What does it take to be a forensic scientist?


This week, I profiled forensic soil scientist Lorna Dawson for Nature. Her route into the profession was serendipitous, but not just anyone could do it -- her toughness and resourcefulness made her a perfect fit. 

Even as a student she was foiling miscreants. As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University and a graduate student at Aberdeen University, Dawson sailed a dinghy as part of a two-person team. “You have to secure your boat to make sure it couldn’t have been tampered with the night before, like shackles loosened and things like that,” she says. One year, she won best of eight on the Scottish circuit, becoming champion. “It’s all about strategy, as well as how fast you can sail.”

The sport also helped her practice extreme calm under pressure, which is necessary for testifying before a jury. “It is challenging, because there’s no training you can do that would give you that background,” says soil forensic scientist Rob Fitzpatrick, Dawson's counterpart in Australia. “They really hit you hard. They’re very clever people, these barristers.”

One of the first times she presented evidence in court, the expert for the defense confronted her in the toilet. “Watch out, I’ll give you a hard time,” Dawson recalls her saying. “It’s just a game, anyway.”

Taken aback, Dawson still managed to come up with a powerful retort. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a game for the victim,’ and I walked out.”

News: Panel discussion at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly

Geoscience rocks! Here's some lovely geology I photographed on a recent trip to the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan.

Are you a scientist with questions about how to communicate with the public? Kathryn Adamson (@Climatica) of Manchester Metropolitan University has put together an intriguing and, we hope, helpful panel for the EGU General Assembly next week.

This panel-based question and answer session is part of the Public Engagement and Outreach series. Four expert outreach panel members will discuss their experiences of science communication, and provide an interactive discussion forum for other scientists hoping to develop their outreach skills. The panel members will focus on a range of science communications platforms including: websites and blogs; the news media; schools outreach; and film making. These topics will provide a range of practical advice for the audience, and will directly complement the other public engagement and outreach sessions during the General Assembly. 

My delightful co-panelists include Tim Lane (@glaciologytim), co-editor of Climatica, on communicating through websites and blogs, and Liz Whitfield (@lizwhitters), on public outreach and exhibitions. I am excited to meet them and hear what they have to say.

I (@chelseawald) will be talking about journalism and mass media, so come with your most probing questions. I've been told that I can be a tough interrogator, so fair's fair!

The panel is scheduled for Tuesday, 14 April, at 12:15 pm in room B4.

Where does patience come from?

Cottontop tamarin
Impulse snack: A cotton-top tamarin eats a grasshopper (Mickey Samuni-Blank on Wikimedia Commons)

To explain the origin of patience, scientists tell a modern-day fable. It is about cotton-top tamarins and their close cousins, marmosets.

Being patient often feels like a rational response, whereas being impatient feels like the animal mind acting out. Indeed, scientists used to think that the ability to be patient was a high-order function nearly unique to humans. Other animals were just impulsive, grabbing what they needed when they could get it.

But patience, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Research in the past decade suggests that all species have a combination of patience and impatience that makes sense for their evolutionary background. 

The cotton-top tamarin and the marmoset provide evidence. Both new-world monkeys dine on tree gum. But they have different overall feeding strategies. The tamarins will eat the gum if they see it, but they’ll also eat other things like fruit and insects, foods that require a certain amount of impulsivity.

The marmosets, on the other hand, eat primarily the gum, using special teeth that let them gouge holes in a tree. “They basically just sit on the tree and wait for the sap to leak out of the tree and then they eat it,”  says behavioral anthropologist Alexandra Rosati, who is finishing a postdoc at Yale before joining the faculty at Harvard. “As you can imagine, this is a very slow process.” 

Noticing this ecological difference, Rosati’s colleagues including Jeffrey Stevens of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tested the two monkeys to see how patiently they would wait for food. They did this by adapting a classic economics study, in which subjects are offered a small reward now or a larger reward later, in order to see how much they will discount the future reward. People who discount the future reward too much are considered to be acting irrationally.

For humans, the reward in this type of experiment is usually money, but Stevens offered the monkeys two versus six pieces of food. At first, he offered both with no delays. Of course, the monkeys preferred the six pieces to the two. Then he began delaying the six-piece option by a second, then two seconds, then three, and so on. Eventually, after the delay got long enough, the monkeys decided that it was better to have the two pieces now than the six pieces later.

As Stevens predicted, the tamarins and marmosets had a very different tolerance for waiting. For the tamarins, which forage impulsively for fruit and insects as well as tree gum, the game-changing delay was nearly 8 seconds on average. For the marmosets, which gladly wait for sap to ooze out of trees, the average delay was over 14 seconds.

This could mean that the marmosets are more rational than the tamarins. But the right conclusion (supported also by further research) seems to be the opposite one: That patience is not necessarily about rationality at all, but a finely tuned adaptation to ecological niche. “The amount of patience different species show is an evolved ability that is tailored to their normal environment,” Rosati says. That is, the marmosets' patience helps keep them alive; likewise, the tamarins' relative impatience helps keep them alive.

It follows that our inherited balance of patience and impatience must have kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive at one time too. The fact that today we value patience so much may indicate that that balance isn't working quite as well for us in the modern world. But if I had to give this fable a moral, it might be this: Patience is a virtue, but wait too long for anything and you might die.

Even monkeys know that.

If you have any patience left for reading about patience, please click over to my latest piece for Nautilus, "Why Your Brain Hates Slowpokes."

Would you rather have a rare or common name? Mine has been both.

No, that's not me with US President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Inauguration Day, January 20, 1997. (White House photo)

Every year, the Social Security Administration and other authorities release rankings of popular names. Most of the attention goes to the highly ranked names: Noah and Sophia were tops in 2013, the last SSA list released. Last week, however, the City Room blog of the New York Times highlighted some of New York City’s least popular names. Names given to just a handful of Big Apple babies in 2013 include Sincere (19 boys) and Nashley (10 girls).

Those Sinceres and Nashleys could just have weird names their whole lives. But there’s an alternative. As unlikely as it may seem, those names could get caught up in the lifecycle of popular baby names, in which newly coined names get uptake among a few and then explode into public consciousness, rising high in the rankings before falling off precipitously. I think it was the Freakonomics folks who first found that the early adopters in this cycle tend to be elite, but by the time the name reaches its peak popularity, people in the elite groups (as measured by wealth, education, or celebrity) are no longer using it. As Steve Levitt said on the Freakonomics podcast:

One of the most predictable patterns when it comes to names is that almost every name that becomes popular starts out as a high-class name, or a high-education name. So in these California data we had, we could see the education level of the parents. And even the names that eventually become the quote “trashiest” kinds of names, so the Tiffanys and the Brittanys, and—I’ll probably get myself in trouble—and the Caitlyns and things like that start at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of 20 or 30 or 40 years they migrate their way down, becoming more and more popular among the less-educated set. And as names become popular among the less educated, the higher-educated parents absolutely abandon these names and don’t want anything to do with them.

Many prospective parents stress about whether they should give their kid an unusual name or a common one, but the Freakonomics analysis points to a third possibility: It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to inadvertently give your kid an unusual name that later becomes common. As it happens, my parents did just that for me (and then, as it turns out, repeated the trick for my brother). Originally, Chelsea was a place name meaning “chalk port”—most famously among the neighborhoods of New York, Boston, and London (London’s Chelsea also giving its name to the (in)famous football team). When Chelsea was (rarely) used for people, it was given to boys—there is a conductor named Chelsea Tipton II who is older than me, and whose father was presumably also named Chelsea. It’s hard to know why Chelsea took off for girls. Some trace it to Judy Collins’s beloved song Chelsea Morning. That’s the reason given by the Clintons for giving their daughter the name, I believe. (She’s younger than I am, by the way—a fact that is weirdly important to me, since it means I had the name first. My father tells me that it’s an important fact to him, too.)

Chelsea popularity graph
A graph of my name's popularity from BabyNameWizard.com

When I was born, the name Chelsea was vanishingly rare, but it was already getting caught up in the popularity cycle, though my parents didn’t know that. My parents (in the well-educated demographic, as predicted by Levitt) had never known anyone with the name. In fact, they had never even heard of it until they read a report in the newspaper about a hockey player (a sort of celebrity, also as predicted) with a daughter named Chelsea. As far as my parents were concerned, it wasn’t a totally unique name—in that they hadn’t invented it—but it was one that would make me special.

The bad thing about having a rare name was that hardly anyone where I grew up knew how to pronounce it by looking at it. (Mostly I got Chel-SEE-ah.) That was a minor hardship, but I never wished for a more phonetic spelling, like Chelsey. Fortunately, people didn’t make fun of it, and they often told me that my name was beautiful, so I loved it. I also felt special for being the only one who had it. So it was jarring when Bill Clinton ran for office and his daughter was named, of all things, Chelsea. Then the worst started happening: Everybody who met me would say, “Oh, Chelsea, like Chelsea Clinton!” (Funnily enough, people still do this, especially abroad, but I’ve come to enjoy it and use it as a launching point for conversation.) A hair braider at a Renaissance festival, upon learning my name, commented on my curly blond hair and proximity to DC and asked if Chelsea Clinton was my sister. After a moment’s further consideration, she retracted the question, but I couldn’t unhear it. I was no longer the special Chelsea; Chelsea Clinton was. That people could now pronounce my name didn’t make up for that painful truth.

Soon, however, Chelsea Clinton and I found ourselves sharing our name not just with each other, but also with a horde of Chelseas, Chelsies, and Chelcis more than 10 years our junior. The popularity of the name peaked in 1992, the year Clinton was elected, at number 15 on the SSA charts. (Based on the trend prior to 1992, I think Chelsea may have grown popular even without the Clintons’ influence, but that certainly helped.) I started hearing my name everywhere, especially near playgrounds. All of a sudden, my unique name was a fad. I even feared that some people would label it with Levitt’s ugly word from the quote above, “trashy.” As a teenager and young adult who actively didn’t participate in fads and aspired to have good taste, I was bummed.

Then, just as the models predict, Chelsea’s popularity plummeted. People got sick of the name, and they moved on to something fresher. In 2013, it ranked number 271 (just 611 Chelseas born in the United States), and one prediction algorithm declares “it will decline as a baby name every year from now through 2027.”

So Chelsea will become a relatively uncommon name once more. But the consequences of Chelsea’s moment in the sun will live on. For example, since the name’s popularity was so concentrated in time, I assume that most people who see my name without my face (which they do a lot, since I’m a writer) assume that I’m 10 to 15 years younger than I am—part of the Chelsea boom. (My mother points out that I may not mind this in a few years.) It may also be that, as I and the other Chelseas age, the name is going to start to seem like a middle-aged lady’s name and then an old lady’s name (like I thought of the names Betty and Barbara in my childhood). I once saw a description of the name Chelsea that called it “timeless”; that’s unfortunately about as far from the truth as it could be.

Names are central to identity, and I found the shifting fortunes of my name disorienting at a sensitive time. So you can probably guess that, if I were to give advice on naming a baby today, I would suggest avoiding a name that’s riding the name cycle. But that may be harder than it would seem, even with all the data and algorithms available. After all, we don’t know if Nashley and Sincere are just getting traction in New York, or if they will remain a few kids’ oddball names. Plus, there are lots of unforeseeable factors that can instantly affect the popularity of specific names, like the name of the next president’s child (um, Chelsea?) or, on the other hand, of the next serial killer.

Fortunately, we can all take solace in the Freakonomicists’ conclusion, based on the numbers, that one’s name does not have any bearing on one’s success. So if people do make untrue assumptions about me based on my name, it doesn’t matter one bit in the end. I will succeed and fail at life based on other factors, some of which I can control and some of which I can’t, and so will all the world’s children. That’s reassuring.

So while I’ll probably be forever coming to terms with fact of all the other interloper Chelseas in the world, I’ve never been tempted to change my name. Learning to share it has been part of the process of growing up, finding my place in the world, and becoming a responsible resident of Planet Earth. After all, there are more than 7 billion of us here. None of us is all that special, and we’re gonna have to share most everything.

Meet Oven Dog and Oven Cat

Dog Looking in Oven
Photo: Ttrentham on Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/thechunk/2242959404)

Have your pets met Oven Dog and Oven Cat? These myterious beasts apparently inhabit many homes, as I learned when I asked for peoples' stories about animals reacting to mirrors, which I've collected on a special page. Here's Oven Cat, as remembered by Matt:

My wife and I have two cats, but for a year, we lived with a third animal who we named "Oven Cat." The house we were in at the time had an oven with a very reflective door, and when one of the cats, Rosie, would walk by, she'd often catch her reflection in it. Sometimes, she'd just sit and stare at it. Sometimes, she'd get closer to inspect the mystery cat. Sometimes she would paw at the door, giving Oven Cat a sort of high five. Our older cat, on the other hand, paid is reflection no mind.

And here's Oven Dog, from a reader on Slate:

One dog maintained a perpetual growling match with Oven Dog, an unpleasant canine who apparently lived in the oven and was always showing house dog her fiercest expression. The match was usually a draw with both parties wandering away in boredom.

The page also has fun videos from YouTube and links to my stories on what animals think they see when they look in the mirror, so enjoy, and submit your own.

A Magnificent failure: The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna

The main entrance to the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. (Photo by Michael Frankenstein via Wikipedia.de at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weltausstellung_1873)

The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna was widely considered a colossal failure — it lost the equivalent of 160 million euro because of a devastating combination of the world’s first truly international financial crisis and Vienna’s last cholera epidemic. In many ways, this is all you need to know to understand the crucial time in history at which the World Exhibition was held: At the beginning of a new era of science and public health, as well rapid communication that enabled rampant speculation and its inevitable consequences.

Educational exhibits were part of the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition. This was an example of an American rural schoolhouse. (via the LOC http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004676913/)
The interior of the schoolhouse. (Also via LOC at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004676913/)

A Wien Museum exhibition recently elucidated this period, and the role of the World Exhibition in it, with a fascinating collection of photographs and artifacts. That fast-changing world was trading old scourges for modern ones, and the World Exhibition sat at the fulcrum of that transition. Despite the dark circumstances surrounding the event, it optimistically promoted the world's progress in industry, art, and agriculture, and highlighted foreign lands that were freshly accessible because of new transit options. Built from scratch in Vienna’s enormous city park, it was five times larger than the previous exhibition in Paris, making room for 53,000 exhibitors from 35 countries in 194 pavilions. Almost none of it is left today.

The plan of the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna from Jutta Pemsel: Die Wiener Weltausstellung von 1873, Verlag Böhlau, 1989 via Wikimedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montage_Plan_Weltausstellung_1873.jpg

Although the World Exposition itself was a financial disaster, it managed to welcome some 7 million visitors, and the exhibitors themselves left happy: They made money, and the exposure benefited them for years to come. The event also helped inaugurate the era of mass tourism in Vienna some 20 years later than in London and Paris. Today, it’s still possible to wander the streets downtown and see what the World Exhibition’s visitors saw — except then, the buildings were brand new symbols of Vienna’s aspirations, not relics of a time long past.

The machinery hall at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition via http://www.ndl.go.jp/site_nippon/viennae/data/10028.html

Scenes from a Louisiana oyster boat



At the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting, I got to go out on an oyster boat operated by John Tesvich and his nephew, Luke. We learned about the challenges to oyster reefs, including Katrina, the BP oil spill, the low-oxygen "dead zone" along Louisiana's coast, and the proposed freshwater diversions that will build up wetlands along the coast.

Above all, oysterers want to preserve their lifestyle, and it's clear why. It's not an easy life, but it's a special one.

(All photos are my own.)


P1020356 P1020358 P1020369 P1020365 P1020392 P1020405


News: SEJ Award

The breeding area in Burghausen in 2012; my first visit. That's my tent in the background.

Thanks to the judges of the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment for honoring The New Flight of the Ibis with third place in the Outstanding Feature Story category. This is what they said about the story:

At a time when so much reporting on the environment is discouraging, if not downright depressing, along comes a feature story that lifts the reader off the ground with hope.  Writer Chelsea Wald introduces a determined scientist who teaches himself to fly so that he can train a flock of northern bald ibises, nearly extinct, to migrate again. And while Wald's story covers many years and much frustration, she does it with a light touch. The story of this unusual conservation project is not without tragedy, but the overall takeaway is refreshingly sweet.

I don't think the third prize winner gets to make an acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, so I'll use this opportunity to say that this story exists because of the vision and thoughtful editing of Nautilus editor Kevin Berger. And of course because of the Johannes Fritz, the Waldrappteam, and the northern bald ibises, who generously let me hang around and answered questions for hours.

I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and making new at the SEJ conference in New Orleans. If you are reading this and will be there, too, please let me know so that we can meet.

Northern bald ibis resources

Ibis flying
A northern bald ibis flying home to its nest in Burghausen, Germany (credit: C. Wald)

If reading my stories on the northern bald ibis in Nautilus, BBC Wildlife, Science, Nature, and Earth Touch is not enough, here are some resources where you can learn more, keep up to date with developments, or just look at beautiful photos. If you have suggestions for others, let me know.

Taking a Turn on the Space Curl

I get to do a lot of cool things thanks to my job as a science journalist, but this is something that anyone can do at the Vienna Technical Museum, where I spent Yuri's Night (April 12). The Space Curl, in the museum's SPACE exhibition (until January 6, 2015), puts you inside of a gyroscope. In case it's not clear in the video, I'm controlling the Space Curl's movement, although not really expertly. According to the museum's website, it simulates the disorientation experienced in space, and NASA uses it as a training device for astronauts. I thought it was great fun, and I would love to do it again.


Thanks to Christy Reed for taking the video. I didn't know she was going to do that.