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Improv-ing Our Way of Communicating Science

13 Sep

If you’d stumbled into the right room of the theater building this spring, you might have been startled to see sixteen Smith faculty and staff staring fixedly at the floor, walking random circles around each another, in total silence, as if they’d gone mad.

You might have been more startled still to hear that those faculty were at that very moment practicing pioneering new methods to communicate scholarly and scientific work to the public.

The group, including myself, was taking part in a program brought to Smith by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, run out of Stony Brook University.  Founded by famed actor Alan Alda of M*A*S*H, the center brings workshops to academic institutions around the country.

Before founding the center, Alda had long taken an interest in science communication, hosting the Scientific American Frontiers program about popular science from 1993 to 2005.  In working with scientists for the show, he realized that many of them had no idea how to effectively talk to journalists, much less the public.

Scholars seldom have trained to reach broad audiences.  Normally, they work either alone or with other specialists, reporting their work to audiences of highly-trained peers and relying on technical jargon and complex detail to get their points across.

The theater exercises Alda had learned as a budding actor, he realized, could prove as formative and life-changing to scholars as to theater professionals.   Rooted in improvisation and collaboration, the exercises help teach participants how to create human connection.

With study after study showing that information alone can’t change minds, building that interpersonal rapport may prove as crucial to sharing knowledge as providing the facts.

“If what you’re worried about is how do I look, how do I sound, will I remember the hard words, am I saying this in exactly the right way, then you’re not really communicating.  You’re in your own head,” Alda has said, about what he hopes the techniques will change.

That’s how Smith faculty found ourselves walking around the room, first staring at the floor, then switching to looking each other in the eye, then saying our names as we looked at each other.

The exercise calls attention to the power of body language, too often ignored by scholars when reaching out to the public.  Focusing on how one’s body takes up space in a room can offer novel insights, especially from the vantage point of a career based on books, calculations or scientific instruments.

The workshop also emphasized the power of story to get information across to others.  Scholars’ personal experiences and memories, when shared, can humanize research, pointed out workshop leaders Radha and Elizabeth.

Alongside the theater exercises, the workshop participants created and presented our own short narratives of how we got into our areas of research, with some striking results.

Suzanne Gottschang, a medical anthropologist, described how as a Masters’ degree student in public health, she took a class on infant feeding.  While in the course, she happened to have four friends become pregnant at the same time.

In the middle of the night, one of those friends called her, in tears.  Within days, a second friend called, weeping about the same problem.  Both friends had given birth successfully but were struggling to breast-feed their new babies, who wouldn’t accept the breast no matter what they tried.

Both women felt like failures, like terrible mothers, like something was wrong with them.

“To women in the U.S., breastfeeding is presented as something natural and innate,” Gottschang said. But in her course, “we were learning that it’s learned behavior.  Both the mother and the baby have to learn.”

Her friends’ struggle combined with what she was learning in class, Gottschang said, kicked off thirty years of following research.  Now, she studies the commercializing of infant feeding in China.  Despite a huge campaign to encourage women to breastfeed, Chinese breastfeeding rates have been declining.  The contradictions in expectations that women experience during early motherhood, Gottschang explained, likely contribute to the decline, but they’re seldom talked about.

Stories like Gottschang’s create emotional connection, quickly making clear why her research matters – a far cry from simply reporting breastfeeding rates around the world.

Gottschang said the workshop offered her a welcome opportunity to think about reaching audiences in different ways.

“Looking for those connections, finding those, I think that was really profound, both on an individual level and with a larger audience,” she said.

The Alda techniques are likely to enter teaching practice across Smith campus.  For instance, I’ve used the improvisation and theater exercises with AEMES students, and will also be using a variety of the improv and storytelling techniques this year in ENV 311, an environmental communication class.

Several faculty have told me they plan to do the same, including Zhang-Gottschang and astronomy professor James Lowenthal, who helped bring the Alda program to Smith after attending a previous workshop.

From when I was a kid until I went to college, I performed yearly in a summer theater.  There, I remember the shyest young man I ever met, a nine-year-old whom I thought could never manage to overcome his fears to perform onstage.  He could barely look up from his feet.

Over our years at the theater, my friend became the most outgoing, vivacious, gracious person I can imagine.  I can’t prove the theater’s training created the change, but I’m convinced that’s what brought him out of his shell.

If the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science can reproduce even a fragment of that magic, lighting an extroverted spark within the famously reclusive academic disciplines, it’s worth looking like a madwoman for the day.

Attendees at the May workshop included Alexander Barron, Nathanael Fortune, Katherine Halvorsen, Suzanne Gottschang, Valerie Joseph, David Bickar, Greg White, Susan Sayre, Virginia Hayssen, Joanne Benkley, Michael Barresi, Patricia Mangan, Molly Falsetti-Yu, Jessica Bacal, and Amy Rhodes, and Naila Moreira.

 

-Naila Moreira is a nature and science writer and poet.  She teaches in the Environmental Science & Policy Program and English department, as well as in the Jacobson Center.  She likes birdwatching and ultimate frisbee, and has a fondness for offbeat critters like salamanders, katydids, bats and snakes.

Anti-Climate Change Diets: Do We Have to Go Whole Hog?

20 Jul

Americana cuisine culture is undeniably tied to climate change. From the all-American pastime of baseball to the nostalgic county fairs to the backyard barbeques, America has long embraced and embodied a culture of hotdogs, hamburgers, barbeque, bacon, etc, etc. Per capita, Americans eat the second largest amount of meat in the world, and unsurprisingly, the United States is the second greatest global greenhouse gas emitter.

If all Americans went vegan, a diet in which no animal products are consumed, greenhouse gas emissions from the meat and dairy industries would be eliminated, which would likely slow down climate change significantly. However, such a national transformation remains out of the picture thanks to American food culture as well as economic reasons involving accessibility in low-income, low-access areas and political reasons such as government subsidization of meat and dairy industries. Nonetheless, being deliberate about what we eat can make a difference in helping fight climate change; not all meat-containing diets contribute equally to carbon emissions.

In an ideal world, we would just cut animal products from our diet cold-turkey. That is, no more meat, no more eggs, no more dairy products. A study in the journal PNAS calculated that if farmed animals were removed from U.S. agriculture, there’d be a 28% decrease in our agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and a 23% increase in total food production.

Meat production is so resource-intensive and consequently emission-heavy because one must account for all of the resources it took to raise the livestock. For example, to calculate the carbon footprint of one adult cow before being slaughtered, many factors must be included — the energy inputs needed to grow the feed, the nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer, the feed itself, and the cow’s methane emissions. This doesn’t even include the cost of slaughter, processing and transport to market and then to the dinner table.

While many people choose a vegan lifestyle as an environmental action, just as many choose to eliminate animal products for health and moral reasons. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program, processed meats qualify as a Group 1 carcinogen, i.e. when consumed, they are known to cause cancer in humans.  In addition, many are familiar with the brutal and violent imagery that often defines the treatment of all kinds of animals in the meat and dairy industry. However, morals, ethics, and health concerns aside, even if solely for the environment, it makes sense for everyone to go vegan or at least vegetarian.

Snap back to reality and it’s clear that it’s not reasonable to hope that Americans will be willing to make such a dramatic change to their diets. Meat is deeply embedded in American food culture. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2015 that Americans consume 198.5 pounds of meat per person, per year. For comparison, Koreans eat 113.5 lbs per capita, per year and Filipinos eat 63 lbs per capita, per year. One end of the dietary spectrum is a meat-heavy diet and the other end is veganism. Although a national leap from the meat-heavy side to the vegan side isn’t likely to occur all at once, our environment isn’t necessarily doomed.

As Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral climate and environment researcher at UC Davis, notes, “eliminating 90 percent of your meat intake is more important than eliminating all of your meat intake.” Similar to starting a strict diet or making a well-intentioned New Year’s Resolution, people who abruptly switch to a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle often find the changes challenging and as a result end up giving it up over time. Almaraz points out that a sustained lifestyle which includes small amounts of meat is better than having an all-or-nothing attitude. Making a shift towards the vegan side is better than doing nothing.

With this mindset, there are many diets cropping up that are less restrictive, more forgiving twists on veganism and vegetarianism. U.S. News & World Report ranked the top diets of 2018 in terms of simplicity, good nutrition, safety, weight loss (both long and short term), and protection against heart disease and diabetes. Their scoring was compiled by a panel of 25 nationally recognized health experts, including professionals like Michael Dansinger, Teresa Fung, and Penny Kris-Etherton. Dansinger is the Founding Director of the Diabetes Reversal Program at Tufts Medical Center, Fung is a professor of nutrition at Simmons College and Harvard School of Public Health, and Kris-Etherton, having published over 300 scientific papers, has studied the diet-heart disease link for over 30 years.

Among these rankings, the Mediterranean diet was first, and flexitarianism was third. Perhaps surprisingly, vegetarianism ended as 10th, and veganism finished 19th. Evidently, the diet rankings focus on health factors, so the diets to be discussed must still be evaluated for their environmental impacts.

Environmentally, the Mediterranean diet gives vegetarianism and veganism a run for their money. Vegetarians don’t worry about killing innocent animals, and vegans have the added benefit of not having the harm of livestock for other products like eggs and milk on their conscience. Yet in terms of environmental cost, the Houlton Lab at UC Davis found that the Mediterranean diet emits slightly higher levels of carbon dioxide equivalent than vegetarianism or veganism.

Results modeled by the Houlton Lab. Vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean diet emissions are much lower than emissions by Doctor Recommended and Normal American diets.

In the Mediterranean diet, adherents eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Chicken is consumed occasionally, and red meat is eaten rarely. The reduced emissions in this diet support the idea that not all meat contributes equally to greenhouse gas emissions. The Houlton Lab also did calculations of how much carbon is emitted per serving of various foods. Beef creates 330 g. By simply eating chicken instead, that number becomes 52 g, and for perspective, lentils emit 2 g/serving.

The Mediterranean diet might also be an appealing option for the environmentally conscious because of studies like the one in the journal PNAS that modeled the scenario of a meatless America. Although researchers White and Hall found a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in food production, they also concluded that without meat there would be a deficiency of micronutrients like vitamins A and B12. In modeling a diet on a population scale, the apparent challenge is making sure diets meet micronutrient requirements. Interestingly, there was an excess of macronutrients like proteins in both animal and plants-only systems because modelers bumped up the amount of protein in attempt to increase micronutrients. The Mediterranean diet easily meets government nutrition recommendations, and people following this diet would likely not run into such deficiencies. 

A graphic from the study modeling a meatless U.S agricultural system referenced above. In many cases the system without animal food sources had inadequate or reduced micronutrients.

Flexitarianism is another diet growing in popularity. In 2016, 22.8 million Americans self reported as flexitarians- more than three times the 7.3 million who identified as vegetarian. Flexitarians, or “flexible vegetarians”, are vegetarians who allow themselves to eat meat once in a while. This diet focuses on plant proteins, or “new meats” like tofu, beans, nuts, and eggs instead of focusing on animal proteins. Flexitarianism could be the solution for those who are conscious of their health and the harmful effect that meat production has on the environment, but who are not quite willing to commit themselves to giving up entire food categories.

Similar to the Houlton lab findings, a research team at Oxford University quantified the pattern of a reduced carbon footprint with reduction of meat intake. Comparing the emissions of high, medium, and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, they found that the average greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day (kgCO2e/day) progressively decreased as meat content decreased. For example, the high meat-eaters emitted 7.19 kgCO2e/day, a low meat-eater emitted 4.67 kgCO2e/day, vegetarians emitted 3.81 kgCO2e/day, and vegans emitted 2.89 kgCO2e/day. A flexitarian would likely qualify as a low meat-eater, and emitting 4.67 kgCO2e/day is certainly more ideal than emitting 7.19 kgCO2e/day.

A visual representation of the results from the Oxford study on greenhouse emissions from various diets. The bars illustrate the age-and-sex-adjusted mean (95 % confidence interval) GHG emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day per group. (Estrera)

The shared feature of all of the diets mentioned so far is the reduction of meat consumption. As the name suggests, the very recent diet, “reducetarianism”, is no exception. According to The Reducetarian Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 2015 by Brian Kateman,“reducetarianism is the practice of eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood – as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree or motivation.”  

With each new diet and subsequent new name and following, the distinctions seem to be minor because the goals are so similar. Reducetarianism is different from Flexitarianism in that the goal is to reduce “with respect to [one’s] own diet”. Flexitarianism was popularized as a way to be vegetarian without feeling the guilt and doubt of not being a “real” vegetarian whenever there might’ve been a slip-up in eating. Other consumption patterns that defeat the all-or-nothing mentality of certain diets include Weekday Vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Before 6 (VB6) Diet, and Meatless Monday.

On a global scale, in 2012, it was reported that food production makes up one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  In 2008, livestock production was associated with 18% of global greenhouse gases, including 37% of methane and 9% of carbon dioxide. Any decrease in these gases could mean getting closer to stopping the widespread destruction humans are bringing to Earth by climate change.

Like Peter Singer, the moral philosopher, says, “reduce now, and next month, reduce more. Maybe you’ll get to zero, and anyway, you’ll be doing less harm.” Similarly, in the Three R’s, it’s helpful to remember that “reduce” is the first but also the most important.

Doing something is better than doing nothing, and with every meal, there’s the opportunity to do something. Of course, diet is not the end-all of action against climate change, not in the slightest. As of 2014, globally, the transportation sector emitted 14% of global greenhouse gases, and the agriculture, forestry, and other land use sector emitted 24% of the total emissions. It’s incredible that agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than those from all cars, trains, planes, and boats. The argument goes that if we eliminated the meat and dairy industries from agriculture, we’d be in the clear. But in the grander scheme of things, even if both agriculture and transportation were made completely emission free, the world would still be generating well over half of its current emissions.

However, while conscious consumerism might trick the consumer into assuming more blame than they may deserve, people eat so often that it only makes sense to be deliberate in the act. As said by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth, “it’s hard to imagine what the argument could be against taking this step, given all that we know about the way our planet works, our bodies work, and our industrial food system works.”

-Rachel Estrera (‘21) intends to major in neuroscience major. She is an Aries who enjoys reading memoirs, eating ice cream, and watching Studio Ghibli movies. She lives in Lamont House.

Additional reading:

This Interactive Chart Explains World’s Top 10 Emitters, and How They’ve Changed– World Resources Institute

The diet that helps fight climate change– Vox

Is a No-Meat World Really Better?-NPR

Video: https://youtu.be/TSzQ-lznLiw

 

Adventures in Belize!

25 Jun

Coral Reef Ed-Ventures is an environmental education collaboration between Smith College’s Environmental Science and Policy Program and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on Ambergris Caye, Belize.  This program for local children, which runs each summer on the island in Belize, is currently led by Professor David Smith (Biological Sciences and Environmental Science and Policy) and Dr. Denise Lello (Lecturer and Research Associate in Biological Sciences and Environmental Science and Policy).  Coral Reef Ed-Ventures began 19 years ago with two Smith student teachers and a few children.  This year’s team comprises six Smith student teachers who will engage over seventy children in two education camps!

This year both of the camps (The REEF Program [Advanced] and the Youth Program) are organized around the theme CONNECTIONS: participants will explore the connections between nature, the environment, and the community. The campers will also be introduced to research methods like mapping and coral identification, techniques the student teachers will themselves use when they analyze the data they collect in Belize.

L to R: Aidan Coffin Ness ’20 (SPN/EDC), Katherine Akey ’20 (EGR), Carla Schwartz ’20 (BIO/MSP), Dana Vera ’19 (EDC/MTH), Liz Nagy ’18 (ENV/EAL), Emiline Koopman ’18J (BIO/MSP).

The students are just starting week 4 in Belize. You can see pictures and read more about their experiences on the Coral Reef Ed-Ventures blog.

The Coral Reef Ed-Ventures program could not function without the generous financial and in-kind support of the people of San Pedro, Belize; the Hol Chan Marine Reserve; the Environmental Science and Policy Program; generous alumnae donors; the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability; and sources of endowed student support, including the Agnes Shedd-Andreae ’32, and B. Elizabeth Horner Funds. Thank you for your support!

Climate Change and the Bleak Future of My Hometown in Bangladesh

12 Jun

During my childhood, as soon as it turned dark outside, my father would become frantic and check whether all the windows and all the outlets to the outside world were closed. I could hear his voice from across the house shouting, “We cannot let any of the mosquitoes get inside! It takes only one bite to kill you!” Despite my father’s utmost effort to keep the mosquitoes out of our house, one of these sneaky little creatures would sometimes manage to get inside. What ensued then was my mother’s panic as she would cover me in insect-repellent creams.

To an American reader, everything I have described until now may seem unusual, but it was a very ordinary evening at any household in my hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Deadly mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue are common in Dhaka so people live in constant fear of mosquitoes. My family, like any ordinary family, was just trying their best to stay alive.

The sky of Dhaka at evening.

I wish I could tell you that the situation has improved since then, but unfortunately, climate change will increase the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in Dhaka. Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change both because of its geographical location and economic conditions (1). It is a low-lying, tropical country bound by the Bay of Bengal in the south, by Myanmar in the Southeast and by India in the North, East and West. A developing economy that is densely populated, its 158,570,535 citizens live in an area of 147,570 km2 (2). As a frame of reference, Bangladesh is approximately the size of Iowa, but has about half as many people as the entire United States.

Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, where I was born and raised, is the most crowded city in the world (3). The impending effects of climate change will surely exacerbate the occurrence of infectious disease and cause potentially significant public health challenges. Infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes, such as malaria and dengue, are endemic to the tropical Southeast Asian region. Dhaka’s poor infrastructure, such as a lack of drainage systems, waste disposal and the abundance of slums, create suitable habitats for mosquitoes and aggravate the effects of climate change on the spread of diseases (4).

Human-caused climate change is responsible for an increase in the global mean temperature, a phenomenon also known as global warming. When I was a child, every summer when I complained of the heat, my mother recalled the time right after I was born in the summer of 1998. She fondly reminisced about the tantrum I had thrown as a newborn in that sweltering hot weather and the trouble she had to endure to pacify me.

Later, my mother would come to find out that the temperature in 1998 was a record high at that time (5). To all my later complaints about the weather, she would say that the heat was nowhere as bad as that of the summer of 1998. However, as I got a little older, and especially during my teenage years, the summers became so unbearable that I never felt like stepping outside of the house. For the first time, I heard my mother say that every summer now reminded her of the summer of 1998 (5).

For the months of May through September, an increase of 1℃ has been observed from 1976-2008 (7). This increasing trend in temperature is causing seasonal patterns to change in Bangladesh (7). Normally, the Bengali calendar has 6 six seasons that last for two months each.

The seasons of Bangladesh in my memory have always changed in such a timely manner that it would make you wonder whether nature was following a clock. In my childhood, summers had sunny skies, an enjoyable warmth and the red hue of krishnachura flowers that brightened all of Dhaka. Summers used to be distinct from monsoon, which followed summer. The temperature used to drop during monsoon. However, nowadays summer and monsoon are converging into one season as monsoon starts earlier than before and the high temperatures of the summer prevail for a longer period of time.

The streets of Dhaka in the summer months lined with Krishnachura.

An increase in temperature generally facilitates the growth of the mosquito population. Warmer environments also speed up the maturity of the parasites they carry, which means that more mosquitoes also means a greater potential for disease transmission. Unfortunately, this increase in mean temperature favors both Anopheles mosquitoes, which transmit malaria, and Aedes aegypti, which transmit dengue fever (6).

Aedes Aegypti mosquito, the carrier of dengue fever.

Anopheles mosquito, the carrier of malaria.

 

 

 

 

 

Lab experiments show that at consistent temperatures of 32-35 ℃, the incubation period of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes is shortened by a full week from its incubation period of 12 days at 30 ℃ (7). As temperatures increase in Dhaka then, we can expect an increase in the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases as the incubation period of mosquitoes decrease. In addition, average temperatures during winter are expected to increase by 1.4 ℃ by 2030 (7). This changing weather pattern will shorten the length of the reproductive cycle of mosquitoes, thus increasing the rate of population growth (8). Mosquitoes are not only helped by the increase in temperature, but also by the increased amounts of rainfall in Dhaka, which experiences the tropical monsoon climate.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with monsoon. Even though the roads were muddy, and sometimes I was stuck inside the house all day during monsoon months, it was still a glorious time of the year. I was always excited about the loud rhythmic rattle of the rain and the clear green of leaves that you could see right after the rain stopped. But monsoon also meant knee-deep water that you sometimes had to wade through to get to school and being stuck in traffic for long hours because the rain water got into a car’s engine.

Life in Dhaka during the monsoon months.

The arrival of monsoon also evokes fear in the hearts of many because it is the season when the outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases occur all over Dhaka. Analysis of rainfall from 1976-2008 showed an increasing trend in the amount of rainfall during monsoon (7). There has been a corresponding increase in outbreaks of dengue from June to August (2). Data recorded over 2008 and 2009 shows that the number of dengue cases increase from around 50 to above 800 following the arrival of the monsoon during the months of June to August.

This increasing amount of rainfall creates pools of stagnant water which become optimal breeding sites for mosquitoes. An increasing population of mosquitoes allows for a faster spread of diseases (8). The increasing amount of rainfall coupled with the increase in temperature will act together to increase the rates of mosquito-borne illnesses in Dhaka.

Monthly dengue cases averaged over 2000–2010, showing seasonal incidence (7). [Img: Sharmin et al. (4)]

Not only are the temperature and level of rainfall increasing, but the occurrences of weather extremes such as floods are also becoming more frequent. Bangladesh is located on a river delta plain fed by 230 rivers. In the north, the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting, while in the south, the sea levels of the Bay of Bengal are rising. Both the water from the melting glaciers and the rising sea levels make Bangladesh vulnerable to frequent flooding.

A severe flood occurs in Bangladesh every four to five years, but this frequency is expected to increase with further climate change (2). A study has found that if total precipitation increases by 5%, an increased 20% of area in Bangladesh is likely to be flooded. In the past, outbreaks of dengue fever have occurred during a flood. Flooding causes water congestion in Dhaka which creates breeding sites for mosquitoes, thus mosquito populations grow which leads to an outbreak of dengue. As frequencies of flood increase with climate change, incidences of dengue fever is also expected to increase (4).

Streets of Dhaka during a flood.

The overcrowding of Dhaka is also another factor that affects the spread of mosquito-related diseases. Being born and raised in Dhaka, I have always known Dhaka as overpopulated. While growing up, I was used to frequently being stuck at red lights for 15 minutes. Whenever we visited our family members who lived 20 minutes away, our rides never took less than an hour. However, lately, it is getting worse as the population in Dhaka has been exponentially increasing because of incoming “climate refugees.”

Climate change has affected the rural agriculture-based economy of Bangladesh as changes in temperature, level of precipitation, and seasonal patterns damage crop production. This adverse effect on agriculture has forced a migration the rural areas to Dhaka, the economic hub of the country. These “climate refugees” live in slums, which lack good sanitation systems, a safe drinking water supply, and proper cooking and health care facilities (9). These substandard living conditions create the perfect condition for the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

A shortage of reliable fresh, clean drinking water results in residents storing what water they have in containers such as drums and earthen jars. Unfortunately, these containers are not sealed, and so the Aedes aegypti mosquito lays its eggs in them, precipitating outbreaks of dengue in the city. As climate change continues to affect agriculture in rural areas more people will migrate to Dhaka. Without an improvement in both Dhaka’s infrastructure and the living conditions in these slums mosquitoes will have the ability to infect a greater number of people (4).

Stagnant water bodies are breeding sites for mosquitoes.

When I have trouble falling asleep at night, sometimes I wonder about the fate of Dhaka. Lying in my college dorm bed in Massachusetts, with not even a single mosquito in sight, I think about what will become of these mosquitoes in Dhaka. Could they wipe out the entire population of Dhaka in the next 20 years? Or are they going to mutate to become some super-mosquito creature which will take over the world?

Sometimes I have a dream, or rather a nightmare, that I am walking through the streets of Dhaka in a quarantine suit and everybody else is dressed similarly. In my dream, I cannot really recognize the faces of anyone because millions and millions of mosquitoes are buzzing in the air. You may say that my dream is too far-fetched, but how much better could the reality be?

-Bushra Tasneem (’20) is a Mathematics and Computer Science double major from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She enjoys reading poetry and taking walks in the woods in her free time. She originally wrote a version of this piece for ENG 119 Writing Roundtable This Overheating World.

Works Cited:

  1. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.; IPCC;New York, 2013; pp 28-62
  2. Dastagir, M.R.; Modeling recent climate change induced extreme events in Bangladesh: A Review; Weather and Climate Extremes. 2015, 7, 49-60.
  3. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/these-are-the-world-s-most-crowded-cities/ (accessed April 13, 2018).
  4. Sharmin, S.; Viennet, E; Glass K.; Harley, D; The emergence of dengue in Bangladesh: epidemiology, challenges and future disease risk. Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 2015, 109, 619-627.
  5. Stevens, W. Earth Temperature in 1998 Is Reported at Record High.The New York TImes, Dec 1998.
  6. Yi, H.; Devkota, B.R.; Yu, J.; Oh, K.; Kim, J.; Kim, H.; Effects of global warming on mosquitoes & mosquito-borne diseases and the new strategies for mosquito control. Entomological Research.2014, 44, 215-235.
  7. 7.Basak, J.K.; Titumir, R.A.M.; Dey, N.C.; Climate Change in Bangladesh: A Historical Analysis of Temperature and Rainfall Data. Journal of Environment. 2013, 2, 41-46.
  8. Bostan, N.; Javed, S.; Nabgha-e-Amen; Eqani, S. Tahir, F. Bokhari, H.; Dengue fever virus in Pakistan: effects of seasonal pattern and temperature change on distribution of vector and virus. Review of Medical Virology, 2017, 27.
  9. Molla N. A.;  Mollah K. A.; Ali G.; Fungladda W.; Shipin O.V.; Wongwit W;  Tomomi H; Quantifying disease burden among climate refugees using multidisciplinary approach: A case of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Urban Climate, 2014, 8, 126-137.  

Smith Sugaring

27 Mar

Spring is well and finally here! We’ve been celebrating its arrival with students in New England fashion- by taking a bunch of them to a local sugar shack for a tasty breakfast with the locals- and by taking others out to the MacLeish Field Station to learn how to first identify and then tap maple trees so we can gather their sweet sap. As the days slowly get longer and the daily temperature swings signal that it is time for the trees to send food to their flower and leaf buds, the slow and steady drip of sap has gotten faster and faster, filling the buckets easily each day.

Check out the video about this that our intern Ellen Sulser ’18 made and posted on FaceBook.

On Sunday we capped off the season by hosting our inaugural Smith Sugaring event. We brought to campus all of the sap we had been gathering and set up near Chapin House.

It was a perfect day to hang out and watch the water boil off and share with passers by the wonders of making maple syrup.


Some seniors (environmental concentrators, all) stopped by to check out the parklet that we had set up nearby.

And lots of other people (200 or so by our count) stopped in throughout the day to visit, check out our set-up, learn about the process, and taste some fresh maple sap or syrup. We made our very first MacLeish maple syrup here on campus, and a good time was had by all. Sweet success!

Animal Tracking at MacLeish

24 Jan

Hi and happy New Year! My name is Hayley Reifeiss and I’m a senior Biology major who just spent her first J-Term on campus. With graduation fast approaching I wanted to take advantage of J-Term classes while I still could. One of the classes I took was Animal Tracking with Scott Johnson. It was a three-day (two days because of snow) class where we learned how to recognize and interpret signs of wildlife in order to track them. I wanted to take the class to learn a bit more about the local fauna and surrounding environment. I was also hoping to practice some outdoor skills that might be useful for a Biology career doing fieldwork.

The first day of class was primarily spent learning about the different types of tracks and walking patterns. For example, canines and felines walk in an arrangement called “perfect stepping” so their prints look like there’s only two feet because the back ones land in the same place as the front ones. You can tell the difference because a canine print will have four toes in a parallel arrangement with the nail imprint visible while feline prints have four toes more splayed out and no nail imprints. But because the print isn’t always perfectly preserved animal trackers will often rely on how the prints are arranged as well as other signs such as scat and surrounding smells to make an ID. On our first day we used those signs to identify fox activity around the sports fields. While walking by paradise pond we noticed a musky smell and found scat in an obvious placement (in this case on top of a manhole) which is how canines mark their territory. We knew it was a fox by the specific smell and the material found in the scat. There was also signs of its digging.

The winter landscape at MacLeish.

On the second day of class we went to the MacLeish Field Station to test our skills in a more rural environment. MacLeish was full of animal activity and we found numerous tracks in the fresh snow that had fallen the day before. There were signs of squirrels, foxes, and deer, which are relatively common, but the most impressive animal we tracked was a bobcat -whose prints we followed for several hundred meters in order to be positive in our ID. It seems that this particular bobcat has made MacLeish its home because we found tracks almost everywhere we went.

The bobcat track at MacLeish (left) next to my hand print (right) for scale.

We also found a porcupine den -recognizable by the surrounding tree type, scat, and the most obvious sign: the quills. We tracked the porcupines to the trees which they climbed up as evidenced by the urine markings on one of the branches. It was really cool to experience the forest in this way, and at the end of day I think we all came away from the class with a greater appreciation of the animals we share this land with.

The tracking class takes a break in the camp shelter at MacLeish.

-Hayley lives in Tenney House while at Smith. She is originally from Plymouth, MA.

Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith?

11 Dec

Environmental Science and Policy major Breanna Parker (’18) recently presented an interim report on her thesis “Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith: An economic transition strategy to lower carbon emissions through informed decision-making”. The inspiration her work, as she explained it, was the report which was released this spring by the college’s study group on climate change. The report provided a series of recommendations to develop and internalize constant carbon emissions such as a carbon proxy price to help guide major problems in budget management along with other decision-making processes. Smith College currently emits 27,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. While there are already a variety of new projects underway at Smith that will be more energy efficient (e.g. the new library), in order to significantly reduce our emissions, Parker recommends that the college apply proxy carbon pricing. With this honors thesis, Parker seeks to engage Smith stakeholders in order to standardize and incorporate the acceptance of carbon emissions into the decision-making process.

The specific mechanics of applying a carbon proxy is vital for a sustainable approach. Ultimately, this is an additional design criterion that people can use to evaluate different options. For instance, when evaluating a new purchasing offer, we first consider the quantities of carbon emissions obtained, then we modify the units to compare it with other options, and apply a proxy over the lifetime or life-cycle of a project since carbon emissions will continue to be released as the product is used. To this evaluation, we also add the initial and maintenance costs. With this method the complete carbon emissions cost can be used in comparison with other choices in order to select the most energy efficient and affordable plan. To help the audience better understand the process, Parker used the example of purchasing a light bulb. Which is a better choice- incandescent or LED? The incandescent light bulb has a cheaper initial cost, but has an expected lifetime of only about 1 year. In comparison, the LED light bulb has a lifetime of approximately 22 years. Since bulbs generate additional costs each time they must be replaced, even before it gets turned on, the incandescent starts out with a higher hidden cost. Moreover, incandescent light bulbs use more energy, which cause more carbon to be emitted. In comparison, the LED light bulb, although it has a higher initial purchasing cost, has a slower operating system that requires less energy and produces fewer carbon emissions. This, combined with its longer replacement interval, makes it the better option. This simple example highlights the importance of considering the entire lifetime cost of a system or component, which is not always considered.

Parker then spoke about some of the ways that Smith might be able to benefit from using proxy carbon evaluation. One example was in the renovation of Washburn House. When thinking about heating systems, there are two main approaches: geothermal or natural gas boilers. The latter is more common given its lower initial cost. Nonetheless, if the cost comparisons include long-term maintenance  and carbon emissions, the natural gas boilers have significantly higher life costs and higher carbon emissions, suggesting that a geothermal approach would be a better choice. She noted that carbon proxy evaluation can be used in other situations, too, and it is important and interesting to also consider the vehicles used at Smith. For instance, vans rely on gasoline, but with the availability of an electric parking station near campus, over the long run a transition to electric cars would mean lower carbon emissions and lower monetary costs.

Other universities have implemented different methodologies to acknowledge and lower their carbon emissions. For instance, Yale University has a carbon fee ($30) that is applied to all administrative units individually (buildings). Through some modifications in their infrastructure, they are able to read their carbon emissions levels, so if an academic building has lowered their carbon emissions, then they are able to gain a monetary revenue for other projects. Princeton University has a proxy carbon price similar to what Smith is considering. In this method, a tool was created for administrators to record the initial costs, operating and maintenance expenses, and apply a proxy carbon price to their projects. Swarthmore College has a combination of both a carbon fee ($100) and a proxy carbon price calculator.

Parker hopes that like other colleges and universities, Smith College will acknowledge its carbon emissions and move towards using carbon proxy evaluation for future projects so that the full cost- both environmental and financial- is part of the decision making process.

-CEEDS Intern Erika Melara (’20) is an Engineering major. She comes to us from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.

HCC-ALC: Owl Pellets Lab

6 Nov

After an owl hunts, how does it eat its prey? With a fork and a knife? Although modest, owls prefer to keep it simple by swallowing their prey whole. Impressive as it sounds, Jessika, a student at HCC- Adult Learning Center in Holyoke, asked, “Does that mean owls can digest bones and feathers?” The answer is…no! The undigested parts form a tight pellet that is later regurgitated. Gross! But not as much if it’s sterilized.

This past Wednesday (Nov. 1), through STEM Outreach, Thomas Gralinski, Ellen Sulser (‘18) and I (Erika Melara ‘20) visited the learning center and introduced the concept of Food Chains and Food Webs to a small class of pre-GED adult learners. After delivering a baseline presentation, we prepared a lab activity to dissect owl pellets. We particularly focused on the barn owls which usually prey on insects, reptiles, bats, and small rodents. An interesting fact about these owls is that they can hear a mouse’s footsteps from 30 yards away! This is fascinating, considering most of us can barely hear our names being called across the room.

Although some students were reluctant at first, by the end of the lab activity, they were determined to find and classify each of the bones to later boast about their owl’s appetite. Personally, I was bewildered about how some of the bones (i.e. skulls) were intact and well-preserved. Take a look at some of the pictures!

-Erika Melara is a Scorpio, who comes from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.

A Rainy Day Adventure: Theory into Practice

24 Apr

A heavy April downpour set the perfect tone for our first Water Inquiry Story Workshop, held in the Design Thinking Lab of Smith College. Skilled educators from four elementary schools cast dripping umbrellas aside before digging into the learning adventures of Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings, our newly published storybook. Pilot teacher Katy Butler introduced the interactive text as she did with her first graders, saying: “It’s a picture book story with characters… the kind of story where we will stop and talk, stop and think, stop and go. You will get to do the activities.”

Katy Butler reads “Inquiry Inc and the Case of the Missing Ducklings” at the Water Story Teacher Workshop.

Teachers then had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the student mindset, studying images of storm drains and ducklings, discussing the questions: “Where do you think the water goes?” and “Where will the ducklings go?” before working together to show their ideas about drain design and water pathways. In his new book Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, James E. Ryan– Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education– writes that, “Inquiry… should always precede advocacy,” and it was, indeed, this sense of participatory engagement that characterized teachers’ efforts to “think… talk… and go” in preparation for doing so with their students. Read more at the Water Inquiry Blog

Smith team takes on climate change video challenge

27 Feb

Each year the Environmental Engineering and Science Foundation (EESF) and the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) put out a call to current undergraduate and graduate students studying environmental engineering or sciences worldwide for a video competition.

This year’s theme, “What can individuals do to help reduce climate change?”, inspired Jocelyn Yax ’18 (engineering), Amelia Wagner ’18J (engineering/government), and Jasmine Pacheco-Ramos ’19 (environmental science and policy) to take on the challenge. Assistant Professor Niveen Ismail in the Picker Engineering Program acted as the faculty advisor for the project.   Check out their video on YouTube.

The winning teams will be announced at the Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Science awards ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on April 13, 2017.

eesf_logoMore on the contest rules:
The video should be targeted to motivate 8th grade and higher students to change daily habits that contribute to climate change. The video may also be used more broadly to motivate the general public to change simple patterns that contribute to climate change.

The video should motivate individuals to change daily habits that cause carbon emissions that may contribute to climate change. People have varying views on climate change. Contestants are urged to develop a message that acknowledges the breadth of opinions on this issue but that encourages everyone to make changes that will help with climate change. Because most people do not understand the roles of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, the video should end with brief reference as to how Environmental Engineers and Scientists are working on climate issues.