Unconventional Wisdom From My Father

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I've probably mentioned my father in previous posts because he is the reason that I have always been interested in science. He made me into who I am today. He passed away a few weeks ago. It was fairly sudden (with doctors saying he'd go home from the hospital just 3 days before his passing) but not completely unexpected (he had COPD). 

My father was the smartest man I know. He influenced me in so many ways. Like my love of math and science, choosing to get a physics degree, my interest in fast cars, and even my love of black pointed toe cowboy boots. 

He raised us to believe that we could do anything we wanted to do if we were willing to put in the work. He raised us to be confident and independent. He taught us how to shoot a gun, fix a car, and change a flat tire. I will miss him more than I can say.

One of my goals is to do a TEDx talk someday. The topic would be on the unconventional wisdom that my father shared with me that made me who I am today. It hasn't happened yet, but if when I do, this post is what it will be based on.

This is my dad.

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He volunteered to go to Vietnam after graduating from Georgia Tech, because the job sounded like an adventure.

I was looking at this picture one night and thought, wow, my dad's kind of a badass. It's kind of amazing to me that a boy from a small town in Georgia, could grow up to see the world, to recover elephants in the jungles of Vietnam, ride camels in Egypt, and do so many other cool things.

So maybe you're thinking, what kind of awesome job gives you the opportunity to do all this and where do I sign up. Well, until he retired several years ago, my dad was an engineer.

Not usually considered the most adventurous of careers. But he choose his path through the life, life doesn't just happen to you. That's something he instilled in my sister and me. And one of the many ways he made me the person I am today.

Much to my parents dismay, I don't have children, but I've always wanted to share what my parents taught me.

So I'm going to share three of the most important things my dad taught me.

Math and science is fun.

First, math and science is fun, or as my 1st Physics teacher spelled it, phun (that was actually the answer to the 1st question on my 1st physics test ever). Not only is it fun, it's amazing, it describes the universe and how everything works, and understanding it is important and exciting. Not only that, but never, ever, was I led to believe that women shouldn't, or couldn't, do science.

It was just there. All around us. I took things apart just to figure out how they went back together. When I was 5 or 6, we lived in Bangkok, Thailand, I was taking apart my favorite little doll night light and shocked the crap out of myself. My parents came in running into the bedroom, but never did they say, "don't do that, it's is too dangerous". What they said was that I should be careful around electricity, unplug it next time, (and to go to bed).

So cautious curiosity maybe the message here. But encourage your daughters to explore the amazing world they live in. Why is the sky blue? Why is sunset and sunrise red? Raleigh scattering, by the way. What is that thing? Encourage their questions. Help them find answers.

You may not consider this unconventional advice, but the data say otherwise. There's a big gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as it is called. Studies have shown that elementary school is a critical time for girls to head down the path towards science and math careers, but many of them are discouraged by their parents and teachers. We can't let this happen.

With all the focus lately on girls in STEM, I was sad to hear that the numbers are going the wrong way. Female enrollment in science and technology degrees has been declining.

So even though about 57% of all college graduates are women, only 19% of the engineering degrees go to women (that's down 1% from 10 years ago), only 18% in computer science (that's down 5% from 10 years ago). The earth sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics degrees are a bit higher at 38%, 39%, and 42%, but these are all down 2-3% from a decade ago.

So I'm a major science pusher. All my Christmas gifts are science experiments in disguise, and not very good disguises at that. (I gave my niece a Makey Makey banana piano one year. Banana piano is awesome! I highly recommend it.) I encourage you to do be a geek with your kids. Teach your kids, especially your daughters, to stay curious. Because society will tell them to stop. It will tell them that math is hard and science is for boys. Society is flat out wrong about that. Science is awesome and girls are great at it.

And even if they don't go on to science careers, they will learn that they can replace their own light switches, change tires, or fix the toilet. They will be independent.

A 99 on a test meant that I should have studied more.

The 2nd bit of advice that my dad gave me was that a 99 on a test meant that I should have studied more. I'll be honest, that was not well received advice on my part in junior high and high school. I mean, come on, it's a 99!

But looking back, what it taught me was that trying harder is how you achieve more. Going into his senior year of high school, my dad was 2nd in his class, but he wanted to be valedictorian. Instead of just accepting that the other guy was just a bit smarter then him, he buckled down, studied harder, and graduated as valedictorian.

Studies show that kids who believe that through learning, practice, and hard work, they can become smarter and achieve more, outperform kids who believe their intelligence is fixed. How do kids get this growth mindset vs a fixed mindset? Again, from how parents and teachers talk to them.

In a long term study of seventh graders, researchers found that the just fact that the girls outperform boys at a young age, changed the conversations they had with the adults around them. The girls heard that they were smart and the boys heard that they needed to focus and try harder. Years later in school, on difficult tasks, the girls gave up on challenging tasks because they didn't think they were smart enough, but the boys tried harder. In fact the smartest of the girls gave up earliest because they were never taught to try harder.

Work by Carol Dweck and others have found that kids with a fixed mindset avoid challenges, give up early when they run into obstacles, see effort as worthless, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the successes of others. On the other hand, kids with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in the successes of others.

I think this is one of the reasons that sports really help kids learn to practice and work harder. My sister and I figure skated all our lives. You learn early that figure skating is more about falling and getting back up than it is about doing a 3 minute program in a short sequin dress. And even if you do your best, only one person gets 1st place. There are no participation awards in figure skating. The next day, you get back on the ice, do it all over again, and try harder to get 1st place next time.

This is what worries me about this whole everyone gets a trophy world we've become. If everyone gets a prize, how do they learn to try harder next time?

Sure, you want to tell your kids they are smart, but don't forget to tell them to try harder too, because that's where the real learning happens.

It's better to be shot in the front yard than in a field.

Lastly, and probably most unconventional of all his advice, my father told me it was always better to be shot in the front yard than in a field somewhere. We live in Texas after all...

One night, when I was 18 or 19, I was driving home and a car seemed to be following me. My parents live almost at the end of the street, so when this car was still behind me, I got suspicious. I kept going and turned into the alley. And the car followed me.

Since cell phones hadn't been invented yet, I tore down the alley, turned back up our street, pulled up in front of my house and ran to the door.

I was looking out the window as the car passed slowly. My father came up and I told him what happened. I remember him saying rather matter of factly, "It's better to be shot in the front yard than in a field somewhere. Because at least we could call an ambulance here. Never get in anyone's car."

This may be the most unconventional piece of wisdom he ever gave me, but it's absolutely the most honest. My dad believed that bad things happened and your best bet was to have a plan. And part of this plan was to stay in a public place.

Now, all parents tell their kids don't talk to strangers or get in strangers cars or put yourself in situations where you might get shot, or kidnapped, or whatever, but if you think nothing will ever happen to you, you will never be prepared for what could happen to you.

Growing up my sister and I were told that if you were going to hit someone, hit them as hard as you can. We learned that the thumb is the weakest part of the grip and if someone grabs your arm, you pull away against their thumb. We even learned how to disarm someone with a gun (again, go against the thumb, it's the weak point).

So many young girls are not taught basic safety skills. They are never given the physical and mental training that they need to give them the confidence if something was to happen to them.

Teach your daughters to be prepared. We teach girls to be polite, but we don't tell them it's ok to disagree, debate, and stand up for themselves. So not only have they not thought about what they would do if something happened, they also don't want to offend or hurt anyone.

Now all situations are different and there isn't one correct response, but the time to decide what you would do if attacked is now. Not later when you are faced with a bad situation.

TL:DR

So there you have it. Three unconventional pieces of wisdom my dad gave my sister and me that shaped who we are today.

Love science and embrace how the world works.

Try harder and you can achieve almost anything you want.

Be prepared to defend yourself and get away.

With these bits of wisdom, he empowered us to be strong and confident, and maybe even a little badass.


I did an interview with Teach the Geek

Teach the Geek Interview

So I usually hate seeing myself on video and never share when it happens, but I am so excited about this one that I have to share it. A couple weeks ago, I did an interview with Neil Thompson, who recently started a YouTube channel called Teach the Geek. 

He interviews people in STEM fields to talk about how they became interested in STEM, what they do, and how they got into public speaking. Teach the Geek is about teaching STEM professionals how to become better public speakers. His whole concept aligns so closely with my belief that becoming better STEM communicators is how we will get more kids into STEM. (We also share the belief that presentation slides should absolutely not have a million words on them. Use pictures and simple phrases to convey your message, people!)

I was so excited to see it was posted today. I usually avoid seeing myself on video or hearing my voice, but I think this is the video where I finally got somewhat comfortable seeing and hearing myself. I think it's because this is an important topic to me, plus I had time to prepare. I felt so much more animated and natural then I have been in past interviews. When I say that I want to get better at videos, I think this is what I'm talking about. Just feeling natural, like I would talk to another person.

Now there were definitely some things I need to work on. Like too many hair flips, a couple of ums, and what's up with looking up before I speak.... But overall, I feel like this is exactly what it would have been like if we were talking in person. 

Anyway, please go watch the video and tell me what you think.

 

 


Q1 is over, how are those goals coming along

A Goal without a Plan is Just a Wish

I've been feeling like I have so many things to do and a bunch of time to do it during this COVID-19 stay at home time, but I just have creative block right now. I start blog posts in my mind, but can't flush them out. I want to do things and learn stuff, but feel like I'm all over the place with what I want to do. That when I realized that I had a plan for 2020 and, being the end of the first quarter of the year, Q1, I should review my goals and see how I'm doing.

So here are the goals I set and how they are going.

1. Sleep more

After reading the book about sleep and what it does for you, I really wanted to get more sleep. I feel like I've been trying to get to bed earlier, but I don't really feel more rested. So I did what any data geek would do, I put my Fitbit sleep data into Power BI so I could visualize it.

Turns out that I am in bed an average of 437.42 minutes vs last years 425.51. That's just under 12 extra minutes. If you are doing the math, 437 minutes is is about 7 hours and 15 minutes, so I'm not even in bed long enough to get my Fitbit goal of 7.5 hours of sleep. Also, even though I am in bed 12 more minutes, I'm only getting, on average about 5 more minutes of sleep. Since my goal only said get more sleep, I guess technically, I am achieving my goal, but I think I need to try a little harder for the rest of the year.

FitBit Sleep Data 2020vs2019

2. Do more yoga

I mentioned in my goals post that this could be called do any yoga, because any yoga would be more than I was doing. So in that sense, I have done more yoga. But I said my goal was to do three 30 minutes session a week. I definitely haven't done anything near that. I've probably done yoga 5 times this year. I think the problem is that I want to do it at the end of the night so I can wind down before bed, but at the end of the night I just want to go to sleep. 

I think I need to revise this one. Maybe shoot for an hour of yoga a week and I will do it at anytime. So if i can get 15 minutes in at lunch a couple days plus a 30 minute session on the weekend that will count towards the goal and maybe even start forming a habit. 

3. Climb a 5.12 route & 3a. Climb outside and get lead certified

I started having some shoulder pain in mid January, but I hate taking time off of climbing and lifting. I hoped that the couple weekends I was out of town would give me enough rest to stop it hurting, but no luck. It kind of came and went with different movements. One day climbing wouldn't hurt, but I'd open a door wrong and set it off again. I narrowed the pain down to the brachialis, not shoulder, and did some googling. I actually found a video that started with, "This is Dave. He has been rock climbing for about a year, but suddenly, his arm hurts..." I thought, hmm... this seems vaguely familiar. 

It basically took stay at home orders to keep me from lifting and climbing and now it feels better, but also weaker. So needless to say, I haven't climbed a 5.12 or outside or gotten lead certified. There'll be plenty of time once everything opens up again. Now that my brachialis has mostly healed, I'm going to start doing some body weight exercises to get some strength back. I've also told myself that it's ok if I get back to climbing and it's harder than it was before everything shut down. That's perfectly normal. I am not looking forward to how much my fingers are going to hurt from climbing though.

4. Learn to slackline and freeline skate

This goal was made for stay at home orders. If only I would start working on them more. I think I've slacklined 4 times and freeline skated none. To be fair, we have gotten 3x as much rain as we normally do this time of the year. In March alone we got almost 40% more rain than we did the 1st three months of 2019. But hopefully we will get some sunny weather and I can tackle this goal. Hopefully I'll be able to say I can slackline by mid-year. Nothing crazy like doing an tricks, but make it across the line once. 

5. Get paid to do a STEM talk

Obviously there are no in person talks going on right now, and I didn't see this happening until late in the year anyway. I feel like I should be super focused on doing behind the scenes stuff to get these STEM talks going, but as I said at the beginning, I have a creative block going right now. This morning, I did an interview with Neil Thompson of TeachTheGeek.com. He has recently started a YouTube channel where he interviews public speakers and people in STEM. It's a small step, but it's a start towards this goal and goal #6. I'll post a link to the interview when he posts it.

6. Do more videos

This is another one that I feel like I should be killing it on right now with all this time at home, but between the creative block and feeling like I don't know what to say in a video, nothing has happened. Unless you count a TikTok video of me playing flappy bird with push ups... which I am totally counting... :-)

Doing virtual gatherings with family and friends during the stay at home time has made me a little more comfortable with seeing myself on camera. My favorite is the Zoom phone app because it makes your skin look really good. The trick to becoming comfortable is really to just do more and more of the things you are not comfortable with. So maybe after a few more video gatherings, it will just feel natural to see myself on video.  

I did the interview video from today (which was so much fun to do). And I posted a quick Instagram story while rollerblading last weekend. My goal was 3 videos a month, so I just need 1 more for April. Baby steps...

What I need is a more specific plan...

So overall I'd have to give myself a C for my progress towards 2020 goals. I have some valid reasons that I didn't do better on a couple of them (lots of travel, then stay at home orders, plus the brachialis injury), so I won't go so low as a D. But I need to step it up in Q2. I need a more specific plan for each of these goals.

For sleep, I'm going to get 8 hrs in bed at least 5 nights a week. For yoga, 1 hour a week in any increment at any time. Climbing is going to have to wait until stay at home has been relaxed, but I can put in 1 hour a week of either slackline or freeline skating. It's a small amount of time, but I'll start there. I'm going to have to think through the STEM talk goal to get a better plan going, but for now, if I can get to my 3 videos a month that will end up benefiting the STEM talk goal as well.

Ok, I have some smaller steps to work on before the end of Q2. Let's do this!


Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day 2020

Happy Pi Day!

It's March 14, or 3.14 today, also known as Pi Day. Like every "normal" photographer geek girl, I spent the day trying to create pi bokeh.

In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. It's basically the blurry lights in the background of pictures. The cool thing about bokeh is each point of light becomes the shape of the aperture of the camera.

The aperture is the opening in the lens where the light enters the camera. So depending on how out of focus it is, it can look soft and round or be a soft hexagon. The hexagon shape comes from the iris shape of the shutter. This means that changing the shape that the image is shot through, can change the bokeh.

So this week, I set out to make pi shaped bokeh. If you go far enough back with me, you know that my sister and I make soap. And specifically, for this post, a soap called Apple Pi, which is the shape of an apple with a pi in the middle. Get it... Apple Pi.... The pi was my template for the 1st attempt at pi bokeh, but it turned out too big. Version 2 was a smaller, hand drawn rendering made from the pi soap. 

I thought it'd be a good geeky tutorial for Pi Day, so here it is...

What you need...

You will need black construction paper or poster board, scissors, a pen or pencil, and something pi shaped (or whatever shape you want to make your bokeh).

Pi Bokeh_Supplies

Step 1 - Trace your Pi

Trace your pi shape. You want it to be smaller than your lens. I found that a smaller shape worked better than a larger shape in creating a more detailed bokeh shape. You may have to play with this some, especially if your shape is more complex, like pi. 

Step 2 - Cut out your Pi

Next carefully cut your pi shape out. I ended up using small precision scissors that I have for sewing (or maybe they are surgical scissors). After you cut your shape out, measure your lens diameter and cut around your pi so that you have a circle, with your pi centered in the middle, that is the same size as your lens.

Step 3 - Tape it all up

Next, I made a ring out of poster board that fit around my lens and taped the circle with the cutout pi in it to the ring.

Step 4 - Get a light source

Next, get a light source. I use fairy lights. They are cheap LED lights that make for good bokeh.

Step 5 - Set your camera up

Set your camera where you want to shoot from. Make sure the lights are blurry in the viewfinder so that you get good bokeh,. Now slide the ring over your lens so that it is as close to the lens glass as possible.

Step 6 - Take the picture

Next, take your pictures. You may need to play with the aperture and shutter speeds to get the image you want. I set my camera to Aperture Priority and used a F-stop of 1.8 for the shot at the top of the post.

Now that you know that you can make your own bokeh shape, try some other shapes and see you what like!

 


Good News! Every Industry has Engineers - You don't have to choose between your passion and engineering

World Engineering Day

Today is World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. UNESCO proclaimed March 4 of each year to be a day to promote engineering as a career of choice and show how engineering changes the world for the better of all.

I often talk to students, including friends' kids that are about to graduate high school, about degrees in science and engineering. They usually know that they like science of math, but don't quite understand what that means as far as a future career or whether they will like it.

I recently posted that I think that we are boring kids right out of STEM careers when we come home and complain about conference calls but never share about the cool product we got to design. Engineering jobs are so varied, that students have a hard time getting their heads around what all falls under the engineering umbrella.

Some of them are obvious. These are probably what people think of when they think of an engineer. Engineers design HVAC systems in buildings or parts for cars or the cars themselves. Chemical engineers work in oil and for big drug companies. Electrical engineers work in electronics. But what if your interests don't fall neatly into what is typically considered engineering fields.

Well, all industries have engineers. First of all, I strongly believe that an engineering degree provides a skill set that is needed in every company. An engineer's fundamental skills, like logical thinking and problem-solving are highly desirable to almost any company. Also, if you like any thing that is manufactured or made, then those companies need manufacturing engineers, process engineers, packaging engineers, and quality engineers. Even a very simple product, like a plastic cup, needs engineers in the manufacturing plants.

And it's a big bonus if a company can find an engineer that has good people skills. Do you like math but also want to interact with people instead of sit at a desk doing design work? Then sales for a technical product could be for you. Companies love technical people that they can put in front of a customer.

So these are some less talked about engineering options. But what if your interests still seem so different from engineering? Let's look at some less than obvious options.

What if you like...

Food

Food is chemistry. Food is science. Food can be foams and gels, thick or thin, hot or cold. Food needs to be safe. Prepackaged foods need to have a certain shelf life. You need to know the calorie content and how many carbs, fats, and proteins are in it. All of these things are things that a food scientist would do for a food company. Food scientists also test food for flavor, texture, and color as well.

Like chocolate? Ghiradelli chocolates has engineers. Like chips? Frito Lay has engineers too. If you are a mechanical engineer, you may not be in the chip development lab (surely something like that exists), but you get to be around your favorite food group and I bet there are some pretty nice chip perks.

Racing

Formula 1 race cars obviously have a high level of engineering. On top of the car design engineering stuff that has to happen, there are specialized fuels, materials, etc. Each component of the race car has its own engineering. Aerodynamics and data science are used extensively in racing teams. Race cars have sensors to measure everything you can imagine such as speed, temperature, pressure, RPM, throttle, G's, steering angle, and more. Analyzing this data allows them to make improvements in the cars.

There is also track design. Racetrack designers need to understand grading, drainage, and safety to name just a few things.

Fashion

You may not work on the runway or go to Milan during Fashion Week as an engineer, but the fashion industry has engineers as well. There's the need for quality engineers and other manufacturing and production engineers to make sure the clothes get to the customer as planned. But also, any fashion brand that has brick and mortar stores, is likely to have an engineering team that designs and operates the stores.

If you are a sneakerhead, maybe footwear design engineer is for you. Companies like Nike and Adidas have engineers look at the biomechanics of their shoe designs and researchers looking at different materials to get a leg up on the competition.

On top of that the wearable market is growing. Not just fitness trackers like the Fitbit, with are really technology companies that need fashion insight, but now we are seeing integrated smart clothes, such as heated or light up vests and jackets, health tracking shirts, and gesture controlled jackets. The amount of engineering going into fashion will only be increasing in the future.

Cosmetics

Cosmetics is chemistry. The makeup industry covers everything from lipstick formulas to powders to age defying night creams. Coming up with new products is all about chemistry. One of my favorite videos to show when I do STEM talks at schools is how I can combine oils and water to make lotion. Kids are usually blown away when they realize that you can make lotion.

And it's not just the makeup formulas that need engineers and scientists. There are also brushes, bottles, containers, etc. I can't imagine the amount of engineering design work that goes into the many different mascara brush shapes alone. Or what about pump designs, like the one bottle I have that has two chambers with two separate creams that the pump combines into one perfect blend on my finger. Many cosmetics, especially high end brands, have really nice packaging. A packaging engineer designed that.

Fireworks

Fireworks are also chemistry. Get a chemistry or chemical engineering degree if you want the job title pyrotechnic engineer. Different chemicals make the different colored fireworks. Fireworks engineers need to know how the chemicals will react to each other.

Entertainment

If you've ever watched MythBusters, then you know Jamie and Adam, who worked as special effect experts before starting the show. If you know them at all, you know it would be awesome to do what they do. Movies, TV, concerts, and sporting events all use engineers to create effects and wow the audience.

Engineers also work on set design. They design the mechanical systems used on stage or on the set. They design the hydraulic systems, pneumatic systems, and cable systems that make the sets and props move.

Cycling

Industries like cycling are highly technical and use a lot of engineering. Mechanical engineers design the bicycles. Just like in car racing, aerodynamics and data science are used extensively in cycling racing teams. And it's not just bicycles. Engineering goes into every part of the cycling industry. Companies that make the helmets and accessories want be aerodynamic and lightweight. They use wind tunnels and 3D printing. All super cool, super geeky stuff!

Amusement Parks

From the moment I took my first force measurement on the Shock Wave at Six Flags during an AP Physics class field trip when I was in high school, I wanted to design roller coasters. There's so much physics going on at amusement parks. Engineers had to do the math to be sure that you didn't fly off the roller coaster during the double loops or slide off the walls on the Spiniker as the floor dropped out from under you as it rotated. Anyone who has watched anything about Walt Disney's Imagineers knows that amusement parks are tons of engineering.

Sports

If you love sports, you can find a lot of engineering opportunities in the sports world. Companies that make sports equipment have design engineers, manufacturing engineers, quality engineers, etc, but did you know that sports teams also have engineers and scientists.

Sports engineers help teams solve problems. They may design equipment, analyze athletes' performance or the teams' performance, or develop coaching tools. Data science is used a lot in sports. Moneyball is a book made into a movie about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane, who used data analytics to build a winning baseball team on a small budget.

Toys

Who wants to be a Lego engineer. Before you could use your Lego kit to engineer a working Lego machine, Lego engineers had to design the Lego Technic system for you. Toys are high tech now and most toy companies hire engineers for product development. Plus there are always going to me the manufacturing, quality, and packaging engineer positions as well.

Every industry has engineers, so there are opportunities for anyone to combine their passion with an engineering or science career. So don't think you have to choose between something you like and engineering. Find a way to do them both!


7 Fascinating DNA Facts to Celebrate the Anniversary of the Double Helix

Watson Quote

Sixty seven years ago, on February 28, 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick first announced their discovery of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the building blocks of life. Their discovery was made possible by the x-ray crystallography images made by Rosalind Franklin.

In honor of this day, here are some fascinating facts about DNA.

1. DNA is crazy simple
DNA is so simple, yet creates all living things. DNA is made up of two strands that wrap together like two twisted ladders, called a double helix. The strands are made up of nucleotides tat are made up of just 4 nucleobases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The bases form pairs, where adenine can only pair with thymine and guanine can only pair with cytosine. (In RNA thymine is replaced by uracil (U). RNA is a more primitive form of DNA.)

The beauty of these pairs is that when the DNA strand double helix separates into single strands, the one-to-one pairing means that they can be rebuilt into two separate, identical strands for DNA. For instance if you had a strand that looked like this:

ATTTGCTGACCTG
TAAACGACTGGAC

When they separate, they make two single strands of ATTTGCTGACCTG and TAAACGACTGGAC. Since A only pairs with T and G only pairs with C, they can easily rebuild using the complimentary nucleobases and you end up with 2 identical strands.

Groups of 3 bases, or triplets, make a codon, which makes an amino acid. With just 20 amino acids, which connect based on the sequence called out in a gene and fold to form proteins. And proteins run everything in our body.

If bases were letters in a book, codons make up the words, genes which describe proteins would be the sentences, chromosomes made up of many genes would be the chapters, and you are the book.

2. Our DNA is shorter than we thought
Originally scientists thought that humans would have about 100,000 genes. As they started to sequence the human genome, that number was reduced to 35,000 and finally down to 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Compare that to the 19,000 genes that dogs have or the 14,000 genes of a mouse or the 51,000 genes of rice.

It turns out that being more complicated doesn’t require more genes. Human DNA has about 3 billion base pairs. An onion has about 16 billion, about 5 times more than us. The flower, Paris Japonica, has the largest DNA (that we know if now) with 149 billion base pairs. How can such a small flower have so much more DNA than us. Well...

3. We have a lot of junk genes
Most of the 3.2 billion bases in your DNA is often called junk DNA. In fact only about 3% of your DNA isn't junk. Junk DNA, also called non-coding DNA, does not code for proteins. Scientist have found that this non-coding DNA actually does some interesting things, such as acting like switches and signals to the coding DNA sections. 

But there is still some debate about whether the non-coding DNA is important or not. Some scientists believe that we use 80% of the non-coding DNA and others believe it's closer to 10%. And that brings us back to the onion, and more specifically, the Onion Test. The basic premise of the onion test is that if the onion on your counter has 149 billion base pairs and you believe that 80% of human DNA is doing something, then it's safe to reason that 80% of the onion's DNA is also doing something, so why do onions need so much more functioning DNA. Add to that that some types of onions have half as much DNA as others and some have double the DNA and you'd have to wonder what are these high DNA onions doing that the low DNA onions don't need to do.

4. DNA is longer than you think
One of my favorite random facts is that if you laid it end to end, the DNA inside a single cell in your body stretch 6ft. If you laid all the DNA in your body out end to end, it would reach from the Sun to Earth 600 times. 

How is this possible? Well DNA is extremely thin. It's about 2nm wide. Compare that to the human hair which is about 80,000 nm wide and it's still hard to image how thin DNA actually is.

5. There are a lot of common genes
We share 85% of our DNA with a mouse and 41% with a banana. All humans share 99.9% of our DNA with every other human. 

How can we be so similar to a banana? Well, many genes code for proteins that are necessary for basic cellular function like helping cells divide and making RNA. And as you look at more common animals like us and a mouse, you find that we have mostly the same structure, like bones, a heart, a brain, etc and the genes needed to build those are more of less the same.

6. There are 5 forms of DNA
Although all the forms of DNA have a double helix shape, there are 5 different types of DNA. They are B-DNA, Z-DNA, A-DNA, C-DNA, and D-DNA. They differ structure such as how many base pairs per turn in the helix. B-DNA is the most common.

The DNA Watson and Crick saw was B form DNA. A form DNA only appears when the relative humidity of the environment is less than 75% and is slightly wider than B-DNA at 2.3nm. Z-DNA is the only one that has a left handed coiled helix. It has a more zig zag structure and is the narrowest at 1.8nm. C form DNA forms under 66% humidity and the presence of certain ions. D form DNA is rare and E form DNA is in transition form B to A forms. There are some good images of A, B, and Z form DNA here.

7. You can extract DNA from a strawberry
You can see strawberry DNA for yourself with just some dish soap, alcohol, salt and a couple other things. It'll make DNA a little more real to them and they will get a kick out of how it looks like snot :-)

Here's how. (Here's a link to a guide for you to print out.)

You will need:
1 ziploc bag
2 strawberries
2 tsp of dish soap
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup of water
2 plastic cups
1 coffee filter
1/2 cup of cold rubbing alcohol
1 coffee stirrer

1. Pull off any green leaves that are still on the strawberry.

2. Put the strawberries in a plastic bag and smush them for about 2 minutes. This breaks up the cells where the DNA is.

3. In the plastic cup mix 2 tsp of dish soap, 1 tsp of salt and 1/2 cup of water

4. Add 2 tsp of the mixture above to your smushed strawberries.

5. Seal the ziploc and smash it again for a minute, but avoid making bubbles.

6. Put the coffee filter in one of the plastic cups and pour the smushed strawberry mixture into the filter.

7. Squeeze out all the liquid from the filter into the cup.

8. Slowly add the alcohol by pouring it down the side of the cup until you have about the smae amount of alcohol as strawberry liquid. Do not mix the liquids!

9. Within a few seconds, you will see a white cloudy substance on the top of the liquid.

10. Tilt the cup slowly and use the stirrer to pick up this white substance. This is DNA!

The discovery of the double helix and the nature of DNA revolutionized biology and medicine leading to a better understanding of topics from genetic diseases to forensics and more. And it all started 67 years ago today.

 


Today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering day - Here's 5 everyday things to get you started

Engineering Tools

OMG y'all! I've been so crazy busy that I almost missed that this is Engineers Week and today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day

The Engineers Week web page says that 74% of educators agree that students don't have many chances to meet engineers. Which is crazy because I saw one, my dad, every day for the better part of my first 23 or so years of life. Plus I'm pretty sure that 74% of my friends are in fact engineers, so we can fix this. Because if there is anything an engineer likes to do, it's fix things.

A couple years ago I met Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO of Girl Scouts of North Texas, and she told me that when they did STEM activities with girls, they had to tell them explicitly that the activity they were doing was engineering. Here's the thing when it comes to kids and engineering, they think it's either some boring job where you stare at your computer or they think you have to be Elon Musk to do it. The truth is that there's so much more to engineering.

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it a million more times, but engineering is everywhere. It's in every product you can think of. And it encompasses so many different disciplines so you can be an engineer who works on roller coasters, or cosmetics, or medicine, or even the glamorous world of HVAC like me. And that's only half joking because I have gotten to work on some incredible new buildings and designed new products.

So here's 5 everyday things that you can use to explain engineering.

1. Building things
This is probably the most obvious one, but anytime a child builds something, that's engineering. They don't have to know mechanical engineering to know that it's harder to stack a large block on top of uneven or smaller one. They use problem solving skills, a very important engineering skill, to make their buildings taller and taller.

2. Making slime
Slime is the most popular non-Newtonian fluid right now. Slime is chemistry, made of glue and slime activators (usually made of boron). The chemical bond that forms with you mix the glue with the activator changes the position of the molecules in the glue. They become tangled and that's what make the glue go from a runny liquid to a stretchy slime.

3. Cooking
Cooking is uses all sorts of science and engineering. I have an induction cook top, so it uses an electromagnet under the stove. When you put a ferromagnetic pan on top it induces a current in the pan, heating up what's inside it. The act of cooking is about thermodynamics and biochemistry. When you cook an egg, the proteins change shape from the heat which changes how light passes through them and makes the egg white go from transparent to opaque. There's a whole area of cooking called molecular gastronomy that's all about using science to make cool food like foams and gels.

4. Space
Literally everything in space! Stare at the sky. The sun is a giant ball of gas. So are the stars. Why do they twinkle? Because our atmosphere has different areas with different temperatures and densities. Kind of like how a spoon looks like it bends when it's placed in a glass of water as the light passes through different the densities of water and air. Some of the things in the sky at night are actually planets. Did you know you can fit all of the planets in our Solar System between the Earth and the moon.

5. Pretty much everything
Pretty much everything in your house has an engineering story to tell. How do lights turn on? Where does the TV signal come from and how does it get here? How do cars work? Ask them to ask questions or ask questions to them. If you don't know the answer, go look it up together.

We take so much for granted everyday, but engineering (and STEM) is all around you.


It's National Periodic Table Day

Chemicals in Glasses

In honor of National Periodic Table Day, let's talk about elements and chemicals.

The periodic table is a tabular display of the chemical elements, arranged by atomic number, electron configuration, and recurring chemical properties. There were many attempts to organize the chemical elements based on various groupings, such as gases, metals, nonmetals, and earths or weight. Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, started the development of the periodic table as we know it, based on atomic number, in 1869.

The periodic table currently has 118 elements on it, 94 of which occur naturally. The remaining 24 have been created by man. Elements 119, ununennium and 120, unbinilium have been predicted but have not yet been synthesized. They are expected to be synthesized soon.

Wikipedia defines chemicals as "a form of matter having constant chemical composition and characteristic properties....chemical substance cannot be separated into its constituent elements by physical separation methods." Depending on who is defining them, chemicals may or may not include the elements. A chemical is made from elements that are held together by chemical bonds.

The fact that many people talk about things being free from chemicals or that they don't want to use chemicals really irritates me because everything is a chemical or is made from chemicals. I think this is important to know and understand. Otherwise you get people who want to ban dihydrogen monoxide, aka water.

Let's look at some common chemicals you have around the house like the water, salt (pink Himalayan salt to be exact), and lit match in the image above.

Water

The water, of course, is H2O. Hydrogen (H), atomic number 1, is the lightest element in the periodic table. It is the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, constituting ~75% of all mass. Atomic hydrogen first occurred during the Big Bang. Water has 2 hydrogen atoms. Oxygen (O), atomic number 8, is a highly reactive nonmetal, and an oxidizing agent. It easily forms oxides with most elements as well as with other compounds (like iron to form rust). By mass, oxygen is the 3rd most abundant element in the universe. (Helium is the 2nd most abundant.) 

Some facts about water... About 60% of your body is water. Most of that water is in the form of a gel bound with hydrophillic (likes to bond with water) organic molecules which form the cytoplasm inside the cell membrane which holds it all together. 96.5% of the water on Earth is in the oceans. Only 3.5% is fresh water. Water is pretty unusual because we can see it as a solid, liquid, or gas. For most other chemicals, the temperature ranges that are needed to change state are pretty extreme. For instance, I didn't call oxygen a gas above, because oxygen at 54.36 K (−218.79 °C, −361.82 °F) is a solid. 

Water is super important. Let's not ban it :-)

Salt

Hopefully everyone also remembers that salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). The pink Himalayan salt also has trace minerals like potassium (K) and magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca). Sodium, atomic number 11,  is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal in group 1 on the periodic table. Being in group 1 means that it has only 1 electron in its outer shell. Sodium is the 6th most abundant element in the Earth's crust and exists in many minerals. Chloride, atomic number 17, is a yellow-green gas at room temperature. The most common chloride compound is salt.

Salt was so valuable in ancient Rome that soldiers were often paid with salt. The word salary comes from the Latin word for salt, sal. The word salad also originated from the word for salt because Roman salted their greens. Salt was considered valuable because it preserved food. As far back as 6050 BCE, the Egyptians used salt in religious offerings. One of the first known taxes was a tax on salt levied by Chinese emperor Hsia Yu in 2200 BCE.

Fire

The match head has a phosphorus (P) coating. The friction of striking the match ignites the phosphorus. As the match burns it is burning sulfur (S) and potassium chlorate (KCl) and releasing oxygen (O). Phosphorus, atomic number 15, exists in two major forms, white phosphorus and red phosphorus. Phosphorus is essential for life. DNA and RNA have a sugar phosphate backbone, so without it, we wouldn't exist. Adenosine triphosphate, ATP, the energy carrier of the body is made from phosphate. The energy we store from food is stored in the phosphate portion of ATP.

Sulfur, atomic number 16, is a bright yellow, crystalline solid at room temperature. Sulfur is the 10th most common element in the universe, and the 5th most common on Earth. Sulfur is the scent of brimstone and rotting eggs. Potassium, atomic number 19, is a silvery-white metal that is soft enough to be cut with a knife. Potassium is vital for the functioning of all living cells. The transfer of potassium ions across nerve cell membranes is necessary for normal nerve function. 

Fire is defined as the rapid oxidation of a material. The first fossil record of fire appears 470 million years ago. With land based plants, oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere. Wildfires could happen once it rose over 13%. Fire is obviously very important to humans historically. Controlling fire allowed us to cook, have light at night, and stay warm. Evidence of cooked food is found as far back as 1.9 million years ago, but controlled fire probably dates back about 1 million years.

As far the match itself, it was actually invented after the lighter. At least the match as we know it today. The first lighter was invented in 1823 by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner. The friction match was first introduced 3 years later in 1826 by English chemist John Walker.

Everything is a chemical or made from chemicals. It's amazing to me that the 94 naturally occurring elements on the periodic table combine in so many ways that they create everything in the Universe.

Celebrate National Periodic Table Day by talking to your kids about some of the chemicals they see and use every day.

 


Happy Kid Inventors Day!

Kid Inventor Day

Today is Kid Inventors Day. It is celebrated each year on Benjamin Franklin's birthday, January 17. It's a day to celebrate the accomplishments of kid inventors.

Here are just a few things invented by kids.

Swim Flippers - Since it is his birthday, lets start with Benjamin Franklin's first invention, the swim flippers, which he invented at the age of 11. Franklin loved swimming. He made a pair of oval wooden planks with holes in the center, which, by grasping the planks with his hands, gave him extra thrust when swimming.

The Trampoline - Sixteen year old gymnast George Nissen invented the trampoline in 1930 after watching trapeze artists landing on nets after their stunts. His first bouncing rig was a piece of canvas sheet strapped to a steel frame. In 1934, with the help of his coach Larry Griswold, he added tire inner tubes to give it extra spring.

Christmas Lights - Originally Christmas lights were just candles put into Christmas trees. As you can imagine, this was a bit hazardous. In 1917, 15 year old Albert Sadacca invented an inexpensive string of light bulbs for Christmas trees.

Toy Trucks - Robert Patch invented the toy truck. At 6 years old, he is probably the youngest US inventor. His prototype was made out of cardboard and bottle caps.

Superman - One of my favorite on this list is Superman, who was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, both 17 years old.

All of these were before the 1970's. With the access to information and the pace of technology today, imagine the amazing things kids will invent in the future. 


Are adults boring kids right out of STEM?

Are adults boring kids out of STEM

So hear me out on this one. Don't take it personally, but I think a lot of adults are boring kids right out of studying STEM. Kids form their early opinions about STEM from their interactions with adults, primarily teachers and parents. We aren't doing it on purpose, but what do these conversations look like...

Conversations with teachers about STEM often surround learning coursework and the requirements to pass a test. Not usually riveting conversations to start with. Also a 2011 study found that about 30% of STEM teachers in K-12 public schools do not have a degree in the field they are teaching. So while they can teach the curriculum in the class, they may not have the same excitement and passion for it as someone who does. They also may not be as able to correlate the topic to everyday things that the kids can connect with. 

Part of the reason for this is that there really aren't enough STEM teachers in the US, so teachers from other fields are being asked to teach STEM classes. Or worse, the STEM classes are just not offered. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of minority students don’t offer Algebra II and a third don't offer chemistry. Without Algebra II you really can't move on to math, physics, or most engineering degrees. Those degrees, plus chemistry, are not off the table for these kids, but it will definitely be a struggle for them, which in all likelihood means they won't be interested in them in the first place.

I have always been interested in STEM, but my high school physics teacher was awesome and he's the reason I got a physics degree. A great teacher can make a big difference.

With parents, at some point a child will ask what their engineer, software developer, etc parent does at work and the parent says, "I stare at a screen all day" or " I sit in meetings all day" or some other version of the usually not so exciting world that is most people's day to day job. Or maybe you explain what you are working on and are really excited about that complicated spreadsheet you created, but don't realize that it's not that exciting from a child's point of view. (Let's face it, technical types are not always the greatest with connecting with people. If they were, there wouldn't be a book called People Skills for Engineers.) Can you imagine a child getting excited about a future in STEM (or really any career) after that conversation. Later, when kids are thinking about college, the conversations with their parents switch to what degree to get and the conversation probably switches to how good a STEM degree is or how much easier it'll be to get a job. Important and practical facts, but again, not really something that gets high school kids excited. 

Personally, I sit in on about 30 hours of conference calls a week. But the way I see it, my job is to take technology and data to make people's jobs easier and the conference calls are part of how I do it. When I talk to kids about STEM, I'm honest and tell them that day to day can be a lot of meetings and that you have to work your way up in companies, but that you can be involved in cool things in cool industries with a STEM degree. When I talk to kids about whether they should pursue a STEM degree, I tell them that with a STEM degree, you can still work in other jobs if engineering, etc isn't for you, but it'll be tough to be able to work in a STEM job without a STEM degree.

We also tend to leave out the creativity needed for problem solving, which is a big part of STEM jobs. Several of the girls I've talked top about their college plans, how been torn between something creative and something in STEM. Being in STEM doesn't mean giving up creativity. They are not mutually exclusive. You can't design new things without being creative. You can't solve the problems of the future without creative thinking. 

I also think that what people think of when they think of engineers, scientists, etc is very stereotypical. That's the way they are depicted in the media for sure. But there are so many types of engineers and scientists. And so many companies that are not considered technology companies have engineers and scientists. There are chemists at cosmetic companies and food companies. There are mechanical engineer at any company that does manufacturing. Sports teams have data scientists. STEM positions even need creativity. And so on. When I talk to kids about STEM, I point to their chairs and tell them that there was an engineer that designed it. Someone had to make sure the legs could hold their weight and someone had to oversee the molding of the seat, and so on. Even simple things need engineering. STEM is everywhere!

So let's stop boring kids out of STEM and show them how varied STEM can be.