July's Science Cafe Speaker

Meet Myron Cohen, M.D., our special guest for July’s Carolina Science Cafe. He’s a busy man, so we’re grateful he took a few minutes out of his day to answer our questions.

Where did you grow up? Chicago

What did you want to be when you were a kid? A journalist

How did you get interested in science? After serving as editor of the high school paper, I started at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana wanting to study journalism.  My first year of college, a very good friend became ill and later died.  I spent a lot of time with him at the hospital, and I guess that’s how I first became interested in medicine and decided to study pre-med.  When I took organic chemistry, not only did I absolutely love it, but I was really, really good at it, and that helped me realize that I was on the right path.

In one sentence, describe your job: I’m a catalyst for synergy among biomedical faculty at UNC.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby you have that you’re colleagues don’t know about? Well, let’s see.  I can’t sing.  I can’t dance.  I can’t type.  I’m a pretty good skier.

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? Redouble our efforts to cure HIV disease.  We’re pretty far along as it is.

Thanks, Dr. Cohen. That’s good stuff. You can read more about Dr. Cohen’s efforts here.

Please join us on Thursday, July 7, at 6 p.m. (NOTE THE NEW TIME!) for this special science cafe:

The Beginning (and End?) of the AIDS Pandemic: A 30-Year Journey

Back Bar at Top of the Hill

Downtown Chapel Hill

Sponsored by Sigma XI

Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He likes mango popsicles.

Looks safe, but is it?

You’re invited to this free program: Swimming & Your Genes, starring Dr. David DeMarini, genetic toxicologist with the EPA. As summer approaches, we’re going to be discussing David’s research into swimming pools and drinking water.

In preparation, David was kind enough to share a little bit about himself.

Where did you grow up? Peoria, Illinois (yes, I played in Peoria). My father, Santa, ran a bar (I grew up in a tavern), and he was a first-generation Italian immigrant with only an 8th grade education.  My mom was a nurse (Irish from Iowa); it was a fun mix of cultures–we ate spaghetti with potatoes.  There are 4 boys, and 3 of us went into the health sciences (2 Ph.D. geneticists and 1 M.D. pulmonologist).

What did you want to be when you were a kid? A performer–anything would have been fine–singer, dancer, actor, musician (I’ve co-founded 2 theater companies, acted in a bunch of plays, and play piano–second-rate pop/B-way, and jazz).  My science career ended up satisfying my urge/need to perform–with lots of world-wide invitations to speak and lecture–combining my love of science and my desire to entertain.

How did you get interested in science? I always was curious about how the world worked, and science seemed to provide the most satisfying explanations to me; and I was pretty good at science in school. However, the “magic moment” came during my last semester of my senior year of college when I took genetics (from the finest teacher of my life), and I was hooked–I found my muse and my bliss–environmental mutagenesis, which has become a nearly 40-year love affair.  (I ended up doing my M.S. and Ph.D. under that remarkable genetics teacher–Herman Brockman at Illinois State University.)

In one sentence, describe your job: I examine the air, water, soil, food, urine from people, etc. for mutagenic activity and try to determine the types of mutations such substances induce and how those mutations might cause human disease such as cancer.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby you have that your colleagues don’t know about? I learned to make “cappelletti in brodo” as a kid from my Italian grandmother (la mia nona).  It is a pasta stuffed with chicken, beef, cheese, and lemon zest that is cooked in a beef/chicken broth–peculiar to the region east of Firenze (Florence) where my family is from.  I make a huge batch every winter that lasts for 6 months (thank heavens for freezers), but I have never shared this delicacy with either friends or colleagues–it’s only for “la famiglia.”

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? I would incorporate mutagenesis testing of the air and water in this country to go along with the chemical monitoring of air and water that currently occurs in order for us to know how mutagenic and thus, potentially carcinogenic, our air and water really are–based on actual toxicology measurements.

Great answers, David. We’ll see you on Thursday. Please bring some “cappelletti in brodo.”

We hope to see all of you at the Back Bar in downtown Chapel Hill by 7pm. Remember to get there early for some delicious appetizers sponsored by Sigma Xi.

Thanks, Jonathan

Jonathan Frederick is director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He's ready for someone to invent teleportation.

Dr. David DeMarini, one of our cafe regulars (and fantastic question-asker of other scientists), is a genetic toxicologist with the EPA. On Thursday, June 2, he will be our featured presenter. Please join us for:

June's Carolina Science Cafe presenter

Chlorinated Chromosomes:  Swimming and Your Genes

You know your hair or skin can be affected by a dip in the pool–and you usually smell like chlorine after that refreshing swim.  But have you ever wondered what happens to your genes while you’re paddling around in the swimming pool?  Want to know what’s really in that water, and what chlorine may be doing to your chromosomes?  Maybe not, but if you’d like to find out, check out the Science Cafe at the the Back Bar at Top the Hill in downtown Chapel Hill at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, 2011.

Dr. David DeMarini, a genetic toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in RTP, and an AdjunctProfessor in the Dept. of Environmental Science & Engineering at UNC, will discuss the latest studies he and his colleagues have done on the mutagenicity and carcinogenicity of swimming pool water and drinking water.  Dr. DeMarini has been studying the ability of chlorinated water to induce mutations for 30 years, and he will share this pool of knowledge with you while you drink something other than chlorinated water.  Take the plunge, and join us at the next Science Cafe in Chapel Hill!

Thanks, David, for the puns. Stay tuned for more info about David in our next blog.


Jonathan Frederick is Morehead's science program manager. He has recently pledged to run at least 15 miles per week and his muscles hurt thinking about it.

to attend this month’s Carolina Science Cafe. But you can chat with one!

The Star of May's Carolina Science Cafe

On Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m., Dr. Matt Ewend, head of neurosurgery at UNC, will be at the Back Bar in Downtown Chapel Hill, talking about his world. A world that includes awake surgeries, removing tumors, using the CyberKnife, and more. We’re really looking forward to this one!

As usual, our friends at Sigma Xi will be sponsoring some appetizers and special thanks to Dr. Charles Weiss for making this event possible.

To get to know Matt a little more, check out his answers to our questions:

Where did you grow up? Saginaw Michigan, son of an insurance agent and an advertising person.  No medical folks in the family

What did you want to be when you were a kid? My grandfather was a lawyer, and that’s what I wanted to do.  I thought I could be a trial attorney.   I also thought I would like to be a sports announcer.

How did you get interested in science? I got interested in science and medicine during high school, but no real epiphany moment. I was a math major in college and came at science through the math physics pathway.    I like the clean answers that math and physics often provided better than the fuzzy answers of some other sciences.

In one sentence, describe your job: Everyday I meet people facing difficult illnesses involving the brain; my job is to help them through these times compassionately.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby that you have that your colleagues don’t know about? I got my privates pilot’s license a year ago and I am working on my instrument rating.  As a kid, I was almost as fast as Holden Thorp with Rubik’s cube.

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? I started out in medicine with an interest in cancer and this has never changed.  Given our mythical blank check, I would build a team to look at brain tumors on an individual level (think personalized medicine) to find newer targeted treatments.

Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to answer our questions.

We hope to see everyone on Thursday, 5/12, 7 p.m. at the Back Bar!



Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He is currently reading East of Eden.

Come explore human health and wellness at Morehead’s Family Science Day program this Saturday (April 2, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.).

How do the foods you eat affect your health? Family Science Day shares some ideas.

You can taste test healthy snacks. Take a mini-class in yoga or tai chi with your kids. Test your heart rate before and after competing in a mini-Olympics event. Learn how thoughts can affect health.

There’ll be guest speakers, exhibits, hands-on activities, story time and even a Science LIVE! Human Body Test. You can meet and talk with scientists who are researching ways to keep us all healthy through every stage of life.

All of the Family Science Day activities are free, and everything is planned so that there’s something for almost every age level — even yours! See you Saturday.

My officemate is eating an apple right now.

11 Mar 2011

We made a (very) short video with some of the folks that showed up at the most recent alumni event at Morehead. Check it out:

Shot and edited by one of our fantastic student interns, Margaret Cheatham Williams.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

This weekend, Morehead will host a unique event — a “homecoming” of sorts for our alumni, a chance for reconnection and recreation among UNC graduates who used to spend hours together but now rarely see one another.

Morehead employs around 60 UNC undergraduate students (and sometimes a graduate student or two) every year. If you’ve visited Morehead, you’ve met our student employees. The person who greeted your school bus on your field trip, the person who rang up your purchase of astronaut ice cream, the person who invited you to volunteer for the Science LIVE! demonstration, the person who presented your planetarium show — all Morehead student employees.

Morehead alumni

Morehead student employees and UNC teaching fellows served as hosts and hostesses for the 2004 Jupiter Ball. Now, they're among our alumni.

They’re busy behind the scenes, too. Morehead student employees help write camp curricula, design flyers, train their peers to master new skills, work with teachers on field trip reservations, solve computer glitches, type and file and copy … there aren’t any departments within the planetarium, from the director’s office to front-line service roles, where you won’t find student employees at Morehead.

It’s a win-win situation. Morehead benefits from an ever-changing influx of fresh ideas and energy. These students are SMART. They’re hard working and enthusiastic, too. They relate well to our visitors, and they share new perspectives that strengthen Morehead programs.

And what do the students get from working at Morehead? Paychecks, an on-campus “family” away from home, a fun environment and unique leadership opportunities. Best of all, they learn new skills that translate into better job opportunities after graduation. At Morehead, they’re given a lot of responsibility and encouraged to learn as much as possible — and they do, in all kinds of activities. Event management. Retail marketing. Grantwriting. Curriculum design. Public speaking. Group project coordination.

Year after year, we watch Morehead alumni transform their experiences here into career paths. They now work at other science centers, creating educational programs and designing exhibits. They work in graphic design and public relations and nonprofit development. They work in public schools, in research labs, in business and industry. They are making a difference in the world.

We are proud of our alumni. Welcome “home,” everyone!

Once a Tar Heel, always a Tar Heel.

February 2008 lunar eclipse (credit: Jayme Hanzak)

The next time the Moon is full, it will pass into the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. The action happens early Tuesday morning, December 21, 2010, between 1:33 and 5:01 a.m. Totality is from 2:41 to 3:53 a.m. (All times Eastern.)

So seeing it probably means inconveniencing yourself unless you work the night shift or will be in another time zone. (Lucky folks on the West Coast, for example, get to subtract three hours from all the times above.) If the skies are clear enough, here’s why it is worth losing sleep to see the eclipse:

1) You will see the Moon turn a weird color.

When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, rather than disappearing altogether, it will probably turn red. Or maybe orange, or gray, or brown. The Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight and sends it into the Earth’s shadow, so in effect you see light from all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth. The exact color of the Moon depends on what’s in our atmosphere as well as how deeply into the darkest part of the shadow the Moon passes.

2) You can prove to yourself the Earth is round.

When the eclipse is in a partial phase, you can see that the Earth’s shadow is curved.

3) You can imagine a ferocious dog taking a bite out of the Moon.

According to a Korean myth, a lunar eclipse happens when a king’s “fire dog” attempts to steal the Moon and bring its light to the Land of Darkness. When this huge, fierce dog bites into the Moon he finds it painfully cold. His mouth freezing and his teeth singing with pain, the dog then spits out the Moon.

4) You haven’t gotten to see a total lunar eclipse in nearly 3 years.

The night of February 20-21, 2008, was the most recent total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere on Earth.

5) …and you may have missed that eclipse anyway.

That week I was presenting a stargazing seminar for public school teachers at the Ocracoke campus of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where I remember good views of the eclipse. But members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) reported cloud cover during the early stages.

6) …and your NEXT chance to see a total lunar eclipse from here won’t be until April 2014.

And its timing during the night isn’t any more convenient for the East coast than this Dec. 21 eclipse, so don’t wait for that reason.

To witness a simulation of the eclipse with no loss of sleep, and to learn more Moon-related stuff, please join me at the Moon Myths planetarium program:

  • A 90-minute version designed for adults and teens happens this Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 7:30-9:00 p.m. In addition to spending time under the planetarium sky, we’ll do a hands-on “moon dance” (no actual dancing required) to explore how the Moon’s orbit is related to phases and eclipses. And if the weather permits, we’ll spend a few minutes outside looking at the real thing through a telescope.

Register for either program at the Morehead Web site.

Amy Sayle is setting an alarm to catch the lunar eclipse.

Geminid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini the Twins. (Credit: International Astronomical Union, Sky & Telescope)

The Geminid meteor shower peaks the night of December 13-14, providing its annual cosmic light show. Alas, our current forecast predicts temperatures dropping toward the teens that night. Here’s why it’s worth freezing yourself* to view the meteors (assuming you have reasonably clear skies):

1) The Geminid meteor shower is strong and reliable.

It’s actually already happening. The shower is active from December 4-16, with the peak on Tuesday morning, December 14.

2) You can watch the sky act out a mythological story.

The streaks of light you’ll see (also called, confusingly, “shooting stars”) result from debris from a rocky object called 3200 Phaethon. In Greek mythology, Phaethon’s disastrous attempt to drive the Sun chariot across the sky resulted in Zeus (Jupiter) hurling a lightning bolt that caused Phaethon to tumble out of the chariot “like a shooting star.” In addition to seeing meteors streaking through the sky and imagining Phaethon’s last ride, you will also see Jupiter—the planet, that is—if you are out before midnight. But let’s hope for no lightning bolts.

3) You don’t have to wake up insanely early.

Unlike most meteor showers, which require going outside at what most of us consider a ridiculous hour, the Geminids are worth looking for anytime after about 9 p.m. (Monday, Dec. 13). At that time you will also see Jupiter and the waxing gibbous Moon appearing close together—a lovely sight, though that moonlight may prevent you from seeing fainter meteors.

4) If you’re willing to go out to a dark site after midnight (early morning Tuesday, Dec. 14), you may see roughly a meteor or more per minute.

The single best hour is likely to be centered around 2 a.m. The Moon will have set, and high in the sky will be the radiant—the point in the constellation Gemini from which Geminid meteors appear to originate. Around that time, meteors will appear to fall down in all directions. To see the most meteors, you need a sky free from light pollution. Seek an open view as far away from city lights as you can.

5) All you need are your eyes. And warm clothes.

Do give your eyes at least ten minutes to adjust to the dark. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Gemini. The American Meteor Society suggests that if it’s before midnight, try facing toward the east, keeping the Moon out of your field of view. Closer to 2 a.m., try looking about halfway up the sky, in whatever is the darkest direction for your location.

*So that you don’t actually freeze yourself, remember to dress really, really warmly, and wrap yourself in a blanket or sleeping bag.

Amy Sayle is looking forward to presenting "Moon Myths" this week in the climate-controlled planetarium theater.

When you look at the space station flying over, someone might be looking down at you. (Credit: Expedition 24 crew, NASA)

Are you a morning person? If so, this Thanksgiving holiday provides good opportunities for you and other early birds along the East Coast to see the International Space Station (ISS).

If the sky isn’t too cloudy, the two best ISS passes will be the mornings of Thursday, November 25 (Thanksgiving Day), and Saturday, November 27. Both times the ISS will first appear low in the southwest. Over the next few minutes, you can watch it pass to nearly the zenith (top of the sky) before it disappears low in the northeast.

For our location, Heavens-Above currently predicts that the Thursday pass will happen from 6:32 to 6:37 a.m.  Saturday’s will be from 5:49 to 5:53 a.m. Black Friday shoppers who like to get out insanely early will also be treated to an ISS pass from 5:23 to 5:27 a.m. that morning, but it will be much lower to the horizon.

To find the space station, look for a very, very bright “star” that is noticeably moving. The ISS is so bright that it won’t matter how light polluted your observing site is, and it won’t matter that Thursday morning’s pass happens in a sky brightening from the approaching sunrise.

Although it is not hard to spot the ISS, you will likely see it sooner—and have more fun—if others look with you. So you might practice ambush astronomy on any visiting relatives and haul them outside with you. Set your watch accurately, and don’t give up if you don’t notice the ISS in the first minute or two.

Be sure not to mistake the International Space Station for:

  • a plane (the ISS does not have red or green blinking lights)
  • a bright planet (Venus and Saturn are currently in the morning sky, but they won’t appear to be trucking across it)
  • a bright star (no star rivals the apparent brightness of the ISS this Thursday or Saturday, or appears to move across the sky over a few minutes)

Because predictions of where and when to look can change, you may wish to check Heavens-Above or NASA’s sighting opportunities page the night before for updated predictions. Also check one of these sites if you will be somewhere other than the Triangle area. For either Web site, you must specify your observing location (for Heavens-Above see the “Configuration” heading).

Amy Sayle is definitely not a morning person but is considering waking up Thursday in time to see the space station.

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