Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Off to COP16

On Tuesday, my son Corey and I will be heading to Cancun for the U.N. Climate Change convention - COP16.  We will be joined by others from Moravian College (a faculty colleague, students and 2 alumni) who will be reporting on what we learn at

There are so many issues impacting the future of this planet and the well-being of not only us humans, but of most species.  Those of us in the industrial world are not treading along a sustainable path, but climate change and its impact may be the most serious challenge of all that we will have to confront.  I am not at all sure that the negotiations in Mexico will bring us to where we need to be, but we have to hope that the voices of civil society will be heard by the official parties, that the cries of those who are already suffering from environmental changes will be heeded.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Life's simple gifts

After working at home this morning I headed to my office much later than usual.  (One of the luxuries of being on sabbatical.)  As I headed over the crest of the Kittatinny Ridge, I passed a bare tree-any lingering leaves were blown off by the strong wind gusts we had over the past several hours.  In the tree sat 5 turkey vultures and, in an adjacent tree, a Red-tailed hawk was perched.  I wondered if they were resting because it was too difficult to fly in today’s November gales or if they were full from feasting on some carrion that I didn’t notice.  I watched for a few moments in my idling car; the vultures nervously shifted their weight from one foot to another.  The hawk decided to fly off.  I went on down the mountain as I wondered how what kind of day the counters were having at the hawk watches at Bake Oven Knob and Hawk Mountain just a bit to the west.
On the south side of the mountain, there were still shades of rust and gold on some trees –ornamentals mostly— that were refusing to yield completely to the changing seasons.  At a rare stop sign in this rural area, a school bus was dropping off kindergarteners where parents were waiting in their cars.  What a shame that they remained hidden from the elements as it was truly an invigorating fall day.  As I waited for the disembarkment to finish, I noticed a domestic cat coming out of the brush in the state game lands that are on one corner of the intersection.  In a few weeks, it will be deer hunters and then I would understand why the parents would stay in their cars (not that a car window will stop a stray bullet from a rifle).  Anyway, as some children met the one parent who had actually walked to the corner, the cat darted across the road and pounced on a little girl.  A rather amusing short scene; a story ripe for embellishing.  Did the other families see this?  Probably not since most of the parents were on their cell phones not even noticing their children who had climbed into the car.
I hadn’t driven more than 100 yards further and a gloriously colored male pheasant darted around in the brush and several robins fly over the road—probably wondering why they hadn’t flown south yet.
All of these wonders of nature – all within about one mile of my drive.  Was I the only one who had noticed these sights?  Such little things have always made me smile; they make me pause for a moment while I imagine silly scenarios.  I suppose that many would find it odd that I am so easily amused (or distracted) and that I actually treasure such simple things as these chance encounters with elements of the natural world. 
Just yesterday, my twelve-year old and I were walking down a sidewalk near his school in Bethlehem and marveling at the patterns that Japanese Maple leaves had made on the sidewalk after being knocked down by a heavy rain.  We tried to decide which shade of red we liked the best, each having our own favorite, but we did agree that the range of colors from a single tree was pretty cool.  I guess that my son also likes the quirks of nature.  I am happy that we still walk together and share these moments.
The Kittatinny Ridge a bit earlier in the fall in its full glory.  Photo by H. David Husic

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Women, Science and Social Responsibilities

This week, I faced a professional dilemma.  I was supposed to attend a conference in Arlington on increasing the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.  Despite the fact that this was sandwiched in between two other conferences I needed to attend in an eight day period, I was looking forward to the dialog and being able to share some perspectives from my own career path.  However, while out of town for meeting #1, my son ended up in the hospital with a severe case pneumonia that wouldn’t respond to the normal antibiotic treatment.  Given how frightening this was (to him and us as parents) and the fact that I have a younger son at home who couldn’t be left alone overnight, I had to make the decision to cancel attending the meeting in Arlington.  There was no question as to where my priorities had to be, but I felt horrible backing out of a professional commitment.

Balancing (whatever that means) family and a career is faced by many families and isn’t a women-only issue.  Key to making the dual-career family situation work is a healthy relationship with a partner who understands and is willing to be supportive and share in the responsibilities.  I am extremely fortunate in having a husband (also a scientist/academician) who is incredibly supportive of my work and travel and an excellent father.  My decision to remain at my son’s side in the hospital was by no means based on feelings that my husband couldn’t handle things.  But there are societal pressures that do make women feel guilty.

When I arrived at the hospital, more than one nurse commented on my not having been in town when my son was admitted.  And yes, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to meeting #1 but I had taken my son to the doctors, he was on antibiotics, I had stayed at home with him for 3 days, and the day I left, his fever was down and he urged me to go.  When I got the call the next day that he was in the hospital, I felt horrible about my decision.  I had ridden with others so pondered renting a car to get back sooner instead of waiting until the next day.  Both my husband and son said to stay.

I emailed and called the folks from the Arlington meeting to explain the situation and let them know that I had to unfortunately renege on my plans to attend.  Upon return, I went immediately to the hospital and spent the next 24 hours there until I could take my son home.  It wasn’t a life or death matter, but he loved the company and I had the comfort of seeing him and seeing that he was starting to get better.


My students know that I have a very high bar – both for myself and for them.  I push them to work harder and do more than they think they can.  But it is equally important for them to see that I am also compassionate and that my family will always come first when there are problems.  A supportive workplace is critical in encouraging women to come to work and to stay—be it in the sciences or other fields.  Many female students come to talk to me about balancing family and job and they are fearful that they won’t be able to do so.  I talk about the challenges and the rewards and strategies that I have used.  I bring my boys around the department a lot and, in the summer, they are out in the field with me sometimes when I am doing research with my students.  They hear about the successes of my children.  I think that this is all important to do and I am not at all afraid to mix work and family in my conversations with students.

My son (when healthier; photo by R. Wiltraut at the 2009 World Series of Birding)
As a department chair, it is important that I help to create a supportive, family-friendly environment.  At the moment, we only have one other tenure-track faculty member with young children, but last spring, her 3-year old started experiencing serious seizures.  Immediately, the department stepped up and took over her responsibilities so she could focus completely on her son and the rest of her family—without my asking.  I was so proud to be a part of this community.  The students noticed this as well.  But I know from personal experience that other places (departments, research labs, etc.) are not so cooperative and compassionate.  I left a tenure-track position because the environment towards women students and faculty had grown unbearable and no one would take the leadership to make improvements.


One of the sessions I was to attend at the conference was “Selling social science to scientists and engineers”.  As someone long interested in the social impact of science and technology, I was very curious as to what would be covered.  I won’t know but I pondered a number of things while spending the night in the hospital with my son.

I thought of some incredibly influential female scientists that I had met over the past year:  Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai from Kenya and Vandana Shiva from India – a particle physicist turned activist.  Both have fought for the rights of the poor and women of developing countries, for democracy, and for improving and protecting the environment and food security.  I recently heard Nobel Laureate Peter Agre speak not so much about his award winning research but of the responsibilities of scientists in promoting world peace and engaging in dialogue with the public.  As former President of AAAS, he had helped to initiate the Science Diplomacy projects of the organization.  And I had the opportunity at the end of the summer to attend a conservation leadership training workshop where I was thrilled to see so many women, many of them scientists, in the group.  Having studied and written on the history of environmental leadership, I knew first-hand that this high percentage of women in the conservation movement was a relatively new phenomenon. 

Wangari Maathai - COP15 (2009)

Moravian College students with Vandana Shiva (COP15)

I am immensely interested in following climate science and climate change debates and have noticed that most of the prominent (and controversial) voices from the scientific community seem to be male.  Why is this? These individuals are atmospheric physicists, geologists, climate modelers, etc.  But when one thinks about the potential impacts on people, the planet, on life as we know it – this is an area where we really need compassionate people who also understand science at the table where policy decisions are being negotiated and I would think that the topic and the research would attract females.

Why do the life sciences (especially areas linked to health science) and environmental sciences tend to attract more women than some of the physical sciences and engineering?  I am not saying that women can’t and don’t enter other areas of science.  There are some programs and departments that have high numbers of female geoscientists, physics majors, engineers.  But overall, they are still in the minority as compared to the life science programs which often have more females enrolled than males.

How do all these seemingly random thoughts connect?  It dawned on me that perhaps the concepts of compassion, social responsibilities, and attracting women to science might be related in ways that I had never considered before.  I have heard many female students indicate that they need to understand the relevance of what they were learning to some greater picture.  They say that some types of math or physical principles were too abstract for them to wrap their heads around.  Do we, as females in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), need to do a better job of making connections and illustrating the social links of what we are teaching and researching?  Do we need to better emphasize how science can help to solve critical world problems such as poverty, food shortages, the status of women and children in developing countries—i.e. to help achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goals for 2015 or some of the Grand Challenges that have been identified?  Do we need to show how science and compassion for the larger human family are closely connected?

Given the growing public distrust of science and its applications (think climate deniers and the anti-vaccine movement) along with our concerns about advancing opportunities for women in science, I am thinking that shifting the conversation towards the role of science in world peace, sustainability and prosperity might be pretty important for our future.

Some future scientists and environmental leaders from Moravian College (class of 2010)

Monday, November 1, 2010

A photo essay on "Home" and the big 2010 fall storm

In my last posting, I commented about the power (both in a physical and spiritual sense) of Lake Superior and the importance of this place in my life and to my wellbeing.  Hopefully, we each have a special place that we hold a close connection to, that has had a strong impact on who we are, and will remain our "home" regardless of where we may move to. 

What follows is a photo essay from my recent trip back home to the Upper Peninsula.  I hope that you can see why it is so rejuvenating for me and why I feel especially blessed to have had the opportunity to grow up there.  As I was headed back to my other home in Pennsylvania yesterday, I was struck by a banner in the Indianapolis airport that read:

"Back home
    On the ground
We discover
    that the gift
    the great wings gave us
    is new eyes to see that
    this place where we live
    we love more than we knew."

This so captures how I feel each time I return to Michigan.  Enjoy the photos. 

Looking towards the bay of Lake Superior in Marquette, MI

Looking back south with the old Coast Guard station in view

Sailboats ready for winter - something I dream of owning!

A remaining ore dock for loading iron ore pellets onto ships

A series of images of the shoreline at Presque Isle Park

Leaving the park

Near Silver Lake along Highway 95

Abandoned trains.  It is sad to see how many tracks have been removed.
I used to go to sleep listening to the trains carrying ore on the way to the Soo Locks.

The Michigamme River

Rock outcroppings near Republic.
These are found throughout the U.P.
They often contain glacial marks, large quartz veins, deposits of hematite, granite and sometimes copper.

Back to Marquette on the first day of the big storm

Barriers were in place to warn people from walking out on the breakwall. 
In the past, people have been knocked over by the waves to their chilly death.

This serene setting in the park doesn't reflect how blustery it was

I have walked on these rocks since I was quite young.

Where I came in college to get away from the books

The power of the wind and waves

These pools form from the waves that blow over the rocks


Life is good

Monday, October 25, 2010

The healing power of the lake

I am traveling, so can't post pictures of one of the most inspirational places in the world to me - the shores of Lake Superior.  I grew up across the street to this wonderful body of water and over the past week, I was able to once again hear the tremendous roar the lake can make when stirred up by fall gales.  This is where I would go to play as a child, where I went in college to decompress, and where I always come when I return "home" to visit family and friends.  I suspect we all have a place that is this important to us -- a place of comfort, that brings back memories.

I have run into many people I know while visiting Marquette, MI.  Everyone is talking about the tragedies that happened at the lake this summer.  Several people drowned in rare rip currents and a boat capsized killing two.  The lake that brings tranquility to me, brought heartache to many families and many now speak of the fear they have for it and are calling for some way to prevent such accidents in the future.  The beach was filled with signs warning of the dangerous currents and the need to avoid swimming in the water. 

I have always marveled at the lake - its vastness, its beauty and clarity, its ability to look like a mirror one day and then be treacherously rough the next.  And yes, how darn cold the water can be.  The Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior, need to be respected for what they are -- a rare piece of wildness that remains. Yes, it is tragic that so many people recently lost their life in this lake -- a lake with a long history of shipwrecks and death.  But, perhaps in an odd sort of way, these are reminders of the power of nature and the fact that we humans cannot subdue every last inch of the planet.

As I stood on the shoreline the other day with the strong winds hurling drops of water into my face, I was again reminded of how insignificant I am in nature's big picture.  The water was midnight blue and the unusually large waves were crashing violently against the rock outcroppings.  Stunning.  I reluctantly drove away.  My mother was getting a little bored waiting in the car trying to figure out why I am so fascinated with staring out at the lake.  I smiled, feeling quite revitalized having just experienced some of nature's best medicine.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts on nature

A friend sent this to me this week.  It reminds us that education can come in many forms, and that nature is an important teacher.  

It were as well to be educated in the shadow 
of a mountain as in more classic shade.
Some will remember, no doubt,
not only that they went to college
but that they went to the mountain. 
Henry David Thoreau

And from another aquaintance:

And a literature review of Greenspace and health/wellbeing:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sustainable food production and Vandana Shiva

For the second time in less than a year, I had the good fortune to meet with and attend a talk by Dr. Vandana Shiva last night. Our Moravian College delegation first met her at COP15 last December (see and

Dr. Shiva has long been a strong advocate for small farmers, the protection of crop diversity, and the empowerment of women.  She has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, especially through saving traditional seeds at a time when agricultural monoculture is the norm.  She also has strong feelings about GMOs, globalization and certain large corporations and these feelings are not positive!  Many of my peers (and I) share her concerns about the power of U.S. corporations, their profit motive, and their attempts to exploit resources, the environment, and people.  Such corporate trends are not going to lead to the “just sustainability” that Julian Ageyman from Tufts calls for (see Dr. Ageyman's blog at
Dr. Shiva (center) with some of my colleagues from Moravian College
I do, however, disagree with Dr. Shiva’s negative portrayal of the Green Revolution.  Indeed, many of the wartime technologies were translated to agriculture after World War II:  the production of fertilizers (instead of explosives); the agricultural use of pesticides (whose development was linked to chemical warfare as well as protecting soldiers from insect-borne diseases); the use of assembly lines to mass produce farm equipment; and even the application of nuclear research to the irradiation of seeds to produce new varieties of crops.  It is really quite a fascinating part of agricultural history--something I teach in the course I teach "The Impact of Technology on Diet and Disease". 

But I don’t believe that this led to a “militarization” of our food supply as Dr. Shiva made reference to last night.  In the 1940’s, famines in India led to the deaths of millions of people.  Dr. Shiva said that there had always been famines bout that they were regional and temporarily short-lived.  But she believes that the global persistent hunger facing the planet now has resulted from the exploits of large agribusinesses (which arose with the Green Revolution and now is the controller of genetically modified food crops, patents on life, etc.)  Acknowledging my bias as a trained plant scientist, I truly belief that many of the innovations of the Green Revolution were developed with good intentions and did make a significant and positive difference for people in developing countries around the world.  We can argue about the motives of large (U.S. corporations) and the pros and cons of GM foods elsewhere.

Ironically, this week, 2010 Borlaug Dialogue (a conference centered on the awarding of the World Food Prize conference) is being held.  This prize was started by the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman E. Borlaug—considered by many as the Father of the Green Revolution.  The theme this year is "Take it to the Farmer": Reaching the World's Smallholders—focusing on the small farmers and their role in world food production.
I wish I had asked Dr. Shiva about this since, as I have mentioned above, she is highly critical of the Green Revolution, but a strong advocate of the small farmer.

The WorldWatch Institute has an amazing program called Nourishing the Planet and I have been following the project blog for almost a year.  The folks from this project are in Iowa for the World Food Prize conference and posted this commentary today:’re-all-here-to-reduce-hunger-right/.
Yet another reference to the conflict between large agribusiness and small farmers.

The Nourishing the Planet blog introduced me to the book Tomorrow’s Table which I found to be a wonderful and refreshing exploration of ways to bring two very divergent perspectives (plant molecular genetics/genetic engineering and organic farming) together and consider possible synergies.  I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Perhaps a key to nourishing the planet (reducing hunger, finding a new prosperity and sources of hope, just sustainability or however you want to phrase it) lies in opening more avenues for meaningful (rather than antagonist) dialog between large corporate agriculture, smallholders, community garden leaders, scientists, and others.

Stories of Hope from Chili

What is it about the story of the Chilean miners that has captivated so many observers around the world?  Today, not only was the Chilean president at the Camp Hope site, but also the president of Bolivia.  Reporters and social networks from all around the world are covering the series of rescues.  

Is it the rare good news story that now more than half of the miners have been brought to safety?   Is it a curiosity about the difficult conditions they have had to endure for over two months 2000 feet below the Earth’s surface?  

For those of us in the U.S., does it bring back memories of mining disasters in our own country, especially those where the outcomes were not nearly so joyous such as the Sago Mine in West Virginia?  I searched for information about the only survivor from that incident—Randal McCloy, Jr.—and found a letter he wrote to the victims’ families.  How awful to watch your coworkers die.  I wonder what he is thinking today.

Is it the amazing division of labor and cooperation they have displayed with each becoming an expert in a new area—each essential to keeping them all alive? (See the story at

Is it the tremendous faith, against great adversity, they have demonstrated through prayers, poems and letters—many of which have been sent up to family and friends?  How many of us would maintain such poise and spirit under these conditions?

We do not know what the future holds for these men in terms of their physical health or psychological state; let us all keep them and their families, co-workers and friends in our prayers.

I rarely watch television, but found myself riveted to it last night waiting for the first miner, Florencio Avalos, to be rescued.  I had tears in my eyes as he hugged his sobbing son and kissed his wife for the first time in many, many weeks.  I have been following the updates on CNN all day today. 

There are so few events that call attention to the best of humanity like this.  I hear so many people we are loosing our empathy – focused too much on self and the short-term rewards.  Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t true. 

As I was writing this, I was searching internet coverage of the rescue and came across this blog entry entitled “Hope Today” that ponders this event and the way it impacts us:  Dr. Scioli is much more eloquent in the written word than I; I recommend that you read his posting as the points he makes deserve reflection. 

4:55 EST October 13th:  22 rescued.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Gold could simply be considered just one of over 100 elements in the periodic table—atomic number 79—to be exact.  We can describe its atomic structure, and its chemical and physical properties like any other chemical.  But for thousands of years, gold has been revered as much more than just a metallic element.  It has been associated with the sun, the gods, and with immortality.  For thousands of years it has been highly desired for its beauty and value and still continues to serve as a symbol of prosperity (in the traditional sense of the word).  Gold is mentioned by Homer and in the book of Genesis and is described on hieroglyphics dating back thousands of years B.C.  Around 1500 B.C., gold became the recognized standard medium of exchange for international trade, making Egypt a wealthy nation as large amounts had been found in regions along the Nile River.

The search for gold has played a significant role in world history – both in the discovery of new lands and, sadly, in horrific stories of exploitation of people and destruction of culture through slavery, brutal killings, and the melting down of antiquities to reclaim the prized element.  The desire to obtain the element was so strong, that humans even practiced alchemy with the hope that other (less valued) metals could be changed into gold.   

You can search the internet for quotes about gold; I include a few below that illustrate just how highly people value this element.

"Gold is a treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world, and succeeds in helping souls into paradise."  -- Christopher Columbus

"Gold is the soul of all civil life, that can resolve all things into itself, and turn itself into all things." -- Samuel Butler

"How rare is gold? If you could gather together all the gold mined in recorded history, melt it down, and pour it into one giant cube, it would measure only about eighteen yards across! That's all the gold owned by every government on earth, plus all the gold in private hands, all the gold in rings, necklaces, chains, and gold art. That's all the gold used in tooth fillings, in electronics, in coins and bars. It's everything that exists above ground now, or since man learned to extract the metal from the earth. All of it can fit into one block the size of a single house. It would weigh about 91,000 tons - less than the amount of steel made around the world in an hour. That's rare." -- Daniel M. Kehrer

In this search of quotes, I smiled when I read ones from a James Bond movie but then I found one that really caught my attention since it relates to why I thought of a blog on this topic in the first place.

“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” -- Martin Luther

This time of year, gold can be found everywhere.  It is a form of gold that can be shared by everyone, won’t result in more atrocities, and its beauty can enrich us all.  The pictures below were from another one of my early morning fall walks and probably don’t capture the hues of gold as they appeared.  But hopefully, you can get out for a walk and find some gold wealth of your own!
The rising sun casts golden tones along a wooded path.

A bee on goldenrod