SciTech Now Episode 523

In this episode of SciTech Now, discovering the living organism known as lichen; self-healing electronics; understanding nature through Bird Cams; and STEM teaching through nature.


Coming up, for the love of lichen.

If you can just draw a crazy shape in your head, in your mind, that probably exists in the lichen world.

Self-healing electronics.

It's made up of these microscopic droplets of a metal that's liquid at room temperature.

Understanding nature through bird cams.

How does it change citizen science when the public are actually a co-collaborator?

STEM teaching through nature.

We mix cultural information with STEM teachings about water, about land, about plants.

It's all ahead.


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

If you're wandering through the woods, you may come across something that resembles a twig, moss, or even a leaf.

But what you might not know is that it's a living organism known as lichen.

Tim Wheeler, a lab manager and naturalist at the University of Montana, captures the beauty and colors of these organisms.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.


So, most people think a lichen is a moss.

That's kind of where it ends.

To the untrained eye, it could just look like another branch or another leaf or another twig or even a piece of bird poop or a piece of gum on a rock.

You know, they don't understand them.

If you don't know that it's alive and it's an organism, you might gloss over that.

These things are often very ephemeral, and so you need a way to capture that -- you know, the beauty, the colors, the shapes -- before these things wither away naturally.

You start looking at lichens and you look at this finer scale, you realize the actual microtopography of that landscape is actually huge.

Lichens are a mini ecosystem.

It's not one organism.

My name's Tim Wheeler.

I am a lab manager at the University of Montana.

But kind of my passion is fungi, specifically lichens.

By trade, I'm not a photographer.

I consider myself a naturalist.

I took a forestry class with a professor, and he pointed out these lichens growing on the trees.

And he was like, 'Hey, we really don't know anything about these things.' And that kind of piqued my interest.

So, I just kind of casually started collecting them.

The 10th or 12th lichen that I collected, I didn't recognize it.

I thought it was cool and new, so I sent it off, and it turned out to be a new species and science.

You know, that doesn't happen if you study birds.

And I kind of got hooked.

Historically, a lichen was considered part algae and part fungi.

As we've dug into these things deeper, we're finding that it's more complex than just these two partners.

There's other fungi in there.

There's other algae, cyanobacteria, other bacteria, all working together, basically, in this little mini ecosystem.

The fungus produces the structure, right?

So, think of it as, like, a little greenhouse, which inside that, they're growing algae.

The algae are photosynthesizing.

The fungus provides water and other nutrients and minerals and stuff like that.

The diversity of lichens is huge.

We have foliose, which are your big, leafy lichens.

So, they have an upper and lower surface.

You have these fruticose lichens, and these are your 3-D or branching lichens.

And then you have the crust lichens, which are kind of crusty, right?

If you can just draw a crazy shape in your head, in your mind, that probably exists in the lichen world.

That's what I like about lichens.

You have these things that are flat and boring.

You have these things that are incredibly long-lived and incredibly branching.

Any complex 3-D structure you can probably imagine, we can probably find an example mimicking that.

It is exciting when you find that perfect specimen.

It has all the characters.

It's in, you know, pristine condition.

You want to be able to have someone to look at it from a human perspective, but you also want to be able to show those smaller details all in one shot, right?

And so my photography skills grew out of a need to illustrate these specimens, these species.

The collection started because you needed to come back to kind of verify your I.D.s.

Back here, I have, I think, just over 16,000 specimens.

So, that's 17 years of collecting.

I have kind of one wall that I've been trying to contain it to.

No, I don't think I'm ever gonna stop collecting lichens, so my numbers are only gonna go up.

You know, it's kind of like a checklist, kind of like birders have a life list.

You feel good that you've captured that organism.

And, so, once I pull it out, unwrap it, we're taking high-magnification photos.

At such high magnifications that we're dealing with, you might only have one little plane that can be in focus.

So in order to overcome that shallow depth of field, my camera is attached to a rail, and every 125 microns, it can take a picture.

That gets sent to the computer, this program, Helicon Focus, and they stack them.

They take every little sharp bit from every layer and make it into one continuous, sharp image from front to back, and the result is one picture.

You know, when I first started stacking pictures, I would, like -- Everything was in sharp.

Nothing was out of focus.

Because I thought that's what was important.

But as I got into it more, I kind of shifted more towards the art.

A little bit of depth, a little bit out of focus in the background actually makes the rest of that stuff pop a little more.

Sometimes, I'll wet it, if it needs to be rehydrated.

You know, I might have this boring little gray lichen on a rock, but when it gets wet, it could kind of unfold and kind of almost flower and turn into this brilliant blue-green thing.

It's always exciting to see them come alive.

You can almost take the specimen out of its habitat, kind of raise it up to this, like, glorified color or shape.

Everything can be perfect.

I think a lot of scientists -- you know, they have the little point-and-shoot camera.

For me, that just didn't cut it.

You know, I needed to make them, you know, the center of attention.

I don't think the general public knows the importance of them.

They're notoriously sensitive to air pollution, to changing temperatures, and so if you have a changing climate, what's the first thing that's gonna respond are these fungi.

You can kind of get a trend of how your climate is changing because these lichens respond so quickly.

So I hope my photography aids in the just general awareness of lichens and how cool these things and how important they are.

The power of technology cannot be understated, but neither can its vulnerability.

A team of mechanical engineers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have developed a self-healing technology that would allow soft conductive material to maintain electrical function when mechanically damaged.

Here to discuss this technology is Dr. Carmel Majidi, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

So, how in the world is a material self-healing?

Well, first off, thanks for having me here.

It's a great pleasure.

So, a material is self-healing if it has the ability to maintain its properties -- in the case of a circuit, its electrical functionality -- as it undergoes mechanical damage.

If the circuit breaks, it's still gonna continue to pass current.



So, I mean, I think we're all familiar with electronics that, at some point or another, does fail.

The circuitry breaks or a connection gets loose, and to restore the properties of the circuit, we have to go and pop open the hard case and either replace the circuit board or we have to go and solder the connections.

In the case of a self-healing circuit, the circuit wiring is able to just automatically, on its own, re-route itself, form new electrical connections, and maintain the functionality of the circuit.

So, I brought a few examples here.

Hopefully this can better demonstrate the principle.

I mean, this just looks like kind of a rubbery...



And, so, in a sense, it is kind of a rubbery, soft circuit.

And what you see here is -- there is kind of two components to it.

One is this darker part, and that's these -- These are conductive traces.

They have electrically conductive pathways that can carry electrical current.

And then this lighter area here -- this is electrically insulating.


And it's made up of these microscopic droplets of a metal that's liquid at room temperature.

And in the case of the insulating part, these droplets are isolated from each other, so they can't carry electrical current.

But in these darkened regions here, those droplets are in contact.

They are connected with each other and they can pass electrical current.


And in a self-healing circuit, we can engineer this so that when we mechanically damage the circuit, say by tearing it, scratching it, puncturing it, or, in some extreme cases, removing material, those droplets can form new networks of connected pathways around that damaged area.


So, you've got an example here.

So, I've got an example here, yeah.

So, this is a pretty simple circuit.

It's just one of these conductive traces of these liquid-metal droplets.


All right, so, right now, the circuit is complete, and that's why we're seeing a tiny red light.



And, so, as I start to tear at the material, typically, what you would expect in a circuit is that when I break through this conductive pathway, the light should turn off.

That's the dark gray line is the pathway.



But, in this case, you can see, as I cut through it...


...the light stays on, right?

Even as I've completely severed that conductive area.

So, what has happened here is that all those microscopic droplets of liquid metal inside the rubber that are near the damaged area -- those spontaneously rupture, they form connections with their neighbors, and they form new electrically conductive pathways around that damaged area, and so the circuit can remain intact and current can continue to flow through the light.

So, basically, what is the bare minimum that they have to have in contact with each other?

So, I mean, you've ripped that thing all the way through that pathway, but do you need 20% more of the -- You know, how much do you need for that circuit to kind of self-heal?

So, for a circuit like this, we do need to maintain a lot of the same connectivity that we originally had in our circuit, and so it was very important to us, when we engineered these materials, that we could configure the droplets in a way that when the material did get damaged, a lot of that same connectivity could be preserved.

And, now, when you put that back flat, does it heal in a different way?

Does it see the existing pathways?

'Oh, hey, let's just go back and use that.'


So, with this current type of material or current technology, we get the electrical self-healing, but we don't get mechanical self-healing, and so we can't actually restore the mechanical integrity.

Once when we have that cut, that cut remains.

And that's actually something that my research lab at Carnegie Mellon is currently working on -- developing conductive materials that are not just electrically self-healing but also mechanically self-healing.

So, give me examples of how this is applied.

So, we're really interested in applying these materials in cases where you want electronics to be soft and stretchable and, in particular, outside of the hard case.

I mean, we're all familiar with electronics that are encased in, you know, hard plastic and metal casing.

Our cellphones.



Cellphones and laptops.

But when we talk about incorporating electronics into textiles, into clothing, say stickers or Band-Aids that adhere to our skin, we have to take those electronics outside of the hard case.

It's not enough for the circuits to be soft and stretchable.

They also have to be durable and resistant to just everyday wear and tear.

And so we're interested in wearable computing, applications in virtual reality, augmented reality, human-machine interaction.

Also, there is healthcare applications.

In fact, my research lab recently launched a spin-off company that's developing electronic stickers that can do continuous healthcare monitoring.

It would do what?

A sticker would do what?

So, a sticker would go on your skin.

These are wireless electronic circuits.

And they would monitor your health vitals, like cardiac activity, heart rate, blood oxygenation, respiration.

Kind of another area where we see these materials as potentially useful is not just in managing electrical current, but also managing heat.

And so we're also making versions of this material that are thermally conductive.


So you could be wearing some sort of a V.R.

skin suit, and the gloves could be giving feedback, or at least it would say, 'The heart rate is elevated.

This person's blood pressure is -- They're really enjoying this game' or whatever.

They're excited by this.



And in current virtual reality, A.R.

applications, I mean, a lot of this is done with headsets or, say, data gloves or joysticks, but there's only so much you can learn by just from gesture monitoring or having something on your wrist or on your hand.

The idea with these circuits is that you could incorporate them in a clothing, put them in more parts of your body --

And if it scratches against something, that's fine, 'cause it will self-heal.



The same thing if a hospital or a doctor is putting one of those patches on you.

Now that's gonna monitor all of your vitals, regardless of whether there's a cord attached to a wall.



What are examples of thermal connectivity?

I mean, how would you apply those?

One application of this material is to incorporate it into these electronics to help better dissipate the heat or transfer it to some type of, say, fan-cooled heat sink or heat exchange.

Down the road, when we start thinking about wearable computing, electronic skins that complement, say, our virtual reality or A.R., we need these thermoconductive materials to not just be efficient with managing heat, but they also have to be soft and stretchable and compatible with our clothing and our skin.

All right, Carmel Majidi, of Carnegie Mellon University, thanks so much.

Hey, thanks a lot.

For three consecutive nights this April, on PBS and Facebook, the 'Nature' series presents 'American Spring LIVE, ' a real-time look at arguably the most anticipated season of the year, when rising temperatures and longer days trigger dramatic transformations in plants and animals.

Leading up to that premiere, we welcome Charles Eldermire, from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, via Google Hangout.

Charles is a project leader for Bird Cams Lab, a project at Cornell where the use of fixed cameras, or bird cams, are allowing the public to become citizen scientists and contribute to our understanding of nature.

It's all a part of the upcoming special 'American Spring LIVE.' So, first of all, bird cams kind of became a little more popular when zoos put them on rare birds or when there was a baby bird that was about to be -- But they're a lot more than that.

Yeah, you're spot on.

So, if you go back maybe 6 or 7 years, there was a real explosion of live animal cameras, both in zoos, but I would argue that even in natural settings was where the popularity really surged.

So, back in 2011, 2012, there was a very popular eagle camera in Decorah, Iowa, that kind of took the nation by storm.

And this happened at just the right time, where people had broadband access in their houses.

Streaming technology progressed to the point where you could stream something that looked pretty nice, from a pretty wide place.

And a nation's imagination was really captivated the moment they had a chance to have these sort of intimate, minute-by-minute views of these beautiful wild animals.

And here you are now with thousands of eyes, so to speak, watching something, watching something that sometimes, really, the folks inside the lab don't have the time to watch nearly as closely.

So how do you harvest all that potential?

That's a great point.

You know, the thing that makes these cameras so different from thinking about science in a sort of more typical sense is that, often, it would just be a scientist or a scientist and her field assistants that would be gathering data on animals in the wild.

And in the case of live animal cameras, like our bird cams, there's the potential for literally thousands of eyes to be trained upon that same view and the opportunity for different perspectives, as well as different interests to play a role in kind of both answering questions, but also asking questions.

And that's really where Bird Cams Lab kind of sets itself apart from other citizen-science model.

So, give me an example of how it would work at your bird lab.

Yeah, so, for example, for the first 4 to 5 years of our red-tailed-hawk cam here at Cornell University, viewers were really interested in what sort of prey the adult hawks were bringing in to feed the young.


And the first couple years, people were fairly religiously posting pictures of these items, as they'd come into the next, to Twitter.

And then we would collate them and kind of make a summary at the end of the year.

But by the third year, that same public had come up with their own sort of cloud-hosted spreadsheet, hosted on Google Docs, where data was being entered for every prey item that was brought, who was bringing it.

And it was really the public that was pushing kind of the gathering of that information forward.

And, you know, it allowed us to gather, essentially, a census of all of the prey items that were required to basically bring these three young nestling hawks from hatch to fledge.

So, around 'American Spring LIVE, ' what are you hoping for?

Well, we're really hoping for people to actually step outside maybe what they might be comfortable with or to at least extend their imagination to think of the fact that they have eyeballs like anyone else does, right?

They have brains like anyone else does.

And those two things, as well as your ears and other senses, are actually the same tools that scientists are using to sort of think about what's interesting about what they're seeing.

What's an interesting question?

And, so, the idea that somebody may or may not be an expert isn't always important when it comes to having different perspectives on what has been observed, and those perspectives driving new and interesting questions.

So, the first part would be, I guess, the public understanding that they can make valid and interesting questions.

Sometimes, those questions have been answered pretty well and according to the process and, you know, other research projects.

But the cool thing about these live cams is that it's sort of a 24/7 record of what's happening in these nests.

And because of that, it actually is a different period of time than most scientists had ever sort of had the opportunity to view a wild animal.

There's no way that a group of scientists could look at all 24 hours of footage every day for a whole year and figure out the entire diet of a red-tailed hawk, right?

So it's a way where you're saying that the crowds that are following it are actually helping you do that science.

That's correct.

Yeah, it's not so much that it couldn't be done, but that it takes a lot of time, energy, funding to collect those kind of data.

And, really, what it's allowing is for the enthusiasm and interest of that viewing audience to actually be sort of multitasking, right?

They're not only enjoying what they're seeing, they're captivated by this view into these birds's lives, but they're given the opportunity to share what they're seeing and to understand that what they're seeing, those observations they're making are just as valid as what, you know, a scientist might record in that same situation.

From the Bird Cams project, Charles Eldermire.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much.

It's been great being here.

The Earth Connections Camp in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a program designed for Native American children to get involved with the community and empower them with a mix of cultural information and STEM topics about water, land, plants, animals, and indigenous people.

Here's the story.


Not too much.

Not too much.

The reason why we have this camp is twofold.

The first is to get the students involved in their education, to have a baseline in terms of what they need to learn and, you know, some of the challenges that they have in education.

And the other piece is the cultural piece, which is things that they need to learn of their background and where they came from and who they are.

So, we have a mixture of the cultural piece mixed with the STEM piece.

And, at the end of the day, hopefully they can mesh these two programs together.


So, like, yesterday, we had 100 pennies and we had to decide which, like, percentage of the water on Earth was, like, oceans, lakes, rivers, or streams and stuff.

That was fun.

Grab your pennies.

Well, we try to keep it really interactive.

We want the kids to not just listen, but do.

So we try to have them participate with the activities as much as we can.

We've brought our children up here to the Earth Connections Camp for almost eight years now.

A very great opportunity for our youth.

Most of our children for the Urban Indian Center -- they do have limited access to daycare or don't have access to programs that are designed for American Indian children.

So it's a great opportunity for our children to get involved with the STEM and get involved with understanding our cultural values.

[ Singing in native language ] I thought this was important from the very beginning because Indian tribes have ownership of many, many water rights and land rights on our native lands.

And it's important for our youth to be able to know how this impacts their community.

They have to know, legally, what impacts them as Indian nations.

And going into the future, we have so many of our natural resources -- water, land, minerals, oil, whatever it may be -- with all kinds of companies around us just waiting to get their hands on it.

We, as Indian people, need to be able to protect our rights to these natural resources.

So Earth Connection is a great way for our community to empower themselves.

We mix cultural information with STEM teachings about water, about land, about plants, animals, and indigenous peoples.

And the whole state of Utah -- We're right here.

This beautiful, beautiful place that we all share.

It's good for us to know the history of this place, who lived here.

[ Singing continues ]

Thread it from -- Still going backwards.

[ Singing continues ] [ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪

It really makes me feel happy, 'cause, like, we were here and we helped make this country great.

This camp has helped me with, like, history classes, 'cause, like, when I go and learn about, like, Native Americans, like, I've already, like, known 'cause of this camp and, like, my grandma and stuff.

So it just, like -- I already know about it, so it's just, like, fun to, like, see what other teachers say about it.

It makes me feel, like, a ton better to, like, just understand, like, what it means for me and, like, my family and everything and makes my family happy and me happy.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.