Communicating Science to a Nation Watching Reality Television

10 Jul

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at The Austin Forum on communicating science. The talk is now available online:

You can watch part 2, part 3, and the Q&A by clicking on the links.

Energy 101: Register For This Excellent, Free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

6 Jun

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting in on a terrific Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called Energy 101 as it was filmed at UT Austin.

Taught by Dr. Michael Webber, the course provides an in-depth overview of all things energy from the transportation sector to climate change to the energy embedded in the food we eat. As the website describes, by becoming fluent in energy, you will be able to think critically about energy issues. Registration is free and the course will be taught in modules over 11 weeks. I highly recommend this to everyone because energy touches all of us:


This multidisciplinary course will give students an overview of energy technologies, fuels, environmental impacts and public policies. Topics will be interdisciplinary and will include an introduction to quantitative concepts in energy, including the differences among fuels and energy technologies, energy policy levers, and the societal aspects of energy, such as culture, economics, war, and international affairs. This course will cover brief snippets of energy history, use real-world examples, and look forward into the future. The course will have interactive learning modules and lecture-oriented around current events related to energy.

Watch the preview and then go sign up…

Let’s Get Honest About Women In Science

22 Mar

There has been a good deal written recently about women in the scientific workforce. It’s not a new conversation, but I’ve been reconsidering why more of us aren’t forging ahead in STEM while preparing a talk for Women’s History Month.

I’ve posted many, many, many times about the unique obstacles we face in academia. Women lack visibly successful role models, face a good deal of gender discrimination and, at times, sexual harassment, and – most importantly – the academic lifestyle is not ideal for raising a family. I’d like to focus on that last one.

As a new mom, I will return to work on Monday–when my son is just nine weeks old. I am fortunate to have a flexible schedule, supportive husband, and wonderful colleagues, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. When I discuss motherhood, there are usually comments about how fathers are ignored in the conversation. So first let me be perfectly clear: Partners are extremely important and often play a very active role in childcare. But there are also significant differences.

Here’s a big one: When I fly out of state on Thursday, there’s suddenly a lot more to figure out. No one prepares you for traveling with a breast pump or explains how to freeze enough milk for the day. And that’s only the beginning. There are lots of little and big things like that we just don’t talk about in academia. I think balancing a family and career would be easier if we have these conversations. Openly.

What I know for sure is that no matter what else I do – whether I write more books, move back into research, or return to policy – the most important job I will ever have is being a mom. Not every woman in science will decide to be a parent and not all of us will choose to stay in the scientific workforce, but if the goal is to get more women into positions of influence in STEM, there’s one clear solution. We must make these two more compatible.

Science and Kissing in Puebla, Mexico

18 Mar

My final talk while pregnant at Ciudad de las Ideas is now available online:

Next week will be my first speaking engagement post-baby at MTSU for National Women’s History Month.

The Science of Kissing On Sale For A Limited Time!

5 Feb

The blog’s been quiet lately and for good reason.. My husband David and I welcomed our son, Atlas, into the world on January 21st!

Although I won’t be posting much for the time being, I signed in this morning to share the exciting news that you can now purchase the digital version of The Science of Kissing for just $2.99 through February 18 – just in time for Valentines Day! (Thanks to my publisher Hachette!)

The book tells the story of the science and history behind humanity’s most intimate pastime, from neuroscience and endocrinology to evolutionary biology and genetics. You can read more about The Science of Kissing at my website and order your copy of the ebook at the sale price for a limited time at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Here’s a peek at the book trailer:

2013: Energy issues on front burner

28 Dec

(CNN) – After a year of tumultuous weather and global change, it should not be surprising that 2012 proved to be a transformative period for public opinion on energy.

Changing attitudes on the most hotly debated topics matter a great deal because they set the course for future policy decisions. Taking a closer look at trends over the past 12 months hints at what to expect in several key areas of the U.S. energy landscape in 2013.

Natural gas boom — and controversy

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has been around for more than half a century, but recently expanded rapidly because of advances in horizontal drilling deep underground.

Despite this proliferation of new wells, 59% of Americans say they are unfamiliar with the term, down from 63% in March, according to the latest findings from the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Poll. (continue reading Sheril’s full piece…)

This article originally appeared at CNN on December 28, 2012.

NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night

11 Dec

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands. This new data was then mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC
High-resolution download

My Favorite Book This Year

28 Nov

To be fair, this one actually came out late 2011, so I should clarify that my favorite book read in 2012 is And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by biographer Charles J. Shields.

I am not normally drawn to biographies. While I expected to be interested in the life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., I did not anticipate how much I would enjoy following his life’s journey for over 500 pages. In short, I simply couldn’t put this title down.

Having consumed most of Vonnegut’s work over the years, I knew some of the details already because he often inserts himself in his stories. There are occasional references to his childhood, his family, and most notably, heart-breaking details from his time in Dresden. But Shields masterfully brings the author to life in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

Vonnegut as a character gains many dimensions as we learn about his motivations, fears, triumphs, and shortcomings. Rather than just read this biography as a series of events that happened, Shields builds one part of his history on top of another, enveloping readers into the world of a brilliant, frustrated, fascinating, and long-suffering individual who’s words continue to have tremendous influence.

Maybe I enjoyed this book so much because at times I felt I could relate to his trials and tribulations as a writer. Perhaps it’s because I already admired Kurt Vonnegut Jr. tremendously. Or maybe it’s because I appreciate the candor with which Shields describes the way Vonnegut’s ideas and values were at times, at odds with the way he actually lived. It’s most likely some combination of all of these and more.

What I know is that this is a title that I finished many, many months ago and continue to think about. It’s left a lasting impression. And as the holidays approach, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is the perfect gift for any avid reader – and perhaps, the perfect gift for you.


What YOU Need To Know About Iron Fertilization

20 Oct

You’ve likely seen the story already:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

Just *scientists and government officials*? In reality, all of us should be outraged, including you. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the prospect of iron fertilization–a geoengineering strategy that involves dumping large amounts of iron into the ocean. Back in 2008, I described how a for-profit company called “Planktos”canceled its field tests due to a lack of funds–blaming a “highly effective disinformation campaign.”

Now the 62 year old so-called “chief executive” of that company, Russ George, has taken it upon himself to experiment with planet Earth. That’s not okay. Further, it’s not legal. You can read about his egregious and irresponsible behavior at the NYTimes, but I’d like to provide a bit more background on iron fertilization for readers.

The idea is relatively simple: In certain regions of the ocean, a lack of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton.  When dust containing iron settles onto these regions, plankton blooms occur which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. When the algae die, the carbon sinks, and can be stored for varying amounts of time.

For-profit investors hope to earn carbon credits through this kind of carbon-offset scheme. But the truth is, iron fertilization cannot be viewed as a simple input and output equation and therefore it’s difficult to quantify what to expect.  The great deal of uncertainty makes policy governing these kind of large-scale geoengineering projects critical before any action is taken for profit.  This is because the implications of altering our climate and oceans have the potential to impact everyone.

Here’s what you need to know:

* Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and so on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

* We do not know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

* Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

* Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.   In fact, some areas that have not been tested may be more promising for iron fertilization.

* In the short-term, iron fertilization typically leads to phytoplankton blooms, but the long-term effects are mostly unknown.

* Science has a great deal to learn about creating the right market to facilitate offset efforts.  The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

Read more on Iron Fertilization here and here [pdf].

Energy Perception And Policy Reality

17 Oct

As the election nears, energy policy remains a regular topic on the campaign trail. Controversial subjects like arctic drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue making headlines as the political class debate our nation’s changing energy mix. But let’s not deceive ourselves, or the public at large, about a president’s real role and reach.

Although certain real-world outcomes will be dependent on voters this November, the rhetoric may not match the reality on some fronts this election season. For example, coal supporters generally favor Mitt Romney, yet the United States will become ever less dependent on coal no matter who wins due to abundantly available natural gas. Likewise, opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline typically rally around President Obama, even though that project will probably roll ahead regardless of the victor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the vast disconnect between perception and reality has to do with gasoline prices. According to the latest poll numbers, 45 percent of Americans ranked the cost of gasoline as the energy topic they would most like to see the candidates address during the presidential debates. For comparison, U.S. energy security was the second-most-popular response, garnering a total of just 10 percentage points. Other choices, such as energy efficiency, climate change and offshore drilling, did not break out of the single digits.

Politicians are acutely attuned to the interests of their constituents. So it’s not surprising that gas prices featured prominently in speeches at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We have been hearing a good deal of related rhetoric for years. The price we pay at the pump memorably took central stage in Michele Bachmann’s campaign during the summer of 2011 when she told crowds she would reduce the cost of gasoline.

“Under President Bachmann you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again,” she promised. “That will happen.”

Of course, Bachmann never outlined just how she would achieve this feat because a sitting president cannot simply make it so. What she didn’t understand — and what most voters do not seem to grasp — is that gasoline prices are tied to a global crude oil market. Therefore, even if our government goes so far as to enact policies that expand domestic drilling, the excess production at home could very well be offset by other factors, such as reduced OPEC production.

But right or wrong, voters’ perceptions on these issues do matter tremendously. Tomorrow’s energy solutions require more than cutting-edge technologies and carefully crafted legislation. Public opinion — what people really think about energy — plays the most critical role in shaping America’s energy future.

Personal attitudes, concerns, and priorities are determined by more than just “the facts.” We take into account stories in the media, the talking points of politicians, vocal celebrities and religious leaders, as well as the opinions of family and friends. All of these perspectives flow together to, in the aggregate, influence which energy issues our representatives — regional and national — address through policy and legislation.

Just weeks before we go to the polls, there are countless partisan claims being made regarding where Obama and Romney sit on every hot-button issue. But in reality, national energy strategies don’t fit so neatly into red or blue compartments. The boundaries are blurry, motivated by more than a candidate’s platform. Energy policies often cross party lines and we must open our eyes to when and where they do. More importantly, we must, at times, be willing to cross party lines along with them.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.