What scientists do… in summer!


Let’s start with some summer fun for everyone. Here’s what Olaf (a snowman) thought about summer…

Have you ever wondered what scientists do in summer?

I’ve always loved the idea of summer… Really, I’m guessing you don’t have much experience with breaks, do you?

Nope, but I like to close my eyes and imagine all the potential productivity when summer does come.

There’s no classes… except that new course you wanted to develop for fall

There’s no students… except the half a dozen HHMI undergrads in the lab

No committees… except that one search that’s planning to beat the competition

PI’s will have time to work in the lab… except they don’t remember how to use the equipment.


A flask in my hand,

A burner flaming under ring-stand,

Squinting, yes, that could be a band,

So many experiments to do in summer!


The joy of preliminary data,

That will be written in grants later,

I hope they meet a generous rater,

But we won’t worry about it now, it’s summer!


Ecologists spend their summer days

Counting Anoles’ dewlap displays

Under the Caribbean rays*

From the cold room, the biochemist says:

I think I picked the wrong discipline for summer!


We can research whatever we please

Because there are no salaries**

Given by universities … in summer!


I hope this transformation gives resistant expressors

Because for reviewers, I’m a persistent addresser

Trying to be less of an #OverlyHonestMethods confessor

If I had my own grant, I be a __________ Happy Postdoc! This summer!***


Research posters, we will assemble

And they just might resemble

The abstracts submitted long ago

To justify a trip to Key Largo

Wait- that conference is really in Fargo… this summer!


Oh! at the meetings, the data will be new

And you’ll all be there too

Because that’s just what scientists do in summer!


// It’s summer, scientists. Enjoy it how you will. Feel free to add your own verses in the comments section below.



* Shout out to my friend Dr. Michele Johnson, WashU alum, now at Trinity University. Go visit her Lizards and Friends webpage for more than you ever wanted to know about lizards and their behavior.

**FYI- Does not apply to postdocs. I still get paid, but many other academic positions are only 9 month appointments.

***Give me a break, it was hard to think of rhymes for assistant professor.



Frozen: A Plant Science Parody

It’s hot, but don’t fret- I’ve got Frozen treats to cool off the blog. Parodies are kind of a theme this summer, so why not go after the mother of them all? That’s right- Frozen: A Plant Science Parody will be featured in the coming blog posts.


Unless you have been living under a rock these past few months, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a version of Let it Go for everyday of the year. I plan on turning all of Frozen’s catchy ear bugs into songs that will teach you something about plant science. Don’t worry, I’ll just be posting the lyrics.

I may not sing, but I do mix up my Disney movie references.

I may not sing, but I do mix up my Disney movie references.

Here’s what’s coming up:

In Summer: What scientists do in summer!

Have you ever wondered what scientists do in summer? This song is just for fun.

Frozen Heart: Plant Cold Tolerance

Plants can’t snuggle away in a burrow when the cold winter comes. Find out how cold hardy plants handle the weather while others succumb to frostbite.

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?: Do you wanna make a plastid?

Plastids are important plant cell organelles that perform specialized biochemical reactions and/or store critical metabolites. Hopefully you’ve heard of chloroplasts, in which photosynthesis occurs, but there are other types of plastids and plants know just how to develop the right ones in the right tissues.

For the First Time in Forever: Vernalization

Some plants have sophisticated time-keeping abilities and know just when to kick developmental programs into high gear when the seasons change- like a vibrant party after a long and dormant winter.

Love is an Open Door: Stomata Open the Door

Plants need carbon dioxide in the same way we need oxygen, but how much do you know about their respiratory system? Plants need a way of making this gas available to all of their tissues. Stomata and their guard cells open the door to let it in (of course, they close the door too to make sure water isn’t constantly being lost).

Let it go: Abscission

Plants may seem stoic, like they’re always holding something in, but when necessary they can also ‘let it go.’ Abscission is the process of releasing certain tissues according to a developmental program. What triggers plants to release their flower petals and trees to drop their leaves? Hint: It’s biochemistry and not the sudden triumph over inner emotional turmoil.

Fixer-Upper: PSII Damage and Repair

Photosystem II uses light energy to split water, fueling the beginning of the photosynthetic electron transfer chain. This is a dangerous job that results in frequent damage to this complex molecular machine. Instead of giving up completely on the broken enzymes, systems in plant cells engage in ‘fixing them up’ until complete functionality is restored.



The Resume of Dr. Roose in the Style of Dr. Seuss

A big part of my job as a postdoc is to find another job. A real job; since all of my current scientific productivity is just ‘training’ within the academic system. Needless to say I spend a lot of time sending out job applications and updating my resume. Listing my technical skills and elaborating on these abilities is something I’ve done frequently over the last several months (OK, really the better part of three years). At one point in a recent interview when asked to further explain my expertise with certain types of experiments, I felt a lot like that guy talking to Sam I Am in Green Eggs and Ham. “I can do that experiment here and there, I can do it in a house, in a box, with a fox (admittedly a stretch), in the rain, on a boat.” You get the idea. Anyhoo, the connection has been stewing in my brain for a while now such that I cannot hold it in much longer. So, today I give you “The Resume of Dr. Roose in the Style of Dr. Seuss.”* The Cat in the Hat, may know a lot about that, but the PhD in her hood, knows too much for her own good!

Oh, the places you could go!

Tell me more about what you know…

My interest is in how plants make their food

So my experimental skills include…

Pipetting polymerase chain reactions

Making site-directed mutants with exaction

Making any kind of buffer solution

Recording oxygen evolution

Calculating enzyme kinetics

Explaining bioenergetics

Measuring pigments and proteins on the spec

DNA, RNA too, what the heck!

Agarose gels with ethidium bromide

And handmade gels of acrylamide

SDS and Blue Native

With protein samples most creative

Want to hear about my blots?

Let me count the ways, there’s lots!

                In a tank, semi-dry, PVDF, nitrocellulose, semi-quantitative, immunodetection with color or chemiluminescent, developed on a film or on a screen… Yes, I can blot proteins any way you mean.

In the rain, would you could you in the rain?

Yes, it’s protein chromatography, affinity

Not my grandmother’s divinity!

PSII isolations- Could you would you in the dark?

I can, I will, one must do them in the dark!

Cold and fast! Fast and cold!

Do not stop until you’re told!

I measure all types of chlorophyll fluorescence

Run on computers elsewhere in obsolescence

These old instruments are finicky

Protocols defy practicality

Does your ability have no limit?

Alas, I do- time’s not infinite

After 6pm daycare charges by the minute!

Experiments stop, a pity, isn’t it?

I am so technically competent you see

Don’t you want to employ me?

I do so love biochemistry!

Thank you, thank you Ph.D.




*I’m thinking of just using it as my cover letter from now on.

Independence Day: Red, White and Blue

In celebration of July 4th, this typically green blog is going red, white and blue.


There are lots of connections between plants and the color red. Roses are red. Plants emit a faint red fluorescent glow, as I wrote about in my previous post. But it isn’t all about plants; there are other photosynthesizers, like algae. While green may dominate your perception of algae, there is an entire group of red algae, the Rhodophyta, that exist below the surface of marine environments. Like plants and green algae, they are eukaryotes, but they have many photosynthetic characteristics that are closer to the prokaryotic cyanobacteria. Most notably, they contain the phycobilisome antenna structures to funnel light into their photosynthetic machinery. Since the red algae live in the ocean below other photosynthetic organisms, they take advantage of the higher-energy blue light that penetrates deeper into the water. To do this, they make the phycoerythrin pigment which appears red. This may sound exotic, but you may be more familiar with red algae than you think. The agar and agarose used in microbiology labs is derived from species of red algae as well as the nori used to roll your sushi.

Red Algae Chondrus Cripsus via Wikipedia


The ‘color’ white in plants is an interesting case. It means that no pigments are present, and all visible light is being reflected from the plant tissue. Very little, if any, light is being absorbed. Since their lives depend on converting sunlight into chemical energy, reflecting all of it away from themselves represents a risk by the plant. However, it is a calculated one that pays off. The white tissue of flowers depends on the other green parts of the plant to supply it with sugar and other energy molecules for biochemical support, but it creates a contrast from the rest of the plant. In this way, the plants have made it easier for pollinators to home in on flower tissue with its nectar and pollen. It creates the most basic win-win situation for plants and pollinators- no extra biochemical pathways required. Of course, some ‘plants’ take white too far and lose the ability to be photosynthetic as in the case of the ghost plant.

Pentas lanceolata via Wikipedia


True blue can also be difficult to come by in the plant world. Because blue light resides on the high-energy side of the light spectrum, it is in the best interest of the plants to absorb that energy to drive photosynthesis. Indeed, the antenna pigments of photosynthetic organisms are very good at absorbing blue and red light. However, some plants can make a special class of anthocyanidin that reflect blue light. Pigments like delphinidin give larkspurs, violas and grapes their distinctive bluish hues. Alas, not all plants have the biochemical pathways to create blue flowers, but the demand for blue blooms in the horticultural sector doesn’t let nature get in its way. Plant scientists can use biotechnology to insert the genes necessary to produce the blue pigment. While true blue roses haven’t quite come to fruition, blue varieties of carnations and chrysanthemums have been engineered.

Delphinium x Belladona Bellamosa via Wikipedia

These examples show that the photosynthetic world can be patriotic as well. Colors, like red, can come from common places and overlooked depths, while white can be a beneficial sacrifice. Blue can be true or migrate in from exotic sources.



References and Links:











The Countdown Starts…



Earth below us, greening, glowing, cycling carbon, photosynthesis!

Red fluorescence tells the story, satellites can measure, measure it!

Wait, those aren’t the lyrics to Major Tom Coming Home. Not quite, but more appropriate for the upcoming OCO-2 NASA mission scheduled to launch in less than 24 hours! That stands for Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, a satellite equipped with instruments to measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. What does photosynthesis have to do with it? A lot. No matter how the carbon dioxide finds its way into the atmosphere- vehicle emissions, thawing tundra, the panting of my dogs in the Louisiana summer heat- photosynthetic organisms are its ticket out of the atmosphere and back into the solid state. The OCO-2 satellite will be collecting spectral data for direct measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide as well as sun-induced fluorescence to monitor photosynthesis on a global scale.


Watching in a trance, the crew is certain, Nothing left to chance, all is working…

Now that you know what the OCO stands for, you might be wondering about the 2. Of course there was a ‘1’. Starting with 2 would just drive people like the scientists and engineers at NASA crazy. The OCO-1 launched in 2009 with a similar mission to collect carbon dioxide concentration data, but it failed to launch properly and crashed into the ocean before making it anywhere close to its orbit. Sigh. After I’m sure a lot of this happened, the scientists and engineers got back to work to make the replacement mission even better. You can bet that everything has been quadruple checked this time.*


Starting to collect requested data, What will it effect when all is done?

Remember when I told you how nifty it was that satellites were measuring photosynthesis from space while I was making the same measurements in the lab? Well, it’s not just a scientific novelty being measured because it can be. Chlorophyll fluorescence on a global scale provides critical information for accurate models of primary productivity and global carbon cycles. A recent report in PNAS showed that sun-induced fluorescence data could be used to model gross primary productivity.** The authors found that estimates based on chlorophyll fluorescence data were much higher for major agricultural areas like the U.S. Corn Belt than models using other measures. These findings mean our current models may be underestimating how much modern agriculture and other managed areas contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle. That report focuses on land photosynthesis, but I hope that the satellites will be collecting the chlorophyll fluorescence signal from both the land and the oceans. Let’s not forget that the photosynthetic bacteria in the ocean account for about half of the Earth’s primary productivity. I’m sure they have it covered since they have long been interested in mapping ocean color.

Check out this video for more on the OCO-2 mission.

There’s a lot of politics behind the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, what’s causing them to creep increasingly higher and what that means for global climate patterns. Collecting accurate data on how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere as well as the capacity of photosynthetic organisms to reclaim that carbon dioxide will greatly aid in global climate models that will be used to direct policy.

OCO-2 Satellite, Oh how I wonder what you will see for us. Safe journey and Godspeed.

UPDATE 07/01/14: For those of you that didn’t set your alarms early to watch the launch…

The computer has the evidence, need to abort, the countdown stops…

At T-46 seconds to be precise. There was a problem with the pad’s water system during the launch sequence that caused the mission to be aborted today. The satellite and rocket are all still ready to go, but NASA’s scientists and engineers need to figure out the source of the problem and a new launch date for the OCO-2 mission. Check here for the latest. And follow OCO-2 on Twitter!

UPDATE: 07/02/14

The OCO-2 do-over launch was successful today. Don’t just take my word for it, listen to OCO-2:



*If a launch failure happens again, I’m willing to start entertaining conspiracy theories.

**It should be noted that chlorophyll fluorescence has long been a standard technique in the laboratory for analyzing photosynthetic efficiency. Scientists have even scaled it up for field analysis. The real breakthrough in recent years has been observing this faint signal from plants via satellite using only the incident natural sunlight (not artificially bright light subjected to plants in a very controlled way).

References and Links:
















My Writing Process

This post is in response to a prompt going around Twitter has bloggers stop and think about what and how do they write called #MyWritingProcess.

Here are the My Writing Process Blog Tour Instructions:
Step 1: Acknowledge the person (& site) who involved you in the blog tour.
Step 2: Answer these 4 questions about your writing process.
Step 3: Tag another writer or 2 to answer the questions the week after you. Give a one-sentence bio of each, and link to their websites.

I was tagged by Jen Ro. She’s juggling soybean science, single-motherhood, and finds time to write all about it over at PhD and the Single Mom .


In my real life day job, I do a lot of technical writing- scientific journal manuscripts and lab protocols.In my spare time, I write this blog, which tries to turn plants, plant science and all things autotroph into something interesting for a general audience.


There isn’t much blogosphere real estate dedicated to plant biology and virtually no one blogging primarily about photosynthesis research. My schtick here on this blog is to make plants and other photosynthesizers (and their researchers) more interesting and relatable to your everyday life. I’m a hack at analogies to make difficult concepts easier to understand. I also use adorable/annoying alliteration for compulsive reasons I don’t fully understand. As part of making things entertaining, I like to leave Easter Eggs (humorous pop culture references or footnotes ala Psych) in my posts for readers just to make sure they are paying attention.


My hypothesis is that the general public just doesn’t find the topics of photosynthesis and plant biology interesting. Photosynthesis is just some boring equation we all learned in the third grade. Done. Checked off the Bucket List. Plants in general may be a little more interesting, but they are literally the scenery and are often under-appreciated. I’m a cheerleader and use the blog as a form of science outreach. Photosynthetic organisms form the basis of our ecosystem, and it’s important that we know how they work. I’m not seeking to convert anyone into being a plant scientist, but hope that my audience gains more respect for people who are.


Inasmuch as there is a process… I try to talk about plant-related topics that are current, whether it is a new scientific paper or seasonally-appropriate to catch readers’ attention. Some ideas are planned in advance according to the calendar- what’s blooming, fruiting etc. Other ideas strike me more quickly after reading some link I saw shared on Twitter or Facebook. No matter how the spark happens, the ideas for the basic form of my posts rattle around in my brain for a while as I’m working out a clever angle. This is followed by a fair amount of research involving at least two-dozen internet browser tabs being open at any given time. The writing isn’t as efficient as I’d like it to be. Even after much incubation in my brain beforehand, posts take me an hour or so to write, link, add pictures and publish. I’m hoping that I’ll get faster with continued practice. That being said, my posts are generally published the day I start to type them and very few are written and scheduled more than a day in advance. So, that doesn’t leave much room for any kind of editing process.

Update to answer question for Paige Brown over at From the Lab Bench #MySciBlog


As I’ve hinted at in the above questions, my blog post subjects tend to be autotroph-related. For posts about new primary literature, it has to be close to my area of expertise (photosynthesis). For more general plant science, I take advantage of seasonal interests. In either case, I have to find some catchy way of presenting the science so it is interesting, understandable and just different enough from what’s already on the web somewhere.

Now comes the fun part, I get to tag another blogger. I’m passing this along to Hope Jahren, also an advocate and admirer of autotrophs*. Her blog is hopejahrensurecanwrite.com . It’s hilarious and “made of good.”



*I told you I have a problem.

Post Summer Solstice Post

I hope you went outside yesterday and soaked up the sun during the longest day of the year. I know I did along with a lot of autotrophs in the Northern Hemisphere. Project Budburst was counting on summer observations and I gave you additional encouragement and details in yesterday’s post.


I made my observation yesterday. ICYMI, the Crape Myrtles planted along our town’s main drag are in full bloom these days. Now everyone on the interwebz knows.


Then I went to check the observation map.


Nailed it!

But then I thought…


Well, fine. I’m the only one in Louisiana that bothered to report that the Crape Myrtles are blooming. Let’s hope more of you bothered to notice them in real life even if you didn’t log it on the internet. I’m sure it won’t come back to haunt you when science fair season rolls around.* My observation for our state puts us ahead of South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, New Hampshire and Maine. So that’s something!



*Passive-aggressive comment of the day.