Category: In the Spotlight

Bees with Mohawks: Spotlight on Native Bee Researcher Joan Meiners

When you picture a bee, the honey bee with black and yellow stripes may come to mind. A social insect introduced to the North American continent in the 17th century, the honey bee is often kept for honey and for pollinating food crops. We’ve heard a lot about honey bees in the news due to the risk of colony collapse and the agricultural impacts it could have. However, honey bee research overshadows attempts to identify and analyze the numerous native bee species living in the wild. One scientist working to close the knowledge gap is ecologist and environmental data journalist Joan Meiners. I interviewed her to understand the significance of her work, the daily life of a bee researcher and her role as a woman in STEM.

Meiners recently published a research paper on the native bee biodiversity in Pinnacles National Park, about 40 miles east of Carmel in California. Following up on a previous survey of the region, she and her colleagues wanted to sample the area to monitor the level of native bee biodiversity. Compared to honey bees, native bees live more solitary lifestyles and have more selective habits when it comes to pollination.

Meiners and her team took pleasure in the process of identifying about 50,000 different bee specimens. “Bees are beautiful and fun to identify. They can be metallic blue, bright green, have little mohawks of hair on their heads or interesting ridges on their exoskeletons.” Even the delicate patterns of the wing veins provide species variation clues. In total, she and her colleagues found 450 different bee species in the surveyed region.

And while this number seems impressive upon first glance, Meiners pointed out that there are relatively few studies available for comparison, citing just 23 similarly extensive surveys in the entire United States. She emphasized that Pinnacles National Park is the only area where scientists have surveyed native bee populations over multiple decades, allowing scientists to better track trends over time. “Without repeated sampling, what we know about wild bee decline is complicated by all this natural fluctuation and actually pretty restricted to agricultural areas, where we know they don’t really live.” In short, Meiners would like to see more native bee research done in the future.

Meiners’ research not only helps to advance our knowledge about native bee populations in Pinnacles National Park, but it also lays the foundation for further research. “In the paper, I really tried to highlight this point that more studies like ours are needed to really understand the value of natural habitats (before they’re gone) and the status of native bee decline”. By researching native bees with their uniquely interdependent relationship with plants, scientists can gain insight into the overall ecological health of a region.

Melissodes tristis: a native bee species recovered from Pinnacles National Park.
Photo courtesy of Joan Meiners.

Wild, native bees are key ecosystem service providers in both natural and agricultural landscapes. Compared to the unstable European honey bee, on which United States agriculture is heavily dependent, little is known about the four thousand North American species of native bees…

Meiners et al. (2019) Plos ONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207566

But how is this done in practice? As part of her routine, Meiners collects bees by laying colorful “bee bowls” filled with soapy water that attract the bees and preserving them in ethanol. Otherwise, she catches them in a net and then transports them in vials. For this, she roams through a specific sampling area each day. Rather than spotting them by eye, Meiners usually listens carefully to her surroundings to find bees: “You learn to be able to differentiate the flight patterns and the sound of a bee versus a fly versus a wasp flying.” By now, she has become so attuned to identifying different insects this way that her ears remain alert off the clock.

Once she collects the bees from nature, Meiners takes them back to the lab to be pinned and labelled. She’ll store the bees in climate-controlled boxes to prevent beetles from eating their specimens. Meiners explained that in order to identify bees under a microscope, they must be killed. The samples they collect, however, do not make a significant dent in the overall population of the many native bee species, most of which only live as adults for about a month.

Of course, I wanted to know how many times she had been stung. Her response surprised me: “The answer is five, though I’ve collected and handled at least 10,000 bees. It’s only five because native bees aren’t as aggressive as honey bees. Most of the species are solitary or less social than honey bees, so they aren’t guarding a hive and have less reason to want to sting you to protect it.” These five stings were typically encounters with unseen bees in the net.

Meiners’ interest in bees began in eighth grade, when she wrote a research paper on honey bees and won third place in the Colorado state science fair for a related experiment. Encouraged by her teacher, a female scientist, this early success sparked a lifelong vocation as a scientist. She later attended Mount Holyoke College, the first institution of higher education for women in the U.S. and she considers its all-female campus a factor that contributes to her success. “It’s about prioritizing women and education,” Meiners said. Namely, she didn’t learn to “let men speak first or dominate the conversation,” and she left university feeling empowered in the workforce. “I don’t let anyone tell me to be quiet about things I think are important.”

Joan Meiners studies native bee populations in Pinnacles National Park.

Joan Meiners’ educational background and career is not limited to bees, either. She majored in neuroscience and worked at a coastal ecology lab to research sea turtles and crab ecology, followed by research on the Canada Lynx in Colorado. She also works hard to bring science issues into the public sphere in her role as an environmental data journalist: “[I]f you stop spending time on a project once it’s published in the academic literature, it often never achieves its potential or metamorphoses into any policy changes.” Her goal is to get more projects that would normally be locked up in the “ivory tower” pushed through to the public sphere. She feels that by accurately gauging audiences, journalists can expose more scientific research, not just “flashy” research, so it sees the light of day outside of academia.

About the author: Erica Eller is a freelance writer and editor focusing on sustainability and conservation. Originally from the US, she currently lives in Istanbul. Website: https://ericaeller.com, Twitter: @ericaeller

Maths Through Stories: A Profile of Dr Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai

Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai founded MathsThroughStories.org, a non-profit research-based initiative which sets out to encourage teachers and parents globally to help children learn mathematics more effectively and, equally important, more enjoyably through storytelling. The website offers various evidence-based and freely available resources, including support for children to make their own stories. One of the research projects he leads, Representation of Girls and Women in Mathematics-specific Picturebooks, finds that female characters are significantly underrepresented in mathematical picturebooks when compared to their male counterparts.

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research that led to this project? In particular, why is it important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in learning mathematics through storytelling?

MathsThroughStories.org draws from a body of research over the past three decades that highlights pedagogical benefits of teaching mathematical concepts through storytelling, particularly in the form of story-picture books. One of these research projects has been conducted in a few different countries (including England, Ireland, and Malta). It is an investigation into teachers’ self-reported frequency of using story-picture books in their mathematics instruction as well as their perceived barriers to (and perceived enablers for) the integration of stories in mathematics teaching. A key finding is that while early years practitioners regularly make use of storytelling as part of their daily mathematics teaching, teachers of primary (elementary) school children (5-11 years old) are much less aware of such teaching approach. The principal reported barrier is the lack of awareness (and hence pedagogical knowledge) of how story-picture books can be incorporated into mathematics teaching. Thus, MathsThroughStories.org wants to help raise teachers’ awareness in this area, and to essentially encourage them in giving this approach a go.

In terms of why it is important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in mathematical stories, I draw from the idea of Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada and Ross (1972), that picture books are read to children when they are most impressionable and when they are forming their self-images and future expectations of themselves. Imagine a classroom where the teacher only reads mathematical stories where boys and men are always the protagonist solving problems using their mathematical knowledge and skills, while girls and women are secondary characters lurking behind a tree. If you are a girl listening only to stories with such characteristics, how would you see yourself in relation to mathematics now and in the future? Thus, as educators and parents, we need to critically examine what otherwise seems to be a very colourful, cute and harmless educational resource.

A young girl looks up thoughtfully as she writes in class
How would girls see themselves in mathematics?

 

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“I Don’t Need the Most Expert Expert Who Ever Experted”: Q & A with Journalist Mika McKinnon

Men dominate media: in news rooms and stories, they get more exposure on camera, more by-lines and are quoted more often. An analysis of  2,353,652 news articles covering 12 topic categories from over 950 news outlets over a six month period ending in April, 2015 showed that mentions of men ranged from 69.5% in Entertainment to 91.5% in Sports. The only exception was Fashion, where women edged out men slightly at 54%. A more recent analysis by science writer Ed Yong of his STEM stories was similarly discouraging: only 24 percent of his quoted sources were women. Worse, 35 percent of his articles featured no female voices at all. Why does this matter? As journalist and editor Adrienne Lafrance noted in The Atlantic, the extreme gender imbalance in the media implies that the best voices are not those of women and misses out on diverse viewpoints, experiences and ideas. Journalist and field geophysicist Mika McKinnon is acutely aware of this gender differential in reporting and makes it a point to ask both men and women for expert comments. When making press requests, she is typically turned down more often by women. One case stood out: not one of 74 women requested for an interview obliged, contrasting with 11 of 15 men who agreed, including two who stated that they were not experts. She tweeted her frustration.

This tweet was seen over 792,000 times with more than 16,000 interactions, clearly demonstrating that the topic touched a nerve. We asked Mika to share her experience and her thoughts on the gender imbalance in journalism reporting. 

Mika McKinnon kneels at the edge of icy water
Solving gender bias problems in science – Mika McKinnon

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

By  Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton
Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton wants the conversation about “the leaky pipeline” to broaden, and include applied researchers and specialists who navigate gender discrimination in STEM. Her post focuses on the “many little cuts” that applied women in STEM face in their daily work. Her story shows that the conversation about gender inequality needs to be inclusive of women in STEM beyond academia, as there are many intersections in our experiences of “everyday sexism,” as well as some unique challenges that we should collectively support.

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The Most Important Scientist in My Life: My Mom

By Jonah Miller

This guest post is by computational physicist Jonah Miller, who interviews his mother, Dr Arleen Miller, about her experiences getting a STEM degree in the 1970s. Her dissertation was focused on mathematical outcomes of girls and boys. She also shares experiences teaching mathematics in Sierra Leone.

Dr Arleen Miller
Dr Arleen Miller

January 6th is my mother’s birthday. As a present, I decided to showcase the first scientist I ever knew—one who I met before I was even born.

Arleen Garfinkle (one day to be Arleen Miller) entered graduate school  at the University of Colorado in the fall of 1973 and graduated in 1979. During that time she developed a battery of tests designed to track a child’s numerical and logical reasoning skills, based on the theories of psychologist Jean Piaget.

Once she developed the test, she gave it (and several other tests) to over 200 pairs of twins aged four through eight and correlated their success rates to other factors, such as their gender and how much their parents emphasized success. One of her most significant findings was that a young child’s ability to learn math was highly dependent on genetics. Another was that gender had no effect on performance—i.e., girls and boys were equally good at math.

Despite being offered a prestigious position at Yale University, my mother left academia to pursue other interests. But to me, she’ll always be my favorite scientist. (more…)

Making Space History: Candy Torres, NASA Engineer & Latina Pioneer

Rather auspiciously, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing through a Hangout on Air interview with engineer Candy Torres!  She gained a degree in astrophysics in the 1970s, where she was only one of seven women in her classes. Candy spoke about the challenges of following her career in science, which included gender exclusion and not having any women colleagues to support her education. Despite the gender and cultural barriers she faced, Candy walked into her dream job the day after graduating from university. Through networking, tenacity and a commitment to learning new skills, Candy went on to work on satellites, the NASA Space Shuttle & the International Space Station. She has been part of a team to make space exploration history. Watch the video or read more below!

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Get out of the Kitchen: Inger Mewburn’s Advice for Academics

Professor Inger Mewburn is Director of Research Training at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on student experiences, which are used to inform University practices. We asked her about gender differences in the way men and women PhD students negotiate their relationships with their supervisors. Dr. Mewburn began by acknowledging that there is a dearth of female role models in academia and those that are there have tended to assume the dominant culture that is heavily masculinized. She then made a really interesting observation: during informal academic gatherings, women students find themselves in the kitchen!

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Small Molecules, Big Ideas: Julia Greer

Professor Julia Greer is a materials scientist at Caltech. Her research focuses on creating and studying lightweight nanomaterials. These nanomaterials have a wide range of applications, such as energy, construction, transport, prosthetics, and electronics. We spoke to Julia about her work, and also touched upon some of the challenges she faces as a woman in STEM. Watch the video below, or keep reading for a summary of our conversation!


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Monkey Business: Erin Kane on Field Research in Cote d’Ivoire

Erin Kane is a graduate student in physical anthropology who recently returned to Ohio State University, USA, after conducting field research in Tai Forest, Cote d’Ivoire, from June 2013 to March 2014. She spoke about her study on monkeys, her thrilling experiences in the field (interacting with local educators and surviving an ant attack!), as well addressing the need for better training on sexual harassment for researchers. Erin also discusses how blogging helped her make sense of her data. She provides advice for early career researchers looking to establish a niche expertise and wondering how they might apply their research later in their careers. Read on below for a summary of our conversation.

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From Legos to Robots: Annika O’Brien Brings Tech to Teens

We spoke to Annika O’Brien as part of our ongoing In the Spotlight series. Annika is a roboticist with a background in computer science, software development and programming. Later, she acquired expertise in electronics and, more recently, she set up her own company. Annika has also been heavily involved in educational aspects of robotics, which she not only enjoys but also volunteers her time and resources. Watch the video or keep reading below for a summary!


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