Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Let’s take a moment for….

Slime mold. It's big, oozing, and asexual with suicidal tendencies. What more could a girl ask for?

I’m taking time out of my intense campaigning for more flightless birds in romance novels to bring you this public service announcement about the awesomeness of slime mold. I’m completely serious - I don’t joke about things like slime mold. My Master’s advisor turned me on to slime molds when we spent an entire class period talking about them because he loves them so much. Loves them to the point that one of the most prominent dinosaur paleontologists said, “If I didn’t love dinosaurs so much, I’d totally study slime molds.” Ok, he probably didn’t throw in a “totally”, but I’ve found that with each advanced degree I get I talk more and more like a valley girl, so in my memory, that’s how he said it.

Anyways, here are just a few of the reasons why slime molds are so awesome:

(1) Hey baby, check out the size of my cell

Those big, sometimes brightly-colored oozing masses you may sometimes see in the woods? Yeah, that’s one cell. One. Cell. With multiple nuclei. How cool is that! Additionally, some slime mold cells can also join together to form big multicelluar colonies. Ultimate teamwork. Actually, they kinda remind me of myself. Most of the time I really just want to sit on my couch and enjoy solitude. But during a zombie apocalypse I would want to be around other people. You know, to use as weapons and bait.

(2) Slime mold wants you covered, wants you smothered like its Waffle House hashbrowns

These guys move. Honest to God. They’re the things that blob-like horror movies are made of, except they don’t try to eat you. Actually, they're totally harmless. And I'm sure they were Steve McQueen's biggest fans.

(3) When I think about me I touch myself

What’s sexier than confidence? Slime mold has such confidence in its evolutionary superiority that it doesn’t need to look outside it’s own DNA to supplement its gene pool – it just gets it on with itself and BAM! Houston, we have spawn. Don’t let the fact that the above statement makes it sound like an inbred Nazi turn you off. Sometimes, when the conditions are perfect (and by perfect I mean that they happen to run into a compatible slime mold in heat. Which I'm sure happens ALL the time...), slime molds can reproduce sexually. But everyone knows that budding off is way more fun. Wait…what?

(4) Taking one for the team

You thought Dumbledore made “For the Greater Good” look sexy? Wrong. That was slime mold. As any child who ever had their innocence ripped from them by watching hyenas kill baby cheetahs or crocodiles eat the mangled bodies of baby elephants or orcas toy with baby seals on the Discovery Channel (back when they showed nature shows) knows, Mother Nature can be a brutal bitch. So when environmental conditions turn harsh, and slime molds are forced to extremes to ensure survival, some of them commit suicide. Nothing says survival like death. Dictyostelium discoideum cells, for example, congregate together (essentially forming a multicelluar organism) and form “puff balls” (for lack of a better term) that are raised on a stalk. The slime mold cells that make up the stalk undergo altruistic suicide or “programmed cell death” to lift the puff ball up higher. The ultimate point of their sacrifice is that spores form within these puff balls and can then be disseminated to colonize new areas. Despite the video footage of cute baby animals being brutalized, this is why nature is so great: it’s all about eating and sex.

So long story short, slime mold makes up the awesomesauce that is poured over things. You have a piece of awesome covered in awesomesauce? Yeah, that’s slime mold. You’re welcome.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Role of Flightless Birds in Romance Novels

Now, I take my science very seriously; but I take my fun seriously, too. Last time I gave a research talk to my department, I titled my talk "Paradigm Broken: New study shows 65 million year old bird should be served with red wine". This started as just a joke title when my friend who was running the graduate student seminars was pressuring me for a talk title. However, when I started building my presentation, I thought to myself "why stop at just a title?" I proceeded to put together a full 10 minute talk on wine pairings with the extinct birds I study - including a Principle Component Analysis. Obviously it was much more fun than my actual research talk. While that talk was without a doubt one of the highlights of my grad school career (I know, sad, right?), I have yet to share that talk publicly - aside from a teaser - for the reason that I fully intend on giving it as part of a presentation at a professional conference one day. Can't let the press get wind of this hard-core research before I can publish it, after all.

Well, last Friday I gave another seminar talk to the grad students in my department. And of course I thought about coming up with another joke talk. However, the fun I get out of creating fake figures set up an internal struggle with the fact that I'm the laziest person I know and didn't want to do more work. But then I saw that it was April 1st, and just had to suck it up and put a few more hours into my powerpoint. This time, it started with an abstract. Indulging my laziness, I just cut and pasted the abstract from my most recent paper, then added the summary for the second half of my presentation: "I will then proceed to talk about something else. Possible topics include (1) blah blah blah dead birds blah, or (2) the role of flightless birds in romance novels." I figured no one was going to read the abstract - I hadn't read one all year for the seminar speakers - but I immediately started getting emails from friends saying they were going to be disappointed if I didn't really talk about romance novels. Well shit, I had officially committed myself - something I strive never to do. Alas, at least now I had a topic. A topic that includes my two favorite subjects: dead birds and smut.

As for the talk, I'll start with the conclusion: the role of flightless birds in romance novels is UNDERUTILIZED. In my extensive research through (1) obsessively reading romances, (2) Google searches, and (3) Twitter, I have found only one romance featuring flightless birds: "Seize the Fire" by Laura Kinsale. Though I actually had to go through the unheard of lengths of ordering a paperback online to procure a copy (I have a Nook and have gotten used to instant gratification, something that is deadly to my bank account and dissertation), I now own this love story of flightless proportions. I must also add, however, that "Seize the Fire" is now available as an ebook for the Nook because Ms. Kinsale is totally awesome and talked to her publisher (seriously, does anyone know a Laura that isn't awesome? I didn't think so.). Needless to say, we're now Twitter friends.

"Seize the Fire" follows the story of Napolean the Rockhopper penguin in his wing-propelled adventures searching for that one perfect cloaca to compliment his own. Ok, technically it follows the story of Naval captain Sheridan Drake who adopts Napolean the Rockhopper penguin, but the penguin plays an important role in humanizing our jaded hero. And that's it, kiddos. That's all I could find, with the exception of several webpages claiming there's a Harlequin Romance entitled "Lover Boy" that features the Chandler, Arizona Ostrich Festival. Sadly, "Lover Boy" is a rather innocuous and banal title. If I were writing a HQN featuring an ostrich festival, I think something like "The Ostrich King's Lover's Secret Chick" would be a more appropriate title. Even if ostriches aren't in the plot line. Subsequent searches have failed to turn up any evidence of this book outside ostrich festival websites, so if either of the two people who might read this post know of this book's existence, PLEASE let me know! [EDIT: A friend has helped me locate "Loverboy" by Vicki Lewis Thompson! It is currently winging (har har) it's way to me!]

The lack of data turned up in my extensive literature searches (and by extensive, I mean I'm pretty sure I spent more than 30 minutes on Google) is very disappointing considering all the romantic potential flightless birds have to offer. In fact, I now consider flightless birds to be the prefect romance allegory. Let's look at the two largest groups of flightless birds: ratites and penguins. Ratites are the group of Southern Hemisphere birds that include ostriches, emus, cassowaries, and kiwis (no, not the fruit). All of these birds have secondarily loss the power of aerial propulsion, but several species still use their wings in some form of function. The ostrich, for example, primarily uses it's wings in courtship dances - splaying it wings, bobbing it's head, swaying back and forth on bended knee. How much sexier can an ostrich get? I'm all hot and bothered just thinking about it. I think the importance of courtship, and women adorning themselves with ostrich feathers, in romance novels speaks for itself. But if not: it's important. Ostriches will also use their wings to scare off predators to protect their young - another noble use of flightless wings. Despite all the abundant alpha asshattery shown by heroes in novels along the way to HEA (Happily Ever After), they're always excited by the prospect of participating in the game of evolution by the end, and that includes protecting their genetic investment.

Penguins are perhaps an even more romantic group of flightless birds. Not only are they so damn cute that you just have to go "Awwwww" every time you see one (with the possible exception of the dead ones in my lab...though I do find their tarsometatarsals absolutely precious), but many species are monogamous and mate for life - at least once they find the one cloaca that in the darkness binds them. Additionally, both parents generally help in raising their chicks. How romantic - HEAs for all! Oh-ho, but don't be fooled, it's not all commitment and monogamy out there in this flightless paradise. You still have Emperor Penguins, who are essentially the rakes of of the penguin world - finding new partners every year. And every good story needs a devious rake.

Most of the rest of flightless birds (that we haven't eaten to extinction, and well, even those that we have) are found on islands, or island-like settings (like isolated South American lakes where you can find flightless ducks). Honestly, what's more romantic than being marooned on an island with flightless birds...and perhaps a pirate? You can get ravished AND dinner!

All-in-all, flightless birds are vastly underutilized by romance authors as either heroes and heroines or as plot points. Consequently, I will now dedicate the rest of my career to lobby for more aeronautically-challenged avians in romances. In fact, I will even go so far as suggesting the new sub-genera "Cloaca Erotica" for the hard-core aviaphiles out there. No cloaca-loving judgment here. To date, people sadly don't find flightless birds as sexy as I do. Yeah, I know, I don't get it either. But hopefully together we can change that so our children can be raised in a world more embracing of flightless cloacal kisses. If I were in the least bit apt at creative writing, and less lazy, I would write them myself.