jen humphrey's blog

Monday, July 16, 2018

Art, Expression, and Community

The KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum stand with our partners in the Spencer Museum of Art, The Commons and the Hall Center for the Humanities in their support of freedom of expression in academia and the contributions it brings to our society. Like them, we remain committed to engaged and inclusive dialogue with our communities. The following statement was distributed on July 13 by the Spencer Museum and The Commons:

We respect and welcome continued discussion of the artwork “Untitled (Flag 2)” by Josephine Meckseper, now on display inside the Spencer Museum of Art. Exhibition of the artwork, part of the Pledges of Allegiance project hosted by the Spencer Museum of Art and The Commons, will continue to fulfill our commitment to supporting art, ideas, and dialogue.

The Pledges of Allegiance series is organized by the nonprofit Creative Time, which asked 16 artists to create works, representing current issues of importance, to be exhibited and discussed at public and private institutions nationwide. Eleven of the 16 works have been displayed in front of The Commons on a new flag pole that was erected specifically for the exhibit. Support for this project and the associated events has come from private funds.

Themes of the artworks in the series include: peace, community, fear, cooperation, friendship, surveillance, government representation, and, among others, what it means to be an active citizen. The final work in the Pledges of Allegiance series is Meckseper’s abstract representation of the United States divided into two parts and a printed graphic of the American flag. Citing the diverse histories and perspectives of people in this nation, Meckseper uses the work to call attention to the nation’s divisions at a time when unity is needed.

Working with the Office of the Provost and other partners across campus, the Spencer Museum of Art, The Commons, the KU Natural History Museum, and the Hall Center for the Humanities will offer programs in the coming weeks and months that explore the issues and the responses raised by the artworks.

Saralyn Reece Hardy
Director of the Spencer Museum of Art

Leonard Krishtalka
Professor, Director of the KU Biodiversity Institute

Marta Caminero-Santangelo
Professor of English, Interim Director of the Hall Center for the Humanities

Emily Ryan
Director of The Commons

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Paleontologists Dig Up a Mystery

Paleontologists don’t necessarily find what they are looking for – even when they know where to look. But as a crew of KU paleontologists, students and volunteers discovered this summer, a disappointment in one location can yield surprising results somewhere else. 

In June, a group led by Biodiversity Institute paleontologist David Burnham intended to return to the site where for two years they had excavated a Tyrannosaurus rex piece by piece. They hoped to build on the large femur they discovered last year, which belonged to a subadult female T. rex now on display at the KU Natural History Museum.

The formidable rock above the layer of fossils, or overburden, was difficult to remove, however. While the crew waited out several delays getting heavy equipment to the area, David directed the group to another site. They began to call it the “mystery theropod” site, home to what David said may be another, even younger, T. rex, or a dinosaur entirely new to science.

“The second site was discovered in our permit area during our last field season in 2016,” David said. “At that time, we found a fragmentary bone that looked interesting and made plans to return later to see if the site would yield more fossils.”

Digging for dinosaursThe mystery theropod site, near Jordan, Montana, proved to be much easier to dig than the first site. During the four weeks that crew members were there, they discovered more than 20 fossils along with dozens of bone fragments. These included three pedal unguals, or claws. The crew also unearthed a foot bones, and skull bones such as jaws with teeth, isolated teeth with roots, backbones and possible pectoral bones, ribs and parts of the pelvis. 

“We don’t know what dinosaur it is yet, but we do know it’s a theropod—a carnivorous dinosaur,” David said. “The skull is over a half meter long.”  

But in addition to all the fossil material from that site, plus clearing the original site of immense overburden, the crew also excavated the partial skeleton of a fossil bird. They found most of a leg, which had an articulated claw, and mixed in with the bird was a fossil crocodile skeleton. The crocodile had a partial skull, back bones and limb bones.

Bird fossils from this long ago are rare and therefore useful for unraveling bird evolution, Burnham said. The site was probably the remains of an ancient lake where the birds and crocodiles had lived.

Thanks to more than $15,000 in donations to the project -- including a lead contribution from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, MA., the crew was able to obtain digging equipment, supplies such as plaster and glue, rent vehicles to transport workers to and from the sites, book hotel rooms, purchase food, and even hire a backhoe operator for removing overburden off the original T. rex site. 

Donors also provided support for students to work in the laboratory for the coming months to clean, prepare and examine the fossils they brought back to KU, as well as pay for a series of scientific tests on the bones and rocks from the T. rex. The preliminary tests have shown that KU’s T. rex is probably the geologically oldest ever discovered and that the long bones contained calcium—a preliminary indicator it was a female capable of laying eggs.

Donors to the project and the public are invited to learn more about the work at “Tooth & Claw,” 6:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 14. The event will include a talk by David Burnham, food, and drinks available for purchase. Attendees will also have the chance to see not only the new mystery theropod fossils but also a new young T. rex on loan to the museum through December, and see new paleontology exhibits such as the recently completed paleogarden. The event is free but tickets are required and can be reserved here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Seeking a Communications Intern

The KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum seeks a Science and Public Programs Communications Intern

Position description:
This student position assists the director of external affairs. The intern will work on a variety of projects spanning the outreach programs of the museum and the research programs of KU Biodiversity Institute scientists and students. Content may span written, audio and video formats, depending on the skills the intern brings to the position. Candidates with an interest in science writing are strongly encouraged to apply. 

Specific tasks may include:
conducting interviews and developing features for biodiversity.ku.edu;
supporting our efforts in social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; and
assisting the director with communications to  the public, media, and museum members. 

Required qualifications:
Junior, senior or graduate student level standing; 
Majoring in journalism, communications, biology or a related field; 
Strong English writing and editing skills as demonstrated by coursework, samples, resume and cover letter;
Familiarity with social media platforms as indicated in application materials; 
Experience with basic Office software skills (Word, Excel); 
Available to work 10-15 hours per week during weekdays

Preferred Qualifications:
Experience with writing about science or research; 
Proficiency with Adobe programs (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign); 
Experience with online content creation and/or video production. 

Full details and application at employment.ku.edu.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Welcome to Villa Vanilla

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Villa Vanilla is a sustainable tropical spice farm focusing on growing their plants with a biodynamic approach. The farm is located near the beautiful Manuel Antonio national park and is over 150 acres, with 27 of those acres devoted to agriculture production. While at Villa Vanilla our class was given a personal tour by the owner himself, Henry. 

During our tour Henry gave us a glimpse of what it means to be a sustainable farm including the history of Villa Vanilla. Sustainability begins with the soil. All waste is composted and monitored to ensure that the compost stays at the optimal temperature. Having a healthy   compost eliminates the need for fertilizers. A brief history of the farm was given. During which we learned that this thriving spice farm once used to be a pasture! The owners had to turn the soil from a fungus dominated soil to a bacteria dominated soil, to encourage growth of trees. This process took years to accomplish.

The tour then led us to the vanilla beans! Vanilla is an orchid which has to be hand pollinated in order for the bean to be produced. This process of hand pollination is what makes vanilla expensive. 
     
Next on the tour were cocoa and the process of turning raw cocoa into the sweet decadent chocolate which we know and love. The cocoa beans must be dried and fermented before they are processed and combined with vanilla and true Ceylon cinnamon (which is bark of a tree!) to make fine chocolate.  
         
Before we left Villa Vanilla we were given teas and desserts prepared by the pastry chef. The desserts began with gourmet chocolates made entirely from the spices grown on Villa Vanilla, next was iced cinnamon tea made with true Ceylon cinnamon. As were finishing the tea we’re given an incredible light, creamy vanilla cheesecake. If it couldn’t get better, we are served vanilla ice cream made in house with a cookie. Those of us that were brave enough were offered hot chocolate with cayenne pepper.                                                             

After the desserts and tea we walked to the on-site spice shop where we were able to purchase these sustainable crops. As the class is prepared to get onto the bus and contemplate what we wanted for lunch, we had yet another surprise, a traditional Costa Rica meal prepared and waiting for us.  The meal consisted of rice and beans, marinated veggies, a fresh salad with carne, a slow cooked marinated beef. 
     
Being at Villa Vanilla taught me a lot, from the process of hand pollinated vanilla to the difference of cocoa and chocolate. Most importantly I got to experience first-hand the quality of food that can be grown and processed on a sustainable farm.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Food for Thought, part 2

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

On the way from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, our group visited a spice farm, the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, to learn about sustainable farming practices that are used there. One of the spices they produce is vanilla. Vanilla is derived from three different types of orchid, all from the genus Vanilla. While orchids are the largest group of plants on Earth, only one genus is edible. The flowers of the vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand in order to produce fruit, the vanilla bean. As one might imagine, it is a fairly labor intensive process.

In fact, a majority of spice production is very labor intensive. At this farm, we observed cinnamon, the inner back of the cinnamon tree Cinnamomum verum, being harvested by a machete. Then the shavings are placed in a tray to be placed in a large dryer. The final result are the curled cinnamon sticks which can also be powdered.

We also saw their production of allspice, Pimenta dioica, a spice commonly used in pumpkin pies and Caribbean cuisine. The berries were set out in small batches in the sun to dry alongside several other types of spices. With such small batches, the production of each spice could be monitored individually. Even the fruit from the cocoa pods, Theobroma cacao, was fermented in the sun and occasionally mixed by hand. All of these plants, from the vanilla to the cinnamon to the cocoa tree were fertilized with compost made on site. There were no chemicals treatments or machinery and very little, if any, as wasted.

The amount of time and care put into the farm was incredible, but it also brings up a question about our own consumption of goods. With nearly 8 billion people on earth, small scale sustainable farming simply cannot keep up with demand. Documentaries such as Food Inc. discuss the culture of excess and wastefulness that exists in modern society but farms like Villa Vanilla are taking a stance against this movement of mass production. Hopefully in time, other farms will begin to go more green!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Food for Thought

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Plants are everywhere in our lives. We walk through parks with trees or even plant gardens of our own to decorate our homes. But plants are also a crucial part of our diets as well. During our study abroad in Costa Rica, we have been able to see and taste a variety of foods grown locally. There are of course, fruits and vegetables that are easily recognized, but many others are also commonly seen in our grocery stores even if they take on a form much different than what is grown on a farm.

Even when working in the field, deep in dense jungle far away from cultivated land, it is possible to see plants that are related to our own dinner plates. Bananas, ginger and cardamom are all a part of the Zingiberales order, the group of plants that we are studying here in Costa Rica, but each is harvested from different parts of the plant. Bananas, from the family Musaceae, are easily recognized as the large yellow fruit which hang down the tree; ginger, from the family Zingiberaceae, is harvested from a part of the plant known as the rhizome which dwells underground; cardamom, also from the family Zingiberaceae, is a spice that is harvested from seed pods. While bananas, ginger, and cardamom is ready to be sold soon after harvesting, other foods require a little more processing. Chocolate and vanilla are both taken from the fruit of the cocoa and vanilla plant respectively and fermented. As a result, the chocolate and vanilla that comes to mind is very different from the original fruit.

All these foods originated from specific parts of the world but can now easily be found in supermarkets across the globe. Vanilla, chocolate and bananas seem to be very normal in the average American diet but such foods would have been rare just a few centuries ago. As early European explorers arrived in new lands, expanding both toward the East and West, they discovered not only new people and resources, but food as well. These foods today may be considered an ordinary part of cuisine. For example, tomatoes were unknown in Europe until the Spanish brought them over from the new world. Now it is hard to imagine what Italian food would be like without tomato sauce. Seeing both the indigenous and introduced species of plants in Costa Rica has made me think a little bit more about the history of the food I eat and the journey it took to end up on my plate.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ecotourism in Monteverde

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

During our final week in Costa Rica, our group traveled from San Jose to Monteverde to complete research at the field station. Dr. Chaboo had described Monteverde as a small town established by Quakers and a place very conscientious about the environment around them. What we had found was a town teeming with business and tourists. In a little over twenty years, Monteverde had been transformed from a small community to a bustling tourist destination.

This sudden influx of tourists has helped raise awareness about the decline in rainforests in places such as Monteverde. One of the most well known examples of the rainforests’ dire state is the extinction of the golden toad, Incilius periglenes. Once endemic to Monteverde, the species vanished by the 1990s. Tourists who visit the Monteverde Could Forest Biological Reserve come for the amazing sites and to learn about conservation. Now more that ever there is a drive to educate people and to protect the remaining rainforests.

But perhaps in a twist of irony, this sudden influx of tourists has also brought about new challenges for the environment. A larger population means more waste being produced, and more space required to dispose of it. As hotels, gift shops and restaurants appeared, land that once served as a self-sustaining ecosystem was developed into building space. In the height of tourism season, buses can line up from the reserve all the way into town. It is amazing to wake up each morning to see busloads of families, students and nature enthusiasts in the reserve.

Ecotourism is a double-edged sword. While it is a wonderful thing to see so many people eager to explore the cloud forest, such large numbers can also be a problem. But Monteverde has done an incredible job of finding a fine balance between the two. I have been amazed how the country of Costa Rica has been so environmentally conscious everywhere we go. The people here hold great pride in the biodiversity here and are eager to share it with the rest of the world.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Costa Rica Reflection

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Reflecting back on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica, I can see all the beneficial knowledge and characteristics that I gained from the experience. My cultural view was broadened when we visited our first destination, San Jose. The city was large and densely packed, which gave me a chance to see how the Costa Rica population functions. The street were busy and frankly quite chaotic, compared to those here in Kansas.

Every night while in San Jose we went out for dinner, most of which were Costa Rican cuisine. The food in Costa Rica was far better than what I had expected. The meal sizes were not only larger than what I am use to back in America, but also presented delicious and healthy food. I noticed that the food in Costa Rica  lacked preservatives and processing that most American foods contain, which I found to be much more enjoyable.

I was surprised by the hospitality of the people in the big city of San Jose. Unlike many large American cities, the people were incredibly friendly and genuine despite the language  barrier. It was obvious that the people in Costa Rica value the revenue that tourism brings to the country. Tourism was especially apparent when we reached areas such as Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. In many instances there were more Americans in these two areas than native Costa Ricans. The towns where tourism was heavy flourished due to the high amount of money flowing from the travelers.

The cloud forest in Monteverde probably left me with the best memories because I was able to see the true beauty of the rain Forest. There was life everywhere you looked, and was just as I had imagined it prior to the trip. The cloud forest was a perfect location for our research because there was a large population of Zingiberales in the area. My favorite part of the trip was doing the research itself, and getting my hands dirty looking for bugs. It was amazing to experience biological field work for the first time and I am now interested in participating in an ecology field of some sort. My trip to Costa Rica is one that I will remember for the rest of my life, I had a truly fantastic time!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Warm Welcome to the Tropics

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

beach

After our time spent marveling over the natural wonders of Costa Rica, I remained for another week to explore its cultural side a little more. My time travelling alone in Costa Rica led me to a much greater appreciation of its residents.

Everyone seemed eager to help in any way they could, from small favors and gifts to even just taking the time to try and talk to you, something that has become a rarity. Even though I could barely speak the language, warm conversations with taxi drivers, with waiters and waitresses, and even strangers on the bus were to be expected, and I realized this is sadly lacking from my life in America.

When I left my camera on a public bus, a woman hurriedly followed me off to return it to me, a kindness I would never expect. On more than one occasion, perfect strangers intervened on my behalf. Perhaps there were other dynamics at work that I was unaware of, but having traveled abroad before, my experiences have never been so overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to being more friendly, people seemed more outwardly happy. I think this may have something to do with the beautiful, lush landscape of the country. Who could be unhappy in such a picturesque setting?
This outgoing, cheerful and friendly attitude is possibly the most memorable thing I’ve experienced here, and it’s certainly something worth holding onto as I return to my daily life in the States.  
 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Rich Coast

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Prior to colonization by the Spanish, Costa Rica did not have a single, unified ancient society, as was seen in other Latin American countries with civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Instead, the country consisted of isolated tribes, living in peaceful abundance and harmony with nature, each with their own unique culture.

These tribes used the bounty of their land to develop advanced systems of agriculture, ceramics, and metalworking. Some developed skilled techniques for casting gold into jewelry, religious icons, and symbolic representations, particularly of animals. We saw several examples of this amazing goldsmithing at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in downtown San Jose.

This system of isolated ‘chiefdoms’ proved to be an advantage when faced with the threat of Spanish conquest. Although colonization wreaked havoc on the country’s natives, as it did all across the New World, the effects were less violent. Many tribes were able to flee to the Southern edge of the country, where they still reside today, and others were integrated into the new Spanish colonies.

After a few weeks in Costa Rica, I started to wonder how the country’s remarkably nonviolent history has contributed to its current state. It seems to me that the citizens of Costa Rica are overwhelmingly peaceful and good-natured, and there is little crime, I’m told, even in urban centers. In fact, Costa Rica even abolished its military over 70 years ago.