Bolder in Boulder

August 28, 2014

I’m setting off this month on an adventure at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I will be one of five Scripps Fellows in the Environment, at the Center for Environmental Journalism.

Our cohort is great (check out our projects and brief bios here:  I’m already totally overwhelmed by the opportunity to take academic courses while pursuing some ideas about the future of journalism as a business and my own reporting project.  I’ll try to post some notes here now and then about the process.

Scents of home for coral and fish

August 24, 2014

A photo of coral larvae ready to bud in pink, snapped by coral reef biologist Danielle Dixson of Georgia Tech, just before harvesting for experiments…

Back in March 2013, I had the chance to visit Heron Island, home to a research center (and eco-resort) at the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef.

Among the assorted visitors was Mark Hay, a biologist at Georgia Tech, who was visiting another coral reef researcher working on the island at the time. (I also ran into Ken Caldeira, a geoscientist at Stanford University, on the pier after his monthlong season on a nearby island, but I digress.)

Hay and I talked for the entire trip back to the mainland at the end of our stays on Heron Island, and he told me he would have some interesting and potentially newsworthy results in press soon. He hinted that it would have something to do with smells and how coral found the best place to settle.

The result of that conversation was published last week as a Science NOW:


Water treatment at home

August 15, 2014

There’s just something about water treatment that fascinates me: the utilities, the way we use water and don’t think about it much, the multitude of treatment methods (from sunlight to chemicals, and the potentially harmful byproducts that are made from chlorine, for example).  I had been reading David Sedlak’s book Water 4.0 chapter by chapter as he was writing it last year, and that only fed the flames.  So I pitched a story to New Scientist based on the idea that someday, we might all be treating our water at home.

Here’s where I owe an apology to David Sedlak:  He strongly dislikes, and I might even say hates, the comparison of water treatment at home to solar power and making and storing one’s own electricity at home.  Distributed systems are possible for both, and he strongly discouraged me from using the phrase “going off grid” — so easily used for electricity — for water.

It was hard to do as the story developed over the past year.  As always, I couldn’t include all the details I wanted to — and I could not completely expunge “off-grid” water, as much as I tried.  The phrase is just too sticky.

My editors and I went through a few iterations of the title — I’m not sure which one will appear in print, but here’s the online version posted today:

Toilet to Tap: Drinking water at the press of a flush

Update (8/23/14): the print title was “Pipe Dream” — email me if you would like a PDF of the story.

Cracked continent and other tales

August 8, 2014

It’s summer and again I am delinquent in posting to my blog — the usual story!

Except perhaps not so usual — while I have been working on stuff, I have very little to share, and what there is stands behind a paywall (my apologies)!

Published in Earth, I wrote about Carol Stein and her colleagues’ look at the past history of the heart of the continent — here’s my story, on a revised evolution of the Midcontinent Rift:

AGI/Kathleen Cantner

A real rift in the midcontinent
Earth magazine, August 2014

I’ve written before about work from Seth Stein, a co-author and Carol’s husband, on the New Madrid Fault Zone.  I’m hoping to keep tabs on any light shed on that fault zone from this model, as well as any new information that could come from the Earthscope project (a mobile array of seismometers that has made its way across the US, taking data from the crust below as it passes.  Seth has made the New Madrid controversial.

Another take from another science journalist: North America’s Broken Heart,” Nature


Poop and pathogens

April 18, 2014

The study looked at poop and pathogens from greater white-fronted geese, Anser albifrons — the birds travel far on their migrations, carrying poop along for the ride or leaving it behind.

Everybody poops — humans and other animals leave their feces all over the place, intentionally or not.  That means that fecal material that can carry bacteria and viruses also ends up everywhere: in fields and lakes where birds feed and wade, or on beaches and in the water from birds, humans, dogs… and sewage overflows from utilities or storm drains that can’t handle storm runoff.

The holy grail of beach managers is an easy, cheap detection method that is automated and sends reports from afar in real time as to whether there is poop on the beach. I just reported on a device that might take researchers one step closer to the dream, here:

Chip Detects Multiple Waterborne Pathogens At Once

Water Quality: Microfluidic device helps scientists find disease-causing bacteria related to fecal contamination in water

Web Date: April 17, 2014 | C&EN

The researchers tested their device on agricultural fields, which are another place beyond beaches and wastewater/storm runoff where it would be good to know the fecal contaminant load, or the actual pathogens present. The lead author, Satoshi Ishii, told me that he could also see the method applied to monitoring for pathogens in food or food packaging, but the idea that intrigued me was in hospitals: Ishii says that tracking the actual species of pathogens behind a diarrhea outbreak could give information to doctors that they could use for prescribing antibiotics.  That could help with fighting antibiotic resistance, another topic that I like to follow.


Plate boundaries

April 7, 2014

I’m excited to say that I’ve had my first story published in Science News!

And it’s about another first: the first plate boundaries on Earth. What’s that, you say?  A plate boundary?  And if it happened 4 to 3 billion years ago, how do we know it happened?

Read on!  (You might have to sign up for a 72-hour trial period for the magazine.)

A model of Earth’s surface cracking up.

Tiny minerals may have shaped Earth’s first plate boundaries
Weakened rock may explain the origin of plate tectonics, a simulation finds
April 6, 2014


Wristbands for chemical monitoring

March 13, 2014
I have a longstanding interest in the kinds of wearable tschotschkes that track chemicals, so-called personal monitoring devices. These aren’t quite the health-trackers that are so fashionable at the moment (see the NYT’s two latest, a review of exercise monitors and a fashion story). 
I don’t write about them often. The last time may have been a story about these backpacks that people wear throughout the day that “breathe in” the same air that their wearers do, and trap selected compounds. Back then, in 2008, the title of my piece was “Shrinking Personal Monitoring Devices” — something akin to shrinking computers: a big backpack is to a laptop, as a large monitoring station is to a desktop computer.  
So I was excited when I saw this ES&T manuscript about using the kinds of rubbery plastic bracelets that were once ubiquitous go by — here’s the cell phone of personal monitoring devices, sort of.  My first thought was closer to finding a new life for old fundraising bracelets, but it turns out that it’s not quite like that. (Think yellow “Livestrong” bands, worn by men with prostate cancer and cyclists — I was momentarily tempted to start this story with a reference to Lance Armstrong and tracking chemicals, but I refrained.) So, for more details, read on:
Environmental Monitoring: Ubiquitous silicone wristbands can act as easy-to-wear samplers for tracking a person’s chemical exposure
Web Date: March 3, 2014


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