Lessons in Water Cycling (and Animating!): Green Infrastructure in Providence, RI

Today I’m happy to share a new animation I’ve made! It’s about stormwater management in my home city: Providence, Rhode Island. This video is the first of a series of videos about stormwater in Rhode Island. The next two will feature case studies in green infrastructure—first in the Woonasquatucket River Watershed, and then in the seaside city of Newport (of mansion fame).

(SD) Lessons in Water Cycling: Green Infrastructure in Providence, RI from Steph Y on Vimeo.

Currently the City of Providence is unable to manage all of the rain it receives. Every year, stormwater carries an unhealthy amount of pollution into our waterways and causes flooding in our streets and basements. Much of Providence’s system of storm drains, catch basins and underground pipes hails back to the 19th century, when the city had far fewer buildings and much less pavement. Today, Providence has developed into a thriving city with around 180,000 inhabitants. As the city continues to grow, we need to search for new solutions that allow us to manage our stormwater while protecting our communities and environment.

This animation was a pleasure to make.  At the end of January, after seeing some of the science stop-motion animations I had made in the past, Meg Kerr from the Rhode Island Land and Water Partnership approached me about making a video that envisioned an urban landscape transformed by green stormwater practices. I spent a couple weeks researching stormwater impacts like pollution and flooding, as well as the solutions offered through green infrastructure.

I learned that cities like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Portland (OR), and Kansas City (MO) are already investing large sums of money into green, proactive ways to manage their stormwater. But I also realized that Providence is making noteworthy progress. Individual pioneers throughout Providence are reforming the way they manage stormwater, including organizations like The Steel Yard, The Box Office and Save the Bay. This year, the City of Providence received a $75,000 grant from the EPA to create a green infrastructure demonstration site near J.T. Owens Park by Mashapaug Pond, in large part because of many years of work and attention generated by a dedicated community organization called the Urban Pond Procession, which uses arts education to foster environmental awareness and sense of place around urban ponds in Rhode Island.

At the state level, Rhode Island’s stormwater manual sets an example for other states in the country by setting high standards for development that minimizes stormwater impacts. The Narrangansett Bay Commission is working on a large-scale project to abate the amount of contaminated sewage that enters our water through the outdated combined sewer overflows in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. And multiple municipalities and cities across the state are actively discussing the possibility of financing responsible stormwater management through user fees that would incentivize green infrastructure development.

All of these solutions of course come with costs. Restructuring our antiquated ways of stormwater management will be inevitably expensive, but it is necessary as our urban areas become more developed and stormwater becomes an increasing problem. It will be politically messy, and different stakeholders will voice different opinions. Still, I found that there was a  lot to feel optimistic about—as I hopefully conveyed in this video.

We did a screening of this animation and the one on the Woonsquatucket River Watershed at the 2014 Rhode Island Land and Water Conservation Summit, an inspiring event at which Alvaro Sanchez Sanchez, a Senior Associate at Green For All, gave the keynote address. Green For All is a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Though it is a large, successful organization, I never felt that it overshadowed the many inspiring organizations, ranging from the community grassroots to municipal to state level in Rhode Island, who shared their work at the summit. I met so many individuals who do much more work than anyone ever asked them to—because they truly care about their cause, whether it’s the protection of a local watershed, the health of a vulnerable community, the sense of place that a neighborhood feels, or the creation of a local bike path. I left the summit feeling rejuvenated and connected to a community of dedicated, thoughtful and energized changemakers.

To make this video, I started out with stills of handmade paper cut-outs and illustrations, then added in some Flash animation. Here are some behind-the-scenes photos from the process!

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This video was sponsored by the Rhode Island Land & Water Partnership (landandwaterpartnership.org/). Special thanks to Meg Kerr, Amie Parris, Holly Ewald and the Urban Pond Procession, the Rhode Island Foundation, Elizabeth Scott and the Division of Water Resources at Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, Sheila Dormody and the City of Providence’s Office of Sustainability, Lorraine Joubert and the University of RI’s Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials Program, Casey Dunn and the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University.

Animation by: Stephanie Yin

Music: “Brokenwater” by Melectric

For questions about the RI Land and Water Partnership, contact megkerr@cox.net.
For questions about the animation, contact stephanie.f.yin@gmail.com.

And make sure to check out ristormwatersolutions.org/ for more information on green infrastructure solutions to stormwater problems!

VIDEO: Green Crab Thangs

I spent several years in college researching the ecology of salt marshes in New England. My labmates and I were lucky to have a mentor, Mark Bertness, who readily supported science communication and outreach. A couple years ago, I made a stop-motion animation about our research, entitled Trophic Cascade of the Purple Marsh Crab, which ended up winning “Best Student Film” at the Beneath the Waves Film Festival held in conjunction with the Annual Benthic Ecology Meeting. I had been engrossed in the minutia of this science for a long time, so it was especially rewarding for me to use art and storytelling to share it with others.

Another labmate, Eric Axelman, chooses to communicate our research through a different medium: rap. Not only is Eric a great rapper, he is not afraid of pushing creative boundaries. He combines his narrative lyrics with jazz music and funky beats composed by friends, and always infuses his live performances with high amounts of energy and charisma. In 2012, he wrote a song entitled “Bertness Rock Anthem,” which took the salt marsh rap scene by storm.

Now, he’s back with another. On the surface, “Green Crab Thangs” is about the trials of being a green crab within the diverse assemblage of animals and plants found in salt marshes. But is this song really about crabs or even salt marshes? Decide for yourself:

(P.S. Eric let me play his disobedient green crab daughter in this video. What a blast to visit our familiar study sites armed with props and cameras instead of PVC and meter sticks.)

Other Bertness lab videos:

#SICB2014: Scientists, Let’s Talk About Narrative


Since this past August, I’ve been working with scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson. Randy has an inspiring story. After getting his PhD in biology from Harvard and becoming a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, he decided to switch gears completely and go to film school. He created several short films and documentaries, most notably Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. His latest project, Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking, is a book-app-workshop combo that aims to apply Hollywood’s storytelling strategies to technical communication.

In early January, I accompanied Randy to Austin, Texas to attend the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. His mission? To convince scientists of the need for narrative training in science communication. He delivered a plenary talk entitled “Storytelling Skills: Now mandatory for a career in science” and ran a storytelling workshop for scientists. In addition to helping out with the workshop, I  chronicled the weekend on Twitter. The experience is now Storified on Randy’s blog, The Benshi. I’m posting it here as well, with commentary and extra links—check it out!


Hey all! I co-wrote a piece on evolutionary vestiges in humans for a school publication. Here it is.


By Steph Yin and Sandeep Nayak

We were born and grew up in the briny blue, and even when we evolved to invade land, we never left the sea. We just brought it with us in our blood. Now the briny red bathes our innards. In evolution, function follows form. Each change occurs and can only occur on the substrate of those that came before it. Slowly the swim bladders of our marine past have been repurposed into lungs, while our gills and tails have receded, relegated only to the early stages of the embryo. As Mr. Darwin noted, “Organs or parts in this strange condition, bearing the stamp of inutility, are extremely common throughout nature.”

This stamp of inutility is the stamp of history. We are our creation incarnate, and vestigia are evolution’s clearest examples. These “useless” organs are not the failures of an idiotic design process, rather champions that have served their functions and now bask in retirement. Vestigia are clues to what we were, cues to be attentive to origins.

Let’s explore.

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When a cat swivels its eyes to attend to something, its ears follow. The cat has a reflex circuit that ties eye movements to the auricular muscles of the ear, allowing audition to track vision. Humans have the same muscles, though they are now entirely useless, save for some freaks who can wiggle them a bit. While these muscles do absolutely nothing, the reflex circuit is preserved.

Try it yourself: place your index fingers behind your ears, approximately behind the bony outgrowths of your mastoid processes. Now move your eyes vigorously from left to right. Feel that? That’s the slight twinge of incompetent muscles trying to budge.

When a cat’s eyes dart back and forth, it sends signals to the brainstem instructing the ears to follow suit. When our eyes dart back and forth, deafening anticlimax ensues.

When a cat’s eyes dart back and forth, it sends signals to the brainstem instructing the ears to follow suit. When our eyes dart back and forth, deafening anticlimax ensues.


Wisdom teeth removal is a shitty ordeal. For this hapless reporter, my gums refused to clot, so post-surgery I spent the day gobbing blood into a sink. Even after my platelets got their act together, the tender sinkholes that remained turned out to be especially effective food traps. My tongue grew stiff from excavating.

“Wisdom” teeth are teeth that no longer fit in our shrunken heads. Sure, dentists love the extra business, but why would the Creator have crammed so many teeth into a mouth so small? One explanation is the brain/jaw trade-off. Huge jaws are good for grinding leaves but not for housing a large brain. Which accommodated the other? Did the jaw suddenly shrink and the brain expand in the vacuum? Or did the growing brain force the jaw to compact?

Some pin it on mushy foods. When humans invented cooking and no longer had to chow down on bloody sinew, raw roots, and tough seeds, the premium on brawny jaws disappeared.This theory is supported in part by regional variations in jaw size and wisdom teeth prevalence—in some places where diets still include a lot of raw, tough foods, jaws tend to be larger and wisdom teeth more often develop normally.

What about dental hygiene itself? Before Sensodyne© and twice-yearly visits to the dentist, our ancestors would lose many of their chompers by puberty. For them, an extra set of understudies that erupted at the beginning of adulthood probably came in handy. Now that most of us can practice dental hygiene and keep our teeth in working order, these back-up molars just get in the way.

Which came first, big brains or small jaws?

Which came first, big brains or small jaws?


This is an easy one. Each of our hairs is attached to an arrector pili muscle, which can constrict to straighten the hair. Our mammal cousins use this to exaggerate their size in situations of fear or dominance display. The effect on a chimpanzee or cat is impressive. Alternatively, if it’s very cold the arrectores pilorum can make hair stand up to create a layer of insulation. Yet even the hairiest of humans don’t have enough hair for either of these functions.  All we get instead is an impotent rippling of gooseflesh.


Imagine a baby who having braved congenital malformations or medical malpractice emerges premature, battered yet alive, improbably miraculous. And the father who’d secretly harbored regrets all the while sees his newborn and places his finger into the baby’s impossibly tiny hand, and the hand squeezes in reply! The father swoons as he realizes he is witnessing a nascent will, the first volitional act of his progeny.

The poor sap doesn’t realize that this is nothing more than the palmar grasp reflex, to which premature infants are more susceptible. It is a holdover from the days of yore when our ancestor’s mothers were covered in body hair. The grasp reflex was useful in that it allowed infants to clutch on as their mothers ambled about the treetops. Nowadays, a baby relying on the same safety net would just make a feeble grasp at his mother’s waxed arms then plummet to the linoleum.

This reflex can recur in elderly individuals suffering from dementia and stroke patients who will involuntarily grab at whatever graces the surface of their palm. It is a clinical sign that bodes poorly.

Sentimental in appearance, this scene is nothing more than a baby reaching out for a reflexive squeeze.

Sentimental in appearance, this scene is nothing more than a baby reaching out for a reflexive squeeze.


We’re always hearing about the benefits of vitamin C. Oh, you’re sick? Better load up on some vitamin C. Pull on sweatpants, pop some Airborne or Emergen-C in your water bottle and listen to “Graduation” to remind you that you and your besties will be friends forever. Chug. Repeat.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to constantly supplement our diets with pills and fizzy drinks?

Most animals synthesize their own vitamin C. Notable exceptions include capybaras—the world’s largest rodents— and humans. If we don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, we grow morose, our teeth fall out, spots bloom across our skin and bleeding, pus-filled wounds erupt on our bodies.

This figures unexpectedly in colonial history. Colonizing scum can only travel so far before they die of scurvy. Introducing agriculture to South Africa gave Dutch sailors access to fresh fruits and veggies, a vitamin C pit stop on the way to maraud the East Indies. In fact, the chemical name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, literally means “lack of scurvy” (in Latin, scurvy is scorbutus).

We actually have broken remnants of vitamin C synthesis machinery in our DNA. The gene is there—it just no longer works. Why have we abandoned this valuable pathway? Why put ourselves at the mercy of citrus and kale?

For one, Vitamin C synthesis produces hydrogen peroxide—a reactive oxygen species that harms cells. By getting vitamin C from external sources, humans can avoid cell damage that results from synthesis. Moreover, we use vitamin C as a nutritional thermostat: when we don’t get enough of it, our bodies turn on the same system activated when we lack oxygen. Loss of vitamin C synthesis possibly helped our ancestors survive malaria, which has killed half of all humans. Vitamin C also counters the obesogenic quality of sugar; losing it might have helped our ancestors fatten up in scarce times.


The vomeronasal organ (VNO) is the most elusive vestige on this list. For animals in which it is fully functioning, the VNO is a pair of tubes located at the base of the nose that primarily detects pheromones. We know for sure that it is present in human embryos. The question is whether, like our tails, they telescope as we mature.


* Approximate location of the human vomeronasal organ.

Studies of the adult VNO have been erratic, with yeti-like variations in description of location, size, and even existence. These debates rage on with particular zest because the VNO’s existence is linked to the unresolved question of whether humans are sending each other a whole suite of covert social and sexual cues. These pheromones operate beyond our immediate senses, potentially shaping our attractions, moods, and basic bodily functions. We don’t know how large of a role these invisible chemicals play in our lives. While some may find it romantic to be governed by primal instincts, control freaks among us might revel in the thought that we exert more agency over our behaviors than most other mammals. Our strongest evidence for human pheromones is the syncing of menses.

In general, it doesn’t appear that there are active nerves or genes related to VNO function in humans. In fact, most of the evidence for a functional VNO comes from research conducted in the 1990s by a group from Utah. Coincidentally, funding for their research came from a corporation that makes personal care products containing steroids that Monti-Bloch and his colleagues claimed the VNO could detect—pheromones that would turn your date on. Their results have never been replicated.


Flehmen response: when an animal curls its upper lip back and inhales to help waft pheromones into the vomeronasal organ located above the roof of the mouth.
Duckface: when an eligible millennial pushes its lips together to give the impression of having larger lips and cheekbones.


As far as anyone can tell, hiccups also serve no useful function in humans. What is a hiccup, physiologically? It is a spasm of the diaphragm with an accompanying reflex that slams shut the glottis, resulting in a sound that is difficult to reproduce in text. They are mostly harmless, but if chronic can take a turn for the pathological.

“Prolonged hiccup is a rare but disabling condition which can induce depression, weight loss, and sleep deprivation. A wide variety of pathological conditions can cause chronic hiccup: myocardial infarction, brain tumor, renal failure, prostate cancer, abdominal surgery, etc.” (Eur Respir J. 1993 Apr;6(4):563-75). Even lupus can cause chronic hiccup! The pathophysiology of this debilitating disease is not well defined, but pharmacological therapy can include anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, intravenous lidocaine, or even the dissociative club drug/horse tranquilizer ketamine.

A less-involved treatment is stimulation of the vagus nerve, which innervates the diaphragm. This was known even by the godless Greeks. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes once began to speak but was seized by a bout of hiccups. Eryximachus advised: “If you hold your breath a long time perhaps the hiccups will be willing to stop. But if not, gargle with water, and if they’re very severe, grab something you think will tickle your nose and make yourself sneeze!” These last two are ways of stimulating the vagal nerve. To the ancient’s recommendation I would add the gag reflex.

Hiccupping is a bizarre activity. The muscles of inspiration contract, as if to suck in wind, but then reflexively close off the windpipe. This makes little sense, except perhaps for an amphibious creature who would use an inspiratory action plus glottal closing to move water across its gills while preventing it from entering its lungs. Perhaps like gill slits, the hiccup is a holdover from an amphibious existence. Babies in utero are seen to hiccup before they ever breathe, and premature infants can spend up to 2.5 percent of their time hiccuping. Moreover, when a tadpole’s lungs are full of air, it is less likely to gill ventilate. This seems suspiciously like taking a deep breath and holding it to stop hiccups. One theory suggests that normal breathing evolved using the amphibious hiccup-like respiratory pattern generator as a scaffold (note that hiccups usually have a regular rate), but that this defunct circuit can occasionally resurface, as when my mom gets drunk. Who knows if it’s true? It’s just a theory.


Anyone who has a cat or dog has probably caught the occasional glimpse of a third eyelid–a translucent screen that sometimes creeps across the eye when the animal is falling asleep.

This third eyelid, also called a haw, nictitating membrane or plica semiluminaris, lets animals protect, moisten, and clear debris from their eyes while still being able to see what’s going on. Manatees use them to see underwater, peregrine falcons to protect their eyes on 200 mile-per-hour dives for prey, aardvarks to ward off bites from the termites they eat, polar bears to filter UV light from blindingly white snow, and woodpeckers to prevent injury when drilling wood.

In humans, the nictitating membrane has shrunken down to a fold of tissue near the fleshy pink bulb at the inner corner of our eyes where crusty flotsam accumulates in the mornings. It’s unclear why we humans don’t have fully functioning nictitating membranes. Granted, unlike some three-lidded creatures, we’re not constantly diving underwater, dealing with thrashing prey, or getting sand in our eyes. But think about it—we could see underwater, look at solar eclipses, ski without goggles, open our eyes in a sandstorm, conduct carefree chemistry experiments, and bike in the rain! Just to name a few examples.

The plica semilunaris is a flap of remnant tissue from our ancestors’ third eyelids.

The plica semilunaris is a flap of remnant tissue from our ancestors’ third eyelids.

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So THAT’s what all the origami was about…

Any of my friends can tell you that over the last few months I’ve been cultivating my origami skills — as evidenced by the constant photo documenting with which I’ve bombarded them all.

I’ve always enjoyed doing origami, and decided to use the making of this stop motion animation as an excuse to do a lot of it.

Origami starts off being incredibly frustrating. Instruction sets use cryptic annotations that command specific folding maneuvers, sometimes corresponding to multi-step fold sequences, which you’re expected to know. Some diagrams make it incredibly unclear how you got from one step to the next. You might try to circumvent the challenge of interpreting 3-D actions from 2-D diagrams by watching a video tutorial, but those too can be unclear or painstakingly slow.

Eventually, though, I began to notice this creeping intuition arise. Not only was I able to glance at a set of instructions and easily understand what I needed to do, I could even at times anticipate the steps I needed to perform to create a certain shape or structure. It reminded me of instances when, after days of running through practice problems for my organic chemistry class, I finally understood how to look at a synthesis problem and envision a pathway for how the reaction occurred. It became very clear to me that origami is an entire way of thinking and visualizing space. Being able to look at a flat sheet of paper and understand how to create a three-dimensional entity without making any cuts or insertions? That requires an awareness of space and folding that seems nothing short of magic to me. 

Around this time I also began to realize how many diverse applications of origami there are. Just to give you an idea, here’s a smattering: studying crash impacts in vehiclesassembling DNA structurescreating stents to open clogged passageways in our bodies; understanding how pollen grains combat dehydration and boosting solar panel productivity. The list goes on, and incorporates diverse examples across disciplines.

On a whim, I thought it would be cool to make a stop-motion animation using origami. From that journey, I came away with a life-long appreciation for the possibilities of origami and its impressive repertoire of applications. I’m definitely still an amateur folder, but I’m excited to explore the various tessellations and fractal-outgrowths of this medium.

I’ll leave you all with the trailer of Between the Folds, a documentary on origami that I haven’t seen yet, but hope to watch real soon. If you’ve seen it, let me know what you thought!




How Did the Seahorse Get its Shape?

Big thanks to Scientific American and Carin Bondar for featuring my latest stop motion animation about seahorse evolution!

Check it out here.

P.S. On the note of stop motion animations you should check out — one of my favorite blogs, CreatureCast, was recently featured in the Science Times! CreatureCast animations will now be distributed in partnership with the Science Times. The first episode on “Sex in Spoonworms” is definitely worth a watch!

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Mys / tic / al

I can’t remember when I developed my first tic or, for that matter, what qualified as my first official “tic”. As early as first grade, I made a habit of repeatedly bringing my tongue to my nose. In third grade, a chronic case of itchy eyes made me blink violently like a camera shutter every few minutes. The blinking lasted at least a couple years, periodically waxing and waning in its intensity.

In middle school, the itch traveled to my throat and ears. I cleared my throat repeatedly to scratch it. I tried to do it softly so it wasn’t too intrusive. Still, I am certain it was agitating to anyone close enough to hear the recurring sounds of air scraping against gravely throat tissue.

By the time I got to high school, the bodily urges became a facet of everyday life. I had cycled through them all — sniffling, grunting, throat clearing, burping, nose twitching, neck stretching, head jerking, belly spasming, shoulder shrugging.

Though these habits were constant companions, I never gave them a name and I didn’t acknowledge them as tics. They weren’t exactly reflexive, but they weren’t voluntary either. They helped me get by. Similar to the urge I’d feel to yawn or stretch or sneeze or scratch an itch, tics were motions that I felt compelled to carry out. They dispelled the discomfort I constantly felt throughout my body.

My mannerisms became real to me as “tics” when people started noticing them — and then even more real when people started associating me with my tics.

Around middle school, I became hyper-aware of how others perceived me. For a while, my dominant tic was to sharply contract my stomach over and over. Every time I tightened my stomach, I’d let out a short, sudden burst of air. I guess it sounded like I was quietly chuckling to myself, because on more than one occasion the person next to me looked over and asked what was so funny. My tics began to make me feel self-conscious.

I remember the first time I was made to feel ashamed of my tics. A boy named Isaiah called out to me in passing, “Hey, I heard you have Tourette’s!” I immediately felt small, transported back to childhood when my mother scolded me for licking the spot between my nose and upper lip raw, or when she demanded my doctors tell her first what was wrong with my eyes, then throat, then belly.

Isaiah was one of those kids in high school who derived their popularity from putting other kids down. Like a puffer fish, he expanded himself to appear larger than he actually was. As a kid, I always let puffer fish intimidate me with their spines and toxins. It was only later that I’d learn that puffer fish actually have a lot to compensate for ­— they’re relatively small and extremely slow, which can make them an easy target of predation. Though today I’d write off an Isaiah character in my life with relative ease, at the time his words lodged like shrapnel in my mind.

I had never heard of Tourette’s, but I knew, based on the way Isaiah had said it, that it was something undesirable, or laughable. I looked it up on-line — a neuropsychiatric disorder of uncertain etiology. In other words, its exact causes are unknown. And there’s no simple way to fix it.

I’ve been a spaz for most of my life. Easily stressed and easily excitable, my emotional pendulum swings readily between extreme states of high energy.

When I brought up my tics to my mom, she attributed them to an excess amount of “internal heat”, an idea that comes from traditional Chinese medicine. Internal heat was also the reason why I was prone to canker sores, acne and nosebleeds — and beyond those, impulsivity, worry and a quick temper.

The thought expanded in me like a hot-air balloon. I accepted that I was filled with internal heat; that the molecules in my body vibrated at a higher frequency. I equated it with passion, vigor and fieriness. I seized the idea that I contained some overabundance of energy, and that this excess energy leaked — leapt, rather — out of my body in the form of tics.

I wanted to sync myself with these high frequency vibrations and use up every ounce of energy I could. Maybe, if I could harness and use the energy, less of it would escape in unwanted twitches and convulsions.

I started to approach life with the goal of using as much raw energy as possible. I made sure to take the hardest classes and took on leadership roles in too many extracurricular activities. I trained in taekwondo, tried to teach myself new instruments, made ambitious art projects and started many an unfinished novel. I was cruising down the fast lane, trying to fit in as many sights and experiences as possible.

In my late teens, I traveled to Mexico, where a Mayan gave me an astrology reading based on the date and year of my birth and told me that I was born on a day of “double energy.” When I asked him if this had anything to do with my tics, he explained that the tics were a manifestation of this double energy. I simply hadn’t learned how to balance the extra energy inside me yet.

The explanation made me feel mystical. Whereas my mother’s explanation of “internal heat” made me feel like I was pathologically unbalanced, the astrologer’s explanation made me feel extraordinary. Here was a man telling me that I was born on a day so auspicious that I was bestowed with twice the amount of energy that everyone else received. I didn’t mind believing that my tics held some sort of cosmic magic. I felt like I had a secret to keep.

Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the science behind tics. Clinically, there’s a lot that’s unknown about them. I know that, at any given time, I have both motor and phonic tics — motor tics involving movements, and phonic tics involving sounds through the nose, mouth or throat. I also know that I have simple tics — any combination of sudden, brief movements or sounds — as opposed to complex tics, which are more coordinated and longer lasting, such as pulling at clothes, touching objects or repeating words.

I classify as having Tourette’s syndrome, which entails having multiple motor tics and at least one phonic tic at the same time. Although people commonly associate Tourette’s with the yelling of inappropriate words or comments, this symptom is actually only present in a handful of people with Tourette’s. There is no effective treatment for all cases of Tourette’s, but tics can indicate the presence of other conditions, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Recently, I was video chatting with my family when my mom suddenly interrupted the conversation to ask us all to please stop twitching. “It’s really distracting,” she said.

At first, I was confused. What did she mean, we were “all twitching?” I was the only one that twitched.

It dawned on me, only then, that for as long as I can remember, my brother and dad have had tics too. I just never recognized them for what they were. My dad’s tendencies to repeatedly clear his throat and raise his eyebrows have always just been part of who he is. My brother’s constant nostril flaring and thumb fidgeting were just funny habits he had picked up as a kid.

It wasn’t until my mom pointed it out that I realized she is the only one among us to not have some sort of strange, repetitive body motion to act out. It was a relief to realize that I wasn’t the only one. Knowing that we were a family of tics, I felt less alienated.

At the same time, I felt pangs of disappointment. I had been attributing a higher cosmic significance to my tics without considering the simple possibility that they’re written out in my DNA. Perhaps my body has just been acting out my genes’ instructions.

Nobody knows exactly why tics happen, but they are likely due to some combination of hereditary and environmental causes. I may be genetically predisposed to my tics, and I may also have picked up some behaviors from my dad. Either explanation is, frankly, more boring than internal heat or astrological karma.

Over the years though, I’ve realized that my tics are supernatural in their own way. I’ve learned to read my tics and think of them as messengers between my body and brain. I can tell if I’m at ease with someone by how often I have to strain the muscles in my neck. I twitch more when I haven’t slept enough. If I’m trying to accomplish something and my shoulder is starting to cramp up from twitching too much, it’s usually a sign that I should give it a break. Stop and breathe, go for a walk or take a nap. Take a step back before I get lost in the heat of the moment ­­— or, by my mother’s paradigm, the heat coursing through my body.

Most recently, my tics have revealed how uncomfortable I am having free time to myself. In the rare moments when I have down time on my own and decide to read a book or watch a movie, I start twitching violently and frequently. My mind wanders, and my body feels the need to act out all of the non sequiturs racing through my mind.

Then there are the moments, glorious and rare, when I am so wholly entranced or absorbed by something that I forget to twitch altogether. This may happen when I am dancing, cooking, hiking, making art, taking an exam, doing fieldwork, driving to a good podcast or playlist, exercising or hitting a good stride in writing. I am, for once, comfortable with the energy in my body.

In those instances of complete fixation, everything goes still and quiet. It’s a moment of silence after nothing but television static, or a spell of smooth sailing after constant assault by sea spray. It’s standing in a loud and crowded space, feeling claustrophobic, when suddenly a flock of birds spirals through, and everyone stops to observe in collective awe.

For the most part though, my tics are always there. I twitch almost constantly, particularly during moments when I’m excited or stressed, as I’m prone to be. I am figuring out how to listen to my tics so I can be kinder to my body and mind. But I no longer feel the need to view my tics as a roadmap for how to live life. I no longer feel like I am missing some perfect balance of energy that would magically eliminate my tics.

Given the choice to eliminate them, I don’t think I would. There are moments, when my stomach hurts from all the contractions or my shoulder blades are sore from so much shrugging, when I crave stillness and wish my body would just take a break. But I remember that my tics connect me to my family, and that they keep me in tune with what I’m feeling when I engage with a person, situation or activity. My tics are as much a part of my physical self as my gait or posture. Many friends express that they’ve grown fond of my tics — “they’re part of you,” they say, “I can’t imagine you without them.”

In some ways, I can’t imagine not having them either. There is security in knowing that they are there. I feel that I am always occupied — even if it’s just with the task of not staying still.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to be a slightly tighter-strung person. I’ve learned that I’ll have times in my life when I feel compelled to live fast and furiously, and other times when I need to take it easy so I don’t get burnt out. Perhaps my tics are not a bestowment of luck from the Mayan gods. But I think I’m okay with making my own luck.

Piecing together a Martian atmosphere

Curiosity is looking for a smoking gun of life — methane. Its first tests, however, have come back negative.

Signs of methane might point to methane-producing microbes in Mars soils. These microbes, along with other animals like termites and cows, account for about 90% of the methane in our own atmosphere. A simple carbon-containing gas, methane also often serves as an ingredient for more complex organic molecules that sustain life.

But NASA scientists say the Mars rover Curiosity has found virtually no methane at its landing site, Gale Crater. They currently place the upper limit on methane at five parts-per-billion, an amount that is expected to drop even further after statistical analyses.

Still, they have not come away empty-handed. Chemical analysis of these first atmospheric samples indicates that the Martian atmosphere was once much thicker, possibly explaining the past existence of liquid water on the planet’s surface.

Scientists determined this by looking at variants of the gases in Mars’ atmosphere. Though they are the same type of molecules, these variants, or isotopes, have different masses.

Ratios of these isotopes are much heavier than expected on Mars. This skew toward heavy gases suggests that the planet has been losing its atmosphere, a process that removes light isotopes and leaves behind heavy ones.

This explanation corresponds with evidence that water once flowed across the planet’s surface. A thicker atmosphere in the past would have likely been able to trap more heat and warm the planet enough to keep water liquid.

Continuing to study these isotopes will help researchers determine the processes that shape the Martian atmosphere.

As for methane, they have not called off the search just yet. Methane might be released both locally and seasonally, so scientists plan to keep sampling at different spatial and temporal scales.

P.S. Check out this endearing Curiosity piece from the New Yorker. It is old, but delightful.

Scientists, Channel Your Inner Darwins and Einsteins

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he intended for it to be read by a non-scientific audience. In addition to around 300 scientific papers, Albert Einstein published more than 150 non-scientific works throughout his career.

Arguably the most successful scientists in recent history, Darwin and Einstein conducted brilliant scientific work while staying in the public eye. In addition to their prolific scientific careers, both scientists regularly contributed to the prevailing political, religious and ethical conversations of their time.

Today, however, far fewer scientists are willing to engage with the public the way Darwin and Einstein so readily did. A 2004 report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) stated that nearly half of all scientists engaged in no public outreach at all. When the not-for-profit public education and advocacy group Research!America surveyed Americans in 2011, it found that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name a single living scientist.

Today’s scientists seem to have adopted the notion that public participation necessitates some compromise of scholarly success. The metrics by which scientists are evaluated enforce this notion. A scientist’s institutional worth is determined by his or her research output, not ability to connect with society. At major research institutions, publication record, recognition in their field and the grant money they bring to the university constitute the bulk of how scientists are evaluated for tenure.

Outreach efforts “count little, sometimes nothing, towards tenure,” wrote Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, in a recent publication of the American Physical Society. “Sometimes they actually hurt. Communicating science can be seen as unprofessional.”

Evaluations for grant money are not much better than those for tenure. Though the NSF requires that scientists include in their grant proposals an explanation of their study’s broader impacts, many researchers have found the parameters of “broader impacts” to be frustratingly vague and undefined.

“Because it lacks conceptual clarity, the broader-impacts requirement often leaves researchers unsure about what to include in their proposals,” Corie Lok, an editor at Nature wrote in a feature for the publication. “To make matters worse, the NSF has made little attempt to systematically track how its broader-impacts requirements are being met, or how much grant money is being spent in the process.”

The absence of scientists’ voices from the public discourse is the product of a system that not only fails to incentivize and reward scientific communication, but even sometimes actively discourages it.

Lackluster public participation from scientists is problematic for many reasons. Because scientists are closest to the science, they are in the best position to convey it accurately. They also wield tremendous authority, which gives them the opportunity to impact a large audience. An annual survey conducted by the Harris Poll consistently finds that scientists rank among the most respected professions in America, along with firefighters and doctors. When scientists speak, people will listen.

When scientists perform their research in a vacuum — gaining new knowledge and then neglecting to share it — they are doing a disservice to society. It’s akin to a discovering a shiny new penny and then throwing it into the bottom of a well, where it will sit unnoticed.

If we want scientists to share their discoveries, however, we first need to give them permission to do so. We can start by making it part of their job description. Tenure and grants are major components of a scientist’s livelihood. Making scientific outreach a more significant, visible and well-defined facet of tenure and grant evaluations could catalyze a much-needed shift in scientists’ attitudes toward public participation.

Recently, a group of sociologists conducted research on how academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. “Scientists who popularize or make science too accessible are suspect by their research community. Such efforts could be better recognized at the department and university levels,” they wrote in a 2012 publication in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. “Leadership at the departmental level not only legitimizes outreach efforts but, in this case, even makes them normative. And making outreach work seem normal is a sign that department and university leaders are reassessing their priorities.”

Aside from providing a larger service to society, institutions are also likely to benefit directly from prioritizing public outreach. By prompting researchers to scrutinize their work in a different light, science communication can enhance the quality of research. In thinking about their projects’ broader implications, scientists might develop new ideas or seek interdisciplinary collaborations. According to Nancy Baron, zoologist and science writer, “being a good communicator makes you a better scientist.”

Having scientists play a direct role in outreach can also raise popular opinion of and support for scientific research. This is particularly important during economic recessions, when the public might have less patience for government funding of basic research. Funding entities are more likely to support research that they believe holds some societal merit — that merit could lie in direct application to people’s lives, the potential to inform policy or public perception of excitement and intrigue.

“We’re entering a century of science in which we’ll have to save ourselves by using our own ingenuity,” said Paul Sereno, a dinosaur researcher at the University of Chicago. “We scientists need to participate in showing how exciting our profession is, rather than sitting back in our offices and enjoying it all for ourselves.”

Opponents of institutionalizing science outreach argue that forcing researchers to engage in anything other than research does not make the most of their talents — that scientists’ time is best spent actually doing science. But this argument does not hold water. We ask scientists to teach classes, even if teaching is not their forte, because, as experts of their subjects, they are often best equipped to do so. We ask them to deliver lectures and seminars even if they are not great orators.

Furthermore, outreach can take many different forms — and scientists can tailor outreach according to their personal interests or skills. They can write op-eds, advise politicians, produce videos or podcasts, engage in social media, lead workshops, give public lectures, make websites that are accessible to a lay audience; there are endless creative options.

For anyone who believes that public engagement and academic output are mutually exclusive, I refer them to Darwin and Einstein — both of whom left behind not just scientific, but also civic, legacies. It’s time to create an institutional environment in which scientists like them are allowed to thrive.