About Kelsey

Kelsey started working at the Museum through Xplorations summer camp, and this fall she started working as a programs facilitator. She is a presenter for several outreach programs, assists with overnight programs, and assists with education collections during summer camp. Her favorite dinosaur is a Triceratops found at HMNS Sugar Land. The Triceratops is also named "Kelsey."

STEM & GEMS: CB&I’s Katie Balko engineers her future

Editor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program, we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Katie Balko, Process Engineer at CB&I.HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Balko: Growing up, I switched what I wanted to be when I grew up almost every year. I wanted to be a teacher, then I read a book on dolphins and wanted to be a marine biologist. I liked to draw and decided I was going to be like my favorite author and write and illustrate my own books.

Math had always come easy for me. And after reading another book in high school, I decided I was going to be a physical therapist. All that changed when I took a chemistry class. I loved it. Even though I was already accepted to college for physical therapy, I decided to take a chance and on the last day of admissions, I applied to another college for chemical engineering and got in. I took my love of chemistry with the fact that I was good at math and found the right degree for me in engineering.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Balko: My chemistry teacher my senior year of high school really helped me realize that I liked chemistry. She worked with me on what would be tested in college and prepared me for what the classes would be like. It was hard, I studied every night, but it paid off in the long run.

HMNS: What was your favorite class when you were in school?
Balko: My favorite class (and lab) was Organic Chemistry. It is most people’s least favorite and I understand why. It’s tough. It was tough for me, too, but I also saw it as a puzzle with a specific set of rules. When I thought in terms of a puzzle, it made it easier. The lab was also cool because you were making things you see and hear about every day — like separating out caffeine.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Balko: Right now, I am process (chemical) engineer at CB&I, an engineering and construction company. I work for their gas processing group. I design plants that take all the “bad things” out of gas so it can be used cleanly.

I have also been switching over into a sales role over the past year. I think it’s important to keep growing in your career and I find this part of the business interesting. I also want to keep building on my degree as an engineer to do bigger and better things.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Balko: I joined on as a rotational engineer, so I got to experience a lot of different jobs in the company from chemical engineering to marketing. Through the different roles, I was able to network with a lot of people. I think the best part is having the opportunity to take a background in engineering and apply it to different roles.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Balko: Last year, I traveled a lot — both for work and for fun! This year looks to be about the same and I love it. I’m not a big movie or TV person but I love to read and to draw. I also like to stay active. I’ve been doing yoga consistently for five years, and last year I started doing CrossFit.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career? 
Balko: It’s worth it if it interests you. It will be hard, but the rewards are great. Use whatever resources you have. In college, I had a very good study group that helped push me through projects and exams. I utilized all of my teachers’ and TAs’ office hours and even had a tutor who helped get me through a hard math course.

Ask questions and don’t stop learning. Most people want to see you succeed but they won’t know you don’t understand something unless you ask them.

Volunteer. Volunteer to be the project lead in college. It might be scary and hard but you’ll figure it out and learn a lot in the process. Lead your team to help everyone succeed.         

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Balko: There are more men than women in STEM careers. Events like GEMS get girls exposed to successful women in math and science, which helps to bring awareness to their potential and knowledge about those careers.

More about Katie Balko:
Katie Balko grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. She has two younger sisters and a younger brother, and was a Girl Scout for nine years. In high school, she was on the swim, soccer and lacrosse teams. She went to Penn State University where she earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. After graduating, Balko decided to move out of state and found herself in Texas. She has now lived in Houston for six years.

HMC SWE Rosie tattoo

Click this image to go to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) website.

Home is where Hereford is: My trip to Magna Carta’s British stomping grounds

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to go to the United Kingdom and visit the home of the Magna Carta, which is currently on display at HMNS.

IMG_0461 - CopyLocated in the town of Hereford (which may sound familiar because of the Hereford breed of cattle that comes from the same area) this 1217 Magna Carta was discovered in the library of Hereford Cathedral. I was excited to see its chained library and another of Hereford Cathedral’s historical documents, the Mappa Mundi.

The Cathedral is quite large, so it was easy to spot as I entered the city. I had some free time to explore all the chapels and prayer rooms of the Cathedral before I met with the Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral, Reverend Chris Pullin. Luckily, he offered to take me on a tour of the Cathedral to see the Mappa Mundi, the chained library and the cloisters.

First stop, Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in existence. Created on calf skin, this map references large cities of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, from Jerusalem to Rome to the current home of the Mappa Mundi, Hereford. The map also depicts mythological creatures and biblical events. Although the Mappa Mundi only measures 5 feet 2 inches by 4 feet 4 inches, it contains most of the known world at the time, including Europe, Asia and Northern Africa — an impressive feat for the medieval cartographers. 

Just beyond the doors to the Mappa Mundi lies the chained library, which was the next stop on our tour. I was looking forward to seeing the real one after having seen the mock-up created for our exhibit at HMNS. The library was designed with chains to prevent people from walking away with the handwritten books, which were costly and time-consuming to make.

Although the chained library in Hereford looks like an exhibition, it is still a functional library. Visitors can look at illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century or even more recent additions to their collection.

IMG_0482 - CopyThe last stop on the tour was a visit to the college cloisters. Although these areas are not open to the general public, the education department at the Cathedral uses them for educational tours to show what life was like during Tudor England. Although many of these cloisters have been remodeled, there is a section that shows how the cloisters would have looked in the original wattle and daub. This method involved creating latticework out of reeds and sticks and covering the woven frame with mud. The result is a sturdy wall that was used to build homes like the cloisters in Hereford.

My trip to Hereford was short and sweet, and definitely worth the trek to see the official home of the Magna Carta of 1217 — not to mention the Mappa Mundi and chained library! 

Bummed that Hereford is so far away? Me too, friend. Luckily the Magna Carta is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. From stained glass to the chained library, we’ve captured the feeling of Hereford in H-Town. Don’t miss out!

For more information about the Magna Carta or to plan your visit to HMNS, click here.  

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There’s a hack for that: Science Hack Day comes to Houston

If you love science and you have a creative mind, you may the perfect hacker for us! On April 5-6, we are working with Brightwork CoResearch to host our first Science Hack Day.

What’s a hack day?

It’s an event where people come together and collaborate to create new and scientific ideas. It’s for coders, designers, scientists, makers and anyone who loves science. It’s like an organized think tank — and this year it’s happening at HMNS.

What kind of hacks happen? Check out these examples from past Science Hack Days from the Science Hack Day Website:

Syneseizure

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could feel sight? That’s what one team of science hackers sought to explore, creating a mask that simulated synesthesia, a condition where senses get mixed up (e.g. associating colors with numbers or seeing ripples in your vision resulting from loud sounds). The team wanted to simulate a synesthetic sensation by mashing up sight (via a webcam) with touch (via vibrating speakers).

Syneseizure is a fairly creepy looking hack: having only 24 hours to prototype it, the only mask sewing pattern the team could find was one for a gimp mask. Just going with it, they attached 12 vibrating speakers inside the mask and wired them up to an Arduino, then a webcam. The result is an all-encompassing head mask that vibrates on different areas of your face, corresponding with different visual information picked up by the webcam. This creates a sense of feeling if areas of a room are lighter or darker as you navigate around.

Galaxy Karaoke

What if you could turn an entire planetarium into a cosmic karaoke machine? That’s what a team of science hackers at the Adler Planetarium did over the course of a weekend. Previously, a bunch of awesome Galaxy Zoo forum members collected a complete set of real galaxy images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which just happened to look like letters of the alphabet.

The Galaxy Karaoke team resurrected some previously hacked-together code, which takes these images and pastes them together into arbitrary words and sentences. The team then used this to generate lyrics to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” put the images into a 3D model of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and choreographed a fly-past with the lyrics (spelled out using real galaxies!), in time with the song.

DNAquiri

What does DNA taste like? Aside from the fact that DNA is very small, the materials needed to extract it often aren’t edible. Or, if they are, they’re not as delightful as a cocktail. Despite the copious amount of food present at Science Hack Day, a band of biohackers were hungry for more. They sought to craft a recipe for extracting strawberry DNA that didn’t require indigestible ingredients and could also double as a cocktail. Using strawberry puree and some very strong alcohol, the biohackers were able to extract the strawberry DNA into polymer clumps you could see with the naked eye. The final cocktail was definitely something that could knock you on your feet — and it has paved the way for more delightful science-based delicacies.

Get involved!

We provide the space, the hackers provide ideas … and then the magic happens! The hackers have 24 hours to collaborate and create a project. At the end of the 24-hour period, they will present their projects to the general public and the best projects will receive awards!

There are lots of ways you can participate with our first ever Science Hack Day! You, too, can be a hacker, working to create new ideas and solutions. All you have to do is apply!

If you don’t have the time to participate in the event, you could always become a sponsor. Or if you just like watching science happen, visit the museum on April 5-6 to see those hackers at work!

And if you’d like to know more about what you’d be getting yourself into, click here for FAQs.

Let’s all be hackers!

‘Tis the season: Use your scientific smarts to wow ‘em during the holidays

As holiday and end-of-the-year parties are getting closer, it may be time to think of new topics to bring up when there’s a lull in conversation with coworkers, family, friends and new acquaintances. And what better way than bringing up some interesting science facts?

Here are some of the most interesting facts that I have learned while working at HMNS, and hopefully, some of these will catch your interest too.

Show off your excellent and expanding vocabulary.

sparkbirdHow about the word “spark bird”? A “spark bird” is any bird species that excites an interest in further bird watching.

How to use “spark bird” in a sentence: “The spark bird for Alexander Wilson, a legendary ornithologist in the 1700s, was the Red-headed Woodpecker.”

Offer some unconventional advice to those suffering from a winter cold.

Marshmallow can help ease sore throat pain. Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about the delectable variety of marshmallows you can buy in the grocery store. The marshmallow that we are referring to here is from the marshmallow plant, Althea officinalis. Historically, the sap from the marshmallow plant was used to treat sore throats in addition to coughs, colds and skin inflammation. Roots and leaves of the marshmallow plant can also be used to make teas. Yum! Marshmallow tea!

Settle some debates.

“Are they bison or buffalo?!” Great question!

If you are looking at the animal in North America, then the likelihood is that you are looking at a bison. The American bison (Bison bison) lives only in North America and is known for its large wooly head. Buffalo and bison are closely related, but buffalo are only indigenous to Asia and parts of Africa.

So if you’ve ever eaten a burger made of buffalo meat, the chances are that you ate bison instead. Or they imported some buffalo meat from another hemisphere, which would be a very fancy burger.

bisonorbuffaloOr just go for shock value.

Blue jays aren’t really blue.

This might sound a little farfetched, but hear me out. Feather colors can be determined by pigment or structure. When color is determined by structure, the feather itself can be a different color than what we perceive.

The blue jay is a perfect example. The structure of the feather includes air pockets that allow yellow and red wavelengths to travel through, but reflect blue wavelengths back. Thus, we perceive blue jays to be blue. If you were to take a blue jay feather and backlight it, then you would see the brown pigments showing through instead — because the light is not reflecting the blue wavelengths anymore.

I hope you enjoyed these interesting facts. Feel free to use them throughout the holiday season!