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Scientists-in-training learn to tell a CLEAR story

On the second Saturday of every month, Tuesday Simmons heads to the downtown Berkeley farmers market. Among the produce stalls and coffee stands, she sits behind a table with a sign that reads “Talk to a scientist!” She and other students spend the day fielding questions from strangers about topics that range from genetically modified foods to climate change and more.

“We never know who we'll talk to at our public events, or what kinds of questions we'll be asked,” said Simmons, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB). “This makes the farmers markets fun.”

Simmons' monthly visits to the farmers market are organized by the student group CLEAR (Communication, Literacy, and Education for Agricultural Research). The group aims to mentor the next generation of science communicators by engaging in open, transparent, and active conversations with the public about science and research. Funded through the University of California Global Food Initiative, CLEAR offers a series of scientific outreach events including activities at the farmers market, student-led lectures at libraries, and discussions with the public at local pubs.

Two students sit at the Berkeley farmers market

The events are aimed at making science accessible.

“For members of the public who think scientists are a group of scary, isolated individuals funded by companies with special interests, these brief exchanges can be enough to make them question that assumption,” said Simmons, who also noted that translating her microbiology research for the public has helped improve her communication skills.

Learning to create compelling and impactful science communications is also a draw for Daniel Westcott, who joined the group in 2015. As a PMB graduate student who studies a specialized field — photosynthetic energy conversion in algae and plants — Westcott noted that discussing his research with non-scientists felt like a challenging hurdle to overcome.

Students like Westcott practice their communications skills through writing for the CLEAR blog. In their monthly blog posts, group members have tackled the economics of the meat industry, and the science behind the Impossible Burger, and the difficulty in labeling foods as “natural,” as well as highlighting CLEAR's ongoing outreach efforts.

Westcott understands that sharing his research with the public through the blog and other CLEAR activities is essential.

“Nearly two million scientific articles are published each year,” Westcott said. “Today's successful scientists must be media savvy in order to rise above the noise.”

Launched in 2015, CLEAR began as a project across three UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, and San Diego. At Berkeley, co-founders Peggy Lemaux and Dawn Chiniquy, a PMB postdoctoral fellow, saw the funding as an opportunity to focus on outreach activities and mentorship opportunities, such as helping graduate students write for and talk to non-scientific audiences.

Lemaux is a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and PMB faculty member who studies food crop performance and quality. She said CLEAR is a student-driven organization. All members of CLEAR are volunteers, and a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers participate in the group's activities. Many of members are PMB students, but students from other scientific fields also participate in CLEAR's events and monthly meetings. Student scientists from across campus are welcome.  

As the faculty organizer of CLEAR, Lemaux mentors students by providing feedback and guidance on their public presentations and blog posts. Recent student-led lecture topics include pesticide use and genetically modified foods, and as new members join the group, they'll continue to add new presentations to their calendar of events.

A student gives a presentation at the Berkeley public library

CLEAR also hosts workshops and trainings to foster students' science communication and writing skills. Last spring, the group invited NPR science writer Joe Palca to present a talk, “Real News or Fake Science.” More recently Brian Dunning of Skeptoid gave a presentation tittled “Science Communication in a Minefield of Fiction.” This fall, Sara ElShafie, a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and founder of Science Through Story, will give a science communication workshop for CLEAR students.

In recent years, Lemaux has seen a shift in students' interest in outreach and science communication.

“Today's generation of scientists understand that they must be scientists in the lab and translate the message of their research — and research in general — for the public,” she said.

Some CLEAR students have pursued careers in public communication after leaving Berkeley. Mikel Shybut, PhD ‘15 Plant Biology, is now a fellow at the California Council on Science and Technology where he provides scientific analyses to state legislators. After arranging a day of informational meetings in Sacramento for a group of CLEAR students, Shybut commented, “It's heartening to see what CLEAR has accomplished in the last two years. The group's outreach efforts demonstrate that scientists can be effective messengers.”

Visit CLEAR's calendar to learn more about upcoming events. In September join CLEAR at the following events:

  • Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market: Come chat with CLEAR members and check out their science demos at the farmers market. They feature a different science theme each month and are always looking forward to listening to community members' science questions and concerns.

  • Science Café with PMB professor John Taylor: Join CLEAR members for a beer, fun fungus exhibits, and Dr. John Taylor's tentatively titled "Felons, Fungi and Rats: California's Valley Fever Epidemic.”

Posted on Monday, September 11, 2017 at 9:55 AM

UC ANR, CropMobster partner to share inspiring stories of ag innovation and food system champions

Sacramento high school students from the Edible Sac High school garden program discuss their start-up Sangre del Dragón Hot Sauce company on CropMobster TV.

CropMobster TV's Season 2 takes viewers on a journey throug every county of California, meeting food and ag leaders and seeing how they carve out their livelihoods while feeding their communities.

Most consumers' first encounter with their food is in a grocery store or on a plate served in a restaurant, and they give little thought to how the food got there.

Former Sonoma County farmer Nick Papadopoulos is To learn what goes on before food becomes a meal, CropMobster's Nick “Nicky Bobby” Papadopoulos is meeting with folks around California who are responsible for growing, processing and delivering fruits, nuts, vegetables, meat and other foods. Using a low-tech approach to video with a mobile phone and selfie stick attached to a gutter washer, Nicky Bobby interviews people about their roles in our food system.

As a sponsor of CropMobster TV Season 2, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources is pleased to help introduce some of the Californians who toil behind the scenes to provide consumers the delicious and nutritious food we eat.

Nicky Bobby chats with farmers, people at nonprofit organizations that work to reduce food waste and hunger, scientists, land managers who steward our natural resources and business owners.

“Everybody's into food, but all too often people don't make the connection between food and agriculture,” said Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “When you talk about agriculture, people think of two jobs – farmer and farmworker. There are thousands of jobs in the agricultural ecosystem.

“UC ANR is happy to support CropMobster in telling the stories of the men and women who supply us with safe and abundant food, the challenges that they face and the efforts being made to make the food system even better.”

Nicky Bobby, left, stopped in Jackson to talk with Scott Oneto, UC Cooperative Extension director and farm advisor, about farming in the Central Sierra.

CropMobster TV is a nonprofit storytelling and video project by CropMobster in collaboration with Food Tank and many other individual and organizational supporters to highlight the crucial work of everyday heroes working to feed their communities.

 “Sponsorship and support from UC ANR, which does agricultural research and outreach in every California county, is helping us connect with communities throughout the state,” said Papadopoulos, CropMobster CEO. “We are also grateful for Food Tank and so many other individuals and organizations who are pitching in.”

 “This is such a unique, energetic and needed effort to engage our populace on food and agriculture issues,” said Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank president. “We are thrilled to partner with CropMobster and UC ANR and hope to see the CropMobster vision grow and spread!”

CropMobster TV episodes will be published on:

-       CropMobster's Youtube Channel

-       CropMobster's Facebook Page

Episode One: Sangre del Dragón Hot Sauce! (Season 2, Ep 1)

Nicky Bobby attempts to ride Ginger, a horse from Rockney Farms in El Dorado County, then interviews Sacramento high school students at the Alice Waters-inspired Edible Sac High school garden program about their start-up: Sangre del Dragón Hot Sauce company.

To watch and share, https://youtu.be/oyiVQ9AIusM

About CropMobster https://cropmobster.com/

CropMobster partners with bold community leaders to grow high-impact local food networks and community sharing exchanges. The goals are to spark local food economies, engage communities to reduce food waste, support hunger relief and food security efforts and to facilitate sharing of resources.

 

Posted on Thursday, September 7, 2017 at 1:20 AM

The beautiful and healthful pitahaya thrives in Southern California

Farmer Arian Williams is successfully tending 16 acres of avocados in the De Luz area of Temecula, but he and his wife came to the 10th annual UC Pitahaya Festival in August to see whether there is commercial potential in producing pitahaya.

"We're taking cuttings, and trying it now," Williams said.

Vanessa Caballero, Williams wife, was enthusiastic about the prospect. "I love the way pitahayas look, and there are not too many grown commercially now," she said.

A beautiful pitahaya
 
Different varieties of pitahaya produce fruit that is white, pink and deep red.

The field day at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine included research-based presentations on irrigation strategies, gopher control, integrated pest management, and the impact of root knot nematode on the vining, climbing pitahaya cacti. Native to Central America, the crop has become popular in Asia and the Middle East. Most of the fruit sold in the U.S. is imported.

UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ramiro Lobo has found that the unusually beautiful fruiting cactus thrives in Southern California's mild climate. Pitahaya do well in regions where avocados are produced, but use much less water. They can also make excellent landscape plants, adding interest to the garden while producing healthful fruit.

Staff research associate Gary Tanizaki reviews a a pitahaya irrigation trial that includes six different irrigation regimes designed to understand the optimum practices for popular varieties.

Pitahaya fruit begin as large, showy, nighttime-blooming flowers, each of which contain male and female parts. In many of the most-desirable varieties, the anthers (the male part with pollen) and the stigma (the female part that needs to be pollinated) are separated by a distance that prevents night-flying pollinators, such as moths, from consistently making the connection.

Pitahaya flowers have both male and female parts, however the space between them limits the amount of natural pollination. UCCE advisor Ramiro Lobo recommends growers hand pollinate early in the morning to ensure fruit set.

For a uniform and bountiful crop, Lobo suggests hand pollination. Pollen can be collected by shaking a bloom over a bowl or trimming the anthers into a cup with a pair of scissors. He stores pollen in the freezer until the night or early morning hours when cacti bloom. He dabs up pollen with an inexpensive makeup brush and lightly swishes it onto the flowers' stigma. 

“It's easy and takes just a few seconds per flower," Lobo said. "If you don't hand pollinate, you end up with fruits that are very small. And uniformity isn't there."

UCCE small farms advisor Ramiro Lobo, the pitahaya research leader, with a sample fruit.

Hand pollination also allows farmers to accurately project their pitahaya harvest and work in advance with fruit marketing companies to sell the crop. Lobo said he carries a mechanical counter to click as he pollinates flowers. Forty days later, that precise number of fruit will be ready for harvest.

A tractor pulled pitahaya festival participants to research plots at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.
 
UCCE urban-wildlife interaction advisor Niamh  Quinn demonstrates gopher control techniques.
 
Farmer Arian Williams (left) and his wife Vanessa Caballero are considering adding pitahaya to their 16-acre avocado plantation in Temucula.
 
In the U.S., pitahaya are sometimes marketed as 'dragon fruit' because of their spiny exterior and fiery flesh.
 
The pitahaya plantation at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine.
 
'The Green Cowboy' Chad Morris grows vegetables and manages a farm stand in San Diego. He is experimenting with a few rows of pitahaya.
Posted on Thursday, August 31, 2017 at 9:25 AM

Google to support computer science career training for Santa Clara 4-H

4-H members in Santa Clara County will work with Google employees to develop computer science technical skills, digital fluency, creativity and problem solving skills in a new 10-week program made possible with a donation from the Silicon Valley internet search giant.

Youth participants, teen leaders and adult volunteers are now being recruited to take part in the 4-H Computer Science Career Pathway, a weekly series that begins Sept. 27. The pathway will translate abstract concepts into practical experiences the participants can use to explore the field of computer science. Fill out an online interest form to get more information.

“We are thrilled to begin our partnership with Google and prepare our youth for successful careers in any field they choose through this innovative program,” said Fe Moncloa, the UC Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development advisor in Santa Clara County.

The 4-H Youth Development Program emphasizes enrichment education through inquiry-based learning. Youth are encouraged to discover their passions, adopt a growth mindset, practice self-reflection and set goals. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)

The outreach will go beyond the 10 weekly sessions. During the first year, an estimated 700 youth in traditional 4-H community clubs, in after-school programs, and in programs offered by partnering community organizations will be touched by 4-H computer science. Booths will be set up at festivals and fairs to reach still more young people.

 “There are many different opportunities for our youth to explore computer science,” Moncloa said.

The Santa Clara program is one of dozens funded through the National 4-H Council, which received a $1.5 million grant from Google to build skills youth need for the future. Santa Clara is the only California county involved.

“We don't know what the jobs of tomorrow will look like,” said Charlotte Smith of Google.org when the grant was announced. “Some of them might require computer science skills, but it's much more than that – problem solving, collaboration. We want to give kids as many kinds of tools as we can so they can succeed in any discipline and in any field.”

The 4-H youth development program promotes hands-on, experiential learning. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)

To reach underserved youth in Santa Clara County, 4-H will partner with two well-established community organizations. Youth Alliance, based in Hollister, provides innovative and culturally relevant services to local youth and families. Youth Alliance offers after-school programs for elementary and junior high school youth to give children a safe place to spend afternoons, get homework help and participate in cultural arts programs.

A second community partner is Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose, which assists families with a wide variety of needs, including after-school programs, housing, food, nutrition education, citizenship classes and English-as-a-second-language training.

4-H provides participants with an opportunity to develop strong, positive relationships with adults while engaging in meaningful activities. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)

Santa Clara County UC Cooperative Extension 4-H has formed a team to launch the 4-H Computer Science Career Pathway.

UCCE 4-H program representative Claudia Damiani will train college students to offer the computer science curriculum to young people in Youth Alliance and Sacred Heart Community Service programs.

Google employee and 4-H volunteer Curtis Ullerich will teach the computer science curriculum to other volunteers in Santa Clara County.

“Some people think computer science is limited to coding,” Moncloa said. “Curtis, the way he teaches, he presents computer science in a different way. Sure, coding is one element, but there is so much more.”

Fiona Reyes and Santiago Piva are 4-H Teen Leaders in this project. They will teach and mentor youth, and collaborate with Ullerich to extend the curricula to 4-H volunteers.

Posted on Tuesday, August 29, 2017 at 9:07 AM

UC Master Gardeners' 5 tips to boost beneficial bees

With a little care and planning, anyone can make their little corner of the earth safe and friendly for bees.

UC Master Gardener volunteer Clare Bhakta of San Joaquin County shared bee-friendly strategies during a community workshop in August, extending the reach of research information developed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"Lure bees in," Bhakta said. "If you make it comfy, they will come."

UC Master Gardener Clare Bhakta leads the

Bhakta is a newly minted Master Gardener, having graduated in June from the intensive training program presented by UC advisors and specialists. She is part of the San Joaquin County MG speakers bureau; the "Buzz about Bees" was her inaugural engagement.

"We want bees in our gardens," Bhakta said. "Ninety percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of human crops depend on pollinators, including bees. Bee pollination makes about $15 billion in human food in the United States each year."

What's good for bees also attracts other pollinators. Here a yellow butterfly lands on lantana in the San Joaquin County demonstration garden, 2101 E. Earhart Ave., Stockton.

About 1,600 species of bees are found in California, many of them natives. Most of the bee species live independently, occupying holes in trees trunks or branches, or in the ground. Their sizes range from inch-long metallic black bumble bees to tiny sweat bees 3 millimeters in length. These species rarely sting since they don't have hives to protect. 

California's most recognizable bee is the European honeybee, imported from the Old Country by settlers in the 1600s. The insects serve as efficient pollinators and produce more honey than they can use themselves - offering humans an abundance of natural golden sweetener with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Bees work hard to produce honey. It takes 2 million flower visits - about 55,000 flight miles - to make a pound of honey. An individual worker bee lives just six weeks and produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

Sharon Butler is the president of the Ripon Community Garden. She attended the UC Master Gardener workshop to get research-based information on bee-friendly gardening.
 

Sharon Butler, president of the Ripon Community Garden, attended the free workshop. The 2.5-acre garden at the corner of Vera and Doak avenues has dozens of raised garden plots. The community just added several bee hives. Butler asked at the workshop about an unexplained phenomenon in their first honey harvest. 

"A couple of racks had dark spots with honey that had a cinnamon taste," she said.

Bhatka said the variation was probably the result of nectar from different plants.

"I wish I knew what plant it is, I'd plant a lot more," Butler said.

The Ripon Community Garden allows local families to grow food, and allocates four beds to grow fresh vegetables to distribute to local senior citizens.

Creating a bee friendly garden may go against the grain for tidy gardeners. Bees don't prefer the well-trimmed plants and homogeneous color scheme of a formal outdoor space.

"Bees love herbs," Bhakta said. "I let my sage go crazy this year and I couldn't believe how tall they got."

Marbles in the water give bees a place to land and sip water.Bees like a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring to late fall planted in clumps to minimize their travel time. Sweetly aromatic blooms, particularly blues and yellows, will attract the most bees. 

For best results, don't over garden. Follow these five tips from the UC Master Gardener program:

  1. Rather than cover all soil with mulch, leave open areas for ground nesting bees.

  2. Keep a few dead tree stumps or branches. Particularly if it has holes, it makes an ideal nesting site for solitary bees.

  3. Let plants "go to seed," even when they begin to look overgrown and leggy.

  4. Provide a shallow water source. Filling it with pebbles or marbles allows the bees access to the water.

  5. Avoid using pesticides. Visit the UC Integeted Pest Management website for environmentally sound methods of controlling pests and weeds.

 

Posted on Monday, August 28, 2017 at 8:37 AM

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