When Science Met Nature…
Jessica’s Science Blog – 05.08.17
Do you like leisurely walks through the woods? Did you ever stop and wonder what that water plant is called, you know, the one with the showy yellow flowers? Great! But does your curiosity tug at you until you can “ID” said plant? Now, how about fungi? Lichens? Mosses? Wait, mosses and lichens, you say, I barely even notice them!
Now, what if you’re not exactly a seasoned naturalist, but you’ll take any excuse to photograph wildlife with your trusty telephoto? Not to worry, even if you only answered with aplomb to a couple of these questions, rest assured that you’ve got what it takes to be a citizen scientist! Dust off your smartphone’s camera and lace up a pair of hiking boots because you’re about to make a contribution to the iNaturalist.org community.
As an ecologist and science educator based in New England, I spend a lot of time learning and teaching about plants that inhabit forest and field. On one happy occasion, I got to teach beach ecology on the shoreline of the Long Island Sound, but I quickly discovered that most of the plants had me scratching my head. Fear not, iNaturalist can educate you on even the most obscure or unfamiliar life forms, from birds to bacteria, there is a specialized community of naturalists and scientists waiting to identify your specimen from a picture.
Recently, in celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, the 2016 Connecticut State BioBlitz assembled hundreds of scientists and volunteers to catalogue the diversity of life in the greater Hartford area. Their efforts, made possible in part from the thousands of observations compiled in iNaturalist, paid off and smashed all previous world records, at 2,765 species identified in one day! Where else can you interact in real time with world class scientists, naturalists, hobbyists, and amateur photographers?
Not to mention that most science is off-limits to the general public, locked away in online journals with sky-high subscription fees. I like that iNaturalist is different. It harkens back to the days when Charles Darwin, as a young naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands to collect and identify specimens as part of his Voyage of the Beagle. iNaturalist puts Mr. Darwin’s opportunities for discovery in the hands of Jane Doe, with ahem, a little digital flair.
In our fast-paced society, filled with deadlines and constant connectivity, more and more people are finding that getting out into nature helps de-stress mind, body, and spirit. Researchers in Japan have studied the physiological health benefits of walking in the woods; they found that forest walks and viewing decreased heart rate, stress hormone levels, and blood pressure of participants when compared with walks and viewing in cities. Recently, other studies have found evidence that hiking in forests actually changes the way our brains work and improves immune system function.
iNaturalist truly is a revolutionary platform that allows every day people to connect with nature, that is, in ways that extend beyond pretty photos of summer lake front property or fields of wildflowers, displayed in a slideshow set to Bon Iver music (although beautiful). You get to connect with each other, to learn new species, to share your offbeat love for slugs with others who actually care, and you can do it anywhere in the world, at any time, with anyone you like by your side. Join iNaturalist today, it’s free. You’re on your way to being a citizen scientist, and you didn’t even know it when you brushed that spider away from your coffee cup this morning.
Don’t believe me? Take it from an iNaturalist user, who is a delightful mix of scientist, nature enthusiast, long-distance runner, and educator. Dr. Karolina Fučíková, who spends the bulk of her time as an algae scientist and professor of natural sciences at Assumption College in Massachusetts, began using iNaturalist as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut in 2015. Dr. Fučíková says that originally she saw iNaturalist, “as a way towards becoming a better, well-rounded naturalist,” having added, “I’ve definitely learned to recognize more species around me. It’s been a great addition to weekend hikes [and] long runs.” However, before long she began collecting data in the app to build a data repository for her research project on algae biodiversity and distribution.
Fučíková says that she sees “great potential in [iNaturalist] for student projects especially – [in that] they can record locality data (GPS coordinates, date and time of observation, photos of habitats) and document the observed specimen even if they don’t recognize the species. That gives the students a level of independence while still allowing me to check their data and store it all in one place.” In short, Fučíková views iNaturalist as a versatile tool with several uses and applications that connect the natural world to people who “science”.
She is not alone in this assessment; the growing community of “iNat” users has a social and competitive spirit to it. You can be the envy of your peers with the greatest numbers of observation or as Fučíková puts it, “cool sightings :).” So what are you waiting for? Get out there and join the iNaturalist community!
When Science Met Nature…
Jessica’s Science Blog – 08.04.16
The first time you try yoga just might be the first day of the rest of your life. Many people know that yoga helps alleviate physical ailments such as back pain, but the science of yoga and meditation has begun to reveal much broader health benefits. In recent years, scientists have identified a constellation of yoga health benefits that runs the gamut from cognitive and emotional functioning to physiological effects.
In a 2016 research study of older adults published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 12 weeks of yoga and meditation led to improvements in mood, coping skills, anxiety, depression, and visual and spatial memory. Participants in a control group doing memory exercises did not experience these improvements. The UCLA researchers, who published the study, used functional MRI to show actual changes in the brains’ neural networks after the 12 weeks of yoga and meditation.
But how? Some tantalizing mechanisms have been suggested: regular meditation and yoga practice may actually reduce inflammation and increase the production of a protein that promotes neural connectivity. Neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain can remodel or change its neural networks through the mindful practice of yoga, is an old concept dating back almost 2,000 years to ancient texts compiled in the Yoga Sutra.
if yoga can change our brains, can it also help reduce stress and ward of disease? As it turns out, chronic stress and disease are linked together like partners dancing the tango. Some of the most classic research on this topic comes to us from Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a renowned behavioral endocrinologist who studied cortisol and behavior in wild baboons. As Sapolsky explained in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, prolonged stress leads to physiological changes, particularly in the immune system: when we experience high stress hormone levels over long periods of time, our ability to fight off disease becomes weakened. The so-called stress diseases of the Western World, such as ulcers, anxiety, depression, and even heart disease, may be explained by this simple biological truth.
One of the ways in which yoga reduces stress is through deep relaxation. According to a 2013 article by the medical editor for Yoga Journal, Dr. Timothy McCall, research from the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation in India suggests that, although yogis could achieve relaxation via meditation and breathing exercises alone, a deeper form of relaxation was attained when they front-loaded restorative practices with active ones. This works because of a basic principle of our autonomic nervous systems; Active practices stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, whereas restorative practices activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart and aids in digestion.
Deep relaxation is one thing, but what about yoga’s effects on overall health and autonomic function? Is there strong evidence for a positive association between yoga and a person’s autonomic health and aerobic fitness? Well, one such indicator is known as heart rate variability or HRV. In a recent review of the literature looking at whether yoga can increase HRV, authors concluded that, while there is some tentative support for this notion, more rigorous studies with standardized research methods and measurements are needed to properly test this hypothesis.
Other clinical evidence points to the ability of yoga and meditation to reduce, if not reverse, many of the health costs brought about by a lifestyle once marked by chronic stress. Western medicine has already begun amassing a robust body of evidence supporting the physiological, emotional, and cognitive benefits of regular yoga, such as stress reduction, enhanced immunity, lowered blood sugar, and increased strength and flexibility, among other benefits.
The yoga revolution in America continues. Hopefully, one day we will receive treatment-based prescriptions as well as preventative care directives from our physicians to practice yoga. As David Rachford, a navy veteran who was prescribed yoga as treatment for pain management in one outpatient care center, put so eloquently, “My yoga practice became the base that restored my health, taking me from smoking, having high blood pressure, and being overweight and pre-diabetic to being fit, active, and a picture of health. I’ve lost 50 pounds, my blood pressure is normal, and I can jog and hike without pain.”
Breath in – I know I’m breathing in. Breath out – I know I’m breathing out. Om shanti.
Listen to the peace mantra for Hatha Yoga