STEM & GEMS: Insects and plants fascinate “bug nerd” Lauren Williamson

lauren photo in CBCEditor’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 Lauren Williamson, Entomologist in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science?
Williamson: Ever since I can remember! I was always catching bugs, playing with animals, and looking at flowers, plants, etc.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Williamson: I had a biology teacher in junior high that told me about entomology and told me that I should look into that field for a career since I had such an interest in insects.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Williamson: An insect collection, of course!

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Williamson: My title is “entomologist”, aka “bug nerd.” My job revolves around importing exotic butterflies to display in our Butterfly Center. Not only do I need to know a lot about insects, but I also need to know about government regulations, computer applications, and accounting. We also do a lot of outreach programs, so it’s a necessity to be comfortable presenting to large groups.

To get a degree in entomology you have to take extensive coursework in biology, chemistry, physiology, and math.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Williamson: I play with butterflies all day — need I say more? Not to say that my job doesn’t involve a lot of hard work, because it does, but the fun parts of my job make it all worth it!

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Williamson: I love to play with my animals (three dogs: Merle, Hank, and Molly; and a bird: Carlos), go on insect collecting trips, camping, crafts, going to museums and seeing movies with my husband.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Williamson:
Make sure you study, study, study! Ask a lot of questions and learn all of the material as much as possible. Every year adds more information to the knowledge base you already have, so it only gets harder.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Williamson: This is a great way to experience some of the wonderful career paths you can take with a firm knowledge of science, engineering, technology, and math. These subjects are the foundation of our everyday lives, whether you realize it or not! There will always be a demand for employees in these ever-growing and changing fields so it is important to get in an interest in them as soon as possible.

5982919326_88ea6a4c33_z (1)

 

Look, ma, no roots! Learn to grow your own orchids, bromeliads & other “air plants”

It’s that time of year again: the long cold of winter is lifting, and we can see spring around the corner. Here at HMNS we ring in spring with a BLOOM — with our horticulture adult education classes. Kicking off the season on Mar. 8, we’re offering a class on growing orchids and other epiphytes!

“Other epiphytes?” you may ask, wondering, “I just thought orchids were flowers.” While they are flowering plants, there’s so much more that makes them really incredible. You see orchids, and epiphytes in general, distinguish themselves from other plants in that they do not need to grow in soil. They actually prefer not to. They have amazingly adapted so that their roots can suck moisture directly out of the air. By attaching to a tree, high off the ground, they can also avoid getting gobbled up by most herbivores.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic, meaning that they do not steal any nutrients from the plant they grow on, creating their energy through photosynthesis (although some species like the strangler fig can eventually overtake their host). Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the South is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

If you have ever strolled through the Cockrell Butterfly Center you have surely seen our stunning epiphytes clinging on nearly every nook and cranny of the larger trees and struts in the center.

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class “How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other ‘Air Plants’” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sat., Mar. 8 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class in which attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid or bromeliad to start (or add to) their collection.

The Butterfly Center beat: Everything you ever wanted to know about raising Atlas moths

Image

The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is a large moth belonging to the Saturniidae family. Saturniids, familiarly called giant silk moths, include some of the largest species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Two local species that may be familiar to readers are the polyphemus and luna moths.

Atlas moths are considered the largest moths in the world in terms of total wing surface area. Their wingspans are also among the largest, often reaching over 10 inches. They are strikingly beautiful, with tawny wings punctuated with translucent “windows” bordered by black. Their most distinguishing feature (other than their size) is an extension of their forewings that resembles a snake’s head, thought to be a means of scaring off potential predators.

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

These spectacular moths make superb additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. During the day, they spend most of their time motionless, clinging to the side of a tree or other surface. Visitors can thus get up close to intimately study these creatures, and can clearly observe their fat, furry bodies, fuzzy antennae, and teddy bear like expressions.

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Once night falls, the male Atlas moths take flight in search of a female. The search has a sense of urgency, as adult Atlas moths typically live only about one week. This is because the adults do not have fully formed mouth parts and therefore cannot eat; they are sustained only by the fat reserves they built up as a caterpillar. The moths will quickly mate, lay eggs, and die soon after.

One day at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a male and female emerged from their cocoons around the same time. We took the opportunity to breed and raise this species of moth. The newly emerged male and female were placed in a flight cage in the greenhouses on the top level of the museum parking garage. They paired the very first night they were together. During mating, the moths remained coupled for several hours. Then, over the next three days, the female laid approximately 150 crimson eggs, placing them indiscriminately along the walls and edges of the flight cage.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the sides of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the side of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

Atlas moth larvae are generalists, meaning they will feed on a wide variety of host plants (but not all plants). Hoping to determine which of several possibilities would be the best food for our caterpillars, we searched the literature for recorded host plants.

We chose four that we had available, including Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora), Vitex (Vitex trifolia purpurea), Mahogany Tree (Swietenia mahoganii) and Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). Gathering the eggs, we divided them among four plastic containers lined with moist paper towels and ventilated with tiny holes poked in the lid, each containing a different kind of leaves.

The eggs took 10 days to hatch. The hatchling larvae were covered in pale protuberances and had black heads. After eating their eggshell, the tiny caterpillars began eating the provided foliage. Once the caterpillars were feeding reliably, they were moved to netted cages containing potted plants, so the leaves would be constantly fresh.

The caterpillars hatched on a Friday in September. To track their weekly growth and development, we took a photograph of them each Friday thereafter. It quickly became obvious that the caterpillars on Camphor were thriving: they grew bigger and faster than their siblings on the other plants (the pictures shown below are of larvae fed on Camphor). In each photograph, larvae were placed next to a standard sized Popsicle stick, fondly known as “Size Reference Ralph,” to track their relative growth.

The caterpillars took six weeks from hatching to pupation. They ate voraciously, becoming soft and fleshy to the touch, and were a pale blue-green color. Their backs were covered in a Mohawk of tubercles with a thick, waxy, flaky coating. After six weeks, the caterpillars were almost as long as Size Reference Ralph and were quite pudgy.

The sequential pictures show the dramatic changes in the larvae, followed by the start of silk spinning, and finally a complete cocoon. Once they finished their cocoons, the larvae pupated inside. We then gently moved the dried cocoons to the emergence chamber inside the entomology hall of the Butterfly Center.

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. ( Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. (Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Then we waited. Atlas moths may eclose from their cocoon in as little as three weeks, but can sometimes take several months. To escape from their silken enclosures, they must excrete a substance that dissolves a hole in the silk, allowing them to crawl out. They then cling to their cocoons while their wings expand and dry.

The first Atlas moth of our batch of cocoons emerged on Dec. 17, almost 3 months after hatching from the egg. It was a large female, with a wingspan of just over 10 inches. As you can see, Size Reference Ralph was dwarfed by her!

Our first Atlas Moth to emerge on Dec. 17th 2013. (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Our first Atlas moth to emerge on Dec. 17, 2013 (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson).

Know a girl who’s interested in math and science? Come to GEMS (Girls Exploring Math & Science) on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Museum will be filled with hands-on science and math for everyone to experience. Local professionals will be at the Museum to answer questions about their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. Click here for $7 admission to all permanent exhibit halls on Sat., Feb. 8.

 

 

STEM & GEMS, Part II: The science of raising butterflies is Celeste Poorte’s specialty

Celeste PoorteEditor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event on Feb. 8, we interviewed several women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. Last week, we interviewed Air Liquide’s Victoria Rockwell. This week we’re featuring Celeste Poorte, Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: As far back as I remember, I was always interested in the natural world. Once I got to high school, my interest in science really became solidified.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Poorte: 
Spending a lot time outside as a young child exposed me to interesting plant and animal life. In 9th grade I had a wonderful biology teacher that really inspired me to pursue biology.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Poorte: 
In 9th grade we did a project where we observed the micro-organisms found in a collection of pond of water and recorded our results and identified the species. That was my favorite because it was incredible to see how many living creatures there were in a tiny speck of water.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: 
I am the Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This relates to science because I use my knowledge of butterflies and their life cycles in order to raise them.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Poorte: 
The best part of my job is that I don’t have to spend my time at a computer all day. I get to spend a lot of time outside in the greenhouses working directly with the butterflies and caterpillars.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Poorte: 
In my spare time I like to spend time with friends, read books, and take my dog to the dog park.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Poorte: 
Go to college. Aim high. Pick a subject that you are passionate about for your major and stick with it. Get as much extra experience outside the classroom as you can, like internships. Meet and talk to as many people in your field of interest as you can while you are still in school. This will definitely help you find a job once you get your degree.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Poorte:
An event like GEMS is a great way to expose girls to jobs that they might not otherwise even know existed. It’s a great way to get the information out and for them to meet real-life women who actually have STEM careers. When I was in middle school, I attended a GEMS-like event and it was a great experience for me.