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Big Science in a Small City (Part 3): In Praise of Cool Scientists

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As I've noted in my last two posts, I have the amazing good fortune to live in a Rocky Mountain town full of scientists.

"Science" is a wonderfully broad term, of course. Which makes life here even more fascinating.
And leads me to the question at the heart of this post:

"What kind of scientist are you?"

1. Vicky Hamilton, Planetary Geologist, Principal Scientist, Southwest Research Institute

Wow! Factor:

She gets answers to Big Questions from rocks...on Mars.

Big Question:

"My primary interest...is to understand what the rocks and soils on Mars are made of. The minerals that are in the rocks (or on them as coatings) tell us about the geologic processes that have operated on Mars.

Why?

"Very commonly, we gain insight about what we see on Mars by analogy with our understanding of Earth's geologic processes. But Mars took a different evolutionary pathway, and we may also learn about the potential future of Earth based on the geologic record preserved on Mars[...] Different bodies at different distances from the sun vary in their chemistry, and we can learn more about solar system formation (not just our own) by studying all the bodies of our solar system."

Any thoughts about the "Life on Mars" thing?

"I'm extremely interested in knowing whether or not life ever evolved on Mars, but searching for life directly is not my specialty or my primary interest. I am a geologist, and I am interested in the geologic history of Mars regardless of whether or not life ever evolved there."

Biggest Eureka Moment:

"...when my colleagues and I discovered evidence of what may be hundreds of salt deposits in the ancient terrains of Mars."

Biggest Oops?

Thinking the then-new Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) was sending back data about a mineral, when it was recording dust and clouds.

"Fortunately, our knowledge and understanding of the data evolved quickly, and I'm happy to say that I don't think we've made any major 'oopsies' since then."

2. Leslie Leinwand, Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, Director, Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology

Wow! Factor:

Mice on tiny treadmills are showing her the difference between male and female hearts - a difference that science didn't address, or acknowledge, until recently.

Big Question:

How do male and female hearts respond to exercise?

Why?

"Most researchers study male animals and it used to be that clinical studies focused on men; although that has changed more recently. I always felt that males and females might respond to a number things differently. After all, we're different in so many ways."

What she's learned:

"We have found that most things that we study are affected by sex/gender. For example, a genetic disease that causes sudden death in young athletes differs greatly between male and female mice that have been created to study this disease. The females have much less disease than the males. In exercise, there is this response called athlete's heart."

Which means?

"In response to a given amount of exercise, female hearts get a bigger bang for the buck than males," she writes. "We have also found that the plant estrogens in a soy diet have a big impact on this difference between male and female hearts." Men who dietary supplements loaded with "plant estrogens" can exacerbate their heart's natural disadvantage, her team discovered. This discovery has major implications for male hearts with FHC.

Biggest Eureka:

"When we found a few years ago that we could effectively 'cure' the symptoms of a genetic heart disease [FHC] in male mice by removing the soy diet."

Biggest Oops:

"I remember ruining a huge experiment when I was a graduate student when I threw away the sample and saved the unimportant part of the experiment. It was months of work."

3. Ryan Welch and Cody Payne Engineers-by-day; Co-Founders, The Octopus Tap

Wow! Factor:

Invented keg tap with four arms, curing "Long Line-itis" in state with $13.7 billion annual beer economy. Quotes below are from Cody.

Why:

"Attending college we went to many parties, Ryan would drive up to Boulder to 'escape' and we saw the need."

"Neither of our fields were 'directly' related to mechanical engineering. However Engineering gave us the creativity, computing skills, and imagination to come up with the idea and design...studies on beer flow rates and product durability."

Um, the Octopus Tap has four arms. Doesn't "Octo-" = eight?

"Yes of course ;) Really it just came down to the fact that it sort of looked like an Octopus when hanging off the keg: Guess if you include the 4 arms of the people pouring the beer plus the 4 on the tap = 8 ;) ...some of the hardware used for diving is also called an Octopus. It doesn't have 8 either. So we extrapolated from that example to octopus being a 'general' term for many. Not sure if that is true, but it was a quick thought process we had and we liked the name."

Any tips for folks who are curious about how stuff works but feel they may lack science smarts?

"You don't have to be a scientist or have an engineering background to create a product. It does require creativity and will to make your product a reality. There are plenty of mechanical design and rapid protyping companies that can help. Home Depot is also a good place to start on some projects, that is what we did. Also, the internet is full of information of "how things work" to get your ideas going."

I'll drink to that.

If you'd like to know more about how these folks got into the sciences, picked their field and ended up in Boulder, please shout out in Comments, below.

More cool Boulder scientist "on tap" in my next post.

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