Adding the “Art” to STEM

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math = STEM, add “ART” and you get STEAM.

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Cyndi and I in front of some cells

Friday night, I collaborated with my fabulous friend Cyndi Coon for a “STEAM-Y” Ladies night out at Tempe Center for the Arts. Scientists aren’t known for their artistic abilities, but Cyndi has the knack for drawing out the artist in everyone – even me, who insists I’m not a “draw-er.”  The whole evening revolved around creating your own “cell-fie.”

Bringing on the STEM

As the science nerd that I am, I was excited to talk about the connection between how cells look and how they function. In the examples below, you can see how lung cells have little wavy fingers called cilia that are used to remove debris from the lung.  Plant cells have a hard exterior cell wall, which help make plant’s leaves rigid.  They are also green because of the chloroplasts that harness sunlight and turn it into plant energy.  And in the breast, you can see that the cells are organized in such a way that an empty space (called a lumen) is created where breast milk is stored after pregnancy. There are so many cool examples! Pollen. Neurons. Blood cells. The list goes on and on!

What cells look like and how they’re arranged often help to understand how to cell functions

Adding the “A”

Cyndi brought the “STEAM” by talking about Ernst Haeckel who was a PhD trained zoologist turned artist. His illustrations are stunning! Many of his ideas about evolution and biology were later disproved, and he used creative license with many of his “subjects.” However, his art captured a Victorian audience. He was a true scientific communicator (or as Cyndi would say “performance artist”.

It’s from these dual inspirationsIMG_0360 that the thirty or so attendees got to work with their black paper, gel pens, and colored pencils. We were reminded that patterns often occur in nature as does some level of symmetry, which could be used to help us draw our cells. Patterns can be created by grouping shapes together, mimicking groupings of cells. Or you could draw cells so that you can tell from what they look like what the cell might do.

The group was so creative! You can be creative too! Take inspiration from this idea. Why not have your kids or your friends (with a glass of wine) create cellfies? And if you do, share them with me!

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I can’t encourage you enough to check out Cyndi’s creative work at Laboratory 5 or her speaker page. I love that her transformational talk will encourage you to “channel your naughtiness to expose creativity and use it as a super tool.” 

Read a version of this article with even more info about Ernst Haeckel at GotScience.org

Book Club – A Short History of Nearly Everything

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Thanks to Amazon for the image

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a brilliant book. Bill Bryson is known for his travel writing and humorous writing style, but it this book he focuses his talents on explaining science. He starts at the beginning looking at the advent of our universe to understanding atoms and quarks to delving into our planet to the beginnings of life itself.  In particular, he has a chapter called “Cells” that provides one of the best descriptions of cell biology written for the public that I have ever read.  A few chapters later in “The Stuff of Life” he describes DNA and genetics in an equally accessible way.  This is one of the few popular science books that I would unreservedly suggest to anyone from ages 15 to 115.

The book won numerous, well-deserved awards including the 2004  Aventis Prize for best general science book and the 2005 EU Descartes Prize for science communication.  Please feel free to continue the conversation once you read the book by commenting below or by Asking me a Question.

For more Book Club books, click here.

What is a cell? Based on a conversation with my husband

I was at an awesome brewery in Flagstaff over the weekend (shout out to Historic Brewing Company) with my husband.  Over a beer and homemade chips, we start discussing science.  Now, don’t imagine that just because I’m a scientist that I insist on talking about it all the time.  Most of the time we’re talking about our dogs or work or school or this blog.  This weekend, the science discussion actually started by taking about grading curves and how they are sometimes fair and sometimes not, and they sometimes measure student’s performance and sometime the teacher’s (sophomore year physics – I’m referring to you!).  From here, the discussion gets a bit fuzzy, but we eventually starting discussing cells and start arguing about the difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.

Before I get into the details of the argument, let’s talk about what a cell is. Cells are the lego blocks of all living organisms.  Cells contain the genetic material and can divide and replicate into new cells (in a process called the cell cycle).  If you take any part of an organism and zoom in, you will see cells. Cells don’t all look or function the same – as you may imagine because cells in your body do different thing than cells in a plant or cells in a fungus or a bacterial cell. And even different cells in your body look and function differently. Blood cells are round and flow through blood vessels.  Blood vessels are made out of multiple layers of cells surround by muscle cells to help contract and expand the vessels to move the blood. Muscle cells are different depending on where in your body they are located. For example, heart muscle cells look and function different than muscle cells found in your bicep. Nerve cells (called neurons) in the brain often have lots of branching so that they can connect to other nerve cells to transmit signals .  And just to clarify, I know I said that you could zoom into ALL parts of your body and see cells, however there are exceptions to everything.  For example, hair and nails are make out of a hard, tough protein called keratin and not cells.

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Thanks to Wikipedia and http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e5/414_Skeletal_Smooth_Cardiac.jpg

Even though cells may look different and function differently, all cells have a few things in common:

  1. All cells are surrounded by a membrane, often called the plasma membrane, that is typically made up of fats (called lipids) and proteins.  You can think of this as a plastic bag that can hold stuff inside of it.
  2. The stuff inside this cell membrane includes cytoplasm – you can think of this as a jello inside the plastic bag made up of lots of proteins.
  3. Inside all cells is the genetic material (DNA) that is required to make and replicate the cell and for the cell to function.

Even though different types of cells have different shapes and different functions, there are two main types of cells:

  1. Prokaryotic cells – these are cells that do not have membrane bound structures inside the cell membrane (floating around in the jello-like cytoplasm).
  2. Eukaryotic cells – these cells have membrane bound structures called organelles. We’ll discuss specific organelles in future posts, but some organelles that you may already be familiar with are the nucleus, which is another membrane-bound structure that contains the DNA, or mitochondria, which are the energy-producers of the cell, or chloroplasts, which are the organelle that converts sunlight into energy in plants.
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Thanks to Wikipedia for the images

So, if a cell has a nucleus, it’s eukaryotic and if not, it’s prokaryotic. And this is where the argument started.  My husband insisted that eukaryotic cells are defined by the fact that they are only found in multi-cellular organisms.  Multi-cellular refers to any organism that’s made up of more than one cell – like humans who have about 100 trillion cells, redwood trees, spiders, birds, seaweed, whales, algae, mushrooms, etc.  Although it is true that eukaryotic cells are mostly found in multi-cellular organisms, protists are single-celled and contain a nucleus – making them eukaryotic. Conversely, most prokaryotes are single cells – like bacteria and plankton.  However, some of these single-celled prokaryotes can stick together and work together as a community in a slimy biofilm that is very similar to being multi-cellular.

Why in the world does this matter? Why did I spend any of my energy on a Friday night (and a bit on Saturday when we rekindled the discussion) even discussing this point?  It’s because definitions matter and understanding the details matter – especially in science. But that ultimately isn’t the point of this post – it’s about cells.  Without cells, life as we know it wouldn’t exist.  Without an understanding of cells and how they work, we can’t understand what it means when they dysfunction and cause disease in humans.

What does DNA look like? Like, really?

Everyone talks about DNA.  And shows those lovely double helix cartoon images of DNA. But when you’re a researcher in a lab, what does DNA actually look like?  How in the world do we see it?

DNA-X-Ray

  1. X-Ray crystallography.  To be fair, this is an indirect way to see DNA but it is the way that the structure of DNA was determined (as described in our book club book The Double Helix) so it’s worth mentioning.  Remember when you were a kid and you made rock candy by hanging a string or stick in water that had a ton of sugar dissolved into it?  Well scientists can do the same thing with DNA or proteins – make crystals of them.  These crystals are much smaller than the crystals in rock candy.  Think microscopic.  When molecules are all lined up in the same direction, like they are when they form a crystal, scientists can hit the crystal with X-rays and what bounces around and through the crystal can be detected (this is called a diffraction pattern), measured and transformed to determine the 3D image of the molecule – that double helix structure you see pictures of all the time.  This process is called X-Ray crystallography and for the first images of DNA, the diffraction pattern looked like the picture to the left.
  2. dna_in_cellMost scientists do not look at DNA to the atomic level like in X-Ray crystallography, but rather want to see it inside of a cell. The DNA in a cell is inside the nucleus and certain dyes (such as the Hoechst dye) bind to DNA.  Under UV light, the Hoechst dye glows, showing exactly where the DNA is in the cell.  If you look at the picture to the right, you can see the outline of three cells and the blue DNA inside the nucleus of those three cells. Why would a scientist want to see where the DNA is and what it looks like? You can learn a lot from just looking at the DNA. For example, whether or not a cell is dividing or dying, which can be really important if you want to know whether or not the cancer cells you are studying die when you treat them with a drug.
  3. Scientists don’t always look at the DNA directly inside of a cell either.  For an experiment they may want to isolate the DNA (meaning, take the DNA out of a lot of cells to dna_in_eppendorfstudy it) and then manipulate it in some way (sequence it, amplify it, modify it, etc).  Once my mom asked me how big DNA is when you take it out of cells and work with it in the lab.  Well, the answer is that you need a LOT of it to even see it.  In the lab, we may grow bacteria in 5 ml of growth media, which after growing overnight contains 10,000,000,000 cells.  We then bust these cells open with a detergent (like soap, but not soap), spin out all of the extra bits of cells, and then force the DNA to show itself by adding an alcohol like ethanol in a process called precipitation (if you want to learn more about the details, check out this article).  How much DNA do you get in the end – well it depends, but it’s not a lot, visually at least.  And what does it look like?  See the whitish smear at the bottom of that tiny tube?  That’s the DNA.

Are there other ways to see DNA?  YES!  But many of them are based on dyes like the one described in #2 above.  At some point, we’ll definitely talk about them in the context of analyzing DNA sequence and running gels.  And I’m not talking at all here about “seeing” DNA by determining it’s sequence, even though that’s important too.

strawberry_dnaSo now that you know a few ways that scientists see DNA, it’s your turn.  Grab a lab partner, and isolate DNA on your own!!  Don’t know how?  No problem!  There are a number of different ways to isolate DNA at home, the most common being from the cells of an onion or the cells of strawberries.  The experiments for extracting DNA from ONIONS or STRAWBERRIES are linked. At the end of the experiment, what will you see?  Long strands of isolated DNA from all of the onion or strawberry cells. Enjoy and please share photos and stories of your DNA isolation adventures!