Guest Blogging on ZMEScience!

Check it out, I am finally publishing elsewhere than my homegrown free wordpress account! I wrote a guest feature for the science blog ZMEScience about the phenomenon of bachelorhood in the animal world. Why do bachelors exist? Why doesn’t natural selection stop this madness? Can Photoshop illustrations that Sarah spent way too much time on help us understand? Find out here!

Pioneering a genre: where environmentalist films like Okja need to go next.

Last week Netflix released the unusual hit Okja, a film laden with environmental messaging and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho. The film centers on a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who has spent most of her life in the mountains of Korea raising a so-called “super-pig”: a massive genetically modified creature designed by an American corporation called Mirando to be a super-efficient, low footprint source of meat. A competition in which 26 super-pigs were distributed internationally to each be raised by a different family farm was used as a publicity stunt to launch Mirando’s marketing campaign. After 10 years, Mija’s pig named Okja is selected as winner and unceremoniously removed from its mountainside home to be transported to New York City for the grand announcement. Mija follows in hot pursuit, intent on recovering Okja and returning it home, but becomes quickly entangled with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who also intends to rescue Okja.

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Mija and her hippo-like super-pig, Okja.

It seems temporarily that Mija and the ALF should have allied interests, but the ALF’s leader Jay (Paul Dano) reveals that they only wish to capture Okja temporarily in order to implant a recording device that will be used to expose the abuses they suspect to be occurring in the Mirando laboratory and slaughterhouse. Indeed, everything about Mirando seems too airbrushed to be honest, their CEO being played by an angelically beaming Tilda Swinton (who is subtly psychologically unhinged in that classic Swinton style). They even hire a somewhat manic zoologist named Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhal) to act as the face of the corporation, in an apparent attempt to lend the company scientific and ethical legitimacy. While the film makes some excellent statements about the dangers of corporate influence when it comes to managing environmental issues, I find that it unfortunately falls quite short of accurately representing the scientific community in its dystopian setting. Continue reading

What the weta? This Power Ranger cricket can take on three different forms.

When most animals grow up, they pretty much look the same. Like, can you tell the difference between these two squirrels?

I mean, besides the fact that the one on the right might have a mild obesity problem, I couldn’t tell you who was who, even though I know they’re two different individuals that I observed on two different hiking trips.

Some animals, however, like to break this mould: enter, the Wellington tree weta.

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Why it’s not cool to be a scientist.

I have alluded in a few of my other posts to my frustration with science as a discipline. Usually when I explain my job to people, the reaction is: “wow, that must be so cool!” And 90% of the time, I would agree, but…like I suspect is the case with a lot of jobs, being a scientist is one of those things that looks hella cool from the outside but has a hidden darkness under the surface. It’s like how there’s the spunky public-facing Sonic the Hedgehog most of us know and love…

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…and then there’s the internet’s version of Sonic the Hedgehog.

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There is such a thing as knowing too much.

While it certainly won’t take us to as disturbing of a place as that image just did, let’s dive into the belly of the beast: what makes science so frustrating sometimes?

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Science Resists Communication

There’s a stark difference between how universities and other scientific institutions handle the dissemination of their knowledge. To me, universities are often like dragons sitting on top of heaps of gold in remote mountainside caves. Who would make the fucked up voyage to Smaug when down here in the meadows of the Public Domain, there are benign leprechauns throwing gold about willy-nilly? We have zoos begging us to take an interest in their research, science centres advertising Indiana Jones exhibits on billboards, museums with full-size reconstructions of dinosaurs, and all of them give us the courtesy of viewing us as customers that they need to appeal to. Meanwhile, the university dragon belches a flame from the miniscule opening to its lair like you can try, but I might crisp your fingertips.  

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What I mean is this: if you want to learn what’s going on inside a university, YOU are going to be the one who has to do the work to find out, whereas other scientific institutions try to make this process as easy as possible for the public. Universities and professors can be shockingly resistant to communicating their research with the public. As a Master’s student who loves science communication, it can be downright maddening. Continue reading

Sarah’s Must-Reads #2: The Science Stuff

This list of must-reads might seem to fall a bit on a “specialized audience” (other scientists), but I encourage you to take a peek anyways if you have an interest in science! Which is hopefully why you find yourself on this page to begin with. These are not scientific papers, but rather blog posts and articles that reflect on science as a discipline or bring scientific ideas to the public. I think this list suffers a bit of an identity crisis because it really embodies the love-hate relationship I (and most of my colleagues) have with science: some of these articles provide insights into the faintly enraging political issues of being a scientist, while others celebrate science in ways that I think we need to do more of. Enjoy!

1. Our Papers, Our Hearts – Wayne Maddison

Just a really nice short piece about how science is not all cold-hearted analytical mumbo jumbo locked in an ivory tower behind a journal access paywall. Academics fall too often into hiding behind these constructs, but here Wayne Maddison explains how behind every technically-worded scientific article, there is a human story. I love science! Continue reading

The Secret Worlds of The Best Animals You’ve Never Heard Of

For this post I went back in time to the years of my Bachelors in Animal Biology, took a lil’ stroll in the old mind palace if you will, to when I learned about so many cool animals I never even knew existed. Here I compiled a random sampling of my favourites with some recent research that’s been done on each species. I actually learned a lot researching for this article, there’s much more going on in the microcosms of these species’ lives than I expected. Enjoy a peek into the secret worlds of these fascinating creatures!

1. The Common Seadragon: Phyllopteryx taeniolatus

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The magical seadragon is like a Hayao Miyazaki illustration brought to life. These relatives of the seahorse inhabit the waters around the south coast of Australia and Tasmania.

Seadragons are basically the majestic, tricked-out, LSD version of seahorses. This species is also called the weedy seadragon because its lobe-like fins and squiggly shape help it fit in quite well with seaweed for camouflage. Being closely related to seahorses, they also have that fun feminist slant where the male incubates and cares for the eggs. Male seadragons actually lack a pouch to store the eggs, opting instead to carry eggs on their tail. But mostly, they are just entrancingly gorgeous to flick through on Google images for a good half-hour. Individual seadragons can actually be identified uniquely from one another using the pattern of spots and blotches on their abdomens! It’s like a fingerprint, except huge and all over your stomach. Like maybe if I wanted to dress up as a seadragon for Halloween, I could just paint “MY NAME IS SARAH” on my stomach. A totally accessible joke that everyone will understand. Continue reading

The Art of Science

There’s a little-known niche in the already niche-y world of scientific publishing: scientific illustrations. These are drawings that researchers request from artists to demonstrate something that they want to explain in a publication: for example, if you study the anatomy of a poorly-described insect species, it’s way easier to have an artist draw a diagram for you than to try to describe “the ventral protrusion of the 6th abdominal tergite.” No one likes that sentence.

What everyone does like are gorgeous renderings of rare and bizarre animals, the insides of cells, and ancient creatures brought back to life! These are the beautiful things that science illustrations bring us.

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The Debate on Zoos

Zoos garner a unique mix of opinions, not only among adults but across an individual’s lifetime. Generally, we are introduced to zoos at a very young age, and unless we have a pretty advanced sense of empathy (aside: we all know kids do NOT) we see the zoo as being exclusively an exciting, fun place. Then, as we become more aware of concepts like captivity, ethics, and freedom, we have to re-confront the concept of the zoo and re-evaluate our opinions. Continue reading

I Caribou-t You, Caribou

Disclaimer: credit for this punny blog title goes to the excellent like-mindedly pun-focused Naomi Louchouarn, who actually works on caribou with Yellowstone to Yukon.

The caribou. I think Michael Mitchell put it best when he said:

Any Canadian child of the 90s better know what I’m talking about. For everyone else, click that video above and you will not regret it. (Or perhaps you will, since you likely do not have fond nostalgic memories associated with patriotic Canadian children’s songs.) Continue reading