The NAMS Research Symposium at Stockton University – Friday, April 17

Just a brief announcement that the NAMS Research Symposium, which features research by NAMS students with faculty, is this Friday, April 17 in the C/D Atrium on the Main Campus of Stockton University. Students will be at their posters between 3-5PM.

You can see the research our students are doing by downloading the NAMS Research Symposium Abstract Booklet 2015.

You can tweet about the event with the hashtag #OspreySci

You can also join us on Facebook.

Advertisements

A hopeful message for those pursuing basic science careers

Giving advice often comes out sounding hollow or self-serving, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to give some hope to young people considering a career in the basic sciences.  My message is simple: you have choices.  That is what I feel needs to be said after reading several recent articles about the pitfalls and difficulties of landing science jobs in the academe.

Take, for example, the article posted by John Skyler at Talebearing about pursuing a science career. Everything this article discusses, from the crushing debt that can be incurred, to the delays in life transitions, to the difficulties in procuring grants, is all, sadly, very real.  And yet, this article, like so many, gives a somewhat skewed vision of what success is in the sciences: becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, the scientific team leader) at an R1 (a large, research-focused university).  There is an often unspoken assumption that success in science = a research heavy / team-leading position in a coveted and highly competitive corner of the market (medicine, bioengineering, etc.).

One way to think of this is by analogy to the music industry.  How many people long to be rock stars, living years in poverty hoping for a shot in a very competitive and harsh business, and often never succeeding in achieving that goal?  Of the few that do make it into stardom, many face almost inhuman pressures to keep producing hits, keep touring, and keep current.  A lot of burn out happens at all levels.  But, of course, there are other avenues to pursuing a career in music.  Perhaps not always so glamorous, sure, but there are many more job opportunities for sound engineers, writers, teachers, studio musicians, and so forth, all with music creation at their heart.  If you work a job in music that you love, you are a success — not just the rock stars.

The same is true for science careers.  If you are interested in basic science, there are several paths you can follow and there are more opportunities outside of the handful of very competitive jobs at the top rungs of the R1 universities.  I speak from experience and from honesty — there are choices.

Yes, we need intense basic research and our federal dollars need to increase to support the motivated souls who push the frontiers of knowledge in R1s day in and day out. But science also needs a lot of people who can juggle research and teaching both effectively, bringing research knowledge to undergraduates and laypeople, conveying the body of knowledge we generate to the public at large.  Being a good science teacher at a college or university is not a booby prize — there is a lot of skill and dedication required to reach the next generation of scientists and, dare I say, politicians.  You can derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy by turning new minds on to science.

And, once and for all, let’s end the myth that says that those of us who teach larger course loads cannot produce quality research.  We can and we do, often involving undergraduates in their first research experiences.  So if you love teaching as well as doing quality research, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in the sciences — know that it can be done.

Be flexible.  Be willing to consider alternate paths to your career.  If you can teach certain subjects, your probability of landing a tenure-track job improves.  For example, for those of us in vertebrate paleontology, knowing your anatomy and being willing and able to teach it can open many more doors than if you only search for dedicated paleontology positions.  Remember that science is not one size fits all — just because you might not get a particular type of position does not mean there is nothing else to do and that your life is a failure.  Science benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches that cannot all occur in one setting.

Please don’t take this post to mean I think it will all go swimmingly.  I recognize that I am fortunate to have a tenure-track job, and that many equally or better-qualified individuals currently do not.  I am in no way trying to paint an overly rosy picture — pursuing a science career can be difficult.  It is also true that a Ph.D. is not enough — preparedness, networking, luck, timing, and tenacity all play large roles in how and where we land our jobs.  On top of all of this, there are also still, unfortunately, barriers related to gender and race that make a difficult career even more difficult for many talented individuals.

What I hope I can impart to those pursuing basic science careers is that whereas there are many difficulties you will face, there is not just one path to being successful.  Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standards.  You have enough obstacles as it is without also burdening yourself with one ideal of success.  It is possible to be happy and productive as a scientist in many different ways, and I wish you much luck and future success.

The BFF Lab Students and Faculty in the Spotlight!

Black Beard the Bearded dragon,

Black Beard the Bearded dragon. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

I am excited to report that the Best Feet Forward (BFF) Lab has had its first local news story! Susan Allen at the Office of News & Media Relations at Stockton College has written a wonderful article that was distributed to the associated press today.  We thank Susan for this wonderful story, which we reproduce here in this post (see below).  All photos are copyright Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

——

Stockton College Researchers Analyze Locomotion of Modern Day Reptiles, Mammals to Understand How Dinosaurs Moved

By Susan Allen, Office of News & Media Relations, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Galloway Township, NJ- Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major, cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes, a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm. Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Black Beard, as the lizard is nicknamed, is one of three juvenile bearded dragons at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey taking part in an animal locomotion research project aimed at better understanding how dinosaurs once moved across our planet.

After body measurements were recorded, Black Beard was placed on a treadmill surrounded by a system of three infrared cameras and plastic containers that serve as safety nets in case a reptile runner strays off course.

As soon as Bayewu shook a clear jar of jumping crickets, Black Beard sprang into action. Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, flipped the conveyor belt switch, the treadmill kicked on and the cameras began transmitting data to Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.  Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Sophomore Biology majors Kieran Tracey and Alex Hilbmann stood close by, making sure Black Beard stayed on the treadmill.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

While Black Beard ran in place, the cameras captured the motion of each reflective bead sending real experimental data at the overwhelming rate of 120 frames-per-second to a computer program that can read and display the data as moving dots.

From behind their monitor, Bonnan, of Hammonton, and Shulman, of Egg Harbor Township, watched each step on their screen.

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we're able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. (c) Photo: Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Stepping Back in Time

“Without a time machine, we can’t put dinosaurs on a treadmill,” said Bonnan, who has been fascinated with dinosaurs since he was 5 years old. Instead, bearded dragons, ferrets, rats and a Savannah monitor are “standing in for their ancestors” at the Best Foot Forward (BFF) Laboratory on the main Galloway, NJ campus.

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Bridget Kuhlman (left), a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble (right), a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

“Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan.

The fossil record offers scientists a motionless slice of history. Bonnan and his team have turned to optical tracking technology to tell more of the story.

“Our ultimate goal is to realistically model and place constraints on how fossil vertebrates, such as dinosaurs and early mammals, moved their forelimbs,” Bonnan explained.

The team is quantitatively illustrating the motion of modern day reptiles and mammals and using bone shape as a common denominator to make comparisons between their laboratory stand-ins and dinosaurs.

Bonnan’s lifelong desire has been to “reconstruct long-dead animals and breathe life into old bones.”

Step-by-step, his vision is coming to life with the support of colleagues, student researchers and staff within the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Blending Physics and Biology

To model motion, math and physics come into play. Bonnan’s friend and colleague, Dr. Jason Shulman, joined the team lending his numerical analysis expertise. “Jason Shulman is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan.

Early in the Physics curriculum, students learn to calculate angles and speed, which means that undergraduates are prepared to take part in real research outside of textbook exercises Shulman said.

Sometimes Physics majors wonder why they need to study Biology and vice versa. The animal locomotion research is an example of how the sciences work together. “It’s important for students to understand concepts outside of their field—that’s an important lesson I hope we convey.

The interdisciplinary collaboration is perfect for Physics students,” said Shulman.

Campus-wide Support

The bearded dragons were donated to Bonnan by student Kiersten Stukowski, of Gloucester in Camden County. Scientists rarely have the opportunity to work on a long-term project with the same specimens as they mature explained Bonnan.

Justine Ciraolo, director of Academic Laboratories and Field Facilities, connected Bonnan with her sister, who is loaning her ferrets to the team.

One of our ferrets, "Mocha."

One of our ferrets, “Mocha.” Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

When the reptiles and mammals aren’t in the lab, they are cared for by John Rokita, principal animal health lab technician, who has been instrumental in acquiring specimens for Bonnan.

“None of this would have been possible without the support of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Stockton’s Institutional Animal Care and Usage Committee. It is rare for undergraduates to get this experience. On every level this is teamwork and everyone has been incredibly helpful,” said Bonnan.

The Student Researchers

Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major, of West Deptford in Gloucester County, says he’s learned all about lizards while building a foundation to better understand the kinematics (or science of motion) during his independent study. “It wasn’t always easy to get them to run,” he admitted. Hilbmann plans to go on to medical school after Stockton.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major who’s from Maywood in Bergen County, started out working with rats on the treadmill, but “they didn’t always want to move.” Since he joined the team, he’s witnessed the differences in movement among different species.

Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major, of Seaville in Cape May County, took Comparative Anatomy with Dr. Bonnan, which he says opened up his interest along the evolutionary tree. The research has really illustrated “how different their walking habits are.” Barnes is a veterinary technician at Beach Buddies Animal Hospital in Marmora and hopes to attend veterinary school.

Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, of Point Pleasant in Ocean County, has always had an interest in dinosaurs and reptiles. The research project was “right up my alley,” he said. The aspiring veterinary assistant has three snakes, one tarantula, one dog and a pond of koi fish. However, it was in the BFF Lab that he held his first bearded dragon. They are surprisingly calm, he said.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major, of Sea Isle City in Cape May County, said, “I’m having a lot of fun working with lizards and watching them run,” and added that the experience is giving him important exposure to research in preparation for medical school. He looks forward to “analyzing how [the data] relates to dinosaurs.”

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, "Mocha" as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, “Mocha” as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests.

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c)

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Contact:         Susan Allen
                        Office of News & Media Relations
                        Galloway Township, NJ 08205
                        Susan.Allen@stockton.edu
                        (609) 652-4790

Forelimb kinematics research off and running in the BFF Lab

Just a brief note: our forelimb kinematics research on lizards and mammals is off and running (pun intended) in the BFF Locomotion Lab.  This semester, several teams of undergrads from biology and physics are working with myself and Dr. Jason Shulman (Physics) on a variety of projects to explore the typical range of motion and posture in lizard and mammal forelimbs.

Corey Barnes (left) and Alex Lauffer are working with a bearded dragon lizards to determine the typical range of motion in their forelimbs.

Corey Barnes (left) and Alex Lauffer are working with bearded dragon lizards to determine the typical range of motion in their forelimbs.

A close up of one of our bearded dragons, decked out with optical tracking markers.

A close up of one of our bearded dragons, decked out with optical tracking markers.

Undergrad Bridget Kuhlman coaxing one of our ferrest, "Mocha," with ferret treats to walk on the treadmill.

Undergrad Bridget Kuhlman coaxing one of our ferrets, “Mocha,” with ferret treats to walk on the treadmill.

The BFF Lab is thriving thanks to the help of NAMS lab staff.  We particularly want to thank Justine Ciraolo, Chrissy Schairer, Bill Harron, Mike Farrell, and Mike Santoro for their invaluable help in acquiring lab space and with technical assistance, and Deanne Gipple for help with student safety and animal welfare training.  None of this would occur without the assistance and animal care provided by John Rokita and the animal lab staff and volunteers.  We also thank NAMS Dean Dennis Weiss and the Biology and Physics programs for their continued support and assistance with our research endeavors.  Finally, we give a special “shout out” to the Stockton Federation of Teachers for their strong encouragement of faculty research “without walls.”  Thanks everyone!

Dinosaur hand and forelimb posture might have been more diverse than previously hypothesized

Turn a doorknob and you are taking advantage of what anatomists call pronation and supination: the ability to rotate your hand palm-side down (pronation) or palm-side up (supination).  This ability stems from your bone geometry: the radius bone in your forearm is curved can pivot around your ulna, rotating your hand in the process.  Drop to the floor and crawl, and your hand is pronated by crossing the radius over the ulna just as it is for mammals which walk on all-fours like elephants, dogs, and cats.

Pronation and supination of the hand by rotating the radius bone over the ulna in humans. (c) 2013 M.F. Bonnan.

Pronation and supination of the hand by rotating the radius bone over the ulna in humans. (c) 2013 M.F. Bonnan.

In our paper published this week in PLOS ONE, my former student, Collin VanBuren (now a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK) and myself suggest that most dinosaurs could not actively pronate their hands (that is, turn doorknobs) because their radius could not cross their ulna. Our conclusions were reached after analyzing the bones of nearly 300 specimens representing living birds, reptiles, mammals, and dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Triceratops.

Difference in radius bone geometry are correlated to some degree with forelimb posture.

Difference in radius bone geometry are correlated to some degree with forelimb posture.

Statistical analysis of radius geometry shows that dinosaurs most often have a straight radius bone with a non-circular head (the part that allows movement at the elbow), a shape similar to those of lizards, crocodiles, and birds.  These animals cannot actively pronate their hands, and in lizards and crocodiles this radius geometry is correlated with a non-erect forelimb posture.  In contrast, most land mammals show a curved radius geometry that enables the forelimb to be held erect and the hand to be pronated.  Mammals like ourselves have a well-rounded radial head that allows the radius to actively swivel around the ulna.  Tellingly, the only mammals in our sample that resembled reptiles, birds, and dinosaurs were the primitive, sprawling egg-laying duck-billed platypus and spiny echidna.

Our findings are significant in that they show dinosaur forelimb posture was not mammal-like and, possibly most importantly, more diverse than previously appreciated.  For example, radius shape suggests the forelimb posture and range of pronation in horned dinosaurs like Triceratops was more like those of a crocodile than a rhino.  In another example, the radius geometry of the giant, long-necked sauropods such as Apatosaurus don’t comfortably group with living reptiles, birds, or mammals, suggesting that their forelimb postures were achieved in anatomically novel ways.  Ultimately, our data strongly suggest that we must re-evaluate our conceptions of how dinosaurs could and could not use their forelimbs.

We can also breathe a sigh of relief: most predatory dinosaurs could not open our doors.

I  must give a big shout out and expression of gratitude to Collin — his dedication to this project, through several starts and stops, is what finally saw it through.  That we landed this research in a venue like PLOS ONE is that much more of a testament to his perseverance to get this science out there.  It means a lot to me that we got this out and into open-access: this represents the accumulation of some of my inferences and hypotheses on dinosaur forelimb posture since my graduate school days.  I also want to acknowledge the influence and inspiration of some fellow dinosaur forelimb fanatics, namely Ray Wilhite, Phil Senter and Heinrich Mallison.  All are colleagues and friends, and all have also in their own unique ways put dinosaur forepaws front and center — I encourage you to check out their research!

Read our paper, which is open access: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0074842

Evolution, climate change, and uncertainty: why understanding the process of science matters

As the National Center For Science Education has been demonstrating for some time now, denying biological evolution and denying climate change are part of a larger phenomenon related to science illiteracy.   But I think we often tend to conflate the knowing of scientific data with knowing the process of science itself.  As a college professor, I can tell you that  smart students who know a lot about the natural world don’t always actually know the process of science.  In one of my first lectures to undergraduates in the introductory biology majors course, when I press them to define science, hypothesis, and so on, very few can.  And I have come to believe that our current societal issue with accepting science is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process, not simply a dearth of facts.

In my undergraduate days, I was a climate change denier.  That’s correct — I felt that the evidence was at best equivocal for global warming.  If you couldn’t prove it directly, how confident could we be?  In fact, I felt a good amount of the environmental “science” out there was nothing more than misplaced hysteria or political propaganda. For those who do know me and my political leanings, you are probably surprised.

So I speak from experience when I say that I understand the reservations among many people when it comes to climate change.  Ask any climate scientist, and they will never tell you with 100% certainty that their predictions will come to pass.  In fact, these scientists rely on models of climate, and those models are a hypothesis of reality, not reality itself.  Remember, I was a science major with aspirations of becoming a paleontologist, so my undergraduate self decided that if we couldn’t be certain, we shouldn’t go around broadcasting that it was the end of the world.  In my undergraduate head, the best science was certain, and that was why paleontology was so difficult — a lot of uncertainty.

So here’s the thing — a climate scientist can show you a lot of data (see below), and can tell you based on their expertise which are the most probable outcomes of current trends, but if you were my undergraduate self, you would not be convinced.

From Wikipedia Commons: “This image is a comparison of 10 different published reconstructions of mean temperature changes during the 2nd millennium.”

Whether or not my younger self (let alone my older self) was stubborn or simply a bit daft (probably both), I again point out a key feature in the thought process: if it isn’t certain, it’s not good science.

So, the assumption or implication that good science is certain is the first part of the puzzle.  The second part of the stubbornness by many of us to accept climate change or perhaps biological evolution is that we want evidence presented in a court room.  We want the TV show Law & Order, and we want the good lawyer to give us an iron-clad argument, or to show that our opponent is a lesser person, or to literally give us a smoking gun.  We are convinced that science works like this, and that the person with the best argument and evidence wins.  And most importantly, that the winner stays the winner.  Nothing can ever overturn the win.  Good science should be certain and win the day’s argument, for now and forever.

But of course, science has little or nothing to do with certainty and court room drama.  There is no certainty in science — there is simply probability.  Because a good scientist recognizes that we are only human, and we can only realistically deal in samples, we can’t measure every aspect of the known universe, and we certainly can’t have all the data on all the clouds, carbon dioxide, and local temperatures.  Therefore, a good scientist will never say they have “proved” something — rather, they will indicate that their data suggest certain scenarios are more probable than others.  The higher the probability, the more confident one can be that the predictions may come to pass.

It took a while for this concept to sink in with me.  It took graduate school and having to do science, and taking an excellent seminar from Professor Emeritus Ronald Toth at Northern Illinois University, that finally made science as a process click.

(As an important aside, much of my thinking as a scientist I owe to Ron — so the “smart” stuff I say about evolution and science are me emulating him.  My evolution podcasts and understanding evolution website are extensions [and I hope a sincere form of flattery] of Ron’s approach.  Thank you, Ron!)

That means, as someone who earned a B.S. in Geology with a Biology major, I had no real concrete idea about science as a process!  I am not surprised nor judgmental that many of our undergraduates, let alone the larger public, don’t understand this either — but this I believe is what needs to be most addressed.

Even if you do succeed in uncovering something new or accurately predicting a trend, there will always be new data. The complaint you often hear about science is how we keep changing our damn minds — we knew Pluto was a planet, or we knew that birds were not dinosaurs, or we knew that cholesterol was bad, and so on. But the process of science requires that one keep testing the hypothesis, and to incorporate new data as it comes in.  So we’re not changing our minds to tick you off — we adapting our models and our understanding of the natural world as more data come rolling in.

What I realized at long last in graduate school was that scientists speak in probabilities.  And when you think about it, we deal in probabilities all the time, and we make decisions based on those probabilities, and we are okay with that.  Every time you get in a car, there is a probability you will be in an accident … but you probably still get in that car.  Imagine if someone told you that unless you could 100% guarantee that no accidents would ever occur, it was pointless to drive.

Okay, but now for something more ominous: what about the probability that you will get sick if you ingest salmonella bacteria.  I have been sickened myself by this nasty “bug,” and many people have died from salmonella poisoning.  But there will always be cases where someone ingests salmonella or another pathogen and doesn’t become sick.  Now imagine a friend tells you that since every time a person has ingested salmonella they haven’t always become ill or died, we don’t have enough data to know whether or not it is truly deadly.  Therefore, wasting money and resources on preventing the spread of salmonella is not advisable because we can’t know with 100% certainty that everyone who ingests it will get sick or die.  This person would probably not remain your friend for long.

Probability in science works along this spectrum — from low to high odds.  Low odds: you will be hit in the head and killed by a rouge meteorite tomorrow.  High odds: the climate will continue to change, with an overall trend toward higher global temperatures.  Can we be certain climate will change in these ways?  Not 100%.  But the probabilities are high … and that’s why we should be concerned: the scientific predictions of increasing global temperatures suggest our world will change in ways that, if we are not prepared, will be devastating.  Of course, we could wait until we’re certain, and we could wait for the ultimate court room battle of the sciences … but if the probabilities are high, why wait?  What are waiting for?  Waiting for all the data to come in (which will never happen) and waiting for 100% certainty (which will never happen) is simply another way of doing nothing in the face of probable danger.

If you understand that the process of science is by its very nature is one based on probability, not certainty, I think we begin to get to the heart of the scientific illiteracy problem.  Giving people more and more data won’t help if they sincerely believe that uncertainty means no one knows anything.  This is, I believe, the core issue with science literacy — and why our politicians, our media, and our public are so often mislead to disregard good science and its important predictions that effect us all.

Dr. Bonnan making presentations about dinosaurs in Atlantic County, New Jersey

Just a short post to say that I am happy to be giving a number of presentations on dinosaurs and paleontology to local Atlantic County, New Jersey public libraries.  I am a huge supporter of anything that improves scientific literacy and encourages children to consider careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

Dr. Bonnan as Dr. Diplodocus at the Egg Harbor Township public library.

Dr. Bonnan as Dr. Diplodocus at the Egg Harbor Township public library.

You can see my schedule by clicking here.