Sunday, November 16, 2014

When foraging gets rough - bats jam each others echolocation calls

A new study on Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasilensis) published this month reveals that bats are not always kind to each other when it comes to foraging behaviors.  These bats that use echolocation to forage for food are deploying strategies to prevent other individuals from successfully finding food.  How these bats are doing this has been compared to the jamming technology of a military aircraft. 
Not always nice - individual Mexican free-tailed bat may impede others of the same species from being able to find food using echolocation by 'jamming' their echolocation calls.

The interference that these bats create is called jamming and researchers Aaron Corocoran and William Conner from Wake Forest University have found that individuals will jam the call of others during competition for their nightly hunt for food (namely insects).

Read more (here).

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why Stevie Nicks inspires me – a female biologist.

I’m not sure when it was that I fell in love with the chanteuse Stevie Nicks but it certainly was at least in high school when I first heard the moving song ‘Dreams’.  Stevie is but one magnificent part of the musical tapestry that makes up this beautiful song.  The composition of this and other songs by Fleetwood Mac is haunting and somehow inspiring - and so too is the fairy godmother of female rock stars - Miss Stevie Nicks.
Fairy muse for women in the sciences? 

So why is someone like Stevie Nicks relevant to a blog post on a blog about biology, bats and all things science?  Stevie represents the courageousness, strength and powerhouse attitude required to succeed in the sciences and she does all this as a feminine muse that grasps at the dreams and hearts of most of those who hear her music.  She’s talented - sure - but from everything I’ve read and seen she also works VERY hard.  Indeed – I think that the description often used for James Brown fits – she is ‘the hardest working woman in music!’  But what gets me the most is that she does not force herself into an over sexualized nor into a ‘gotta be a man to succeed in a man’s world’ persona.  And this - has historically been a challenge for women in a variety of fields including academia.

No Miley Cyrus get-ups to grab attention- in fact I'd call this outfit downright graceful and even a little masculine!
An amazing book that touches on the topic but in the context of a WOMAN SCIENTIST is ‘the Molecules of Emotion’ by Dr. Candace Pert.  Which tells the inspirational story of Dr. Pert’s career in the sciences which includes the discovery of opiate receptors, being passed up for a Nobel Prize and what it was like to be a woman in the sciences wearing ‘the uniform’ i.e. looking as unfeminine as possible to ‘blend in’ to the man’s world that academia was at that time.
The late Dr. Candace Pert
To me at least there is as common thread between Dr. Pert’s and Stevie’s stories both were at one time or another in the shadow of someone else- in Dr. Pert's case it was her adviser and for Stevie's it was Lindsay Buckingham.  Stevie started out as one part of the duo ‘Buckingham and Nicks.’  The band was far from a success and Stevie was working as a waitress and considering going back to school.  At her father’s suggestion she decided to ‘give it 6 more months.’  From this emotional place that sounds a lot like the struggles of trying to ‘make it’ in the sciences - Stevie wrote the song Landslide which carries words of wisdom that seem to come from a much older person.  Apparently Landslide was written in my home state of Colorado with the following inspiration:

“I had been a waitress and a cleaning lady, and I didn’t mind any of this. I was perfectly delighted to work and support us so that Lindsey could produce and work and fix our songs and make our music. But I had gotten to a point where it was like, “I’m not happy. I am tired. But I don’t know if we can do any better than this. If nobody likes this, then what are we going to do?”
So during that two months I made a decision to continue. “Landslide” was the decision. it’s the only time in my life that I’ve lived in the snow. But looking up at those Rocky Mountains and going, “Okay, we can do it. I’m sure we can do it.”

Before the 6 months were up the multi-record Brit blues group Fleetwood Mac heard a Buckingham and Nicks recording and contacted Lindsay Buckingham to see if he would join the group.  Lets be clear on this -they wanted Lindsay NOT STEVIE.  Stevie was ‘just the girl’ in a band that she didn’t really interest Fleetwood Mac at the time.  Yes- Lindsay was (and is) a skilled guitarist but boy is it tough to envision not getting goosebumps listening to that voice of Miss Nicks! 

Lindsay in his defense said he would only consider joining Fleetwood Mac if Stevie was going to be added as well.  Maybe he was being a good band-mate, a supportive boyfriend, felt owed it to Stevie as she had been working to support them both while they tried to ‘make it’ or just maybe-just maybe he knew Stevie was going places and it would be a mistake to miss out on her natural talent –who knows.  In any case, the final decision ultimately came down to the other woman in the picture namely the very talented Christine McVie who was ‘the girl’ in Fleetwood Mac.  If she met Stevie and didn’t get along with her then the deal would never happen.  As luck would have it the two were fast friends and the rest is well- a legacy of music that never fails to put me in a good mood or allows me to really feel the way only a good piece of music can.  Take for example the song GYPSY…. I’ve already written about how the post doc life is that of the academic gypsy…. But let these words inspire you in the context of whatever it is you try hardest to achieve:
“Back to the gypsy that I was
- And it all comes down to you
Well, you know that it does
Well, lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
Ah, and it lights up the night
-To the gypsy that remains faces freedom with a little fear”

Now- most people have heard bits of the story in the midst of their early success with Fleetwood Mac- Stevie and Lindsay broke up- but always the professional she stuck it out- the band was important.  Despite dealing with the end of a relationship that had spanned nearly a decade - surely a trying time - both Stevie and Lindsay put all that into it’s compartment when they went in to work so that they could get on with the job at hand- making beautiful music. And that is what they did.

Fleetwood Mac
Stevie wanted to continue writing songs and creating music but felt she could not contribute as many songs as she would have liked to each Fleetwood Mac album (which makes sense as there were many prolific members all excited to have their music included).  So what did she do?  She made a very diplomatic decision to produce solo albums AND stay in Fleetwood Mac.  How often dear reader does THAT decision pan out for artists?  Usually the band ‘breaks up’ the artist looses their following or both.  I don’t think I can imagine the time commitment and stress this must have taken… Stevie decided in essance to take on TWO music careers.

Perhaps we can get an inkling of what this was like as seems akin to something many people go through as the do graduate studies or academia in general: splitting time between research, taking classes, teaching and what bears some resemblance to a normal ‘life’ outside of one’s career.  Stevie’s dedication to her band mates AND (get this!) herself and her career is inspiring. 

Hard at work.
Now there were repercussions and it was not all roses and lace - Stevie dealt with several addictions: cocaine and painkillers BUT lets go easy on her folks because here is the cool thing - SHE TALKS ABOUT IT.  She has said in interviews she wants others to learn from her mistakes and to be able to avoid them.  All this leads me to respect this woman even more.  She also has dealt with strange rumors of witchcraft, media frenzy over a weight gain and the death of her best friend.  Now I am not sure if others can see where I draw my inspiration from as it relates to perusing a career in the sciences- but I sure hope you can.  I think seeing the human side of someone in the public eye and knowing their struggles (to some degree) and their very active decision to push on, work hard and handle struggles with thought, poise and grace puts things in perspective and it doesn’t hurt that this story comes with an excellent soundtrack.
So- young scientists out there - men and women: learn from your mentors- ask them of their mistakes and successes be inspired or warned and proceed with a fire in your gut because you will need that fire on those days when you’ve had too little sleep and are four days behind on twenty plus things. 

For all you mentors out there- stay human.  That is all we have at the end of the day.  It comes down to how hard we try, the sacrifices we make, those we don’t make, the mistakes we fess to and (here is the big one): our love/dedication for what we do.

All this I learned from my very own fairy godmother who’s haunting voice inspires me to stay whimsical even in a tough as nails profession.  She inspires me to stick to it- tackle the task at hand, to take risks and to work damned hard…even if you are ‘just the girl.' 
More from the heart lyrics from the above song Leather and Lace:
"You're saying I'm fragile
I try not to be
I search only
For something
I can't see
-I have my own life
And I am stronger
Than you know"


More about Dr. Pert’s excellent book which I highly recommend. 

“From Library Journal

Intrigue at the "Palace": back-stabbing, deceit, shunning, love affairs. This is not the plot to I, Claudius but the account Pert gives of her time working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a.k.a. the Palace. Yet her time at NIH is not the central point here. Nor are the molecules of the title, although they do get due coverage. Pert offers mainly an account of her journey from a conventional scientist to one who also embraces complementary and alternative medicine. The journey is long and not without price. She was passed over for the Lasker and Nobel prizes for her work on opiate receptors while colleagues were recognized; she believes that her development of a potential AIDS drug was thwarted owing to scientific dirty pool as well as her being a woman in a man's world. Along the way, she took control of her career, her life, and her personal mission. This is an eye-opening book for anyone who thinks that people with medical degrees act more civil or are more altruistic than the rest of us, though Pert also shows that some do rise above the fray. Recommended for academic and special libraries.?Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Pert, a self-described ``catalyst in the mindbodyspirit revolution in modern medical science,'' and once a chief of brain chemistry at the NIH, freely intermingles vibrant stories of her professional and personal life with her theories about neuropeptides. Currently a research professor at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, Pert may be best known as one of the scientists on Bill Moyers's PBS series Healing and the Mind. In the early 1970s, she made a name for herself with her key role in discovering the brain's opiate receptors. For the next decade, however, owing to her protests over her exclusion from the prestigious Lasker Award, her reputation among scientists was more that of feminist troublemaker than pathfinder. Certainly the picture she draws here of the science establishment would seem to suggest a world of aggressive, even ruthless, alpha males fighting for the top prize. She also traces her own evolution from competitive bench scientist to explorer of personal healing modalities. The death of her father, the end of her marriage, her resignation from the NIH, her embracing of the Christian faith, and her discovery of the healing power of dreams--all were, she says, life-shaping events. Pert also explains her theory that neuropeptides and their receptors are the biochemicals of emotions, carrying information in a vast network linking the material world of molecules with the nonmaterial world of the psyche. Her views on mind-body cellular communication mesh well with the concepts of energy held by many alternative therapies, and she is now, not surprisingly, a popular lecturer on the wellness circuit. Her final chapter describes an eight-part program for a healthy lifestyle, and she has appended an extensive list of alternative medicine resources. Strong scientific support for the mind-body school of medicine, sure to rankle those alpha males back in the labs. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.