NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

America’s Science Idol: Announcing our Contestants!

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Our original call for contestants for “America’s Science Idol”–this coming Friday at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston–led to a large number of applications. It would have been nice if we could have had several rounds of competition, like in the real Idol–but for this event, that just wasn’t possible.

So we narrowed the applicant pool to 6 contestants–the lucky (or brave) scientists below:

Gillian Bowser2Gillian Bowser (@gwsn2012).  A native of Brooklyn, Gillian is currently a research scientist at Colorado State University, where she leads interdisciplinary teams from multiple universities to do large‐scale network analyses of women in sustainability. Before that, she served for 11 years as a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park studying insects, bison, and rodents. She has also worked on desert tortoises, habitat modeling, and military overflight issues; and has worked in the director’s office of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

Gillian’s career represents a nexus between art and science. She started her career as an art major attending LaGuardia High School of the Arts, and has had several art shows and one solo ceramic sculpture exhibition.

???????????????????????????????Tom Di Liberto (@TDiLiberto). Born and raised on Long Island, Tom has been fascinated by the weather since he was a young child. Currently, he’s a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecasting the weather for Africa, Central America, Hispaniola, and Central Asia with a focus on weather hazards that could affect food security. In addition, Tom conducts research on the use of satellite-derived rainfall estimates in these regions. Read the rest of this entry »


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February 11, 2013 at 8:39 am

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Do You Have What It Takes to Be America’s Next Science Idol?

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Idol Logo PictureThink you’re a pretty good science communicator?

Dreaming of becoming the next Neil DeGrasse Tyson? 

Think you can prove your speaking skills live, under pressure, before a panel of judges? 

Want the bragging rights and prizes that will follow?

Then join us on Friday, Feb.15, at 1 p.m. in the Hynes Convention Center, Room 205, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting to compete in America’s Science Idol, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, Discover MagazinePopular Science and the Point of Inquiry Podcast (pointofinquiry.org).

Contestants will give a 3-minute presentation on a scientific topic of their choice—with a hard time limit.You can use PowerPoint slides in your presentation (running on a PC only!).

Then they’ll be judged by the audience and our distinguished panel: Corey S. Powell, editor at large of Discover (aka Simon Cowell), Indre Viskontas (filling in for Paula Abdul), neuroscientist, opera singer and co-host of the popular Point of Inquiry podcast, andJennifer Bogo (J-Bo?), articles editor at Popular Science.

The event will be hosted by Chris Mooney (aka Ryan Seacrest), science journalist and co-host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.

The winner gets: A free one-year subscription to Discover and Popular Science; a live guest appearance on the Point of Inquiry podcast on Sunday, Feb. 17—following Steven Pinker, science’s hottest warm-up act; and the Discover DVD (all 30 years of Discover in one convenient package! $149.99 value!).

Oh, and huge bragging rights.

To throw your hat in the ring, and for technical details and specs on running PowerPoint during the contest, complete the attached form and email to Cindy Holloway at cholloway@nsf.gov, by Friday, February 1, 2013.

The application form can be found here.

Once again, all the details:


Workshop at 
AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting

1-2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 15, 2013
Room 205, Hynes Convention Center – Boston, MA

See you there!

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January 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm

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Printing the New You: The Amazing Potential of Biofabrication Research in South Carolina

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kidney_SC--rgov-800widthThis is a sample blog post drafted for the January 16, 2013 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Last year, some five thousand people in the U.S. died while waiting for a kidney transplant. They weren’t the lucky ones—there was no lifesaving organ, at the last minute, coming to save them.

Now imagine that we could save all of those lives, and more, by finding a vast new source of kidneys and other organs—namely, growing them from a person’s own cells. It’s actually a lot less farfetched than it sounds: Army researchers have used a modified inkjet printer to print new skin cells to treat severe burns. Tissue engineering has already been used to rebuild a 10 year old British child’s trachea by growing a new one from his own stem cells.  Both involved laying down a relatively flat layer of human cells, but constructing three dimensional masses of cells is also happening. This is a new scientific and medical frontier that’s right now opening before our eyes.

Here in South Carolina, we’re taking a lead in this amazing field, sometimes called biofabrication. The state recently received a five year, $ 20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) to dive into the basic science that will someday lead to real cures in this area. And here’s the bonus: Although the science needed to rebuild your body isn’t there yet, we’ll generate a large range of new insights—and, perhaps, new jobs and industries—along the way. Read the rest of this entry »

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January 16, 2013 at 5:26 pm

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The Scientific Tide: Using Research to Drive Alabama’s Economy

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This is a sample post prepared for the November 27 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.

When people from outside of the state think about Alabama, they probably think of our top ranked college football team. Or—like it, hate it—that Lynard Skynard song. Here’s what they’re probably not thinking about: The state’s scientific endeavors. In fact, they might be surprised to learn that Alabama research promises to help spur economic growth that, in turn, could improve the state’s per capita income—currently $34,800 per year, placing Alabama 42nd in the nation. If we want that to improve there’s just one path: Science and innovation.

That’s what the Alabama EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) aims to deliver. In 2008, it received a $ 15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to focus on four areas of existing scientific strength that have significant economic potential: Nanotechnology and Biomaterials, Biotechnology, Optics and Sensors, and Nanofabrication. Not everyone is familiar with these fields, so let’s break it down: In essence, Alabama scientists and engineers are on the cutting edge of building new products and novel materials (many of them designed at miniscule scales), that have clear commercial applications. In fact, these grants–and the researchers working under them–are already connected to a number of companies.

Start with nanotechnology innovations, which are based on re-designing matter at the atomic scale. In 2009, the University of Alabama at Birmingham professors Selvum Pillay and Uday Vaidya won first place (and $ 100,000 in start-up funding) in the Alabama Launchpad business competition. They then proceeded to create the company Innovative Composite Solutions, LLC, which designs lightweight and more energy efficient materials for military, aerospace, and other applications (see above). In other words, the company is replacing machine parts that were once made out of metal (which is heavy, and has to be replaced regularly) with parts made out of superior, longer-lasting composites. From airplane interiors to wind turbine blades, the applications of this technology are wide-ranging. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 27, 2012 at 6:29 pm

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Powering Progress: Extending Our Innovation Tradition in Tennessee

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This is a sample post prepared for the November 7 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.

The state of Tennessee has a long history of innovations in science and energy. Beginning in the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority electrified this region through massive dam projects and, later, nuclear plants. And then there’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, whose “secret city” was a key home to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Today, it’s the Energy Department’s largest laboratory focused on science and energy.

Plant Power? Image credit: University of Tennessee-Knoxville

So it’s fitting that now, some of the energy innovations of the future—in solar power, in longer-lived batteries, in nanotechnology—are being hatched right here in Tennessee. For that, and for the jobs it will bring, you can thank a 5 year, $ 20 million award from the NSF EPSCoR(Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) initiative.

In 2006, Tennessee’s innovation road map, seeking to power economic growth, noted that the state receives considerably more funding from the Department of Energy than the national average, and has key built-in strengths in nanotechnology and energy, among other areas. Thanks to its 2010 grant, Tennessee EPSCoR is now poised to deliver on those advantages in three key areas—building newer and more efficient ways of harnessing solar energy, especially by using plant materials or “biosolar”; developing better energy storage devices, such as fuel cells and batteries; and designing new structures at the nano-scale that will be capable of aiding in both endeavors.

Let’s start with solar energy. At a time when the national conversation about how to address global warming is growing, we desperately need more efficient ways of getting energy from its ultimate source—the sun, whose rays contain enough energy to power humanity’s annual needs in a matter of hours, if we could only harness them. The problem, though, is that today’s solar cells aren’t efficient enough at converting the sun’s energy into power that humans can use. Here in Tennessee, we’re doing the research to try to change that. Consider, for instance, the work of our researcher Barry Bruce, which focuses on taking a cue from nature—and in particular plant photosynthesis, the first and best way of harnessing the sun’s energy—and applying it in solar cells. Rather than cells that use a lot of toxic or synthetic materials, this “organic” form of solar power, or “biosolar,” could be both cheaper and also cleaner than the competition. As Bruce puts it, rather than “power plants,” maybe we should be talking about “plant power.”

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November 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm

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If You Build It: Harnessing Science for Iowa’s Future

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[Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory]

This is a sample blog post composed for the NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Ames, Iowa, October 16-17, 2012.

We all know the scene from the movie Field of Dreams, in which a mysterious voice, carried on the wind rustling through the cornfield, tells Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, “If you build it, he will come.” It may be the single most iconic Iowa moment in popular culture. But perhaps it takes on a new meaning when you consider Iowa’s prominent role, today, in generating clean energy from the winds that rustle through cornfields–and from those fields themselves. The state’s already building it—and economic prosperity is likely to come as a result.

Leveraging science to advance Iowa’s clean energy economy is the chief goal of a new $ 20 million, five year grant from the NSF EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The initiative focuses on the clean energy fields where the state already has a natural, home team advantage: Iowa already leads the U.S. in biofuels production, for instance, and it is second only to the much larger Texas in wind power generation. In each case, however, we’re largely reliant on “first generation” forms of these technologies—corn-based ethanol, for instance, or today’s familiar wind turbines. The central goal of the new initiative is to uncover the next generation technologies that will give the state—and companies founded or working there—a leg up on the competition.

Take biofuels. We’ve all heard about the “food versus fuel” issues that arise with the use of ethanol from corn–underscoring why it’s important to get past first generation biofuels and on to more promising possibilities (sometimes called “advanced biofuels”) that don’t have the same baggage. Just consider: While turning corn into fuel has its problems, when farmers harvest corn they leave behind the stalk and the leaves, the so-called “corn residue.” So imagine if some part of that residue—made up of cellulosic biomass–could also be harvested and turned into fuel. There won’t be any food-versus-fuel issues any longer—there’ll just be a new source of energy. Read the rest of this entry »

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October 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm

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It’s Only Natural: Science for Arkansas’s Future

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The GREEN Mobile Solar Energy Laboratory; photo credit Russell Cothren

As everybody who lives here knows, Arkansas is the “Natural State.” The phrase refers to our magnificent outdoors, from the Big Woods to the Ozarks. But if more people knew about the science being done at Arkansas universities, it might take on quite a new meaning.

Consider: Arkansas researchers are growing life-saving drugs in crops. They’re developing new ways to get the energy that powers our society from plants, and from the sun. In other words, they’re tapping into a whole new kind of natural resource. And best of all, this science has the potential to create a much needed infusion of high-paying jobs right here in the state. In fact, that’s already happening.

To understand the significance of Arkansas’s recent science investments, you first need to know that for years, per capita income in the state has lagged behind the national average. In 2011, for instance, Arkansas ranked 45th nationwide in per capita. That’s why Accelerate Arkansas, a group of state leaders dedicated to achieving economic advancement, has set the objective of having Arkansas catch up by the year 2020. That means creating a lot of new jobs in higher paying, hi tech or knowledge industries—which, in turn, will demand scientific innovation.

But how to create that? In 2009, the Batelle Report, commissioned by the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA), identified nine scientific areas where the state had key strengths already in place, and where further investments would be likely to lead to job creation. Enter the ASSET Initiative—a program of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, recently funded to the tune of $ 20 million by the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (with $ 4 million in state matching funds), and now poised play a critical role in the push to improve economic conditions for Arkansas’s citizens. The initiative focuses on three promising research areas identified in the Batelle Report: plant biotechnology research, leading to new ways of generating drugs and chemicals; solar energy innovation through nanotechnology; and modernizing our energy grid.

The first of these initiatives is based at what we call our “P3” Center: The Arkansas Center for Plant Powered Production. Here, the scientific focus is on better understanding plants so that they can be literally turned, through bioengineering techniques, into factories that produce chemicals, drugs, and sources of energy. To see how this can help the state economy, look no farther than BioStrategies, LC, a local biotech that has genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce a human enzyme called “glucoceribrosidase,” which is needed to cure a rare but deadly genetic condition known as Gauchers disease. The company was founded by Drs. David Radin and Carole Cramer of Arkansas State University, currently director of the P3 Center. Both recently received the prestigious Tibbetts Award from the Small Business Association for their innovative work.

Arkansas scientists are also innovating in another area—advancing our capacity to capture the sun’s energy through nanotechnology. At our “GREEN” Center, we’re building thin-film solar cells that will be more energy efficient, and less expensive. How? Arkansas researchers are working to design thinner types of silicon coating that cost less because they use less pricey semiconductor material. The goal is to create “next generation” solar cells that will be measured in nanometers, rather than in microns. In the meantime, the Green Center has also created a mobile solar energy laboratory out of a converted Winnebago—an education and public outreach project whose onboard computers and research facilities are powered by solar panels. And it’s collaborating with state-based solar startups like Silicon Solar Solutions and MesoLight.

There’s getting energy from the sun, and then there’s getting that energy to people—which is where our third project comes in. It’s called VICTER, short for Vertically Integrated Center for Transformative Energy Research, and the goal here is to do the science that can help in modernizing the American energy grid. Particularly when it comes to solar, getting more energy into the grid will require building new storage technologies, since after all, the sun doesn’t always shine right when you need it to. Once again, the goal here is to do science that can pave the way for a transition into business development.

The sum of these projects is a $ 24 million, five year investment in innovation and, ultimately, in high quality jobs. Here’s betting that it will help create an entirely new “natural state” for Arkansas’s economy.

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September 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

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