60 years of helping graduate students pursue their dreams

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Earlier this afternoon, the National Science Foundation (NSF) celebrated the 60th anniversary of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the nation’s oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Featuring high-level science luminaries such as Nobel prize-winner and Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the program highlighted the contributions of NSF-supported graduate research fellows and underscored the agency’s continued commitment to supporting aspiring scientists and engineers.  The program supports individuals of high potential early in their careers who receive an annual stipend and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited US institution of graduate research they choose. The highly competitive program (this year, 12,000 individuals applied for 2,000 slots) started in 1952 when winners were notified via telegram.  In the past 60 years, the agency has supported over 45,500 graduate fellows, among them Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Maxine Singer, President Emeritus, Carnegie Institution for Science. A highlight of the afternoon celebration was the showing of three short videos, the winning entries of NSF’s video contest that asked current GRFs to submit 90 second videos showcasing how their research can “help shape the future-for them as individuals, for their fields of work, even for the world.” Erica Staaterman, a graduate student in marine biology at the University of Miami won 3rd prize for her video showing her work in acoustic navigation in reef fish larvae.  Candy Hwang, a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Southern California won 2nd prize for her video entry depicting her aspirations to reduce fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.  When she stepped to the podium to accept her prize for the video, Hwang shared with the audience her extreme excitement when she first learned she had won a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  Waking up at 4 am, she fairly quivered with excitement and a renewed sense of urgency in making a difference in the world.  Upon arriving at her lab however, her shaking hands made lab work that day impossible and her advisor kindly told her to go home and calm down first.  Eric Keen, a marine biologist at the University of California in San Diego won first prize for his video highlighting the need to better understand fin whales that forage along the coast of British Columbia.  NSF says the winning videos will be posted online later today here. The afternoon celebration also included short vignettes by former graduate research fellows including Energy Secretary Chu and University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer.  Chu, who received over $6...

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All things Thanksgiving

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs  In honor of our national holiday, here’s a look at some current and past blog posts on the subject. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s blog earlier this week offered a reminder of the three Sisters—the three crops grown together by the Iroquois: corn, beans and squash.  According to the post, “the Iroquois called the Sisters “De-o-ha-ko,” which translates to “life support,” not only because the plants rely on each other as they grow, but also because, eaten together, they provide a healthy, life-sustaining diet for humans.” Last Thanksgiving, EcoTone highlighted the true-life tale of a naturalist who raised a rafter of sixteen wild turkeys, gaining a newfound understanding and deep appreciation for them in the process. A previous autumn, we wrote about the history of the both the holiday and the turkey.  Wild turkey populations in the United States had dipped to extremely low numbers by the early 1900s because of habitat loss and overhunting and it wasn’t until the 1940s that a wild turkey reintroduction effort turned things around.  That year’s post also noted Benjamin Franklin’s strong, favorable opinion of the wild turkey: “….the Turkey is in Comparison [to the Bald Eagle] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”   Photo: Three Sisters as featured on the reverse of the 2009 Native American U.S. dollar coin. 2009 reverse by Norman E. Nemeth....

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Putting Hurricane Sandy into context

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs As the reports began coming in about the approaching “superstorm” known as Hurricane Sandy, the chatter about how and if it was connected to global warming was not far behind.  Indeed, it seemed that in the days following its devastating coastal landfall, attention on climate change was revived. In his Bloomberg view editorial, the New York mayor wrote that “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” On Discovery News, Larry O’Hanlon didn’t mince words: “Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? Absolutely not. Did climate change have anything to do with Sandy being as bad as it was? Absolutely so, say scientist bloggers whose bread and butter is understanding the physics of our atmosphere.” Over at Climate Central, Andrew Freedman wrote an illuminating piece on Hurricane Sandy noting that “If this were a criminal case, detectives would be treating global warming as a likely accomplice in the crime.” In his article, Freedman noted that the most damaging aspect of the hurricane was the storm surge. A US Geological Survey study published in Nature Climate Change this past summer focused on the risks that rising sea levels pose to the US Atlantic coast, including major cities such as New York, Boston, Baltimore and Norfolk.  The study found that sea level is rising up to four times faster than the global average along the 1,000 kilometer (620 mile) coastline stretching from north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina up to north of Boston, Massachusetts.  The USGS researchers found that since about 1990, sea level along this so-called “hotspot” of coastline has risen by two to 3.7 millimeters per year, compared with a global rise of between 0.6 and one millimeter per year over the same time period. In a USGS press release about the study, Asbury (Abby) Sallenger, USGS oceanographer and project lead said that “Ongoing accelerated sea level rise in the hotspot will make coastal cities and surrounding areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding by adding to the height that storm surge and breaking waves reach on the coast.” The NASA images below show the shoreline of Mantoloking, New Jersey before and after Hurricane Sandy.             A 2009 US Global Change Research report included a focus on the nation’s coastal areas and addressed both sea level rise as well as warming sea surface temperatures and...

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A perspective on ecological consequences of GM crops

This post contributed by ESA member Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation genetics at the University of Ferrara, Italy. In the opening pages of his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan quotes agrarian writer Wendell Berry in reminding us that, “Eating is an ecological act.”  Simultaneously, eating is also a political act.  Indeed, in the past year, headlines about local food and the US Farm Bill have reminded us of the interplay between agriculture, government policy, and the environment.  Food choices are complex, requiring diverse knowledge to understand the consequences of our choices, especially regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one of this years’ most hotly debated topics.  GMOs are crop varieties that have been engineered to carry genes for desirable traits, taken either from other species or synthesized in the laboratory.  Such crops now make up more than 90% of sugar beet and cotton grown in the USA, and 88% of corn. Most of the debate about GMOs (understandably) centers on human health, but GMOs also influence other aspects of social-ecological systems.  This post looks at a few basic ecological concerns, which have not received much mainstream attention.  The Ecological Society of America (ESA) published a position statement in 2005 that explains these and other issues in detail.  Wikipedia has a thorough article on many benefits and costs of GMOs. While GM crops have been around since the mid-1990s, a lot is happening in 2012.  In November, Californians will vote about GMO labeling, while recently a similar “Right to Know” bill was abandoned in Vermont (after legal threats from agribusiness titan Monsanto).  Russia recently banned imports of GM corn based on a recent controversial French study that claimed to have demonstrated a link to cancer.  And next year, the US Supreme Court will consider a lawsuit between Monsanto and an Indiana farmer who unknowingly planted patented GM seeds. One big ecological concern is the potential for GM traits to “escape” into other species by hybridization.  A common GM trait is resistance to particular types of herbicides, such as glyphosate, so strong herbicides can be used to control weeds without affecting crops .  Other GM plants produce their own insecticides, such as Bt toxin, to prevent pest damage and require less pesticide application.  Future GM crops might be created to have higher nutritional value (e.g. to produce particular vitamins) or tolerate environmental stress.  The worst-case scenario sometimes portrayed is that such genes could escape into plants outside cultivation, creating super weeds (weeds resistant to herbicides) or otherwise altering a plant’s ecosystem role or relative fitness (as shown in squash) due to toxicity, growth habits, or nutrient value, with cascading ecosystem effects...

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ESA donates to PNW conservation orgs to offset envr costs of its meeting

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs When 5,000 individuals from across the United States and around the globe convene for a scientific conference such as the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) recent meeting in Portland, Oregon it takes an environmental toll: The energy required to power the planes, trains and automobiles people use to travel to and from the meeting (although some attendees bike!).  And, the hotels and convention center that were built to provide the facilities needed to host thousands of people ate up habitat and displaced wildlife. As one way to offset these environmental costs, ESA contributes $5 for each meeting registrant which the Society then donates to a local project or organization in the city in which it meets.  This year’s meeting in Portland, Oregon was the Society’s largest and ESA donated $12,475 each to the Columbia Land Trust and to Friends of Trees. The Columbia Land Trust works to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of the Columbia River region, from east of the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean.  It collaborates with landowners, local residents and government entities to conserve forests, ranch lands and critical habitats in Oregon and Washington states and uses a science-based stewardship program to restore and manage these areas. The Trust will use ESA’s donation for its Mt. St. Helens conservation project, which aims to protect working forest and habitat on some 20,000 acres at the base of Mt. St. Helens.  The area is under development pressure because of its alluring mountain views and scenic waters and is home to threatened species such as bull trout.  The acreage includes high elevations that, with global warming, may become increasingly important habitat for some species. Friends of Trees is a Portland-based organization that describes its mission as bringing people in the Portland-Vancouver and Eugene-Springfield metro areas together to plant and care for city trees and green spaces.  The organization also provides guidance to volunteers on restoration techniques and has planted nearly half a million trees and native plants since its founding in 1989. ESA’s donation will help Friends of Trees offset the Tree Scholarship Program during the 2012-2013 planting season. Each year, Friends of Trees provides scholarships to low-income families who want to plant with the organization, but cannot afford the $35-$50 cost. ESA’s donation will allow Friends of Trees to subsidize the purchase and planting of 275 trees for these families. The organization says the trees will go where they are needed the most and will provide benefits for the community for years to come. Last year’s ESA meeting was held in Austin, Texas and the Society donated to Bat...

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