on October 23rd; and each month those of us involved in education and outreach get together for a brown bag lunch to discuss projects, share ideas, and learn from one another.

Locally, COPUS and the YoS09 also initiated a thematic approach to local science cafes, events at the California Academy of Sciences, and home page highlights on the website of Lawrence Berkeley Lab. But perhaps most importantly, COPUS initiated the emergence of Bay Area Science, a loose network of more than 100 science organizations in the Bay Area, sharing a common website and event calendar, interacting informally, and now working together toward a 2011 Bay Area Science Festival.

This COPUS "underground movement" has taken place in many different regions of the US – all sparked by connecting people and ideas. For those of you who have read The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom, COPUS definitely follows the starfish model – there is no Director or CEO – those who are the most active (and that can be any body) influence the directions that COPUS will take, always striving for finding effective ways to engage the public in the wonders of science. It amazes me to realize the number of people that I now interact with because of COPUS – from an ex cheerleader for the Philadelphia '76ers now known as the Science Cheerleader, to a vibrant mom of two in Florida, a bioengineer at MIT, a chemist in Northridge who teaches science to cops, and a scientist who uses "science zines" to focus on science concepts for art students in Chicago. They are all part of my extended COPUS family and help me to see new ways to communicate about science.

Some people instantly "get it" and jump on board, easily finding a way through which they can gain and/or contribute to the efforts of COPUS. For others, it is less obvious. But we were amazed and delighted when we received support in 2008 from two foundations – the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The Whitman Institute – thanks to two individuals, who "got it:" Soo Venkatesan, now a project manager for the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, and John Esterle, the Executive Director of The Whitman Institute. They each facilitated an investment in COPUS, recognizing the potential of such a unique grassroots effort. We are very grateful to both Soo and John and in particular to The Whitman Institute (TWI) for this recent gift. There is an elegant match between what COPUS is trying to do and TWI, which is a private foundation located in San Francisco, dedicated to promoting ways for people to develop their capacity to think critically.

Quental and Marshall Feature Article

Tiago Quental

Congratulations to Tiago Quental and Charles Marshall whose paper, Diversity dynamics: molecular phylogenies need the fossil record, was designated as the featured article in the June 21, 2010 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

When asked to reflect on the importance of the fossil record in our understanding of today’s biodiversity, Tiago responded:

Biologists, typically overlook the fossil record when trying to explain how we got to our current biodiversity, in part because for many groups their fossil records are too poor, and in part due to the development of tools that were thought to give reliable estimates of speciation and extinction rates directly from molecular phylogenies. This has been especially attractive given the ease with which DNA sequence data can now be generated for living species.

However, the only way to directly access past biodiversity is through the fossil record. This TREE paper shows that extinction, speciation and diversification rates can only reliably be estimated with the fossil record. If we really want to understand both past and current biodiversity, we need to re-evaluate the use of DNA sequences and fully embrace the fossil record.

To learn more, Read the abstract or the full article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 8, 434-441, 21 June 2010.

Fossils in our own backyard

A mammoth skull recently found in a drainage ditch in San Jose.

Museum visitors often ask if our fossils come in from expeditions to remote places. I tell them that some do, but many are found right here in California by local people or via construction projects. For example, our most recent addition to the collections is part of a mammoth along with some other Pleistocene-aged mammals. They were uncovered during the excavation of a storm water retention basin on the campus of Los Positas College in Livermore.

Our collection’s next addition of Bay Area fossils will come from one of Northern California’s biggest construction projects, in an area known to have fossils: the 4th bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. The tunnel is the major commute route through the Oakland/Berkeley Hills and less than 5 miles from UCMP. Part of the tunnel will run through the 9-10 million-year-old rocks of the Orinda Formation. We know fossils should be there. In 1936, camel foot bones were found during the construction of the tunnel’s first two bores. When the third bore was built in the early 1960s faculty and students from UCMP and CalTrans workers found jaws of rhinos, horses, and camels. These days fossils are salvaged by qualified professionals as part of construction due to the California Environmental Quality Act. Paleontologists will be on site throughout excavation.

Construction on the 4th bore of the Caldecott began in February, and fossils have already been found. These will eventually join those found in 1936 and the early 1960s and become part of the UCMP collection. Stay tuned for more discoveries as the tunnel construction continues!

Find out more:

  • The paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel project (including photos of Pat in the UCMP collection) at Inside Bay Area.
  • Official website of the Caldecott Tunnel project.

Paleo Video: Snail shell mystery

If you study snails, you’ve got to be patient. But two UCMP graduate students, Jann Vendetti and Scott Fay, used time-lapse photography to kick slow snails into high gear. They discovered some surprising behavior in snails living today—and in snails that lived millions of years in the past.

The video features snails of two species: Kelletia kelletii, and Busycotypus canaliculatus (also known as Busycon canaliculatum). This group of animals is so numerous and diverse—in lifestyle, natural history, and morphology—that research questions are virtually infinite.

Shortly after we made this film, Jann and Scott graduated from UC Berkeley with Ph.D.s in Integrative Biology. Jann is now a post-doc at Cal State Los Angeles, studying photosynthetic sea slugs called sacoglossans.  And Scott is a post-doc at Temple University, in Philadelphia; he studies the trophic ecology of Antarctic protists. While they work on disparate groups, their potential for collaboration continues: Jann’s sea slugs and Scott’s dinoflagellates have a similar strategy for energy acquisition: they both steal chloroplasts.