Science Policy Ambassadors Social

The Science Policy Ambassadors, a new student group at the University of Cincinnati, will be hosting an online social on Monday, November 9th at 5 pm.   

Affiliated with the Union of Concerned Scientists, this student group aims to provide graduate and undergraduate students opportunities to learn and engage in science policy, and ultimately help them gain experience as advocates for science. The Science Policy Ambassadors aim to help build a network of these opportunities, to create resources for students with an interest in these careers, and promote the opportunities that already exist. 

This student group is open to all majors, and hosts six to seven speakers each semester. You can follow them @SPAUCS to get involved, and RSVP for the social hour here

Welcome Dr. Ryan Feigenbaum

We are excited to welcome Dr. Ryan Feigenbaum as the Center for Public Engagement with Science’s new Program Director. Dr. Feigenbaum will also serve as the new Executive Director of the Philosophy of Science Association (see PSA announcement here). He combines experience in digital media, web development, and digital humanities with expertise in the history and philosophy of the life sciences. His writing encompasses everything from best practices for the visual aspects of online communication to digital exhibits that explore the intersections of history, science, and art.

Dr. Feigenbaum’s efforts in public engagement include a digital exhibit called “Poetic Botany,” created for the New York Botanical Garden. In this exhibit, Dr. Feigenbaum explores the biology of each of nine plant species, incorporating art and poetry from people who were inspired by these plants, as well as the stories of these artists and scientists. The end result has the potential to reach a broader audience than a physical exhibit would, and appeals to people with a variety of interests.

“The Sensitive Plant,” part of the Poetic Botany virtual exhibit

Dr. Feigenbaum has also written about seemingly less exciting organisms, such as algae. In “Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany,” he recounts how scientists discovered and improved our understanding of algae. He begins with the early classification of algae and perceptions of it as unremarkable, and then he walks his readers through the observations of its biology that led to it being more appreciated and sought out by more scientists, and even referenced in literature. He ends with a quote encouraging us to “look again” as something that once failed to capture our imaginations; perhaps this encouragement is useful elsewhere as well.

You’ll find more enagaging writing on Dr. Feigenbaum’s website. He has written about human sleep cycles, and the language we use to discuss it; philosophical arguments about whether life can be explained with science; and other intersections of history, science, and art. He also provides guidance for effectively creating digital spaces for communication and offers suggestions for best practices in web design.

With his abiding interest in communicating science and philosophy to a broad audience, and helping others do so, Dr. Feigenbaum will be a tremendous asset for the Center for Public Engagement with Science.

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Nate Morehouse

This week, we want to highlight the work of one of the Center’s affiliates, Dr. Nate Morehouse

Dr. Morehouse leads a lab that studies insects and spiders. He has a special interest in how they see the world, and how their vision influences the choices they make. He was drawn to the University of Cincinnati because the school has a strong community working on the biology of vision, philosophy of perception, and other fields related to sight. He is currently part of an effort to create a central place for this community through the Institute for Research In Sensing (IRIS). Planning is ongoing, but programming is staged to begin by Spring 2021. 

Dr. Morehouse is partly interested in the vision of spiders and insects because of the diversity of ways that their eyes function. Vertebrates all have eyes similar to a camera; they have a single lens in front of a cavity above a sheet of cells that receives light. Arthropods have a wider diversity of types of eyes. In insects, the most common is the compound eye, which has thousands of individual flat lenses that are all sensitive to light. The information from these pieces together a clearer mosaic image. They also have a lens that gives them separate information about which way is up and helps them make quick decisions important to flight. Spiders are even more complex; they have 8 eyes. 6 of these evolved from compound eyes, derived from a common ancestor with insects. However, these have lost their ability to create a detailed image, likely because spiders lived underground for a large part of their evolutionary history. These eyes have a very low resolution and cannot see color, much like our peripheral vision. Their other eyes collect information for a more complex color image. They form at a different stage in the spider’s development, and even connect to a different part of their brains. This pair of eyes has a single lens, with a long cavity behind it, like a Galilean telescope. This is called a diverging lens, and magnifies anything they focus on. This means that despite having eyes that are only ½ mm wide, they can see patterns as well as an elephant can and can see better than most other animals their size. 

One of the overarching questions Dr. Morehouse and his lab are pursuing is “why?” Spiders have 3-color, vision like humans do, although the exact colors they see are different. Some can see even more than 3 colors. Their interactions, especially during mating, are very reliant on visual cues and color. However, it is unlikely that these displays evolved until after their vision did; after all, why show off if no one can see it? So why did they evolve such complicated vision in the first place? To help them hunt? To avoid something toxic? This research has taken them around the world. 

Ongoing research in the lab includes whether the male and female audacious jumping spiders see the world differently. Both sexes track each other’s movements closely during mating and develop in similar ways. One notable difference is that the females have an extra stage or two of development (instars) before maturity, which might allow their eyes to get bigger. There are some differences in the way genes linked to vision are expressed, but the physical effects of that expression are still being figured out. Dr. Morehouse also has students working on the evolution of illusions and how non-human animals discriminate faces. Such studies are possible with arthropods because the lab has technology that can track the movement of their eyes.  

Dr. Morehouse was inspired to study arthropods when he was three years old; he would go into his backyard and pick up bumblebees, get stung, and pick them back up. He tries to foster the curiosity of children through long term mentoring programs. He participates in the STEM Girls programs at the Cincinnati Museum Center, afterschool programs, and summer camps. Most recently, he ran a summer camp that allowed students to write their own superhero persona, including a disguise, personality, and power, that was inspired by the natural world. At the end of the week, he showed up in disguise as a supervillian with his own powers, and challenged them to defeat him with their own creativity.  

Dr. Morehouse continues to be excited about his field. It has incredible implications for technology; understanding how animals process information could inspire biomedical advances, the engineering of computers that can process information as quickly as arthropods, and programming for the decision making of autonomous cars. In his words, “the natural world has had millions of years to figure out the answers to questions that we are only beginning to ask.” But Dr. Morehouse’s main mission is more philosophical.  

“To be honest, those [questions] aren’t what motivate me. Its cool, but it doesn’t drive me. I would feel like my life had been wasted if I didn’t spend it in the pursuit of curiosity. …I actually think that to be curious is an essential part of what it means to be human. If we forget …it as a basic human pursuit, we’re lost. We should encourage healthy curiosity. In part, what I’m doing is art: I want to spark the curiosity of others. Have I changed how people view their world? Is there more magic to their backyard? If I can just move people’s feet from where they were before, that’s success.” 

To read more about on-going research in the Morehouse lab, click here.

Philosophy of Science Communication Medium Page

Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart contributes to an exciting Medium page on the Philosophy of Science Communication: medium.com/@philscicomm. The page takes the perspective of the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science, Technology, and Society (STS). If you visit the page you will get access to a number of interesting interviews and posts by members that give a valuable perspective on communicating science.