April 29, The Honorable Robert Boyle Legacy Society 25th Anniversary Celebration, Williamsburg, VA
Many years ago, Jack and I, both William and Mary graduates, included our Alma Mater in our estate planning. For that reason, we have become members of the Boyle Society at W&M.
Every year, the group gathers to celebrate achievements made possible through the Boyle Society members’ and other grants and gifts that make receiving (and delivering) a quality education from the College possible. This year’s event was not just a 25th birthday celebration of the society itself, but also the year the group got to see the new Integrated Science Center.
This concept of integrating the disparate science disciplines is quite dramatic, actually, and we learned why during this day-long event. During the kickoff luncheon, a young student, John Marken (2017) talked about his participation in the iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) competition during his sophomore year, 2015. As a principal part of a team of W&M students (about 8 undergraduate and graduate students) developed a project that had real-life application to solve a real-life problem), engineered the project, tested the project, and then presented the project during the competition. Among the competitors were teams from Stanford, MIT, and other engineering US schools, plus international institutions including engineering powerhouses from Japan and Germany — and the W&M team won.
This was one of the first examples of what integrating the sciences could mean to John (a mathematician) as he and the team worked with biologists, engineers, neuroscientists, and technologists — and professors and graduate students in many disciplines — to make an idea into a reality. Since that time, John has continued his good work and will graduate from William and Mary (a liberal arts institution, not an engineering school) this spring and begin to pursue his DOCTORATE at CalTech.
That first iGEM team did not have a “home” on campus, but borrowed space for the project from various departments and labs. Due to help from various individuals and grants, as well as the Boyle Society, the iGEM team has its own permanent place in which to develop students ideas and research projects. William and Mary students will continue to compete internationally in this prestigious problem-solving process.
Listening to this 21-22 year old speak so eloquently about what his W&M education and community has meant to him, and his prospects for the rest of his life made me feel positive about the future of the US for the first time in quite a while. For that I thank you, John Marken.
After the luncheon, at which our retiring College President, Taylor Reveley, spoke for (probably) the last time I’ll hear him, the group went to various demonstrations and presentations about the newly-finished Integrated Science Center — new structures joined with older ones to create this percolating environment of thinking and sharing individuals, from professors and department chairs through undergraduate students. It was amazing to see how many undergrads have published scientific papers under their own names about their own projects/research.
We were delighted to discover that we were to hear about the Monarch and Milkweed research that is going on. But first, we received an overview of the concept and the mechanics of the integrated approach to scientific research.
The group heard, auditorium-lecture-style, from several of the department heads, including psychology, neurobiology, and chemistry. But the most interesting (to me) was the information delivered by the field biologist who, with undergraduate and graduate students over the past 6 years, has studied the effects of mercury on birds along the Shenandoah River.
I won’t go into all the details here, but DuPont Chemical once had a plant along the river, and there was a spill. Mercury from that spill many years ago, and the mercury involved in the spill has made tremendous impact on the environment for miles and miles along the river. Insects, fish, birds, frogs, salamanders — you name it, there’s been a problem.
After sampling mercury levels in the wild bird populations for years, and creating real data sets of their findings, the researchers needed to see if they could replicate those findings in the laboratory, to assure everyone involved that it was the mercury and not any other issue or problem that was causing the symptoms among the wild birds. Among the symptoms of mercury poisoning in birds is that those so affected are unable to learn their species songs. They also have low endurance and recovery from stress (a suppressed enzyme or something), low reproductive success, and other issues leading to declining populations.
Anyway, the upshot of this research, currently being replicated in the lab using domesticated Zebra Finches from Australia, is that all the date they collected could finally be turned over to the government and to DuPont, so that measurable “harm” could be judged and recovery from that harm assessed against DuPont.
Imagine being an undergraduate student involved in that research that has had real-time and measurable results.
After a Q&A period, we went off to learn about monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. Anyone who’s been over to my house in the summer, and has wondered why I let these huge milkweed plants grow in my perineal garden, and heard me say, “It’s for the monarchs,” knows this is a subject near to my heart.
We met Harmony Dalgleish, Assistant Professor of Biology, and several of her graduate and undergraduate students, plus one of her colleagues, all involved in the whole monarch and milkweed research. Fifth grade students from the local private school are also involved, propagating various strains of the milkweed plant that had been harvested by Dalgleish’s classes from all over the midwest and eastern US.
And then we went up to the rooftop greenhouse. They have quite a collection of tropical ferns and plants, several of which are carnivorous (insect-eating); plus a module full of succulents and cacti. One of the weirdest was this, whose name I have not the first idea, which apparently opens up those lips to lure insects into the bladder at the front. Creepy thing, about a foot long and about 6 inches wide.
I learned quite a lot I didn’t know about monarchs, which I’ll save for the details below, if you care to read more. But the brand-spanking-new greenhouse on the top of the ISC makes it possible for one of the primary questions they want an answer to.
Knowing that there are many, many folks like me who want to help the monarchs by planting milkweed, and given that the milkweed that grows in Wisconsin is not exactly the same genetic material as that which grows here in VA, does it matter to the monarchs? Is there one strain they like better than another? If I grow Wisconsin milkweed in my VA garden, will that somehow be less attractive to those monarchs that migrate through Virginia?
There are many additional questions they’re trying to answer having to do with the chemistry of the plants and the biology of the insects, and it is all quite fascinating and some of it is way beyond this English major’s ken. But we had a grand time.
There was a cocktail party to end the day, and Jack and I were driving back toward Powhatan State Park by about 5:30, after saying goodbye to good friends and fellow alums also at the event.
We tried to get into Strawberry Street Cafe (Richmond) for dinner, but it was covered up on a Saturday night. So we drove back the Goochland and stopped at a good-looking Mexican restaurant for dinner. Home again, we had a nightcap and listened to the book some more, and hit the hay after a very long day.
What I learned about monarch butterflies and milkweed plants:
Milkweed and Monarchs In 1975, Catalina Trail and Kenneth Brugger located the monarch butterfly overwintering sites high in the Oyamel fir forest of east Michoacan, Mexico. At long last and for the first time, those who celebrated the monarch’s mysterious arrivals and puzzled at their annual disappearances were united and a complete picture of the monarch migration was established. In August of 1976, when the iconic National geographic cover appeared on the doorstep of nature enthusiasts across the world, the monarch entered a new age of popularity an scientific intrigue.
Conservation efforts Though the monarch’s overwintering sites received much attention from 1976 onward, the ties did not receive official government protection until 1986, when by presidential decree, efforts to reduce illegal logging at or near overwintering sites were increased. Much damage, unfortunately, had already been done. By the time the reserve core zone was expanded to 13,552 hectares (33,488 acres) in 2000, approximately 44% of ideal forest in the original reserve had been damaged or destroyed.
Often referred to as the “canary in the cornfield,” the monarch has become the poster critter of a wider movement to save a variety of declining pollinator species. Many ecologists fear losing such a powerful “mascot” would be a tremendous blow to the growing appreciation and concern for pollinator conservation. Monarch/milkweed research has brought together scientists from a divers array of STEM fields and specializations whose work is supported by awareness raised by the monarch butterfly.
Long before its international debut in the National Geographic, the monarch was a cultural icon and nature ambassador. Rich with the symbolism of rebirth, celebrated as souls of loved ones returning to their native homes, monarchs have inspired countless people to connect with their communities and their spirituality, and have served to spark a profound wonder for the natural world. The conservation of the monarch is far more than the preservation of a biological phenomenon or of a pollinator species; it is the conservation of rich cultural history and a symbol for a hopeful future.
Since 1995 when genetically modified crops resilient or immune to the effects of powerful pesticides and herbicides entered the market, milkweed, especially A. syriaca (common milkweed) has undergone significant decline. In combination with more efficient farming techniques that allow for the more frequent cutting of crops and for a reduction in borders between fields, common and other milkweed species have had fewer and fewer opportunities in the past few decades to establish a healthy population able to support monarch progeny.
In 2015, Lincoln Brower, along with many others, signed a petition to place the monarch butterfly on the Endangered Species List. Though the petition has generated a great deal of public and private support for the monarch, both in terms of publicity and funding, many have questioned the monarch’s inclusion on the list. Some argue that the extinction of the migration would occur far before that of the species and would not necessarily preclude their demise. Researchers like Lincoln Brewer are careful to point out the importance of the migration in maintaining a sustainable, wild monarch population.
The politics of monarch conservation are complicated, as the crucial phases of the monarch’s migration occur across three nations and many states. Cooperation and communication between the governments of Canada, Mexico and the US are essential for maintaining effective conservation efforts. The monarch milkweed dilemma provides a unique opportunity for international collaboration in environmental conservation, a crucial development considering the continual pressure from increasing global environmental challenges.
Monarch Migration Monarch butterfiles migrate northward to follow the growth and bloom of their only larval food source, a genus of plants referred to as milkweed. Among this genus is A. syriaca, or common milkweed. This species is common to the east coast, and can be found as far west as Kansas and Oklahoma, making it accessible to the wide swath of monarchs participating in the central migration. Common milkweed provides the most important food source for the final generation of monarchs preparing to return to Mexico for their overwintering habitat. In midwestern states, where agricultural practices dictate heavy use of herbicides, the common milkweed has suffered a severe decline, and so, thus, have the monarchs.
Every spring millions of monarch butterflies begin their move northward from southern Mexico to the northernmost states in the US and to Canada: 3,000 miles of travel is supported by three generations of butterflies.
1) Those that leave Mexico will mate, lay eggs, and die during spring around the gulf coast and southern midwest states of the US. Those progeny travel north.
2) From the spring breeding activities, this generation of butterflies find food and mates during the summer months along a large section of the US including Virginia and north, the midwest, and into Canada to the northernmost range of the genus of milkweed they depend upon for their young, where they mate, lay eggs, and die.
3) That final group, which emerges from chrysalises has the longest life span in that they take the final few warm months of the year to leave the region of their inception and return to their overwintering grounds. There they rest and stay warm on the trunks and among the canopy of Oyamel Firs before they begin their spring migration to the general area of Dixie in the US, making this last generation’s life span about 9 months – approximately 6 or 7 months longer than any of the other generations involved in this annual migration (which is conducted via sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field).
Researchers have discovered a permanent, non-migratory population of monarchs in Florida, where they are able to survive year-round in a climate that fosters plenty of healthy milkweed. Without the aspect of migration, however, this population is threatened with a more limited gene pool in comparison to the migrating populations, and has a higher incidence of parasite infestation (www.monarchparasites.org) Of special concern is the rapid spread of a protozoan parasite that damages monarchs during pupation.
On the west coast, the monarch population engages in a smaller-scale migration to overwintering sites along the cost. Like their counterparts in Mexico, many of these sites have been plagued by habitat loss and human disturbance. Similar to the Florida population these monarchs have been shown to be susceptible to higher rates of parasite infection than those of the Mexican migratory group.