Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When Designing an Experiment, Creativity is the Key!

In the next few days I'm going to try and start 'mobile blogging' - that is, start blogging from my smart phone. I'm hoping this will keep me on track with remembering to do updates on the right days. Unfortunately, I've got schedules in 3 places right now (desktop calendar, google calendar and iPhone reminders) and none of the are quite synced up. I'm working on this, too - the first couple of weeks back at school are always crazy with commitments, and I clearly need a better way to keep track of it all. But enough about me, let's talk about science!

We're gearing up to start the first set of trials with the Lubbock toads next week, so this week has been mainly about getting the arena set back up. As you may know, the arena we used in Panama was considered 'semi-outdoors' (since it was under a concrete block house, with a concrete floor), however the arena we use in the lab is in a completely controlled environment. Our lab is actually in a basement, so we control everything; temperature, humidity, light, and noise. This can be good, but it can also be time consuming to set up. For example, I need to make sure that the lighting during arena trials is as close to natural moonlight levels as possible. Clearly, it is challenging to mimic the moon! Lucky for us, you can purchase light bulbs that 'mimic' moonlight - that is to say, they should have the same light intensity as the low levels of light that radiate off the moon.
I purchased two of these bulbs and two light fixtures, and I plan to get those set up in the next couple of days.

If you've got your 'scientist hat' on, I bet you're thinking, "but how do we really know if these bulbs are the the same as the moonlight in Panama??" Well, that is a great question. Unfortunately, we don't know..... but we can test it! We can use a spectrophotometer to measure the intensity of the light emitted bythe moonlight bulbs(usually measured in watts). We can then compare this to measurements of actual light intensity from the moon taken in Gamboa. Since moonlight is actually a range of intensities, from dark nights with no moon to nights that are very bright with a full moon, it is likely that the moonlight bulbs will fall somewhere within that range. I'll post pictures as soon as I get the bulbs set up, and show you how it's done!

Meanwhile, back at the lab, we have another slight logistical problem.You see, a long time ago, way back in April, I met with my committee to discuss my research proposal. When I talked about comparing data between the Panama and Florida toad populations and using the same arena in both places, one of my committee members asked me if cinder blocks in Panama are the same size as cinder blocks in the U.S. "Of course they are!" I said, and he chuckled and shook his head. Fast forward 2 months, to early June when I am setting up my arena in Panama, and low and behold, the blocks are differently sized! Luckily, they are the same in height and width, but Panamanian cinder blocks just so happen to be 1 1/2 inches (approx.) longer than American cinder blocks. Now I know, and you do too, in case that shows up on Jeopardy one day. So anyways, I knew this was going to be an issue I would need to deal with, but I put it out of my mind and told myself I would deal with it when I returned to Lubbock.

So, here I am, back in Lubbock and dealing with the issue. I checked out a few masonry companies around town, but it seems the standard is 16" long for cinder blocks (I need 17 1/2"). Then I had one of those rare moments of genius - extend the blocks I already have! But how? I looked into clay and plaster, but most of these materials are messy, expensive, and apparently don't hold up well in moist situations. What to do, what to do. Then, I had yet another moment of truth: 

Concrete! Of course! I used concrete in the past to make pretty sturdy stepping stones, so why not make little block-extensions? So with that, I ran my idea by my advisor, and was off to Home Depot for supplies. I found fast-drying concrete, some 1"x3" unfinished wood, wood screws and a circular saw (that I bought on my own - every lady needs power tools). Two days and a lot of measuring and cutting later, and here's what I got: 

Modifying some instructions I found online for making pavers, I made wooden frames and filled them 1" deep with sand. Then I marked off where I should fill the cement to, and coated the wood in vegetable oil (to keep the cement from sticking). Here's what the frame looks like full of concrete :

I made 5 total frames and filled them up. I need 13 total extenders, so I'll need to do this 2 more times. 

After about 24 hours of setting, we'll see what the concrete blocks look like, and if they're usable, then we're good to go! 

Sometimes, all you need is a little inspiration, and something that seems like a problem can turn into a craft project. :)

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