SciTech Briefs

Kids are starting to picture scientists as women

A review of children’s drawings of scientists over the past 52 years suggests that more North American children are imagining scientists as women.

Researchers led by David Miller, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, combed through 78 “draw-a-scientist” studies, in which U.S. and Canadian students of varying ages were simply asked to draw a scientist.

The percentage of women in the drawings increased over time. In the first study, conducted from 1966 to 1977, only 0.6 percent (28 out of almost 5,000) of the scientist drawings depicted women. In the most recent study, the figure was 28 percent.

“A lot has changed since the 1960s,” says Miller, “More women are becoming scientists, and there’s some evidence that female scientists are being represented more in the media.”

However, even in the most recent studies, the percentage of women in the scientist drawings decreases as the students go through puberty, most strikingly in girls — from 70 percent of girls drawing women at age six to only 25 percent at age 16.“This is a critical period in which kids are learning stereotypes,” Miller says. “It’s important that teachers and parents present diverse examples of both male and female scientists.”

Source: Science News

Controversial study suggests early birds may have been too hefty to sit on their eggs

A new analysis of ancient bird fossils suggests that these early birds may have been too heavy to incubate their eggs by sitting on them. However, the study has attracted much criticism in the paleontology world.

Paleontologists from the University of Lincoln examined egg fossils from 21 species of prehistoric birds to estimate the eggs’ size and how much weight they would be able to bear. For every species they examined, they concluded that the eggs would not have been able to support the weight of an adult.

Not everyone agrees with the analysis. The research is being challenged by scientists who believe that some species of dinosaurs unrelated to birds incubated their eggs by sitting on them, which would invalidate the hypothesis that egg-sitting evolved 100 million years ago. However, the evidence for this hypothesis — for example, fossils — is debated.

Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, challenges the study because it suggests that early birds nested on the ground. Enantiornithines, one of three groups of primitive birds examined in the study, nested in trees, claims Chiappe. “If you live in a tree, most likely you nest in a tree. And, if you nest in a tree, I don’t see how these eggs could have been incubated if it’s not by contact with a parent.”

Other paleontologists, even those who believe the study’s conclusion makes sense, acknowledge that it relied on assumptions made from unknown factors, such as the exact shape of the eggs.

Source: Nature

Fungus found in NASA's clean room

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, the clean room storing meteorite samples is contaminated with fungus.

Clean rooms are used to remove any signs of terrestrial life from departing spacecraft to avoid terrestrial life’s interference with samples to and from outer space. They are intended to be sterile, uncontaminated spaces that are often used to store immaculate samples from space, and are challenging to maintain simply because of the high standard of cleanliness required in such a space.

The room has been found to be contaminated with traces of terrestrial fungus of the genus Penicillium. The microbes could potentially interfere with the samples that the lab is planning to receive from Mars and the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu, according to Science.

However, the contaminated room wasn’t supposed to be the cleanest of all rooms possible. The clean rooms range from class 1 to class 9, with class 1 being the cleanest. This room was supposed to be a class 6.

But according to Aaron Regberg, a geomicrobiologist at JSC, who presented the report at the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, this doesn’t mean that researchers at these facilities become lax about such procedures. As quoted in an article by Science, Marc Fries, a spectroscopist who curates the cosmic dust collection at JSC but wasn’t involved in the work said “I’d characterize it as eye-opening...It drives home this point that fungi are an important part of microbial contamination.”

Source: Science

Wildlife workers try to save Ethiopian wolves using vaccines

Ethiopian wolves, found in the Bale Mountains of southeast Ethiopia, are the rarest and most endangered canine in the world. Researchers are trying to make sure they don’t die out by vaccinating them.

There are less than 500 Ethiopian wolves in the wild, and are under the constant threat by attacks of rabies, canine distemper and habitat reduction. According to the Wildlife Conservation Network, these wolves come into contact with domestic dogs that pass on the diseases to them, which ultimately kills three out of four wolves that it affects. Major outbreaks of disease affect the populations devastatingly, often cutting them down to 75 percent of their original size.

Eric Bedin and his field monitoring team often travel up in these mountains in conservation efforts to prevent the spread of diseases among these wolves. They travel on horseback and on foot, braving harsh and unpredictable weather, to study these wolves.

Now, their next project is to leave chunks of goat meat which would have the oral vaccine in them, scattered around these mountains, to increase the wolves’ immunity against rabies.

While this project seems to be well-intentioned, one of the biggest criticisms of introducing vaccines to ecosystems is the advantage it would give some predators over the others or instead, having the opposite effect — making the vaccinated animals more vulnerable to the disease once the immunity wears off. In fact, vaccination is a strategy used only when the species are on the brink of extinction — like these Ethiopian wolves.

Source: Science News