Stepping Up Your Stories

We all have stories to tell, and how we tell these stories has evolved over time. From pre-historic cave paintings to more modern art forms of literature and photography, to social media applications, blogs and videos.  But what if you could tell a story with all of those components and portray them on a state of the art map?

ArcGIS storymap is a fantastic, versatile tool that can do just that.  With six different storymap formats and customizable features, this free, web-based platform can be used for education, visualizing data, showing the work of your organization, or whatever endeavor you set your mind to.  Plus, it’s easy to share via social media, or as a stand alone URL.  I’ll give you a quick low down on ArcGIS storymap, share an example of each, and discuss some of my experiences.    


Of course the first step is to create your FREE account.  Unless you already have a razzle dazzle ArcGIS ESRI account, go ahead and select “Create a Public Account”.  You won’t get all the bells and whistles of ESRI’s features, but you’ll get access to most storymap features and that’s what we are here for!

For those of you who don’t know, ESRI is a geographically impassioned, technological organization.  They created one of the most relied upon, top notch mapping programs, ArcGIS, which allows you to create maps and illustrate data related to geographic features.  GIS is an acronym for geographic information systems.  ArcGIS is not the only of it’s kind and a list of other GIS platforms can be found here if you want to get into mapping.  Many of these are open source, and may not require purchase and license agreements. I do not have much experience with these other platforms, but I’ve heard good things!  My one word of caution when working across platforms is compatibility.  Proprietary software will not give up its secrets so easily, but there are a number of GIS file converters to be found out on the web.

So lets start with the basics.  We’ve got an account, but how do we know which map will help us illustrate our story effectively?  I’ll review each in brief, but you can always “Ask the Pros” for recommendations.


Basic maps are just that.  You can show a single map with points and information, such as this one on Anthony Bourdain’s travels for in his show Parts Unknown.  This format is great for associating images to a specific place.  


The Spyglass format coolest comparative feature I’ve found! It allows you to layer two maps on top of one another and when you pass the spyglass over, it reveals the map beneath it. This map from NOAA uses a nautical chart of Gloucester Harbor and a spyglass to reveal the depth and shapes of the sea floor.  Though it may seem limited in the information you can include, the “wow” factor comparing maps in such detail can really drive your point home.  

3) SwipeSpyglass&SwipeBuilder

Similar to Spyglass, Swipe is also a comparative map that allows you move a bar from left to right. Swipe is great for illustrating land use or land cover change, such as this map of Fort Sumter. I recommend referencing which map is which in your caption, as I’ve seen some maps that are unclear. For Spyglass and Swipe maps, you need to select specific base maps for ArcGIS’s database, or use one you have already.


4)Map Series

MapSeriesBuilderMap Series are a great option for comparing multiple data sets and how they correlate to a map.  You can use one map, or multiple, as seen in this example on Hurricane Katrina.  You have three options when you use map series, customize to best fit your information!  Map series are great to illustrate the multiple dimensions of a story or study.


5)Map Journal

Map Journals are a great alternative traditional presentation formats like MapJournalBuilderpowerpoint.  The information frame and backgrounds transition seamlessly from one topic to the next, and multiple forms of media can be included. My one challenge working with map journal was photos, which can only be uploaded from Facebook, Picasa, Flickr or from a URL.  When using the URL, make sure said URL ends with a photo format designation (such as .jpg or .png). In a related vein, if you don’t like the way your background photos are being portrayed, consider switching between the floating and side pane options.

If desired, you can use a base map function similar to that of the Basic storymap.   Here is a great example utilizing a map as well as photography from the National Geographic BioBlitz 2015.  I am especially excited about this map because I was an education blitz leader for BioBlitz 2013 at Jean Lafitte National Park in New Orleans, which is summarized on the map point.  

6) Map Tour

MapTourBuilderMap Tours are my favorite. They place specific images on map points which can be referenced via a gallery.  Check this one out from U.S. Forest Service.

To place the photo on the map, it needs to be georeferenced, i.e. the photo must either have GPS coordinates associated (easy if your location settings are “on” for pictures taken by smartphone) or you can simply set a location for images using storymap prompts.  To make it even easier, if you are uploading from Facebook, whatever caption or context you gave that photo will translate into your map.  I’ve used this feature to illustrate my travels!


Some of the greatest features of storymaps are the customizable and Changebasemapinteractive components.  You’ve seen some of the “builder” options above, but you can also add color and change your basemap type for some extra story embellishments, as storytellers are known to do! Storymaps allow to you engage your audience and showcase a story, all while flexing your creative muscles.  Whether you are working on a presentation, developing classroom tools, sharing scientific findings or just communicating personal stories, I hope that ArcGIS storymaps proves useful to you. I know it has for me!



Recipe for Rainbows

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Who doesn’t love a rainbow?! They conjure fanciful daydreams of leprechauns, pots of gold, unicorns, and iconic characters of youth.  Rainbows make my day, and I’ve tried to capture them on film during my many adventures over the past years.  But beyond all the warm fuzzy feelings that rainbows induce, there is some seriously cool science behind them. Let’s explore these scientific ingredients in our recipe for rainbows: refraction, reflection, and dispersion.  

Before we get into the science, we need to establish the conditions in which we see rainbows. Like any good recipe, this is our prep time!

Preparing for rainbows:

The best time to see rainbows is early in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is behind you. This diagram by Descartes illustrates proper rainbow viewing techniques.


Now to the science!

Ingredient 1: Refraction

Refraction bends the path of light waves as they pass from one material into another.  In the case of rainbows, light waves are passing into water droplets or vapor, known as rain or mist. This movement between materials causes a change in how quickly the light wave is moving, and actually bends the path of light waves.  

Ingredient 2: Reflection

Reflection occurs when a light wave bounces off a boundary.  After light enters the LaurenH_0000001raindrop through refraction, it bounces off the back (internal) side of the raindrop, exiting the other side. As the light moves from the water droplet back into the atmosphere, it once again undergoes refraction.  

So how does all this create a rainbow? We bring it together with Ingredient 3: Dispersion.

As visible light enters the raindrop, it separates into its seven color components we know as the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. This separation is called dispersion. The angle at which light entered the water droplet influences the angle of refraction and reflection.  To get the full spectrum of rainbow colors, 40-42 degree shift from light’s entry to exit is best. 

Throw in a little rain or mist and voila, rainbow!

Rainbows are reminders that there is wonder in the world, and that science can help us understand those wonders. I hope this recipe for rainbows proves useful on your next rainbow hunt!




Natural Wonder in Northwest Alabama

What’s 148 feet long, 60 feet high and found east of the Rocky Mountains in northwest Alabama?

A magnificent geologic formation called a natural bridge.

The 148 foot natural sandstone bridge in Natural Bridge Park, Alabama.

The 148 foot natural sandstone bridge in Natural Bridge Park, Alabama. Photo by Matthew Herron

Carved by an ancient underground river, it is the centerpiece of Natural Bridge Park in Natural Bridge, Alabama.  Made of sandstone and iron ore, this masterpiece dates back 200 million years and was once the territory of the Creek Native Americans.  Though now a privately owned backroad destination, this area was also used by Civil War soldiers as foot trails.

This natural wonder sets the stage for an amazing range of plant species, including the impressive bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), evergreen eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), vibrant yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), an unusual orchid called rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), and a number of mosses and ferns commonly found in more mountainous regions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Natural Bridge Park is not the only one of its kind. It is, however, the longest land bridge east of the Rocky Mountains. Over 2,000 natural arches are found in the United States, though the longest arch is found above the Buliu River in Guangxi, China, spanning 400 feet in length.  Natural bridges are a type of natural arch formed primarily by the movement of water. Formation of natural bridges and arches are influenced by a variety of factors including water movement, temperature change, tectonic plate movement, past glacial movement and rock collapse.
The Earth has created a work of art in Natural Bridge, Alabama which is filled with far more wonder than words can describe.  I highly recommend a visit if you’re ever in the neighborhood. It’s a great picnic area with gorgeous scenery! Perhaps you’ll be as fortunate as I, and have a personable, four-legged guide named Roxie to show you the best spots!  Meanwhile I’ll be planning my return trip to the longest land bridge east of the Rocky Mountains. Won’t you join me?

My tour guide Roxie!

My tour guide Roxie!

Promiscuous Plants Make Problems

An acacia. Photo from Flickr

An acacia. Photo from Flickr

Beautiful isn’t it?  This is an acacia tree, a member of the pea family from Australia. Its good looks have led to its introduction around the world.  California is one of those places, and 16 acacia species have been introduced for the horticultural trade.

These new plants on the block are non-native species, meaning they aren’t from around these parts.  Regardless, at least three species of non-native California acacias have begun to exploit the landscape. These pushy plants are called invasive species.  Invasive species crowd out native plants and wildlife, negatively affect the environment, and cause over $120 billion in damages each year.  But what makes these acacia plants so successful as invaders?

Microbes.  That’s right, tiny organisms that live just about anywhere, including the soil and roots of plants.

These microbes are a special type of soil bacteria called rhizobia. Rhizobia colonize pockets in the roots of certain plants, like those in the pea family. The pockets of rhizobia, or nodules as scientist call them, convert unusable Nitrogen into a form of Nitrogen that plants can use.  Nitrogen is one of the important chemicals that determine plant growth and success.

Dr. Metha Klock, doctoral student at Louisiana State University, has found that the relationship between rhizobia soil microbes and certain acacias help them spread to new areas.  If an acacia species can associate with more types or strains of rhizobia, it is more likely to spread and become invasive. Dr. Klock calls these invasive acacia plants “promiscuous hosts.” Getting friendly with more rhizobial strains increases the chances of getting lucky and spreading to new habitats.  

Of course everything is fine until someone (or something) gets hurt, and California’s ecosystems take the blow. Prior to her days of research, Klock was a restoration professional in California.  She was on the ground every day ripping out invasive plants like acacias and replacing them with natives.  But she could see the battle couldn’t be won by force alone, we needed to know why these plants were spreading and how to prevent future introductions.

In a recently published study, Klock grew over 1600 acacia plants of multiple species and harvested the root nodules for analysis.

An example of a bacterial culture. Photo from Flicker.

An example of a bacterial culture. Photo from Flicker.

 She also sampled acacias invading California.  She cultured the bacteria and through molecular analysis was able to determine the different rhizobial strains associated with different acacia species.  Her results show that invasive acacias associate with more rhizobial strains then non-invasive acacias. The implications of which span a variety of topics:

  1. We’ve identified that rhizobia-plant interactions can contribute to invasion.  We can use this knowledge to identify future invasive species before they become a problem.
  2. Acacias are native to Australia, and in areas where restoration is being conducted, these promiscuous plants can be a benefit.  They may spread and restore areas more efficiently than other native plants.  
  3. We can select agricultural crops that are more promiscuous host, and therefore grow better. Or;
  4. There is a potential to develop soil inoculants for improve growth of pea family agricultural plants (a.k.a. probiotics for plants).   

There is more research to be done, but we’ve taken a step in the right direction. Observing how below ground activities affect plant growth and establishment is not an easy task, but we have now identified one mechanism of how acacias spread in new ranges. Klock hopes future studies will include a comparison of more genetically diverse rhizobia strains, and she has more publications to come.  Check out this recent story from one of her presentations, and keep an eye out for her work!

Note to the reader: Invasive species are not just a problem in California.  All over the world, invasive species are altering ecosystems, impacting landscapes, and threatening ecosystem services that both wildlife and people depend on.  The first step to preventing invasion is people.  Before planting a plant, or releasing an animal, do some homework.  If it’s not found there naturally, don’t introduce it.  Check with you local governments for policies on invasive species management, and share what you learn with others.  Invasive species reportings can be sent to local agencies or uploaded here.

Taking Science Personal with Dr. Felicia Goldsmith

Felicia was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in high school.  This self-proclaimed “artsy” type dug into research about what causes diabetes and how to manage it.  She learned to manage her condition, but still had questions and concerns. She realized that doing research as a career was a way to answer her own questions and help others with the same condition.

Twelve years after her diagnosis, Dr. Felicia Goldsmith meets me outside of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA.  She is postdoctoral researcher, or a junior scientist, studying how botanicals (plants) can be used to combat metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome itself is a group of health factors, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels that can contribute to the development of medical conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Type 1 diabetes, or insulin-dependent diabetes, occurs when the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin to facilitate the sugar-dependent process of cellular energy production.

She gives me a tour around the lab.  There are multiple types of microscopes, shielded laboratory work stations called fume hoods, and all the gadgets and gizmos one might expect in a top notch research lab.  Here Felicia studies how diabetes effects prenatal development.  Many women with Type 1 and Type 2 struggle with pregnancy, and the high blood sugar levels characteristic of these diseases can contribute to specific birth defects of the neural tube that eventually becomes your brain and spinal cord.   Conditions of neural tube defects include Spina Bifida and Anencephaly.  Felicia and Dr. Salbaum, the senior researcher, are hoping to determine how plants can be used to help prevent such defects.  They are also interested in how and why these defects develop in children of Type 1 diabetic mothers.

These are concerns that Felicia shares with other Type 1 diabetic women.  In hopes to resolve these concerns, Felicia has pursued questions about diabetes throughout her academic career.  Prior to her work in Dr. Salbaum’s lab, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis comparing the effects of dietary “fibers” from milk and cereal grains. Her Masters and PhD focused on starch, insulin resistance, and pre- and probiotics, healthy bacteria that assist with digestion in your gut. As she continues her work at Pennington, Felicia is seeking out future grants, developing publications and networking with other scientists, labs, and institutions.  If all goes well she will be able to establish her own laboratory – hopefully somewhere in the state of Louisiana – where she will continue to conduct research surrounding diabetes.

A microscope, one of the tools of the trade. From Flicker.

A microscope, one of the tools of the trade. From Flicker.

Conducting original research isn’t an easy task.  Funding is hard to come by and hours are long.  Most researchers at Pennington and universities such as LSU must secure their own research money, and often their salaries and those of their laboratory staff, through grants and contracts.  Felicia says she could work for a private industry, the pay and hours would be better, but she would be limited in her research.  Asking her own research questions, the ones that pertain to her own health and others that struggle with Type 1 diabetes, is her priority.  Despite budget cuts, 1:00am lab work, and years of schooling, the opportunity to ask her own questions, design her own research, and make insights that improve people’s lives is well worth the effort.

But there is more to Felicia than the hours behind microscopes, lists of must-read research papers and her intense pursuit of research.  She is also a college science tutor, and an occasional blogger on science, nutrition and awesome recipes.  I’m sure there are amazing things on the horizon for this dedicated and intrepid researcher, but for now she hustles back to the lab, where she takes her science personal.


Editorial Note: Edited by Paige Jarreau

Archives of Life: LSU Museum of Natural Science

By Lauren Hull, Twitter: @BiophilicBios

This story is one in a series on the Louisiana Museum of Natural History.  I reserve rights to all photos and written content.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Prior to the 1950’s, this place was a cafeteria.  You would never know, given the detailed dioramas, glass cases and interactive exhibits of the LSU Museum of Natural Science.  This gem, nestled in Foster Hall of Louisiana State University, is one of seven collections in a network called the Louisiana Museum of Natural History.  At the LSU Museum of Natural Science, the public can see animals from around the world, including the original Mike the Tiger.  But most of the action, and what the museum’s international reputation is based on, lies behind these doors.

The doors leading into the research collection.

The doors leading into the research collection.

Behind these doors are the world’s third largest university-based bird collection, the world’s largest genetic resources collection, impressive mammal, reptile and amphibian collections, and a rapidly expanding fish collection.  In total, the museum has over 2.5 million specimens.  But why should anyone care about this massive collection of dead animals?  Is it really necessary?

Given the Museum’s accomplishments: securing over 3.7 million dollars in grant money, discovering of new species, insights into human disease, publishing hundreds of scientific papers, providing educational opportunities for students, and conducting public outreach, I say yes.

In addition to the collections, the LSU Museum of Natural Science houses 9 curators, an average of 30 graduate students, an outreach coordinator, a handful of undergraduates and high school students, and a group of volunteers.  These people create and uphold the museum’s international reputation. Outreach Coordinator Valerie Derouen was kind enough to take me behind the scenes to experience what many of the public never get to see.

Donna Dittmann, Manager of Genetic Resources/Ornithology, and a graduate student use the collection to identify a hummingbird.

Donna Dittmann, Manager of Genetic Resources/Ornithology, and a graduate student use the collection to identify a hummingbird.

We step through the doors into the bird collection: a massive room with skylights housing thousands of birds from all over the world.  We shuffle through cabinets of birds, each marked with identification tags including when and where it was collected, and 20 other variables relevant to science, such as size, weight, body condition, and so on.  And while the collection creatures may be dead, we happen across science in action, as some of the collection is being used to identify a hummingbird that was found in downtown Baton Rouge.

Next we move into the mammals, where skeletons and skins stack to the ceiling.  Each bone is marked with tiny numbers and labels corresponding to catalog information.  Detailed measurements and notes in the catalog can be used to identify variation in a particular species, or its change over time.  The Curator of Mammals, Jacob Esselstyn, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to explore the mammal family tree and determine relationships between different species. This information can be used to support studies of biogeography and conservation biology.

The herpetology collection, made up of reptiles and amphibians is next on our journey.  We descend into a cool, dark room filled with shelves upon shelves of preserved specimens. Reptiles and amphibians do not keep well in the taxidermic stylings of birds and mammals.  They must be stored in glass jars of ethanol or other fluids.   Over time the fluids leach color and patterns from the specimens, which is accelerated by light or temperature change.  Regardless of aesthetic considerations, this collection still holds detailed information on morphology (the physical features of individual organisms) and geographic location of collected specimens. One of the most interesting members of the collection is the smallest vertebrate in the world, a recent discovery by Curator of Herpetology Dr. Chris Austin and his graduate student Eric Rittmeyer.  Found among the leaves of Papua New Guinea’s rainforest floor, this tiny frog is less than half the diameter of a dime.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The fish collection also holds recently discovered species, such as the Louisiana pancake batfish found in the Gulf of Mexico by Curator of Ichthyology (fish), Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty.  The fish collection is stored in a similar fashion to that of the reptiles and amphibians.  This method of preservation fixes the cells of organisms, making the genetic information inaccessible.  Thankfully, the museum boasts the largest genetic resources collection in the world.  Separate samples, such a fin clips, are stored in deep freeze below -80 degrees, and are requested by researchers all over the globe.

The applications for research and educational opportunities stemming from the LSU Museum of Natural Science are undeniable.  Though the public may not see the hours each staff member spends in the field, at the lab bench, or behind a computer screen, their contributions are making lives better.  Their work informs conservation practice and provides insight into the natural world we all seek to understand.  People like Valerie, the museum’s outreach coordinator, invite us into realms of science communicated through displays and dioramas.  They guide us through public museums, and sometimes give us the once in a lifetime chance to see what lies behind those doors.