Summer Under the Stars by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I usually don’t like to repeat myself in anything I do, but this summer I did. If you were reading my blog a year ago you might remember that last year I enrolled in a three-week course on biotechnology at the University of Chicago and this summer I did it again, only I took a course called Physics of the Stars. Taking this class was a bit of a risk because I had never taken a physics course before, but I dove right in.

The course was amazing, far better than last year! It was very nice being back in the same place. I knew my way around well and could show my friends nice places to eat and such in that part of Chicago, but the class trumped all of that. Everyday was something new and wonderful. We would have “lectures” in the morning – which really were discussions about certain ways astrophysicists understand and measure qualities of stars – and labs in the afternoon where we would learn how to measure the distance to, or luminosity of stars. Many of the labs contained far less “physics” than I had expected and mainly consisted of many algebraic or geometric calculations. All the work we had was a perfect blend of challenging problems and new information, which made the material immensely interesting.

We continued this routine for two and a half weeks, and then we spent three days at Yerkes Observatory for the grand finale! 

It’s a wonderful old observatory- like Hogwarts for astronomy – with three telescopes: a 41 inch remotely operated telescope, a 24 inch manually operated telescope, and a 40 inch telescope that’s the largest refracting telescope in the world! One of the best parts of our time at Yerkes was when we actually got to operate the 40 inch. This was a rare occurrence, according to our teachers, for in their ten plus years of teaching they had never actually used the 40 inch. If I wasn’t so interested in biomimicry I would love to be an astronomer! 

 At the end of three weeks, we all handed in the projects we’d chosen to work on for the first two weeks. My project – in summary – consisted of making color images of galaxies and then using both the images and spectra* of the galaxies to discover what types of stars were in the galaxies. My professors were very impressed; Mr. De Coster said that people had made color images before, but never to analyze galaxies. Two people who worked at the observatory even wanted to see my work!

All in all, my three weeks in Chicago was wonderful, and if I get the chance next year I will definitely go again! 

* Spectra is a plot of the amount of light that an object gives off as a function of wavelength of light. Most cosmic objects have spectra, and by measuring the wavelengths of light from an object astronomers can learn the composition of that object.

** The image above was made by me as part of my project of the course! 

Are there geniuses beyond us? by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I found this piece on the intelligence of crows amazing! I know this video is a bit long but it is completely worth it, watch the first 10 minutes and I assure you that you won't be able to stop!

I find animal intelligence and ingenuity to be extremely fascinating. I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who were licensed by the State of Vermont to rehabilitated wildlife - everything from abandoned litters of foxes and porcupines, to numerous orphaned baby moose.  My summers as a child were spent feeding fawns, exercising Great Black Backed Seagulls with broken wings, and trying to keep baby raccoons from ingeniously figuring out how to unlock their cages.

My family's experiences with wild animals taught me all that animals each have their own unique personality, and they are conscious of our "energy" (for lack of a better word) and intentions. I am certain that by putting ourselves - homo sapiens- at the top of the "Intelligence" pyramid, we are putting ourselves behind the door to insight. 

Via: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/PHOTO/LARGE/american_crow_8.jpg

This piece really blew me away. I mean, they remember faces, communicate and learn form others mistakes, solve complex problems and make tools!! 

Via: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~kgroup/tools/photos/twig_tools.jpg

Via: http://www.delhidailynews.com/news_image/1451145534New-Caledonian-Crow.jpg

(The tool thing makes me giddy)

I don’t really know if there are any biomimicry angles on this, but it’s still amazing. The more we learn about animal intelligence the more humans realize that we’re not “special”. We’re not the only animals who are intelligent, or who make tools. Everyday we’re discovering new cognitive neighbors and we must embrace it with grace and wonder. They’re a lot like us after all. 

Via: http://media.tumblr.com/fd8e87c3d5fe161c5be11eff88f57282/tumblr_inline_mimxsqiU0w1qz4rgp.gif

* * * If you want to learn a bit more here are some links about Crow cognition and language:

BIOMIMICRY: Bearded Vultures by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Via: http://www.birdinginspain.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/lammerclosechrisschenk.jpg

A few days ago I was wandering around the BBC's Nature website looking for a good documentary to fill my spare time, when I stumbled upon this amazing creature! It’s a Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, one of the rarest raptors in Europe, though it is refreshingly classified as “of least concern” in terms of conservation status.  This does not mean that the population is booming, but the habitat range for Bearded Vultures is large and varied so there is a small chance that their habitat will be threatened.

They have a wingspan of nearly ten feet and are one of the largest flying birds in world. The name Lammergeier derives from the German word Lämmergeier, meaning lamb-vulture, stemming from a mistaken belief that it attacks lambs. But wipe that unappealing mental image from your mind: It is a true scavenger, which places it among the most important group of animals to our world. This guy is on "the clean-up team". Vultures have an important role in the recycling of organic waste. They prevent potential spread of diseases that flourish in rotting carcasses. Because of their unique diet consisting of bones they consume the really last parts of carcasses that would not been eaten by other scavengers.

Though these creatures are immensely beautiful, I'm more interested in their diet and clever problem-solving evolution. Bearded vultures feed on the carcasses of dead animals, but interestingly, 80% of the adults’ diet consists of bones rather than meat. This is unique among vertebrates and allows them to avoid competition with other vultures and eagles.

And here's the amazing adaptation that is an example to us all when it comes to thinking outside the box and making the most out of a "happy accident": Long ago, some Lammergeir ancestor found itself flying along while fumbling a bone from a long extinct species. The bone dropped to earth from a great height and was smashed open on impact, revealing the nutritious internal bone marrow. That clever technique became a unique angle for accessing a steady food supply and the birds that used it were the ones to pass on their genes (and behaviors) most successfully.

Via: http://www.reed.edu/biology/courses/BIO342/2012_syllabus/2012_WEBSITES/IvyH.BeardedVultures.2012/images/gypaete-barbu3.jpg

Via: http://www.reed.edu/biology/courses/BIO342/2012_syllabus/2012_WEBSITES/IvyH.BeardedVultures.2012/images/gypaete-barbu3.jpg

Modern day Lammergeirs have evolved in specialized ways to make the most of this practice. Its strong, large claws the bird is able to fly with huge bones and let them fall on stones from heights of 50 to 80 meters until they break and the marrow is exposed. The stomach of Bearded vultures contains a specialized high acid content that enables them to consume and digest bones weighing up to 4 kilos (9 lbs.) in less than 14 hours. And if all that was not amazing enough, these vultures have developed special bone-breaking sites or ossuaries which generations of birds use, above which they drop the bones.

            It is the stomach acid that interest me here, because it's so powerful. If we think about this animal through the lenses of Biomimicry  (my special interest since I was the age of 13) then this acid has a couple potential uses:        

Such a powerful acid could be used to dissolve and dispose of waste. The gases produced could be used much like a bio digester to create power. I don’t know how feasible this Idea is but it is an interesting one.  Of course this waste would be organic and this process would be an extension of composting.

These animals are truly striking to me and I will add them to my catalogue of interesting animals to mimic in the future!

Science as Art by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Via: Me

A few weeks ago, I was commissioned to make a sculpture for a fundraiser to benefit our local chamber of commerce. The piece turned our great, and brought in 1,000 dollars for the charity in a live auction. I however did not fair so well, I slipped on some ice and nearly sliced off my leg while carrying the sculpture out of my shop. At first I thought I would make a wine holder of some kind, or maybe a coffee table, but eventually - after digging through the junk yard that used to be my back yard – I settled on making a sun that could be hung on a house gable.

After completion, I began contemplating what I had just built. The sun is a pretty amazing bit of cosmic conjurey, one might say stellar! So, following my usual and constant quest for knowledge, I did some research on the sun…

Via: http://starfieldobservatory.com/images/Sirius-1.jpg

Via: http://starfieldobservatory.com/images/Sirius-1.jpg

The sun, of course, is a star just like Betelgeuse, or Sirius, or the North Star, and is one of more than 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. It orbits some 25,000 light years from the galactic core, completing a revolution once every 250 million years. The sun, compared to other bodies in the galaxy, is relatively young, part of a generation of stars known as Population I, which are relatively rich in heavy elements. An older generation of stars is called Population II, and an earlier generation of Population III may have existed, although no members of this generation are known yet. (I think this is REALLY cool by the way)

Via: http://annesastronomynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/NGC-3603-an-open-star-cluster-and-starburst-region1.jpg

Via: http://annesastronomynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/NGC-3603-an-open-star-cluster-and-starburst-region1.jpg

The sun was born roughly 4.6 billion years ago, and it is the accepted theory that the sun and the rest of the solar system formed from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula, which look a bit like tadpoles. As the nebula collapsed because of its gravity, it spun faster and flattened into a disk. Most of the material was pulled toward the center to form the sun. The sun has enough nuclear fuel to stay much as it is now for another 5 billion years. After that, it will swell to become a red giant. Eventually, it will shed its outer layers, and the remaining core will collapse to become a white dwarf. Slowly, this will fade, to enter its final phase as a dim, cool object sometimes known as a black dwarf.

Via: http://i.space.com/images/i/000/004/812/original/091124-magnetic-field-02.jpg?1292269611

Via: http://i.space.com/images/i/000/004/812/original/091124-magnetic-field-02.jpg?1292269611

Like the earth, the sun also has a magnetic field. Oddly, it’s only about twice the strength of earth’s. However, it can become highly concentrated in small areas, sometimes becoming 3,000 times stronger than usual. These twists in the magnetic field form because the sun spins more rapidly at the equator than at the higher latitudes and because the inner parts of the sun rotate more quickly than the surface. These distortions create features ranging from sunspots to solar flares, which can be extremely dangerous to naked planets, which are planets without magnetic fields. 

Via: http://ds9.ssl.berkeley.edu/LWS_GEMS/2/images_2/sun9501.jpg

Via: http://ds9.ssl.berkeley.edu/LWS_GEMS/2/images_2/sun9501.jpg

Just like other stars, the sun is made up of hydrogen, and helium. Other elements like oxygen, carbon, neon, nitrogen, magnesium, iron and silicon make up only a small part of the sun’s mass. In fact, for every 1 million atoms of hydrogen, there are 98,000 of helium, 850 of oxygen, 360 of carbon, 120 of neon, 110 of nitrogen, 40 of magnesium, 35 of iron, and 35 of silicon. (I wonder if the ratios are the same for larger stars?)

The sun has also had a major impact on human development on earth, aside from the obvious: providing light and warmth. Ancient cultures often modified natural rock formations or built stone monuments to mark the motions of the sun and moon, charting the seasons, creating calendars and monitoring eclipses. Many believed the sun revolved around the Earth, with ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy formalizing this "geocentric" model in 150 BC. Then, in 1543, Copernicus described a heliocentric, sun-centered model of the solar system, and in 1610, Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons revealed that not all heavenly bodies circled the Earth. These advances in our knowledge about space continued. We later realized that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but that the sun was, and eventually we reached space ourselves. To me this is one of humanities greatest accomplishments and privileges. Now that we have the power to explore beyond the constraints of our atmosphere, we must not let our greed and hubris get in the way of the pure wonder and amazement that is our cosmic 

Via: http://www.maniacworld.com/holding-the-sun.jpg

My Marvelous Mind Maps by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

As you may already know from reading this blog, I often engage in many extracurricular scientific projects. One of the methods I pursue during a project are mind maps. They are a form of organizational tool I have stumbled upon which blends the best of ol‘ school pen and paper, with cutting edge information technology. It is understandable to everyone, and can demonstrate depth of inquiry, proficiency, and perseverance. And best of all, it fits the “Student Directed Learning” concept that is becoming such a buzz-word in educational philosophy.

With this particular project, I am working on a grand set of mind maps that all address different aspects of the universe. In the center of the four I have left a large space in which I will fill with an illustration of the big bang, so that it appears as if the four mind maps are radiating outward from the center.  

The first map is “How Big is Big?” In this mind map I explored the sized of the universe. I researched, distances between planets, measurements of time in the universe, rotation times for the galaxy, and distances to distant stars.  All in all it amounted to a pretty fulfilling afternoon, but this is only a quarter of my grand plan.

The second mind map is “How Old is Old?” In this map I explored the age and time scale of the universe. I researched the life, cycle of stars, how the solar system was forms, how the earth was formed, the process of nuclear fusion within stars and the formation and types of galaxies in the universe. This mind map took longer than “How Big is Big”, but it was equally fun because I got the chance to draw so many pictures (I’m still an artist remember).

These two mind maps are the only ones I’ve finished out of the four. But currently I’m working on “How New is New” which explores the history of life on earth. In the time span of the universe life is a pretty recent innovation as far as we tiny humans know.  

All in all I plan to use “mind mapping” as a natural off-shoot of the way my thought process. For as long as I can remember, when I dive into a subject, my natural inclination is to follow lines of inquiry in all directions. I might start with a simple science query and end up in philosophy, history, AND mathematics. The inspired process seems to have no brakes when I start careening around corners of thought, down dark alleys, and taking unmarked on-ramps. Most of the time, I simply have to stop when I run out of paper! As an aside,.. I tend to be very good at “Simultaneous Processing“ which is a clinical term for solving problems fluidly, regardless of the number or sequence of the parts to be considered. This was discovered quite by accident when I was in the first grade. You may have read on this website that I was born weighing only one pound and spent 4 months hanging on to life in the NICU. When I was six, my doctor was worried about my having learning deficits, so he recommended that my parents have my IQ tested in order get appropriate early tutoring. As it turned out, the tests discovered that I was fine and to everyone‘s amazement, they discovered that I had some unusual gifts (a IQ score of 144) in the area of Simultaneous Processing and other unusually high scores on the Kaufman Assessment. I am definitely NOT any better at “processing” the complexities of being a teenager like keeping my room picked up, and remembering to help with the dishes, but I do know that there’s something there that makes me love the process of learning, especially when it gets complicated.

My Coat of Arm and Self-Portrait by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I made these two pieces as part of a project for my U.S. history class. The basis of the project was for students to explain their personal political ideologies and to create a unique way of presenting who they saw themselves to be inside.

 I, with my usual vigor and artistic flare, decided to create this collage and coat of arms. The coat of arms took me a while to finish, only because it took so long to decide what I wanted to represent about my self and what the symbols should be. Eventually, after at least an hour of drawing and redrawing symbols I settled on four: a Sun, a light bulb, mountains, and a question mark. I got the idea of doing a coat of arm from both my families own crest and my innate love of Harry Potter – I’m in Ravenclaw house by the way- and I wanted to create something similar to a house crest. 

Now to explaining what the heck everything represents…

The Sun:

The first symbol, the sun, represents my Persistence and comprehensiveness. Just as the sun’s light is unyielding and constant so is my pursuit for the answers to question and solutions to problems.

The Light bulb:

The light bulb represents my artistic creativity, along with my many odd and spectacular ideas for machines and devices.  I am an avid artist and am constantly doodling, sketching, and welding to release tension and relax from the stress of everyday life. 

Mountains/River:

The mountains represent my longing for travel, new spaces, and experiences. My love of travel is deep and I never am happiest then when I stand on the top of some mountain ten thousand miles away or am running along a foreign beach. Exploration and the discovery of new places fills me with immense joy.

Question Mark:

The Question Mark represents my curiosity and insatiable quest for answers. I am constantly asking “Why?” “What?” and “How?” whenever I run into something I am unfamiliar with.

The Crowning Bird:

This bird represents ambition to “fly” or to succeed and to learn as much as I possibly can about the world, its cultures, and environments. It also reminds me of my Hogwarts house, Ravenclaw, whose motto is "Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure."

While the crest was relatively quick to make the collage did, well, not. First of all it took me a while to figure out what I was going to do for this part of the project in the first place. After I had chosen to do a collage I dove in.

Every Thursday I work with my school’s art teacher and family friend to do extra art after school in her art studio. I have found this space and time to be extremely relaxing and fun. There are a few other kids in the group, we joke about each others art and talk about school, its one of my favorite days of the week. Anyway, back to the collage, once I had chosen to do a collage I used this after school time to start on the collage.

I got my friend Noah to take an interesting picture of me and then preceded to cutout bits of magazine pages to get the colors needed to make the collage, which was tedious. After I had a sizable pile of paper bits I took an old chalkboard that some one has accidentally painted on and set to work. First I drew a sketch of the picture of myself to act as a blue print for where the colored bits of paper would go, next I used mogepauge to layer the right colors on the sketch of my head and body. After I had the body finished I cut out words and phrased that resonated with me and used them to out line my body.

This collage is very representative of who I am, and who I have become through this project. My body and head is made up of many bits and pieces of images, which represent all the moment, memories and feeling that make up who I am inside; colorful and complex. The words on the outside, which out line my body, are representative of all of the external events that shape me and all of the things I value and like; exploration, peace, hard work. 



BIOMIMICRY - A World of Ideas Just Waiting to Be Tapped by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

The photo below is of my latest creation: “Cadis fly” -  a sculpture that was born when I found the two beautiful curling pieces of metal from an old hay rake in a cow pasture. I loved their arc and symmetry, and wanted to make something worthy of their unique perfection.

Via: Me

In case you’ve never heard of a Cadis fly, it is a wonder of nature. They are small moth-like insects with two pairs of wings. One of the most interesting characteristics of the cadis fly is the ornate and highly intricate protective cases they build as larvae.

Via: http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6123/5979621400_2ec7cede84_b.jpg

The insects mid-life stage is a worm (larval form) that lives in streams and ponds and creates it’s own shelter/camouflage by sticking together tiny stones and flotsam from the bottom. They create something that looks like a little armored cocoon, with an opening at one end for their head and legs to poke out of when danger is not around. I loved making this homage to a little known natural wonder.

Different species of cadis fly use different materials for their protective cases making the variety quite diverse. Some artists have even cultivated their own caddis flies and provided them with building materials like gold and pearls to create ornate protective cases that are preserved for their artistic merit after the cadis fly has undergone metamorphosis. 

Via: http://cdn.zmescience.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/caddisfly3.jpg

This insect needs to be studied for the remarkable substance that binds its protective armor together while in the larva stage. The adult stage of this remarkable bug is essential to the life and health of most streams that run swift and clear, and contain rainbow trout. 

Via: https://thefeatherbender.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/e6d0112_2.jpg

Via: https://thefeatherbender.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/e6d0112_2.jpg

I will keep this creature’s genius on my “to do” list, for when I eventually study the remarkable new science of Biomimicry someday

Toil and Talent Turkey by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Fairfield Vermont ~est. 1763~ The picture of HOPE, GRIT AND SKILL

"HOPE:  When the world says, “Give up”, ... Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” 

I recently donated a very large sculpture to the village I come from in Vermont – Fairfield – to celebrate their 250th anniversary. As a part of the sculpture, I made this turkey from dozens and dozens of old tools. I call it my “TOIL AND TALENT TURKEY.”  The larger sculpture was designed to pay homage to three key elements in the town of Fairfield’s history: Our picturesque and expert Dairy farming legacy, our world-class Sugaring industry, and my “Toil and Talent Turkey” honors the range of other critically important,  back-breaking and skilled work that has gone on to build our wonderful community. I have to thank my mother (Dr. Lynda Ulrich, who is also a metal sculptor) for being a great mentor and a “Wandering Junk Yard Scavenger” for the last 20 years, as most of those bits and pieces in the turkey came from her precious collection of old tools and special scrap metal finds.

Now, if I may, I’d like to tell you a little about the history of Fairfield, that I learned while researching for this sculpture:

Firstly, you might be interested to learn that  Fairfield got its name because most of the original grantees were from Fairfield, Connecticut. The original grant for the town of Fairfield was obtained by a man named Samuel Hungerford in 1763, but the first settler – Joseph Wheeler – did not clear land for another 24 years, which was no small task; the rocky hills and valleys were dense with enormous old growth maple trees.

The original settlers were few and the migration to our area really did not start until 1820’s when land elsewhere in New England was well out of the financial reach of many New Englanders.  In the 1840 and 1850’s, the potato famine in Ireland brought many more immigrants directly to Fairfield and was when many of the well-known Irish families of today were established on the local farms.

GRIT: Unyielding Courage in the face of hardship, danger, or grueling work.

Fairfield is the largest town in Franklin County Vermont by area – with 38,000 acres. It was originally comprised of several villages and neighborhood: East Fairfield, St. Rocks, Pumpkin Village, North Fairfield, Shenang, Egypt, Lapland, Lost Nation, and Across the Swamp, Fairfield Station, and Fanton Station. 

 All these little hamlets had their own tiny schoolhouses, (the old school house beside our current elementary school was once the town hall and our school.  It cost the tax payers a whopping $1,056 in 1809.

Dairy cows were not always a part of our landscape.  Fairfield was initially cleared of much of its original forests to make room for 6,600 sheep that roamed the hills in the mid-1800’s. Cattle were used only for POWER!... They were the forerunner to the horse because they were easier to come by, required less food and a simple wooden yoke was all it took to harness them. The early Fairfield cows gave little milk because breeding of cows specifically for quality and quantity of milk had barely begun in the 1800’s.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1950 that Fairfield was one of the pilot areas to use artificial breeding to improve the dairy cattle. Also, the demand for milk was very small in the 1800’s. I read somewhere that people really didn’t drink milk back then like we do, and anyway, the early settlers preferred more “Spirited Drink!” In general, the “family farms” were only able to grow from 20-40 cows, to 80-100 cows in the 1950’s and 60’s when refrigeration, transportation and some automation became possible.

It’s important to realize that our forefathers in agriculture had to be largely and almost entirely self-sufficient. Electricity was only brought to Fairfield in the 1920’s. They had to produce their own heat, food, clothes, and daily fetch water for themselves and their animals. For every animal they kept, they had to grow, harvest and store a winter’s worth of food. I discovered an old saying that I’m sure rang true “Half your wood and half your hay, you should still have on 'Candlemas Day.'”  (A Catholic holiday on Feb. 2nd)  In the horse and buggy days, most farmers only had spring freshening dairies because storage and transportation of large quantities of milk was impossible.  In fact, the dairy industry was probably limited by the shear enormity of the tasks involved in milk production.  This made for light milking chores in the winter, and that time was used for getting up the woodpile for heating the home and fueling the making of maple products.

SKILL: Uniquely expert knowledge, ethics, and mastery of an essential talent.

The early maple product industry was mostly centered around local consumption. Maple syrup was boiled all the way down to hard sugar and stored in wooden tubs, and this was often the settlers’ main source of sweets. Sugaring, (like dairy) - as an industry - could only develop gradually as transportation and storage methods evolved. Its had its ups and downs.  At some points, production and demand fell so out of balance that the best price the farmers could get was 8 cents per gallon.  The industry suffered during and after WWII because of the shear lack of man power.  Eventually, with the advent of the ingenious large evaporator technology – largely pioneered by George Soule – the industry flourished and began to move where it is today – a shining corner stone of our community. The sugar industry became the prime factor in Franklin County’s good forestry practices LONG before the Forest Service even existed, because farmers knew the forestry practices that served both their short term needs for lumber and firewood and the long term health of their Maple Orchards.  We continue now that long tradition of good stewardship and resourcefulness.

There is SO MUCH more I wish I could tell you, but rest assured: there are still some ol’timers around who would be glad to bend your ear to share the history.  I hope I run into every one of them over the course of the next few years.

A Moose-ful Moment After School by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I live in the farthest reaches of Northern Vermont, 5 miles from the Canadian border, in the middle of a very densely wooded, dairy and maple sugar producing county. Moose are something we can expect to unexpectedly stumble upon.  The photo on the right is of a female moose that was right beside the road on our way home from school last week.

The photo on the left is me at 4 years old, standing with an orphaned moose that our family was raising for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

My parents are wild. They have so many interests and expertise!.. They have done so many cool, crazy things! Growing up, we thought everyone’s parents mixed gallons of powdered milk daily to feed six hungry fawns. And didn’t everyone’s parents build their own post and beam barns, and know how to drive bulldozers to build their own ponds?  Didn’t everyone have baby moose on the deck in the morning at breakfast.

For 15 years, my parents were the only people in Vermont licensed to raise and release orphaned large animals. Growing up, we always had a big enclosure of at least a half dozen orphaned fawns that mom and dad were slowly weaning throughout the summer, getting them ready to release in the fall. We raised all sorts of orphaned or injured foxes, skunks, porcupines, giant black-backed seagulls, raccoons, squirrels, and most interestingly, moose. 

Large parts of Vermont are classic moose habitat: swampy wetlands interspersed with boreal forest species (pines, spruce and larch trees),  so calves are found orphaned from time to time beside their mothers who have been hit by a car. My mother’s friendship with several game wardens created an effort to save these babies, when previously they would have been euthanized. My mother has an animal “green thumb,” so as her success with various animals became well-known, the size of her charges increased.  Over the years, my parents raised 4 moose calves until they could find them good homes in zoos or native wildlife parks.

Moose cannot be raise by humans and released like white tailed deer can. White tails retain a healthy fear of humans as long as the rehabber keeps contact to a minimum. My parents had quite an elaborate system for feeding, but not having contact with the fawns. And this is in line with the natural behavior of deer.  White tails do not spend every waking minute with their fawns.  So we did not have to worry about the baby’s sense of abandonment. Additionally, we had a 3-legged doe – named Tripod - that lived permanently with us, and she acted as a surrogate mother to the fawns that came and went.

When my parents started taking the baby moose for the Fish and Wildlife Department, my mother quickly tracked down some of the world’s authorities on moose and learned a lot that informed the methods they used to keep the babies thriving. The most important thing they found was that it was best to prepare the moose calves for a lifetime in captivity because once imprinted on people, they could never be released.

They developed a network of zoos they worked with to find homes for the orphans over the years.  Making the calves ready for captivity meant becoming their surrogate mothers and having them with us as much as logistically possible.  At our house, there was often a moose in the garden while we weeded, a moose along the path with us when we hiked our woods, and even a moose on our deck at breakfast.

But moose have an entirely different natural history. The calves stay by their mother’s side 24/7 for two years. It would have been inhumane to leave the baby moose that we raised all by themselves all day every day like we did with the fawns. Consequently, they imprint on their care-giver quite easily. For that reason, my parents developed a network of zoos and North American Wildlife parks that were eager to take the moose calves that came our way.  Our first baby moose – Clifford – wound up at the Milwaukie Zoo, and eventually became the longest lived moose in captivity – 12 years – due to the wonderful work on moose nutrition that this zoo invested in.

In the Algonquin Indian language, the word “moose” means “twig eater”. They do not graze on grass, but rather browse brush, leaves, bark, aquatic plants, sedges, rushes and twigs. They like to wade in water (hence their long legs) but will dive to depths of up to 15 feet to reach favorite plants.

The Milwaukie Zoo was the first to discover that moose need a seasonal change in their diet to live long healthy lives. Just as the fall and winter bring more bark and twig type material into their diet, the zoo realized that if they partnered with the local railroad that worked year-round to keep the tracks cleared, they would have a constant rotation of naturally changing vegetation.  Almost immediately after they made their new moose pellets out of the right seasonal material, moose went from living in captivity for 4 years to our Clifford living to the ripe old age of 13.

Back to our MOOSIFUL ride home from town today… All this back-story made sitting beside the road watching our roadside a bit of a familiar pleasure.

 

Me Age Three!

I Took a Summer Course At... by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I am SO EXCITED about having taken a summer course on Biotechnology at The University of Chicago. What a thrilling experience!

The setting, the course content, the teachers, the other students: All were beyond my wildest expectations. This was not an open summer course. They took applications and only admitted qualified students. I knew the application process was a big deal but I had no idea that it was going to be so rigorous, and that I would be one of only two kids who were as young as just having finished the freshman year. And I am SO thankful that I had built this website and populated it with all the work I was doing in my Independent Study,  because that was the only way they had to evaluate my readiness. My high school transcript was so short and I had not taken any standardized tests. Thank you also to my teachers – Ms. Kane and Mr. Fugere – who must have written me some awesome letters of recommendation.

So the Biotechnology course was organized in a super-intensive way to get an entire semester’s coursework into three weeks. We had lectures the entirety of every morning and then labs every afternoon. As major projects, we had three essays due on three different subject areas of Biotechnology, a huge research paper, a verbal presentation and a big final exam.

In the end, I was thrilled to learn that I pulled and A-  in the course!.. I never dreamed I was capable of that but the subject fits so perfect with my interests and aptitudes that it seems to come naturally.

Thanks again to the friendship of my peers and the skill of the instructors. What a great experience. I will definitely keep the University of Chicago on my A-list when it comes time to do my own applications a few years from now.

I spoke at a bill signing! by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

This week was quite a whirl wind. On Monday morning I was contacted by our principal and asked if I would speak to the Governor and assembled dignitaries at the bill signing ceremony to be held at my high school on Wednesday.  Among other things, the bill included a long-awaited education reform that made it mandatory that all high schools in Vermont allow students to make a “Personalized Learning Plan” (like mine!). In fact, the bill mandates that schools create one for every student, but at this time, I suspect that everyone understands we do not have the manpower or institutional framework to do that.

The reason I was asked to speak is complex. My understanding is that Governor Shumlin selected BFA (my high school) for the signing because our former Superintendent of Schools had pioneered a project called “Academy 21” that made personalized learning plans a key element of the curriculum. But by the time of the signing ceremony, the Superintendent had been fired for unprofessional conduct and the Academy 21 program was not flourishing. 

Our principal at that time – Denis Hill – was there at the inception of my idea for my own Personal Learning Plan, long before that term was fashionable. So I suspect that when the governor’s staff learned that they shouldn’t tout the successes of Academy 21, then Mr. Hill suggest me!

What I have done with my Beyond the Xtra Mile Project is to create an education pathway that is like mixing up the colors on the standard palate. It is self-directed by the student, allowing them to follow trains of thought that interest them, but still meets the standards that needed to become a well-rounded person. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I created, and initiated a template for this kind of thing LONG before anyone else had sorted out the details, at least in Vermont.

 I find that my learning path has flexibility at the heart of its value to students and teachers alike. The ridged system of education that we have been using for 200 years is fast becoming obsolete.  My portfolio here on my website demonstrates that this path encourages me to make connections and explore subject areas that might never have made my radar screen for years, or maybe not at all . I have the freedom to ask the questions and the time and resources to answer them fully, opening an infinite number of new doors of knowledge as I go. Many times the knowledge organically builds on itself, and other times it seems I’ve left one area completely and then I stumble upon a detail that circles back to something from months earlier. It’s so inspiring.

In any case, today I said as much to Governor Shumlin and thanked he and his staff for making this leap forward in education. 

Thank you Denis Hill by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

The “Owl on Doorknob Nest” is a little sculpture that I made as a gift to our high school principal  - Dennis Hill – for allowing me go through high school on a personal learning path that I proposed to him before my freshman year. Mr. Hill is leaving our school and I wasn’t quite sure that anyone thanked him properly for his MANY years of service to the BFA school community. He had been a student at BFA himself, then for many years he was the vice-principal in charge of discipline. He was AMAZING at that job, with a legendary special knack for reaching kids who were difficult rascals. I thought that even though Mr. Hill was leaving BFA (as one of the many casualties from our community’s problem with the Superintendent of Schools, who was eventually fired ) SOMEONE had to thank him for his great, long body of work on our behalf.  

The neat thing about this sculpture is that it is made from the doorknobs of BFA. I got a huge box of the knobs that had been saved in the basement of the school after all of them had to be changed out to comply with new “Accessibility” lever-type handles.  I think the doorknobs as represent “possibility” – one door closes and another door opens – and the many doors that open to various kinds of knowledge and insight. And even more special is the thought that his very hands could have opened those doorknobs as a teenager way back when. Cool!… 

Thank you Mr. Hill. You changed the entire trajectory of my life, and I promise to improve the trajectory of many others!

The World Science Festival by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Last weekend, my mother, sister and I headed to New York City to the World Science Festival. What an astounding event! Every self-professed “science geek” ought to be able to attend this thing at least once in their young lives. The organization ran lecture/panel discussions on so many compelling subjects that we could barely pack it all in. For four days we went sun up to sun down listening to leading scientists speaking about cutting edge discoveries in seven main subject areas: 

  1. Climate Change – How whales are unlocking some of the Arctic secrets
  2. Nano Medicine
  3. The current status of AIDS research
  4. Mapping the Brain
  5. The possibility of a Multiverse
  6. The nature of Consciousness
  7. DNA and our destiny

 

And capped it all off with a Sunday Science Street Fair where I added an idea from my 5th grade journal to a crowd sourcing collaboration on climate change. 

nd one afternoon we got lost in warren of art galleries in lower Manhattan.



The Dock Spider by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

During one of our annual trips to my family’s farm in Illinois, I was taking the trash out and saw this amazing and rather alarming spider on our deck railing. I rushed in and grabbed a camera and took a few pictures. It was then that I noticed the massive egg sack hanging under the spider’s abdomen!  I put a quarter in the picture to demonstrate how large the hairy lady was.  After I went inside a little shaken, and enjoyed the fried fish my uncle was making.

I didn’t get back to researching this amazing spider until some time later when we were back in Vermont – and had access to wifi - and this is what I found …

After some research, which largely consisted of comparing my photo to dozens of similar ones on Google images, I found a match. I discovered that I had taken a picture of a Fishing spider or Dock spider (Pisauridae Dolomedes). Almost all Dolomedes spiders are semi-aquatic, and hunt by waiting at the edge of a pool or stream. When the spiders detect the ripples from prey on the water, they run across the surface and catch pray with their foremost legs, which are tipped with   small claws. Fishing spiders mainly eat insects, but some larger spiders can catch small fish and swim!

You read that right!.. I did say “They run across the water!”…. because Dolomedes spiders are covered with short, velvety hairs which are hydrophobic. (water resistant)  This allows them to use surface tension to stand or run on the water, like pond skaters. They can also climb beneath the water, trapping air within their body hairs forming a thin film over their whole body which amounts to an air bubble. Dolomedes breathe with lungs beneath their abdomens, which breathe from the air bubble while submerged. The trapped air makes the spiders float so if they don’t hold onto something they will float up and pop onto the surface, completely dry.

The fishing spider has a total of eight eyes. When viewed from the front, they have two horizontal rows of four, which they use to hunt in the dark of night, since they are nocturnal. They also have quite long thickset legs, which tend to be more robust than other spiders because these are the legs that allow them to easily tackle large prey.

 he Dolomedes sense of touch is more important than their many eyes when it comes to detecting prey. They extend their legs onto the surface, feeling for vibrations given off by prey such as mayflies, other aquatic insects, and even small fish. For fishing spiders, the water surface serves just like a web does for other spiders.  When hunting the fishing spider holds onto the shore with their back legs and stretches their body across the water. Their front legs feel for vibrations on the water and are abled to distinguish the erratic vibrations of a struggling insect from the one-off vibrations caused by falling leaves. Along with identifying the source of the vibrations, the spiders are also able to discern the distance to and direction. As soon as the spider knows there is an insect within range they run across the water and grab the insect before it flies to safety. Some fishing spiders use silk draglines to prevent themselves from speeding past the prey.

Fishing spiders are nocturnal hunters, feeding when their main predators (birds and snakes) are sleeping, so that explains why we hadn’t seen one before.  There are some species of insect that act as parasites to the fishing spider, such as wasps who sting the spider to paralyze it before carrying it off and laying an egg in its abdomen. The larvae of the wasp hatch and proceed to eat the spider from the inside out. One technique the spiders use to avoid this terrible fate is to disappear beneath the surface of the water.

Dock spiders exhibit the typical arachnid characteristic of sexual dimorphism that means that the females are much larger than the male. It isn’t uncommon for the female to eat the male after mating, and in some cases, the male brings along a sacrificial fly as a gift to take the edge off her hunger. Unfortunately for the male the presentation of gifts doesn’t always save him from the potentially nasty fate that awaits him as the female may eat him anyway to provide nourishment for her brood. These lady spiders certainly give credence to the expression, “large and in charge”!

This powerful hunting spider that does not spin web for catching prey, however females do spin an egg sac to lay their eggs in. The female carries this egg sac everywhere she goes. When the eggs are ready to hatch the mother spider will spin a nursery web in a protected area to place her egg sac in it. She then guards this nest until the spiderlings hatch and venture into the world.

There can be well over a thousand spiderlings in the nursery web when all of the eggs have hatched. The hatchlings typically stay in the protective confines of their nest for some time after birth as it usually takes them more than one season to fully mature and be ready to reproduce. It is believed that these spiders can produce only two or three egg sacs in their lifetime.

THIS is a truly fascinatinganimal and I am so glad she crossed my path that summer night. What a privilege it is to have her take me on this little journey of exploration. I think it’s fascinating how animals adapt in so many ways to fit their environments. It makes me giddy when I read or hear about obscure creatures that have adapted in strange ways and, as you can see, I run around trying to find the most about that animal’s most extraordinary trait.  This one had too many to count!

 

 

 

The Science of My Sculptures by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

As with all my sculptures, this one started with a few Key pieces of scrap metal that just “told me” what they needed to become: The profile of the Saw (that is the head) determined the emotion of the bird. The well pump handle and mechanism (that forms the neck and body) determined the scale of the piece, and the pitch forks (that make the feet) inspired my thoughts on the movement I wanted to communicate. After I had those quintessential elements, I went to my scrap metal supplies and found the rest!

But before I ever pick-up a torch, I spend quite some time looking at my subjects from all angles. or if the subject is not something that I can study in-person, then I Google images of my subject.  

This part of my creative process is a discovery phase. My goal is to identify the subject’s most distinctive quantity:  What would make the subject immediately recognizable if all one saw was a rudimentary silhouette drawing of it. Mother Nature’s matchless creations often have a few quintessential elements that set them completely apart from an evolutionary standpoint, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these often stir the emotions and are fun to represent in sculpture. 

Usually, this amounts to just two or three key angles or shapes of specific body parts.  If I can get these absolutely right, people make an instant connection to the piece and almost always marvel at the feeling. A good example of what I mean can be seen in my Dancing Crane sculpture. 

You can see from this photo that I’ve worked hard to get three things absolutely right:

 

  1. Head/ beak: The crane has a very long thin beak that it uses to catch fish and other small water creatures for food. I was very important to get this head to beak ratio correct to have my sculpture pass as a crane. 
  2. Long, S-curved neck extending from a rather small body mass is the next quintessential  trait. In the sculpture I used an old water pump handle that had the perfect amount of curve to it. 
  3. The next trait is the cranes large feet. All water birds have large feet and it was important to get the size and proportions right. 

In the context of the dancing crane I might as well explain a bit about the animal and why it dances…

The Sand hill crane lives all over the mid west of north America and dance as part of there mating ritual. Sand hill cranes mate for life. When a pair bonds, it can last for years until one of the cranes dies. But unlike some birds who do not mate again after a mate passes away, the surviving crane will seek out a new mate.

In the early spring, as sand hill cranes are migrating to their breeding grounds and single cranes will try and find mates. A pair of sand hill cranes calls to each other in unison to create a bond. When the pair reaches the northern breeding grounds, they mate and build a nest. Cranes build a ground nest out of plant materials and the pair will take care of the nest together until the little ones hatch. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch and over two months for the chicks to be independent.  In the fall, the juvenile sand hill cranes migrate south with their parents.  After two years, the juvenile sand hill cranes reach sexual maturity and begin the search to find their own mates.

During mating, sand hill cranes will dance. The dancing is most common in the breeding season, but cranes can dance all year long if they feel like it. The dance involves wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around. They might also throw a stick or some plants into the air. 

The reason I places the crane in this rather specific position was actually more to do with my subconscious than from reference photos. When I was little on of my favorite books was called Olga the Brolga, it told the tale of a young sand hill crane who desperately wants to dance but has no partner. Coincidentally, the position I placed the crane is a near exact match to one of the positions Olga dances in in the book! Go subconscious.  

As I continue on my effort to work in the intersection between Science and Art, one thing that’s for sure is that this strategy of studying before sculpting will sharpen my powers of observation. After years and years of this, I might get quite good at it!

Whale Tales by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Throughout the years my family has had the good fortune to take some wild trips. My parents were taking us WAY off the beaten path by the age of four. By the age of 15 I had driven through the Andes without maps, wandered the Kalahari Desert watching a pair of newly weaned Cheetah cubs make their first kill and had humpback whales erupt out of iceberg filled sea, ten feet from the fisherman’s small boat we were in. As lucky as we have been, there have been times on these journeys when we have just HAD to make it work, despite the odds: days that we did not eat for 19 hours, nights spent in hotels without septic systems. Our recent trip backpacking in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico was not for those who think spending a week in a well-equipped RV is “camping”. This trip was a bit rough:  No bathing for 4 days at a stretch, sleeping in tents through sand storms, shuffling through seaweed choked, stingray infested bays. But the big payoffs were worth it. We saw both people and wildlife “making it work” in some really harsh territory. As rough as the communities we visited appeared, when we looked a little closer we found an abundance of public art, and an active Boy Scout presence who one day we found in a town square making an impressive metal sculpture with the thousands of collected beer cans and another made of thousands of plastic water bottles that were wired together to form a life-sized whale shark. The amazing experiences I had on the peninsula, the resilience of the native people in Baja, the forbearance of the whales, and the impact they have on each other inspired me to write.

Here's a typical campsite: 

First the people: I did a little digging and found out that the native people of the Baja peninsula belonged to three major groups that were hunter-gatherers and spent their days hunting small animals, fishing and gathering wild foods such as pine nuts and cactus fruit. They lived in communal groups and shelter was provided by holes in the ground covered with branches with the first people coming to the peninsula at least 11,000 years ago. These peoples were diverse in their adaptations to the region and carved out an existence.

Europeans first made contact with the natives of Baja in 1532 and then on his third expedition, in April 1535, Cortés landed near present-day La Paz. Cortés founded a small colony in this area, but the natives stayed very hostile towards the Europeans. Four attempts to colonize the peninsula thereafter all ended in failure. The hostility of the natives, limited resources, as well as the inhospitable weather conditions, making the colonization of the Baja Peninsula was a very slow process. 

All through the human history and well before that, the waters surrounding the Baja Peninsula have been graced by whales. We were there to see the gray whale - Eschrichtius robustus – a species of whale that is limited to the North Pacific that is unique, in that almost the entire population follows a seasonal migration along the coastline of western North America. Almost all of the gray whales spend the summer months in the Bering Sea area between Alaska and Russia, and in the fall the majority of the population migrates south, along the west coast of Canada and the United States, ending up in the quiet lagoons of Baja California during the winter months. This 12,000 mile trip is the longest migration of any mammal on Earth. 

For millennia, California gray whales had wintered in Baja's isolated lagoons, unbothered by natural enemies, but, in 1845, two whalers sailed into Baja's Magdalena Bay and discovered that it was a breeding sanctuary for the migrating whales. The grays were not easy prey, though. Mother whales were ferocious defenders of their newborns, charging boats and injuring or killing crewmembers. While whalers had perilous encounters with other whales, the grays were known as Devil Fish. In the end, the grays were no match for their hunters. The whalers blocked the entireness to Baja's lagoons and turned them into giant traps. What followed was a methodical slaughter that made the once-quiet sanctuaries run red with blood. 

In 1946, an international agreement protected the Gray Whales against whaling and it was estimated only 500 of the magnificent creatures remained. Over the next few decades, Baja's lagoons became sanctuaries again. The only humans who shared the whales' quiet breeding grounds were a handful of local fishermen in small boats. Thankfully, in the last 70 years, the gray whale population recovered, reaching about 24,000 animals - almost as many as there were before the commercial whalers arrived. In June 1994, the California gray whale became the first marine mammal to be no longer considered an endangered species.

Along with the gray whales miraculous recovery, they also have done something unimaginable: made contact with humans. It was early one morning in February, 1972, when the first meeting happened. Hundreds of gray whales were swimming in the inlet, there long migration from the north complete. The two fishermen, Mayoral and Perez, kept their distance from the whales because the creatures were said to smash boats with their powerful tails. 

As the two men tried to catch outgoing tide, they saw a whale approaching, fast. Heart pounding, the men tried to direct the little wooden boat toward shore. Try as he might, they could not outpace the whale. It soon overtook them, and expecting the worst, the fishermen began to pray. The whale raised its nine-foot head out of the water and looked at them. Then, extraordinarily, it began to rub gently against the boat. The whale continued the gentle rubbing for almost an hour. Even as isolated as Laguna San Ignacio is, word of Jose Francisco Mayoral's strange encounter spread. In February, 1976, a whale watching boat from San Diego stopped in the lagoon. Soon after a 30-foot juvenile whale began playing with the rubber dinghies attached to the boat. The captain and others climbed into the dinghies for a closer look. Finally they dared to pat the seven-ton youngster. The following day, it returned for more. For the next month it continued making contact.

The fantastic news brought scientists in droves. During the next five years, sightings and meetings with the whales swelled dramatically. Each year more scientists were on the water and more whales would approach. The special group of gray whales that consistently sought out human contact came to be known as "the friendlies" and they seemed to have passed this trait on to their offspring. In 1990, my parents went to St. Ignacio Lagoon with The Cetacean Society and experienced first-hand the friendly whales bringing their babies to investigate the tiny inflatable dinghies.  As long as I can remember, we’ve had a wonderful photograph of my father – a dentist – with his hand in the baleen filled mouth of a baby grey whale that has raised its head, sideways in an apparent attempt to look right into the eyes of the strange beings on the other side of the water’s surface.

Scientists' agree that all cetaceans - dolphins, whales, and porpoises - are highly sensitive to touch. Perhaps the whales' initial curiosity about people was rewarded by the pleasurable sensation of being stroked, and this sparked repeated contact. When asked, fishermen who spend their days with the whales have another answer: They like us!  Jose' Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist for Mexico's National Institute of Ecology agrees. He believes the grays are curious and intelligent, with a delightful sense of play. Regardless of who is right; we seem to have crossed a frontier with another species, another world. And, remarkably, the contact was initiated not by us, but by the whales.