Museum heists and growing crystals- who knew rocks could be so fun!

I recently began working as a long-term sub in a 6th grade science classroom. I inherited 5 classes of students who hadn’t had a consistent teacher in well over a month. Understandably so, many of the students seemed less than invested in learning about science. My immediate goal was to work on establishing positive relationships with the students and to reassure them that I would be with them until the end of the school year. I hoped that with a bit of stability and support, they would come around and understand that they can still become invested and excited about our science class.

Next, I set about figuring out how I could make the content engaging in order to capture the students’ interests and motivate them to spend the rest of the school year being jazzed about science. I was less than thrilled to learn that the unit I would be responsible for teaching was… rocks. In the words of one of my students, “What is fun about rocks?!”

As it turns out, I have had a certain degree of success in making rocks and minerals a captivating topic! For one lesson, I started off by telling my students that something very serious had happened over the weekend. With a somber voice, I told them how there was a celebrity gala at the American Museum of Natural History, and during this event, one of the invaluable minerals had been stolen and replaced with a fake! I shared with them how museum personnel and police alike were baffled because when they went to check the security footage to figure out what happened, they realized that the footage had been wiped blank. So, it was up to them to analyze the minerals at the museum to figure out which one was fake. They had to research mineral qualities like hardness, streak, luster, and density and compare these characteristics to the specimens at the museum to determine which was fake. My favorite part of the whole activity was the students’ uncertainty about whether or not the museum heist had actually happened. (Sixth graders, I’ve found, are adorably gullible.)

My main purpose for this post, though, is to share with you an activity I developed to give the students hands-on, intriguing ways to learn about minerals. One of the main things they needed to know about minerals was that they grow in a crystal formation. While the crystals that we grew weren’t true crystals in the scientific sense, it was my hope that this experience would help solidify for them the idea that minerals grow as crystals. Plus, it was a fun way to get them excited about science!

Growing Crystal Gardens

Day 0- our crystal-growing set up.

I got a lot of information for conducting this activity from The Owl Teacher on Pinterest. I bought a few car wash sponges (kitchen sponges have soap in them and makeup sponges have antibiotics, so car wash sponges are said to work best!) I had my students cut up the sponges into small cubes and put them into their little cups. They then sprinkled Kosher salt over their sponges and added food coloring to make their crystals grow in a fun variety of colors. I went back later and added the key ingredient, an ammonia and bluing agent mix, and viola- we had some beautiful crystals! Now, the students check on their crystals every day to see their progress, and I see an enthusiasm and pride in them that was not present when I first started as their sub. If I had more foresight, I would have had them take pictures with their iPads of the sponges with the salt on them and then periodically in the future as the crystals were growing. We could have practiced the scientific practices of making careful observations and documenting change. (Oh well, maybe I’ll get to do this if I ever teach a rocks and minerals unit in the future. For now, though, it was worth it for me to simply see the kiddos’ excitement at their colorful creations!)

Some photos of our crystals after 1 week:

How to do it:


  • Car-washing sponges
  • Small, condiment cups
  • Food coloring
  • Kosher salt
  • Ammonia
  • Bluing agent
  • Popsicle sticks


  • Have students cut the car wash sponges with scissors into small cubes
  • Students should collect one condiment cup and one sponge cube. Have them place the sponge inside the cup.
  • Instruct students to write their names on the cup.
  • Mix 1 part ammonia with 1 part bluing agent. (It is super stinky and these chemicals are harsh, so I did this myself instead of having my students do this.)
  • Pour the ammonia-bluing agent mixture over the students’ sponges, adding enough for the liquid to coat the bottom of the cup.
  • Have the students take a Popsicle stick and press down on the sponge so that it soaks up more of the mixture.
  • Students sprinkle Kosher salt in a thin layer over the top of their sponges.
  • Have the students add no more than 3 drops of food coloring on top of the salt layer.
  • Place cups in an area where they will be visible but won’t be disturbed. The crystals, when they form, will be very delicate. Our crystals crumbled into dust as soon as we touched them, so make sure the students are very careful when they observe the crystals!

Let me Google that for you.

Imagine the following scenario: You’re hanging out with some friends, shooting the breeze over some beverages. The conversation is idly twisting and turning and one of your friends says, “It’s crazy! Did you know that you could bite through one of your fingers with the same force that it takes to bite through a baby carrot??” That sounds astonishing to you… It’s so easy to bite through a baby carrot- surely our digits are just a little bit more difficult to part with. So what do you do? You Google it. And the very first Google result is “Can you bite through your thumb as easily as a carrot?” (Apparently this rumor has gained such a foothold that it is Googled quite frequently.) Turns out, according to all the sources you search, your friend’s “did you know” is totally false.

We live in an incredible time when information is instantaneously available to us. We have access to boundless information at our fingertips, literally. Everyone has a cell phone these days and the Google knows all. The opportunity is there for people to investigate their own questions with ease and convenience. In order to fully make use of this powerful capability, though, a few parameters should be established.

In the case of our students, curiosity is not sparse. Every day I receive terrific questions from young, inquiring minds. While a student may say that they don’t enjoy science class, they nevertheless demonstrate inquisitiveness and interest in the world and how it works. In addition to that, nearly every student I’ve encountered has also displayed a digital literacy to the point that I am confident they could use their cell phones to conduct productive research to investigate their curiosities.

(Unless that student is Andy from Parks and Rec, but he’s a special case.)

How can we as educators empower our students to use what they already have to investigate their own questions, promoting more autonomy and engagement in scientific discovery?

First and foremost, I think that as science educators, we should be encouraging our students to chase their own curiosities. Inquiry-based classroom activities can greatly increase the relevance of a topic to our students’ lives and therefore promote engagement. As teachers, we should find a way to connect academic content to our students’ interests so that they feel motivated and interested to learn more.

Secondly, we should help our students learn to ask better questions. If we can help our students break down their curiosities into digestible and investigable chunks, they can develop their skills and gain confidence in their ability to pursue their own education. This is how I view investigative phenomena. The anchoring phenomenon of a unit is the intriguing connection between the curriculum and students’ lives and interests. The investigative phenomena are pieces of the puzzle that can be investigated during a class period or two. Investigative phenomena should still be relevant to students. By focusing on smaller, more specific pieces to the puzzle, we can model for our students how they can break up comprehensive quandaries into more manageable pieces and build a solid understanding.

The third and most important way that we as educators can get students to investigate their own questions is to establish a classroom culture, starting on day one, of student empowerment and responsibility. Kids who are used to being spoon fed information in the form of teacher-led notes or lectures are missing out on the chance to really engage with the subject matter. Teachers who facilitate a self-motivating classroom give their students the chance and opportunity to develop their questioning skills and become more self-sufficient and capable investigators.

What the heck is up with my face?!

That was the very first thought that ran through my head when I woke up this morning. My right eye felt painfully dry, I couldn’t hear out of my right ear (which was throbbing sharply, feeling like it would explode), my tongue was numb, and I couldn’t feel half of my face. Then I looked in the mirror. Behold:

At this point, I panic. It’s a terrifying feeling- telling your muscles to do something and them just hanging out like, “Nah. I’m good.” Being the educated scientist that I am, what’s the first thing I did?

So I rush to Urgent Care, convinced I had a stroke or have a tumor or am going to keel over dead any minute now. (Thank you to the lovely ladies at Rochester Regional Health Immediate Care who compassionately and patiently handled me as half of my face was sobbing and the other half hung there unresponsively like a hammock on a windless day.)
Happily, I didn’t have a stroke or a tumor. Rather, it turns out I had developed a fun little case of shingles… INSIDE OF MY EAR. That explains why it’s in so much pain. The shingles brought on Bell’s palsy, which is referred to as Ramsay Hunt Syndrome when shingles is the cause of the partial facial paralysis. In the absence of any complications, I should be back to normal in a few weeks. Until then, I get to wear a very sexy eye patch to protect my right eye (because I can’t blink on that side) and I’ve already gotten pretty good at holding my lips closed when I eat or drink to minimize the amount that I dribble down my chin. It’s been a blast.

Alright, so the blogging prompt for this week was to choose a topic or concept in the NYS or NGSS curricula, and convince a student why that idea is important. I’m all about connecting things that are happening right now in real life to classroom learning, so I wanted to talk about this experience of mine. Although it doesn’t perfectly fit in with state learning standards, what better way to convince students that there’s something important to be learned here than to talk about how, without a scientific understanding, one could be stuck looking like Batman’s foe Two-Face forever?





First, science classrooms are not merely places for students to absorb disconnected or irrelevant bits of knowledge. Almost more important than learning scientific concepts, students should learn how to think like scientists in the classroom. This is an important life skill to have whether or not a student thinks she or he will go on to pursue a future in the sciences because SCIENCE AFFECTS EVERYONE. By having the skills to ascertain the facts in any given situation, rationally analyze the facts, and determine a logical course of action, students can be equipped to tackle life’s challenges in an effective way. (Unlike I did, when I drove myself to Urgent Care in a panic, believing I had had a stroke… Hey, nobody’s perfect.)

Secondly, science spans many disciplines and is very important in societal practices like GETTING VACCINATED. Fake news, pseudoscience, and a whole other host of detrimental thought processes can permeate our culture. It is important for students to be rational contributors to politics and society to defend against the onslaught of falsities that may be bandied about as though they were fact. While shingles itself isn’t contagious, the virus that causes it is, and I would be a threat to anyone who hasn’t yet had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. Vaccinations are good, people. While what I’m dealing with right now is a pretty big drag, there are other much worse conditions that can be defended against with vaccinations- conditions that had all but been eradicated until the anti-vaxxer movement took hold, spreading dangerous and damaging misinformation like wildfire.

As science teachers, the academic concepts that we teach our kids are certainly important. More importantly, though, it is important for students to be scientifically literate and rational thinkers so that, regardless of what life path they choose, they can contribute to a safer, healthier, and progressive society.

Embracing digital teaching methods… and making uteruses out of Play-Doh

While I think most first student teachers would balk at the idea of easing into their first time teaching by tackling the human reproductive system, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far. For the most part, I’m impressed with how (relatively) mature my eighth graders have been while we’ve been talking about the human repro systems, and it’s apparent how interested and curious the students are in this topic. For example, as an exit ticket today, I had the kids write on stickie notes one question they had regarding our discussion in class. Here are a few of the responses:

  • “There is a T.V show called ‘I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant’ how is it possible for not knowing your prego?”
  • “What happens when you get an abortion? What happens to the baby? How does the baby die?”
  • “Can you get pregnant while your pregnant”
  • “Does the cervix have anything to do with water breaking?”
  • “If the female dies can the baby still be alive?”
  • “Is there a wall in the vagina?”
  • “Why does the egg have to move to so many different places?”
  • “Why do women throw up in the first weeks of pregnancy?”
  • “Why does it hurt to give birth?”
  • “Can you have sex when you’re pregnant?”
  • “Can you get your tubes UNtied?”
  • “How wide would the vagina expand during birth?”

And finally

  • “Can you pull your brain out your nose.”

… Maybe that last question was out of left field, but I prefer to think that it was that male student’s way of sympathizing with the uniquely female struggle of child birth? Maybe?


The questions above were just the tip of the ice berg. We had such a terrific discussion fostered by wonderful student ideas and inquiry, and I am proud to say that I was able to do the elusive “master teacher” move of listening to student thinking during small group work and asking select students to share out their thoughts or questions during our whole class discussion to guide the whole group together to where I wanted us to go. It felt like I was the conductor of an orchestra. An orchestra of squirrelly cats, maybe, but a proud moment for me nonetheless.


So how did we get to a place that was so conducive to such great student inquiry? Well, I finally got to use a digital tool that I’ve been dying to implement in the classroom, Padlet! Our anchoring phenomenon involves a set of twin sisters from England, one black and one white. After watching a short video clip on the girls, I directed the students to a Padlet that I had created for each of the four periods. Included in the Padlet were guiding questions that hopefully made the concept we were discussing more relatable to them, like “Do you look like anyone in your family?” and “Why do some kids look more like their mom while others look more like their dad?” I was so pleasantly surprised by the kids’ abilities to keep their comments on topic and respectful, and how engaged they were with commenting. I polled each period about how they liked using Padlet, and nearly everyone responded with a resounding “We love it!”.

The use of the Padlet discussion set the tone for discussion and questioning in a safe and respectful environment. Then, we had the students break into groups to research one aspect of the human reproductive system. I had created a online PDF the night before where the students could practice their literacy by reading through the material I compiled, deciding what was important, and synthesizing it into their own slide. After about 15 minutes of research, we had each group present what they had found to their classmates via a Google Slide Show that everyone was able to contribute to. More engaging and effective use of digital technology in the classroom!


And lastly, to wrap up the female reproductive system, we did perhaps the opposite of digital teaching and gave the kids a bunch of Play-Doh and instructed them to make their very own uteruses. The students made tiny little Play-Doh balls to represent oocytes, and they demonstrated how their oocytes traveled through the fallopian tubes into the uterus, and out the vagina. Our cooperating teacher, being more familiar with 8th grade humor than I, then had the students take some of the Play-Doh from the walls of their uteruses and hold it in their hands. We told them to rub it around in their fingers and to really inspect their chunks of Play-Doh. Once their interests were piqued, we informed them what that chunk of Play-Doh that they had been toying with represented… Yep. Menstruation. The 8th grade boys especially got a kick out of that. The classroom erupted into a frenzy of “That’s nasty”s and “Ewwwwww”s and all semblance of our mature discussion before was lost, but hey, I don’t think they’ll be forgetting it any time soon!


In honor of Halloween: Our Murder Mystery!

Gavin and I have  been observing in a middle school Living Environment classroom for the last few months, and last week we had the incredible opportunity to lead all the classes in a murder mystery science investigation! We started with a fascinating case study of the Tylenol Murders in Chicago from the 80’s. The overall lesson from the case was that cyanide prevents the mitochondrion in our cells from using oxygen to make ATP.  It was a terrific lesson plan aimed at teaching cellular respiration, and we decided we wanted to take it a step further!



So, we met after school and devised a plan. We would turn the case study into a murder mystery lab game in which the students would answer questions and solve clues to solve the murders as if they themselves were the forensic scientists on the case.


Naturally, the first step was to make it convincing. We had to spook up the classroom to make it obvious that something out of the norm was going on. We went in early and strung orange and black crepe paper from the ceiling in honor of Halloween. We asked the students from our cooperating teacher’s home room class to help us out with this before classes commenced, and they were more than happy to join in! This really had a powerful impact on student participation because the students in home room became excited for the classroom activity that they were decorating the room for, and as the students entered the room at the beginning of each period, they were excited and intrigued by what the change in decor might mean. (The students’ reactions to the room’s new look solidified in my mind how, when I have a classroom of my own, I’d love to do whatever I can to transform it from a boring school classroom into a comfortable, fun, appealing space.)


For the Murder Mystery Lab, Gavin and I devised a series of clues that the students would have to work through in order to receive further clues and instructions and ultimately solve the murders. Clues involved authentic-looking police and coroner’s reports, “blood” samples from the victims, a microscope slide of “cyanide”, information about different poisons, and the equation for cellular respiration: C6H12O6 + 6O2 → 6CO2 + 6H2O (glucose + oxygen → carbon dioxide + water).



Students had a blast working collaboratively and thinking critically to try to be the first forensic scientist to solve the case. Almost every group of students came to the correct solution, that cyanide poisoning was responsible for the mysterious deaths of the seven victims. After all the students had completed the lab, we debriefed as a class to review how cyanide killed the victims.

In cellular respiration, the mitochondria converts oxygen and glucose into water, carbon dioxide, and ATP (the cell’s energy source). The victim’s all died of hypoxia, meaning that they were oxygen deficient. Cyanide prevents the victims’ mitochondrion from being able to use the oxygen to make ATP, and tissues that require this form of energy, such as heart muscle cells and nerve cells, quickly expend all their energy and start to die. When enough of these critical cells die, the entire organism dies.



I’m particularly proud of this lesson. Aside from it being the first real lesson that we created and implemented, it included a lot of diverse ways for the students to participate, it was exceedingly engaging, and I do believe that it really cemented for the students the key lesson, which is that cellular respiration takes oxygen and results in ATP. The students have referenced this lab frequently since then, asking Gavin and me to do more activities like that with them. It feels good to know that the effort to make an engaging and differentiated lab was appreciated by the students as well!

I’ve attached the lab protocol that we created below. When it comes time for me to teach respiration to my own class of students, I already know what lesson plan I will use.

Lab Protocol




“It’s called Lyme Disease because it makes the venison taste citrus-y.”

Every healthy relationship is built on trust, right? So can I really be blamed for trusting my husband, the wildlife biologist, when he told me that Lyme Disease got its name from the citrus-y flavor it gave to the meat of infected deer??



… Ok yes, I guess that was one of my blonder moments….


Much like I was unfamiliar with the infamous brown marmorated stink bug before moving out here to the East Coast, so too was I blissfully unaware of the troubles of ticks before I moved out of Colorado. But that blissful bubble was popped when we moved to New York and continued to live our active, outdoor lifestyle here. Tick checks became a part of the routine after a weekend spent camping in the Catskills or an afternoon hiking in the Gunks.

Colorado: where the mountains are high and oxygen, foliage, and pesky disease-carrying bugs are scarce.

The Catskills: lush, alluring, and loaded with ticks.








Previously, the idea of “checking for ticks” was just the inspiration for a cringe-worthy country song. (Sorry, Brad Paisley fans!)


Now, the threat of Lyme Disease and other tick-transmitted pathologies are always in the back of our minds when my husband and I are spending time in the great outdoors. And after four years in the North East, it finally happened- not to my dog who spends every morning tearing through the underbrush in Mendon Ponds Park or to my husband who spends every day out in the wilderness studying native and invasive species. Nope, it happened to me- I got Lyme Disease. You always hear about the tell-tale bulls-eye rash, but I have to say, I did not expect it to be so… obvious. Have a look:

After a weekend spent camping in the Adirondacks, I thought I just had a particularly nasty mosquito bite over my knee. A few days later, though, as I was absentmindedly scratching the itch, I looked down and this rash was staring my right in the (bulls) eye. I hadn’t even noticed a tick on me, which was surprising because A) that’s a pretty hard-to-miss location and B) I thought that a tick had to be attached for 36 hours before transmitting the disease. I decided to do some digging…



While the CDC does state that in most cases, a tick must be attached for 36-48 hours before the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease may be transmitted, other sources say that this time frame could give people a false sense of security. Only around 30% of patients infected with Lyme Disease even recall a tick bite. This was certainly the case for me, as I wouldn’t have even considered Lyme Disease when I experienced the characteristic fatigue and headaches of the disease. I was way more likely to blame the grad school life for those symptoms than Lyme Disease!


Once a tick get situated on its host, it bites into the skin, inserting a feeding tube and a cement-like substance to help it stay in place during its feast. Many ticks have an anesthetic in their saliva that allows them to chomp down without the host feeling it. Transmission of the Lyme Disease causing bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, isn’t instantaneous, which is why it is commonly thought that a tick must be attached for a while before the host can be infected.


Only about half of Lyme Disease patients ever present with the stereotypical bulls-eye rash, so I am grateful that my symptoms were so obvious. Left untreated, Lyme Disease can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system, creating serious long term effects. How can only half of the people who are infected have the rash? What causes the rash to have such a unique, characteristic shape? I had no idea that the answer was so in-depth and fascinating…



I’m including the link to this article because there’s no way that I can do it justice by trying to summarize it quickly here in this blog post. If you’re at all interested in microbiology, read this:




Written by the American Society for Microbiology’s Ashley Hagen Griffin

Published by Microbial Sciences on April 30, 2018


Basically, B. burgdorferi is a spirochete that, once transmitted to the host, replicates locally and spreads away from the bite site at a rate of about half an inch/ hour max. The bulls-eye rash is caused by two inflammatory responses: First, the foreign salivary proteins are targeted by the immune system, creating a red swelling around the bitten area. Then, as the spirochetes replicate and spread outward, the redness and rash expand with them, creating the bulls-eye rash. The appearance of the rash will vary in individuals on a case-by-case basis, depending on the host’s personal immune response. When macrophages are cleared from the infection site more slowly, the rash will appear to be more homogenous. When macrophages are cleared more quickly, the homogenous erythema takes on the more typical bulls-eye appearance. So… kudos to my immune system for wasting no time in clearing those macrophages, I guess!


These little guys were swimming about in my leg. Cute, right?



Below, I’ve included some scary visuals from the CDC. Lyme Disease is spreading like… spirochetes away from the point of infection. So I suppose we don’t all have to like Brad Paisley’s song “Ticks”, but we would do well to heed his suggestions and spend a little more time performing tick checks on our loved-ones.








Science STARS

As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, all us U of R students are leading an after-school club called Science STARS. Like our summer camp in Sodus, we endeavored to discern what science-y concepts were relevant or interesting to our students, and then we will develop a month and a half long after-school program to investigate our ideas. The summer camp that we led was in Sodus and very, very rural, so the concepts that were relevant to those students vary significantly from our current Science STARS students who, for the most part, live in an urban area.


At a pizza panel held during the students’ lunch, we picked their brains and came up with several club-worthy investigations, including but not limited to:

  • Animals in captivity (and how the psychology behind captive animals can be related to the psychology of students who may feel “captive” in the classroom)
  • Waste management, recycling, sustainability
  • The cost and availability of eating healthy in an urban setting (exploring the concept of food deserts)


My fellow team leaders (Kristi- and Lisa- and I chose to focus our investigation on food deserts and the cost/ availability of eating healthy. Our team name? The IncrEDIBLES!

We put together a super short Powtoon to give our students ideas of how to investigate this issue, but we are excited to see what direction our investigation takes when they are off and running with it!

When did it become September?!?

The days have gone from sweltering and muggy to cooler and breezy, and the nights are almost crisp. The sun is no longer shining through my bathroom window as I get ready in the morning, not having risen above the treetops yet. Starbucks has brought out its pumpkin spice latte. Fall is in the air…


…and although I havn’t been a student for three years, it still feels like second nature to gear up for a new school year this time of year.


This summer was great- working with the kids at Sodus and my fellow Stink Squad leaders was a terrifically positive experience. Now, I am student teaching with Gavin ( in an eighth grade science class and preparing for our after school club, Science STARS.


In our 8th grade science class, Gavin and I introduced the students to metamorphosis with a monarch butterfly caterpillar that my husband had spotted when we were camping in the Adirondacks the previous weekend. 

I set up a terrarium for the caterpillar full of milkweed and grasses. (The same terrarium that was Stinky and Bugsy’s old home- RIP.) By the time I was able to bring the terrarium into class, though, the caterpillar had already formed its chrysalis, and I was bummed that my students wouldn’t get to see it transform from caterpillar to chrysalis.


Mother-in-law to the rescue! Nancy had been walking in a park that very morning, found a monarch caterpillar, and brought it into the classroom. The students were captivated and inquisitive about the monarch’s life cycle and the inner workings of a chrysalis. Gavin and I created a worksheet for the students to record their noticings and wonderings about our new class “pets”, and I was thrilled by the wonderful thoughts and ideas the students came up with. Coincidentally, bringing in the monarch caterpillar and chrysalis corresponded with the unit that the students are currently learning: what does it mean to be alive? When students would say things like, “You can tell something’s living because it moves,” Gavin and I could ask them if that means that the chrysalis isn’t alive. I was happy to have been able to connect what they were learning in school to a naturally occurring phenomenon that they could experience first hand as they saw the caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, making the content in the class seem more relevant and interesting to them.


Below is some student work from the worksheet that Gavin and I prepared. We also voted as a class on what to name our “pets”- I thought that if we can get the kids to name the chrysalises, they will be more invested and interested in them!


Gavin (ahem- Mr. Jenkins) and I shared with the students the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis, but we weren’t real sticklers for that detail.

Mr. Jenkins also shared with me this amazing time lapse video of a monarch caterpillar transforming, and we’d love to be able to share this with the class when our cooperating teacher has the time. It was very fascinating for me, and I’m sure the kids would get a kick out of it too! Check it out!


Now we are all waiting patiently for our chrysalises to hatch so that we can release our butterflies into the courtyard at the school! I’m so glad to have had this experience student teaching, because now I think that I would like to implement this into my own classroom. At the beginning of every fall semester, I’d love to always have a monarch caterpillar that my students can watch throughout its metamorphosis. Talk about a cool phenomenon to anchor class lessons!





Halfway through camp…

… How is that even possible?!


The past few months of planning have all culminated in our leading middle school students in Sodus, NY in a science summer camp, and so far, it has been an utter joy! If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have sworn up and down that I want to teach high schoolers, not middle schoolers, but I gotta say, I love these kids! They are inquisitive, enthusiastic, and fun to teach.


I’ve written in past posts about what the topic of our camp group is, so I won’t go in depth into that right now, but I did want to share a piece that the Stink Squad has put together to incorporate a literacy component into our camp plans. In an effort to make scientific concepts like invasive species and biodiversity more accessible to these kids, I decided to utilize some multimedial forms to present our dilemma. I’m thinking back up plan if we’re stuck inside from the rain tomorrow!


The actual article this cartoon is based off of was sent to me by my wonderful Aunt-in-law, a researcher at Cornell- thanks, Caroline! I’ve attached the article below. It’s certainly worth a read. Readers, what are your thoughts on introducing this parasitic wasp to areas of stink bug infestation?


Scientists sic samurai wasps on stink bugs


“I make babies. And not the fun way.”

A few people have been asking about my experience as an embryologist, so I thought I’d take to the blog to write about it!


Caught in action! Performing IVF at a micromanipulation scope


When I was a wee undergraduate student, I began wondering what sorts of things one could do with a Bachelor’s degree in biomedical science. I knew I loved science, and I’ve always had an underlying goal to make the world a better place, so how could I bring those two things together? As fate would have it, the year that I graduated from Colorado State University was the very first year that CSU was offering a new Master’s program in Biomedical Sciences with an emphasis on assisted reproductive technologies. I had a particular affinity for the reproductive sciences thanks in huge part to a very wonderful elective professor (thanks, Dr. Nett!) and an interest in the subject of bioethics (you too, Dr. Hickey!), so I was naturally drawn to this new Master’s program.


I entered this inaugural Master’s program with the intention to get involved in wildlife conservation. One of my graduate advisers, Dr. Barfield, was doing some extraordinary work with the American bison. I need to devote an entire post to her amazing contributions to the world of science and conservation. In a sentence, she utilizes in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in and effort to eradicate disease from bison populations and reestablish healthy herds in Colorado. Some of my fondest memories from my first master’s program were the early mornings spent out in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, herding bison.

As I progressed through the program, though, I found myself entranced by the technologies of in-vitro fertilization. I was fascinated by its relative novelty and drawn to its rapidly evolving practice. I wanted to be where the IVF action was. I wanted to be on the cutting edge of this exciting, relatively new scientific endeavor. So, upon graduation with  my M.S., I accepted a job in Manhattan, NY as an embryologist in one of the country’s most prestigious human IVF clinics. My time in NYC was a whirlwind of fun, friends, a long commute, and a very, very intense job.


Some fun photos from my life in NYC



As an embryologist, I was responsible for the care of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hopes and dreams every day. There was no room for error. Mistakes weren’t an option. In a way, it was the perfect job for me. I can be extremely careful, efficient, and meticulous, and those are three very important characteristics in every successful embryologist.

But what do embryologists actually do?

Following gametes through an IVF cycle:

Day 0:

1.) Gametes (sperm and eggs) are acquired. In male-female couples (I use this model as an example, but we did plenty of IVF with single parents or same-sex couples), that often means that the woman undergoes an oocyte (egg) retrieval procedure in which she is put under and a doctor aspirates (verb: sucks out) a woman’s eggs from her ovaries with a needle. The aspirate (now a noun: the fluid that was sucked from the woman’s ovaries) is then passed immediately to the embryologist who, through a microscope, searches for and isolates all of the oocytes.

The oocytes may look like this upon retrieval. The fuzzy, speckled fluff around each of the darker circles are the cumulus cells. The darker circles are the actual eggs.


It is an embryologists job to isolate the eggs and cut away, using hand-held needles, excess cumulus cells. Later eggs may be treated with an enzyme, hyaluronidase, to further strip the cumulus cells from the eggs.


2.) Sperm is processed. Often around the same time, the man in a male-female couple will produce sperm, which the embryologist has to “clean” by removing debris and then reduce to a concentration suitable for IVF.

Relatively “clean” sperm

3.) Eggs are treated based on IVF plan. There are two ways to fertilize an egg: ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) or conventional. With conventional fertilization, optimal sperm concentrations are calculated to reduce risk factors like polyspermy (when more than one sperm fertilizes an egg. This would be bad!) and the sperm is put into the dish with the eggs and hopefully nature will take its course. With ICSI, a single sperm cell is selected and physically injected into the egg. In both cases, only “mature” eggs, that is- eggs that have reached the Metaphase II (MII) stage, are fertilized.

(left) a “holding needle” holds the oocyte steady while (right) an “injection needle” pierces into the egg and deposits one sperm


Day 1:

1.) Fertilization is assessed. An embryologist looks at the zygotes (fertilized eggs) to assess whether or not fertilization was successful. Fertilization is assessed, in large part, based on the presence of two pronuclei. Below is a picture of a normally fertilized egg. The hazy, translucent ring around the whole thing is the zona pelucida, or ZP (it’s like the egg’s shell). The sharply defined circle inside the ZP encompasses the actual egg. Between the ZP and the egg on the left are the polar bodies (little tiny exclusions from the egg that bud off at the MII stage). Inside the egg, you can see two overlapping circles with little specks inside them. These overlapping circles are the pronuclei.


Day 2:

Nothing! We leave the embryos-to-be in their incubators and let them develop.


Day 3:

1.) Assess development. At this stage, all of the embryos that have arrested (stopped developing) are separated from the ongoing ones.

A poor Day 3 blastocyst. The dark coloration, granulation, and differently-sized cells indicate sub-optimal development.


A beautiful Day 3 embryo. We see 8 cells, which is exactly where you’d want an embryo at this stage to be. All the dark specks on the ZP are sperm cells, which tells us that this embryo was fertilized with conventional insemination, not ICSI.

2.) Laser-assisted hatching. Patients may decide to have their embryos biopsied to test for genetic abnormalities. The biopsies occur on Day 5 or Day 6, but in order for them to be possible, the embryos must be hatching out of their zona pellucida. That means that on Day 3, the embryologist will use a laser and zap a small hole into the ZP so as the embryo grows and expands, it can easily push out of the ZP.

Near the bottom of each embryo, you can see the lines going through the zonas. This is where the embryo was hatched with a laser.


Day 4:

Nothing! We leave the embryos undisturbed in their incubators to grow and develop.


Day 5 &6:

1.) Assess embryo quality. Embryo quality depends on the amount of cells in both the trophectoderm (what will become the placenta) and the inner cell mass (ICM) (what will develop into the fetus). Number of cells isn’t everything. Qualities like organization, shape, and constitution also portray whether or not an embryo is high quality.

A beautiful, fully hatched embryo. The embryo has completely hatched out of its zona pellucida. The darker mass near the right of the embryo is the ICM. A close look under a scope would show that there are many cells comprising the ICM, although they have clumped together and organized nicely, so it’s difficult to distinguish one cell from another. The rest of the cells are trophectoderm cells- they will become the placenta. There are a TON of troph cells here, another indicator of a high quality embryo.


This embryo is in the process of hatching out of its zona. The ICM is the mass of cells near the top of the embryo that’s still inside the zona.


This is a very low-quality embryo. No discernible ICM, and very few, necrotic trophectoderm cells. The chances that this embryo would develop further is slim to none.

2.) Biopsy. As mentioned earlier, embryos that will be tested for genetic abnormalities are biopsied on Day 5 or 6. A small sample of 5-10 cells is taken from the trophectoderm, and the cells are shipped off to a lab for analysis. Biopsies allow us to detect various genetic diseases, as well as know the gender of the embryo.


3.) My favorite- vitrification! Aka. freezing the embryos. A single IVF cycle is likely to produce more than one viable embryo. Good practice is generally to only implant one good embryo back into the woman’s uterus at a time, so excess embryos can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored for later use. There is also growing evidence that pregnancy rates increase with frozen cycles- that is to say, a woman is more likely to get pregnant if she has all her embryos frozen on Day 5 or 6 and then comes back in a month or two to have an embryo thawed and then implanted back into her uterus.

And there you have it! IVF!

… kind of. I left out A LOT and definitely over-generalized, so take this post with a grain of salt. But now all you inquiring minds out there have some idea of what I did in my capacity as an embryologist!