Nematodes (blue) wiggle inside a stalactite from a South African gold mine in this image taken with an electron microscope. (Credit: Gaetan Borgonie)
I just got done with a Smithsonian feature on microbes that live in extremely inhospitable environments deep beneath the Earth’s surface, and the researchers who venture 2 kms or more underground in South African gold mines to study them.
It’s hard work, but they’ve found a surprising diversity of life living in these deep environments, and it turns out studying these microbes can give us clues about life on other planets. Check out the story here.
Really enjoyed reporting and writing this one, especially since it’s about microbiology, something that I spent so many years studying both as an undergrad and during my PhD…
Developing Drosophila Embryo (Credit: Credit: Raghav Chhetri, Fernando Amat, Yinan Wan, Burkhard Höckendorf, William Lemon & Philipp Keller, Janelia Research Campus.)
I’ve been meaning to update this website for a while, unfortunately I’ve been too busy writing articles to do so.
Among other things, I’ve been writing regular articles for the journal BioTechniques. It’s been a nice way for me to keep in touch with the latest in molecular biology, a field that I haven’t extensively written about for a few years.
Floods occur every year in South Asia, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Unfortunately it turns out that floods in both India and Pakistan are likely to get more frequent and more devastating, due to a combination of climate change and poorly-planned development. More will have to be done on both fronts to try to prevent flood disasters in the future. Check out my article for more details.
This was an interesting one to write and report, on what I think is an important topic, I hope to do more such stories. Obviously the long delay necessitated some revisions and compromises, and also resulted in a broader focus, mostly I’m just happy to see the article published at last.
It was a fun one to report–I got to visit a local startup called VisiSonics based out of the University of Maryland and try out their 3D audio tech demos. This included my first experience of the new Oculus virtual reality headsets, which was exciting.
The last time I tried any VR was back in the early 90s, when I played some Virtuality arcade games (What I like to call the “Lawnmower Man” era of VR…). Needless to say, VR has definitely come a long way since then.
One of the nice parts of writing this piece was getting to know DC’s virtual reality startup scene. There are a lot of interesting startups and developers working on some exciting ideas (of course, there are far more in Silicon Valley and other large tech hubs). It’s one of the reasons I think it’s an exciting time for VR, there’s so much innovation happening around both hardware and software and so many smart people excited about it that I figure it will make some sort of an impact, even if no one’s quite sure what the consumer market will actually look like. But with the first consumer VR headsets expected within the next year, I guess we’ll find out soon.
The article is about researchers who are developing more efficient methods to harvest water from fog. In particular I focused on a new fog collector based on the beaks of shorebirds, but I also provided a broad overview of existing techniques to collect fog water, where they can be useful, and whether such techniques could help supplement our water supply. Check it out here, I like how it’s laid out with nice images and videos.
Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.
In every previously known example of echolocation, animals such as bats, dolphins, some birds and even some shrews use some sort of vocal organ (larynx, tongue, ‘sonar lips’ etc) to produce high-frequency sounds that they then detect bouncing off of surrounding objects.
Even more surprising, the researchers discovered this ability in bat species that were thought not to be able to echolocate at all (they have large eyes and seem to mostly rely on vision). Scientists now think that this kind of echolocation might be more widespread than they had suspected.
You can read all the details here. Interestingly, although they figured out that the clicks were coming from the wings, they still don’t know exactly how the wings are creating this sound.
There was a lot about the work that was really interesting, including details that I couldn’t include in the piece due to space constraints. For example, of the 3 species they tested, the one that lived in dark caves seemed to generate the most wing clicks, while the one that lived in trees and flew slowly had the least. So maybe how much different fruit bats rely on this ability depends on where and how they live, which makes sense.
And the experiments sounded quite challenging…it turns out bats aren’t the easiest to work with, and to test their ability to echolocate the experiments had to be done in complete darkness. In addition, the researchers were from Tel Aviv University in Israel, but did their experiments in Thailand because that’s where these bats were, and they had a limited amount of time to design and run all their experiments.
That meant very little sleep, and no time to do anything other than bat experiments (One of the researchers told me after multiple trips there they still haven’t seen the sea, or Bangkok!) And most of the work involved standing all night in a pitch-dark room, in temperatures of around 38 degrees celsius (100 degrees fahrenheit), occasionally getting pissed on by bats…
But despite the challenges, they stuck with it, and discovered something really cool and interesting. Although they must have been quite relieved when the experiments worked 🙂
I realize I haven’t posted much recently. That’s partly because I traveled a bunch, and partly because all the articles I’ve worked on during this time have yet to be published, but I’ll update with links to them whenever they’re up.
I wrote my first piece for Motherboard, Vice magazine’s online science & technology site. I just happened to find a pitch that worked well for them, and it was fun to write a more technology-related article after a while.
The article is about the first bee-sized robot that can fly using feedback only from an onboard sensor, an important step in creating fully-autonomous insect-sized flying robots.
Like many advanced fighter jets, the researchers’ flying robot requires constant corrective maneuvers to stay upright, and the researchers created an onboard sensor inspired by the light sensors of flying insects. This sensor was able to provide the feedback necessary for their robot to fly stably.
Cool stuff, and it was fun to report on and write 🙂
The same research group is working on many different parallel projects to create all the components necessary to eventually make fully autonomous insect-sized flying robots. As you can imagine, they’re often inspired by flying insects.
Here’s a video of their flying robot, although this was before they developed the onboard sensor:
I’ll include a video of the robot using their new onboard sensor once they’ve posted it on Youtube.