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Peek Into Tiny Crime Scenes Hand-Built by an Obsessed Millionaire

At first glance, the miniatures in the Maryland medical examiner’s office look like ordinary dollhouses. But look inside, and each is a carefully crafted crime scene, right down to the tiny murder weapons and minuscule clues.

And it’s all based on true crimes. Frances Glessner Lee, heir to International Harvester’s tractor and farm equipment fortune, was transfixed by criminal investigations. Much to her family’s dismay, she spent much of her life—and a small fortune—building dioramas depicting the scenes of real crimes in New England, incorporating evidence that’s still used to train investigators in crime scene analysis. Even today, the clues woven into her dioramas are closely guarded secrets.

Glessner Lee called the scenes Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and she built them with a grand purpose: to elevate gumshoe cops into an elite squad of homicide detectives. She founded a department of legal medicine at Harvard and a weeklong seminar, still held annually in Baltimore, using the dioramas to teach the art of observation and the science of crime scene analysis.

(To see more of the dioramas, click through the gallery at the top of this story, with photos by National Geographic photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg.)

Not only are the Nutshell dioramas still used to train investigators, but Glessner Lee overcame her outsider status to become a well-regarded criminalist of her day. Today she’s often called the “mother of forensic science.”  

She built the deathly dioramas in the 1940s and ‘50s on a scale of one inch to one foot, shrinking down details that she pulled from autopsy reports, police records, and witnesses—tempered with a dose of obfuscation. Sometimes she changed names and dates in her scene descriptions, and she took liberties with details that weren’t essential as evidence, such as wallpaper and decor. She spent as much on some of the miniatures as a full-size house cost at the time, says Bruce Goldfarb, executive assistant to the chief medical examiner of Maryland and de facto curator of the dioramas.

Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

“It couldn’t be toylike at all. They had to be as gritty and realistic as possible,” Goldfarb says.

In one, a woman lies dead in a bathtub, plastic water frozen in time as it streams across her face. Her home is shabby. The linoleum in front of the wooden commode is rubbed bare as if from years of use.

“What blows my mind is the boards under the sink are water-stained. It has no significance at all, but nothing escaped her observation,” says Goldfarb.

Glessner Lee’s attention to detail is legendary. Sometimes entire rooms were constructed that couldn’t even be seen without taking the diorama apart, and she once insisted, Goldfarb says, that a tiny rocking chair should rock the same number of times after being pushed as its full-size counterpart. “There was real plaster and lath; those walls have studs, and the doors are framed,” he says.

The dioramas speak not just to a macabre obsession, but to Glessner Lee’s passion for and fascination with the victims she depicted, many of which were women, in her 19 known dioramas (she’s thought to have made at least 20).

“This was a society woman, a millionairess, and it’s striking who’s portrayed,” says Goldfarb. “Most are marginalized, alcoholics or prostitutes—poor people living quite desperate lives. She chose to document the lives of people who were far removed from her social circles.”

Max Aguilera-Hellweg is the photographer who shot the images above for National Geographic’s July feature story on forensic science. His eerie photos spotlight the victims in the dioramas as well.

“I look at photography as mathematics, and this was using light and subtraction to reveal what’s important to me,” he says. No one is allowed to touch the fragile dioramas, so the photographer spent hours setting up each shot using tiny flashlights and positioning the camera to put the viewer inside the crime scenes.

As a former medical doctor who had declared death, Aguilera-Hellweg thought he had seen it all. He has photographed autopsies, surgeries, and dead bodies, but says he was shocked to learn of the Nutshell dioramas for the first time. “I didn’t know they existed,” he says.

After three days of staring at the scenes, Aguilera-Hellweg says he thinks he may have picked up on a few important clues. “What can the crime scene tell you by looking at what’s there? That what Frances Glessner Lee wanted to teach,” he says. “It’s all about the art of observation.”

Read more about the state of forensic science today in “How Science Is Putting a New Face on Crime Solving” and a companion quiz feature, “Can You Rule Out Suspects Using Faces Drawn From DNA?”

Come See an Allosaurus Excavation in Action!

It’s the time of the year for dinosaurs. As the weather warms and the days grow long, paleontologists strike out across the west in search of fossils ready to be exhumed from their Mesozoic tombs. I spend as much time as I can among the outcrops, too, and this year I’m especially excited about volunteering at an exceptionally-rich Allosaurus bonebed.

Eastern Utah’s Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry has yielded the remains of over 46 individual Allosaurus of various ages and sizes, not to mention bones from other dinosaurian contemporaries. But why Allosaurus should be so abundant in this one place is a mystery, and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh paleontologist Joe Peterson has been returning to the site for several years to dig up new clues about the 150 million year old grave.

The active Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry bonebeds are kept safe beneath these buildings. Photo by Brian Switek.
The active Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry bonebeds are kept safe beneath these buildings. Photo by Brian Switek.

I was lucky enough to spend a day at the quarry with Peterson and his crew last summer. (A dream come true, especially given that the remains at the quarry inspired my science ink.) Now I’m going back for a week of scraping away at the Jurassic jumble. Both Peterson and I will be sharing updates from the field on Twitter with the hashtag #CLDQ2014, and I’ll post a summary of the trip sometime after I return, but there’s another option for those in the beehive state. If you’re intrepid enough to drive out to the site this week, you can see the excavation in action.

About an hour outside of Price, Utah, and one of the many stops on the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway, the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is run by the Bureau of Land Management and open to the public. If you’re in Utah and have the time, you can drive right up to the visitor center and pop down to the quarry to see Peterson’s crew and I digging away at the exposed bonebed from Monday to Friday. You’ll want to call ahead to check the quarry’s operating hours, but if you’ve ever wanted to see dinosaurs as they’re coming out of the ground, this is your chance.

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Romania’s Science Problem: A Tale of Two Florins (Part 2)

In September of 2010, Florin Albeanu traveled from New York, home of his neuroscience lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, to Bucharest, Romania, the city where he lived the first 19 years of his life, for an unusual scientific meeting.

The Romanian government had invited Albeanu and many other Romanian scientists working abroad to the meeting, called Diaspora in Scientific Research and Higher Education in Romania, to discuss the problems facing the country’s scientific enterprise (or lack of it). Corruption, incompetence and cheating is rampant in Romanian universities and government agencies. This has led to a dearth of funding and training opportunities, impeding researchers from doing any science at all, let alone publishing their results internationally recognized journals. Like Florin Ţibu, the subject of last week’s post, Florin Albeanu had seen this problem firsthand.

Albeanu grew up in Bucharest, in a culture of fear and economic hardship created by communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Albeanu vividly remembers the omnipresent political propaganda — not only the state-controlled television and radio, but ceremonies where his family, friends or neighbors gathered, begrudgingly, to sing songs about the greatness of Romania and Ceaușescu. Albeanu was 11 years old when Ceaușescu was executed, in 1989. Immediately after it happened, “there was a lot of hope for a drastic and very rapid change,” he says. “But in the following five to ten years, things changed very, very slowly.”

In high school, Albeanu excelled at math and science, and competed in science olympiads in Romania and other European countries. “You hear about how things are around you, hear what the opportunities are abroad,” he says. “It was a very strong drive.”

Albeanu applied to colleges in the U.S. but was not accepted, so he went to the University of Bucharest to study biochemistry. He was quickly disillusioned by the curriculum. Nearly all of his classes were dry lectures with no student discussion. “Then the exam comes and you just regurgitate what they told you,” he says. Worse, most of his professors did not do scientific research. So he sent another round of applications to American colleges. This time, it worked. He transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the beginning of his sophomore year.

Albeanu has been in the U.S. ever since, climbing the ladder of academic research. He did his graduate work in neuroscience at Harvard, followed by a fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor. In 2010, he launched his own lab there, focused on the neural circuits underlying smell. But Albeanu hasn’t forgotten the problems of Romania, where his mother, brother, and many friends still live. He only knows of a couple of labs in Romania that do neuroscience research. “And even those are extremely limited in what they can do because of resources,” he says. State-of-the-art neuroscience requires an investment in technologies — like electrophysiological rigs, optical microscopes, and genetically engineered animals — that Romanian scientists simply can’t afford.

But the real problem, he says, is human resources. “Because money you find ways to get. But you need to find people that are interested in the same ideas, same questions as you are. Without having enough people to talk to, it’s very hard to shoot ideas.”

Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament on a dreary December day
Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament on a dreary December day

All of that is to say that Albeanu happily accepted the invitation to the Diaspora conference. It consisted of workshops at various Romanian universities as well as discussion sessions at the Palace of the Parliament, the largest building in the world outside of the Pentagon (and a 3.7 million-square-foot reminder of Ceaușescu’s despotism). For Albeanu, the most productive part of the meeting came on the next-to-last evening, at a fun, informal reception at a sports club in Bucharest. There, while mingling in an outdoor garden, he met fellow neuroscientist Raul Mureșan, one of those rare Romanians actually doing science in Romania.

In the late 1990s, Mureșan studied computer science at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, located in the northwest (Vampire-rich) region of Romania called Transylvania. His education was top notch, he says, as IT is one of the few thriving industries in Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe. But both of his parents were doctors, and he was always drawn to their medical books. By the end of college, he had taught himself the basics of computational neuroscience, a field that blended computers and medicine. For his thesis, he created an algorithm that could crudely recognize cars and faces in real time. Thanks to a personal connection of one of the professors on his thesis committee, a company called Nivis hired Mureșan to continue this research on its dime.

From there, Mureșan began to publish some of his work and forge collaborations with neuroscientists in other European countries. He convinced Wolf Singer in Frankfurt, Germany, to sponsor his doctoral training (and later, the training of several other Romanians). Mureșan earned his Ph.D. in 2005 and started a postdoctoral fellowship in Singer’s lab. But his plan, always, was to return to Romania.

He was finally able to do so in 2007, when the Romanian government — seeing modest economic growth and optimism from joining the European Union — launched an ambitious new plan for scientific research. It offered large grants to incentivize Romanian scientists working abroad to come home, and Mureșan got one. He joined a new non-profit institute in Cluj called the Center for Cognitive and Neural Studies and has been there ever since.

Raul Mureșan
Raul Mureșan

The 2010 Diaspora conference was a time of much enthusiasm, Mureșan says. “We felt that Romanian science is finally going to be put on the right track and we felt we had a part to play in this process. I still remember that I had a very good feeling back then and lots of hope.”

After they met at the garden party, Albeanu pitched an idea to Mureșan: What if they created a summer neuroscience course in Romania to teach graduate students and postdocs the latest techniques in neuroscience? The course would be held in Romania and taught by experts from all over the world. It would be open to students from anywhere, to keep the standards high, but would over time attract more and more students from Romania and Eastern Europe. It was a very small solution to a very big problem, they knew, but might be fun, at very least.

Mureșan was enthusiastic from the get-go. “It was a way to put Romanian neuroscience on the map,” he says. Over the next few months, the two began making plans by email. Funding was their biggest challenge. The project would cost about 50,000 euros, all told, to cover lodging and lab space for about a dozen students for two weeks, as well as the equipment and travel expenses of guest lecturers. After more than a year of applying for loads of different grants, they finally received 18,000 euros from a large Romanian government agency. Most of the rest was covered by fees of 1,400 euros per student.

Forty students applied for the course, but only one was living in Romania. That’s partly due to the cost, which is prohibitive for most Romanians, but also because of a lack of qualifications. “Unfortunately, this guy’s application was not very good,” Albeanu says. “So we debated for awhile: Should we take him because he’s from Romania, or try to keep our standards high?” They rejected the application. In the end, though, 3 of the 13 summer students turned out to be native Romanians getting training abroad.

Students in the summer neuroscience course walking the Transylvanian hills

The course happened last summer, in a pension on a lake outside of a picturesque Transylvanian village. (You can see many photos and read more about the course on Cold Spring Harbor’s news blog, Lab Dish.)

One of the goals of the course was to teach students how to build their own microscopes, a significant cost-cutter should they ever launch their own labs (in Romania or anywhere else). The students also learned how to record the electrical activity of neurons in live mice. Getting the animals to Romania was, as you might imagine, a paperwork nightmare.

Everybody had a great time. But it’s difficult, of course, to know how much of an impact the course had on those students’ scientific careers, or on the overall visibility of Romanian science. They’re doing it again this summer. Albeanu and Mureșan were able to raise more funding for it this time, cutting the fee to about 500 euros and hopefully attracting more students from Eastern Europe.

Both Albeanu and Mureșan consider the course a success, for slightly different reasons. Mureșan enjoys the excitement and challenge of creating something from the ground up. It’s the same reason he has continued to do science in Romania, despite knowing that his publication output would be greater if working from Germany. “I can make a much larger difference here,” he says. “The satisfaction is bigger because I feel like I’m building something.”

Albeanu is a bit less enthusiastic. He doesn’t think the course will make much of a difference in the next 2, 5 or even 10 years. But he strongly believes that many small moves over long periods of time will eventually turn the tide. “You have to be very patient, but you don’t have to be pessimistic,” he says. “Obviously, things will change in time.”

What’s remarkable, to me, is that the other Florin — Florin Ţibu, who came back to Romania after years abroad — believes essentially the same thing: that despite all of the deep, systemic problems surrounding Romanian science, things will change for the better, eventually. From an outsider’s perspective, their optimism may seem passive, or naive. But then again, these men have lived through far worse times and witnessed far more dramatic revolutions.


Update: The text has been changed to reflect that the Romanian funding agency that gave 18,000 euros for the course was not obscure, but large. Also, Albeanu launched his lab in 2010, not 2011.

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Romania’s Science Problem: A Tale of Two Florins (Part 1)

On September 12, 2001, as many of us recoiled from television footage of airplanes on fire, 25-year-old Florin Ţibu headed to the Bucharest airport. For him, the day’s line-up would be chaotic, yes, but also exciting: his first flight, his first trip outside of Romania, and the first step of his new life as a scientist.

Ţibu flew to London’s Heathrow airport, and it was everything he expected of the West — clean, friendly, and full of overpriced fast food restaurants. After another flight and a long drive, he reached his new home at Liverpool Hope University. He was in the U.K. for a year, working on a Master’s degree in psychology. A few years later, he came back to England for his doctorate. Then, shiny new Ph.D. in hand, Ţibu did what the vast majority of Romanians who get professional training abroad do not: He went home.

I met Ţibu in November, in Bucharest. He is a post-doctoral fellow for the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, or BEIP, a 13-year study tracking the brain and behavioral development of Romanian orphans. I had gone to Bucharest to shadow Charles Nelson, one of the three U.S. scientists who launched BEIP, and to meet some of the orphans. But Ţibu opened my eyes to another problem. Romania, a democratic country of 19 million people and part of the European Union, has shockingly few scientists, and even fewer successful scientists.

The problem is complex but boils down to too little money and too much corruption. Nature reporters Alison Abbott and Quirin Schiermeier have been closely following Eastern European science over the past few years. As their pieces attest, Romania’s university system is based largely on meaningless titles and personal connections, and few science professors actually do scientific research. The country has also been through several high-profile plagiarism scandals; even its prime minister seems to have plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. In 2009, a young, foreign-trained chemist named Daniel Funeriu became the country’s research and education minister, and enacted reforms — including more research funding, more merit-based competition and rigorous evaluation by international scientists — to fix the many holes in the country’s scientific infrastructure. But last year a new government was voted in, Funeriu was pushed out and his reforms were swiftly reversed.

Romania is a long way, geographically and culturally, from us in the United States. For many people reading this post, Romania’s science problem may seem abstract, irrelevant, or both. That probably would have been my attitude, too, if not for meeting two young Romanian scientists named Florin.

Both Florins grew up in the 1980s under the oppression of communism and both, against all odds, became successful working scientists. Florin Albeanu — whose story I’ll share in a later post — did it by leaving Romania, whereas Florin Ţibu stayed. Both Florins are part of a younger generation of Romanians who believe it will be possible, one day, to reform their country’s corrupt university system and fund science based on merit rather than cronyism. Whether they’re right is anybody’s guess.

When Florin Ţibu was growing up, he never dreamed of leaving Romania. He was born in 1976 in Radauti, a city of about 30,000 people in the northern tip of the country. Most people in Radauti couldn’t afford a car, let alone an airplane ticket. And even if they had the money, they weren’t allowed to leave. Besides, in the 1980s, they had more pressing worries, like getting food from the state-controlled shops.

“You had these groceries where the shelves were practically empty. And there were certain days and times when sometimes quite unexpectedly they brought food and you could see people queuing, like 200 people queuing in five minutes. Everyone had heard that they had brought bread or salami or X,” Ţibu says. “And many times, I mean practically all of the time, my parents had to wake up at 5 a.m. and queue in order to buy milk.” Heat and electricity were also in short supply.

Propaganda poster of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena
Classic propaganda poster of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena

Romania’s economic meltdown happened in large part because the country’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had spent the 1970s borrowing money — at least $13 billion — from western countries, and funneling it into ill-conceived building and development projects. In 1981, Ceaușescu abruptly outlawed foreign loans and tried to repay his debts as quickly as possible. He slashed imports and upped exports, leading to drastic food shortages. (Even in the midst of this economic crisis, with many of his people hungry, in 1983 Ceaușescu started construction on the 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament, which was to be the new home of all government offices and his luxurious personal residence. As several people proudly told me when I was in Bucharest, it is the largest building in the world outside of the Pentagon.)

Ţibu’s father was trained as an auto mechanic, his mother as a nurse, and the family was no better or worse off than any of their neighbors — with one small exception. The Ţibus had a rare luxury: a television, and a color one at that. They had it because in 1979, Ţibu’s father was one of the lucky men chosen to work as a laborer in Libya, ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. “Gaddafi was quite close to Ceaușescu, so they had some exchange schemes for workers,” Ţibu says. “My father earned like at least double or triple what he earned here.” After two years working on incredibly hot construction sites, with no contact with his family, Ţibu’s father returned with the TV. “We had neighbors pouring into our flat when the big football matches were on. Everyone was amazed,” Ţibu says.

Television sports were rare, though. There was just one, state-controlled TV channel, and it aired programming for just three hours each evening. “Two and a half of them were about how great communism was and how great our leader was,” Ţibu says.

From a very young age, Ţibu says, he knew not to speak badly of communism or Ceaușescu — nor to speak highly of America or the West — outside of the safety of his home. He remembers once when a classmate was caught with a $1 bill in school. The classmate and his parents were interviewed by the police. “The scandal was huge,” Ţibu says. The same was true in bigger cities. “I heard this from people who lived in Bucharest. If you went by the embassy of a Western country and you raised your eyes and looked over the fence, and particularly if you stopped and had a good look at it, you would have been spotted by agents who were planted around,” Tibu says. “They would have followed you and they would have taken you to the police. It was that bad.”

Despite the extreme censorship, even as a child Ţibu had heard about America, and idolized the very idea of it. “We heard that people were free to speak whatever they wanted to. And we heard that there were well-paid jobs, and that people could afford having their own car, and that you had access to sweets and Coca Cola and food and heating,” he says. “That was heaven, for us.” In school, he was thrilled to be assigned to the English language class, rather than Russian, French or German, not because he thought he’d ever go to America, but just to be a bit closer to its culture.

On Christmas day of 1989, when Ţibu was nearly 14, Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by revolutionary forces. Video footage of the event* aired on the national television channel. All of the police in Radauti fled, Ţibu says. “They knew they would have been killed by the people.”

After high school, Ţibu studied nursing, following in his mother’s footsteps. But he didn’t like it, so he switched to psychology with the aim of becoming a therapist. That would have been impossible just a few years before. In 1977, Ceaușescu closed down all psychology departments at Romanian universities, citing “ideological purification.” In 1982, he banned psychological practice altogether. (According to the American Psychological Association, he was incensed by research on transcendental meditation, which he thought would “undermine public order.”)

Ţibu earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Iasi. During his last year, he found a job through a newspaper ad to be a research assistant at the National Institute for Sport Sciences. It wasn’t lucrative — pay was less than $100 a month — but it was pretty flashy. Ţibu’s job was to provide psychological counseling to the men’s Olympic gymnastics team as they prepared for the 2000 summer games in Sydney. Ţibu loved the job and was given a bonus of one-year’s salary after the Olympics. “They weren’t very good, but it had been their best performance ever,” he says, laughing.

“On the other hand, I felt pretty overwhelmed and unprepared,” Ţibu says. “I realized that I might get more interested in more technical aspects, rather than clinical apsects of psychology. That’s when I thought that research might be good for me.”

Virginia Hughes
Florin Tibu in Bucharest
Florin Tibu in Bucharest

In his college psychology courses, Ţibu had learned about famous research experiments and some basic ingredients of research, like the definition of a hypothesis and a t-test. But he never practiced science, and neither did his professors. After browsing webpages of psychology graduate programs outside of Romania, Ţibu was floored to see that most universities had bona fide research departments. He spent the next year trying to get into a research job or postgraduate program. At a job fair in Bucharest in 2001, he met a recruiter from Liverpool Hope University. Based on Ţibu’s experience at the Olympics, the recruiter asked him to join the Master’s program.

Ţibu’s post-9/11 flight experience was perhaps a foreshadowing of the many challenges he would face during that first year in the U.K. He struggled with English for the first few months. The university paid for his tuition but offered no stipend, so he worked nights and weekends as a carer in a nursing home. (Even making minimum wage, the pay was far better than Ţibu was used to: He earned about £55 pounds a day, equivalent to a month’s pay in Romania.) His visa expired after a year, so he had to return to Romania before he had completed his Master’s.

In early 2003, browsing the same Bucharest newspaper ads that had gotten him the Olympics gig, Florin found a job as a research assistant for the BEIP. He was hired, he thinks, because he spoke English well and had studied abroad. “Those who manage to go usually don’t come back,” he says. As part of the BEIP team, Ţibu learned rigorous research methods and had many interactions with other ambitious scientists, both from the U.S. and Romania. He started thinking he might have a shot at getting into a solid Ph.D. program abroad. He was right, and in the fall of 2007, he moved back to Liverpool to begin his training at Manchester University. He earned his Ph.D. in developmental psychopathology at the end of 2010.

Most people in Ţibu’s position would not have come back to Romania. Since the country joined the European Union in 2007, it has been much easier for Romanians to work in Europe. But Ţibu never considered moving away permanently. He and his girlfriend (now wife) wanted to be close to their aging parents. “But also, it’s just, this is our home,” he says.

Moving back wasn’t easy for him, even with his impressive credentials. Over the course of ten months, Ţibu applied to dozens of jobs, mostly for private companies or NGOs. He didn’t even get interviews for most of him. Then, luckily, the post-doc position with the BEIP opened up. He’s not sure what’s in store for him should the project lose its funding, but he is optimistic that the Romanian research tide is changing.

“In the younger generation, there’s an increasing number of people who studied abroad, either at the Master’s or Ph.D. level, and who have come back. And depending on luck and on circumstances, they can now get into university positions,” he says.

For example, he says that his best friend is a psychology lecturer at Iasi. “Once you’ve spent years abroad and you’ve seen how open and transparent the system is, and how the academic ladder is based on competence, you just can’t come back to the old mentality.”

Next week, I’ll share the story of a Florin who left Romania to become a neuroscientist, and is now trying to boost Romanian science from afar.

*You can watch riveting (and graphic) video footage from the Ceaușescus’ 90-minute trial and execution here.

Update: One sentence of this post has been corrected to reflect that Ţibu’s Ph.D. was in developmental psychopathology, not psychology , and that he earned it in 2010, not 2011.

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How the Brain Crunches Numbers, Brought to You by Sesame Street

One day last summer I was playing with my niece Emily in her kitchen. The bottom half of the refrigerator, right at her eye level, was covered in colorful letter and number magnets. And Emily, then 22 months, knew them all. I’d say, Where’s R?, and she’d point to R. What’s that? I’d ask and point, and she’d call out, four!

I was floored. It was a rare glimpse into what her young mind understands about the world. She can’t tell us what she’s thinking, after all.

I’ve been thinking about Emily and her magnets because of a new study about how childrens’ brains crunch numbers. Understanding what a number is — that the curved shape of the Arabic numeral 2 is named ‘two’, and that it has a conceptual meaning of not one thing, not three things, but two things — comes after a surprisingly long developmental process. Kids learn to recite number sequences, like 1 to 10, around age 2. (Emily counts up to 25 now, I’m proud to share.) But if you ask a 2-year-old to pick out three pieces of candy from a bowl, she’ll probably just grab a handful.

“They might be able to learn it for one piece of candy. Then it will take months for them to be able to give you two, then months after that to give you three,” says Jessica Cantlon, a neuroscientist at Rochester University. Then around age 3 or 4 they have an a-ha moment, she says. “The whole thing clicks. They make this inductive leap and understand the counting system.”

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Life on Mars and the Imagination of Scientists

Around this time seven years ago I was trying to figure out a topic for my Master’s thesis. It could have been anything at all, so long as it fit under the wide umbrella of science writing. After a few dead ends (sumo wrestling, Amish science) I finally chose to write about the hunt for life on Mars.

My advisor wasn’t keen on the idea, and it was way, way out of my wheelhouse. But I pushed on anyway, for three reasons I can remember. Astrobiology has only been considered a legitimate scientific endeavor since the ’60s. So every study felt fresh and exciting. It’s also inherently multidisciplinary — requiring geologists, climate scientists, astrophysicists, engineers, DNA experts, microbiologists and even philosophers — which meant my story would have lots of different voices. Perhaps most important, all of those voices are focused on one Big Question: Are we alone in the universe?

For the same reasons, astrobiology is perfect for science education, or so argues a new study in the journal Astrobiology. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, surveyed high schoolers before and after completing a one-day museum program in which they pretended to be scientists involved in Mars rover missions. The study found that this simulation corrected some of the students’ misperceptions about science and scientists.

These effects, though, were small. Overall the study was quite depressing, especially on one point: Even after completing the program, around two-thirds of the students said they didn’t think that scientists are creative or use their imaginations.

This is a massive problem. And fixing it will take a lot more than flashy rovers and the promise of aliens.

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When teaching restrains discovery

I have no formal training in journalism. The most instruction I ever received came from a two-day science communication course when I was still a hopeful research student in a molecular biology laboratory. The course was a whirlwind tour through the elements of good science writing – avoiding jargon, the value of active sentences, good openers, and so on. I have learned everything else on my own, through seven years of practicing regularly, experimenting with new approaches, and watching what others do well.

That two-day course might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happened since. But it exemplifies what I have always found to be the most effective style of teaching. It left me enthused enough to go off and explore on my own, and it provided just enough instruction that I could do so from a running start. It launched a run of exploration, learning and fun. And this experience is relevant a longstanding debate about the best way to teach children, especially very young ones.


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Writing about exam worries for 10 minutes improves student results

It’s a feeling you’ve almost certainly experienced before – the fear of waiting for an exam to start, heart thumping, palms sweating and brow furrowing. You worry about whether you’ve prepared adequately, and about the consequences of failure. So why not write these worries down? Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock have found that students do better in exams if they spend the prior ten minutes writing about their worries. Even better, the most anxious students showed the biggest improvements.


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Eight-year-old children publish bee study in Royal Society journal


“We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

This is the conclusion of a new paper published in Biology Letters, a high-powered journal from the UK’s prestigious Royal Society. If its tone seems unusual, that’s because its authors are children from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. Aged between 8 and 10, the 25 children have just become the youngest scientists to ever be published in a Royal Society journal.

Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.

The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data.  They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.

It’s a refreshing approach to science education, in that it actually involves doing science. The practical sessions in modern classrooms are a poor substitute; they might allow students to get their hands dirty, but they are a long way from true experiments. Their answers are already known and they do nothing to simulate the process of curiosity and discovery that lie at the heart of science. That’s not the case here. As the children write, “This experiment is important, because no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.” (more…)

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Turning secondary school children into research scientists


Schools are a breeding ground for both intelligent young minds and virulent diseases. Andrew Conlan from the University of Cambridge has found a way to unite both. Conlan is interested in mathematically modelling the spread of infectious diseases. Between 2007 and 2009, he tried to instil the same interests in schoolchildren, while turning them into research assistants.

His work was part of the Motivate Project, a programme that provided educational resources to schools to show them how maths relates to real life and topical issues. People like Conlan were a key part of the project. They took part in videoconferences with students from several schools, who had the chance to interact with working mathematicians and share ideas with one another. Similar outreach projects are taking place throughout the world but Conlan’s work went above and beyond, going from outreach to actual research.


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Good teachers help students to realise their genetic potential at reading

Teacher_writing_on_a_BlackboardGenetic studies suggest that genes have a big influence on a child’s reading ability. Twins, for example, tend to share similar reading skills regardless of whether they share the same teacher. On the other hand, other studies have found that the quality of teaching that a child receives also has a big impact on their fluency with the written word. How can we make sense of these apparently conflicting results? Which is more important for a child’s ability to read: the genes they inherit from their parents, or the quality of the teaching they receive?

According to a new study, the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is both. Genes do have a strong effect on a child’s reading ability, but good teaching is vital for helping them to realise that potential. In classes with poor teachers, all the kids suffer regardless of the innate abilities bestowed by their genes. In classes with excellent teachers, the true variation between the children becomes clearer and their genetic differences come to the fore. Only with good teaching do children with the greatest natural abilities reach their true potential.

This study demonstrates yet again how tired the “nature versus nurture” debate is. As I wrote about recently in New Scientist, nature and nurture are not conflicting forces, but partners that work together to influence our behaviour.

This latest choreography of genes and environment was decoded by Jeanette Taylor from Florida State University. She studied over 800 pairs of Florida twins in the first and second grades. Of the pairs, 280 are identical twins who share 100% of their DNA, and 526 are non-identical twins who share just 50% of their DNA. These twin studies are commonly used to understand the genetic influences of behaviour. If a trait is strongly affected by genes, then the variation in that trait should be less pronounced in the identical twins than the non-identical ones.


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RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities

I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively “rewire” our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.

Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn’t mean that they are automatically harmless. There’s still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system. 

They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield’s editorials, but the reality is much simpler – the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky’s study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.


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Gender gap in maths driven by social factors, not biological differences

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHistory has had no shortage of outstanding female mathematicians, from Hypatia of Alexandria to Ada Lovelace, and yet no woman has ever won the Fields medal – the Nobel prize of the maths world. The fact that men outnumber women in the highest echelons of mathematics (as in science, technology and  engineering) has always been controversial, particularly for the persistent notion that this disparity is down to an innate biological advantage.

Now, two professors from the University of Wisconsin – Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz – have reviewed the strong evidence that at least in maths, the gender gap is down to social and cultural factors that can help or hinder women from pursuing the skills needed to master mathematics.

The duo of Janets have published a review that tackles the issue from three different angles. They considered the presence of outstanding female mathematicians. Looking beyond individuals, they found that gender differences in maths performance don’t really exist in the general population, with girls now performing as well as boys in standardised tests. Among the mathematically talented, a gender gap is more apparent but it is closing fast in many countries and non-existent in others. And tellingly, the size of the gap strongly depends on how equally the two sexes are treated.


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Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.

Blackschoolchildren.jpgWith so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.

In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.

Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.

Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.


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Teaching scientific knowledge doesn’t improve scientific reasoning

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOn Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method – the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails. Simply inhaling pieces of information won’t get the job done.

This assertion is beautifully supported by a simple new study that compared the performance of physics students in the USA and China. It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge. Does filling young heads with facts and figures lead to a matching growth in their critical faculties?

Fortunately for Bao and his team of international researchers, a ready-made natural experiment had already been set up for them, in the education systems of China and the US. Both countries have very different science curricula leading to different levels of knowledge, but neither one explicitly teaches scientific reasoning in its schools. If greater knowledge leads to sharper reasoning, students from one country should have the edge in both areas. But that wasn’t the case.