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iLabs: Video and Interview of the Micro World iLab!!

February 20, 2015

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall of’s “Go Ask Mom” feature, visited our Micro World Investigate Lab yesterday and interviewed Christy and I about our lab.  If you want to ready the article and catch the video, check out:

Destination: Nature Research Center’s Micro World Investigate Lab's Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab’s Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab

iLabs: We DID it!!! 100,000 Visitors in the Micro World iLab!!!!!

February 16, 2015

Who would believe it but on a usually quiet Monday morning we received over 60 visitors in the morning and among them, these two lucky students!  They are our 100000th and 100001st visitors to our lab.  We opened April 12, 2012, and in less than 3 years we hit 100,000!  Here’s to our next 100000!!!!  Deb & Christy

Micro World Investigate Lab's 100000th visitors

Micro World Investigate lab’s 100000th visitors!!!!

iLabs: Micro World iLab & the Idea Germ Explosion – Is it TODAY?

February 14, 2015

The Explosion of an Idea Germ — Is It Today????

It will start quietly enough, with little fanfare in the wintery days of the early New Year. It will start, as it has from the very first day, quietly and unobtrusively.  But then the day will suddenly ramp up, the visitors will arrive and the moment will be there – that moment envisioned years ago in the mind of a visionary leader – when the 100,000th visitor steps into the Micro World Investigate Lab.  And it will be a moment to pause and celebrate: where it started, what it took, and what it has blossomed, or exploded into.

The Micro World Investigate Lab, along with the Visual World and Natural World Investigate Labs, and the entire Nature Research Center, began as the germ of an idea in the mind of Dr. Betsy Bennett years ago. Its germination proceeded as the building went up and staff experimented with various ways to make these rooms a one-of-a-kind, wow-you-from-the-moment-you-walk-in, celebration of hands-on science. Now, less than 3 years after opening, the Micro World Investigate Lab is readying to welcome its 100,000th visitor.

Exactly what is this “explosion” in the room?

The Micro World opened with two table activities – micropipetting, which was always meant to be a temporary activity for opening night, and DNA extraction.  The counters held a fish tank, a terrarium, some protozoan cultures and some fungi experiments.  A brand new research microscope sat off to one side. And the room had just two people to run it – Christy Flint and Deb Bailey.

There were a few classes – Microscopic Life, Cell Cycle, Photosynthesis, Transpiration – and a mind map: a crazy color-coded drawing with criss-crossing lines, high-lighted circles, and scribbled notes, of all the dreams for the room.

Today, we have a full room bursting with over 12 different table activities, covering topics such as ELISA/Immunology, DNA extraction, PCR, DNA code reading, transcription, translation, sequencing, and  protein synthesis, Chytrid fungus, Fish Medicine, Cell counting & water quality.

Counters now also hold an interactive bioluminescent plankton activity, class research projects, cultures of pond invertebrates, plankton and duckweed, and a brand new research level cell bioreactor that will be used in classes and as a working exhibit for the public to use.

Younger scientists can learn about plant moisture needs with “Fred and Ethel,” and there’s puzzles and the “Find the Tardigrade” activity.

The walls are lined with models of blood cells, human and animal organs and body systems. Room shades depict microscopic life, and two 55-inch TVs broadcast microscopic images of a wide range of specimens. In addition, the EVOS research microscope is always available for use by visitors to view live protozoans.

Grants by Biogen Idec Foundation and IMLS have funded extra staff, research equipment, expanded classes, and programs with researchers inside and outside the Museum.  Topics include, various human body systems, homeostasis, DNA electrophoresis, PCR, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, Proteomics, soil and human microbiology, Drug Development, epidemiology, and a brand new series of chemistry classes.  All classes are available to schools, homeschool students, and the public, and any classes available to the public schools are curriculum-correlated. Grades served are 5th through early college.

The grant has also allowed the lab to bring in almost 1000 students last year from under-served counties, by providing funds for transportation to schools that could not afford to come otherwise.  This year Biogen Idec Foundation grant funds are allowing us to increase our reach by also expanding into the after-school outreach programs with local groups such as the YMCA and the Boys’ Club, among others, and soon, distance-learning programs.

Thursday night programs, such as the Science of Bread-Making, Yogurt-making science and the Chemistry of Twinkies have become popular, and the lab also does a once-a-month board game night for all ages.  There are also 2-hour lab public lab classes on Saturday mornings, such as Spy Chemistry of the American Revolution.

So in view of all of the change, what does all of this mean to us, the people at the door greeting each of those visitors?  We are as EXCITED AS EVER!!  And while maybe the “fanfare of the moment” won’t include fireworks (though with our chemistry classes, we can probably conjure up a lab-safe version of something extraordinary!) or balloons or marching bands, maybe the moment will just be a quiet reflection of joy in each of our hearts, a reflection on where we started and what we’ve come to. It will be the acknowledgement that the idea germ has in fact germinated, sprouted, and is growing daily into an amazing thriving plant. And it will be a reflection that our success is like that of every department here at the Museum : quiet (though in the case of Bugfest, maybe not so quiet)  success in advancing their mission to excite people with their joy of science, something this Museum has been doing for over 100 years.

Every day that visitors walk into the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, whether the NEC, the NRC, the Investigate Labs or the Windows on the World, they are walking into a place ALIVE and EVOLVING as it enthusiastically brings science into their hearts and into their hands.

We hope to see all of you soon, as we look forward to greeting the next 100,000 people.  There will be just as much if not more enthusiasm because each day is a new opportunity to reach out, and a new topic to showcase to you all.

Mistaken Identities

December 17, 2014

This post contributed by former intern, Julia Olszewski-Jubelirer.

Plants and animals are pretty easy to distinguish, right? Not every time. Here are the four animals (or animal parts) that are commonly mistaken for plants in the Naturalist Center.


In the Naturalist Center, we have several specimens of coral, including this Red Coral:

Red Coral specimen

Red Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

and this Star Coral:

Star Coral specimen

Star Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that corals are plants, or even rocks, but corals are actually animals, just like you and me. Each piece of coral is made up of many small animals called polyps that live together as a colony. Corals are important for providing structure to reefs, and are in the phylum Cnidaria. This means that they are closely related to other Cnidarians, like the Portuguese Man-of-War, which can also be found in the Naturalist Center.


Many people do not even realize that sponges are alive, but sponges, like the coral, are animals. Sponges belong to the phylum Porifera and pump water through their bodies in order to catch particles of food in the water. This is known as filter feeding. In the Naturalist Center, we have one specimen of sponge:

Sponge specimen

Sponge specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Even though sponges might look superficially like plants, they are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. This means that the sponges are evolutionarily closer to our Pufferfish and Sea Biscuit specimens than sponges are to plants.   All of these specimens — Sponges, Pufferfish and Sea Biscuits —are part of the animal kingdom.


Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Sea biscuit

Sea Biscuit.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skate egg cases

Most people who visit the Naturalist Center think skate egg cases (also known as mermaid’s purses or devil’s pocketbooks) are seed pods.

Skate egg cases

Skate egg cases.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

However, these are actually the egg cases of skates, which are cartilaginous fish similar to stingrays. Check out this video of skates emerging from their egg cases.

In the Naturalist Center, we also have jaws of another cartilaginous fish, the Tiger Shark:

Tiger shark jaw

Tiger Shark jaw.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skates and Tiger Sharks are both in the same class, Chondrichthyes. This means they are both more closely related to each other than either is to bony fish.


The Naturalist Center has a large baleen specimen to look at:

Whale baleen

Whale baleen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that baleen is a type of bark or even plastic, but baleen is actually part of the mouth of certain types of whales. As baleen whales swim, they open their mouths, letting the water rush through the baleen. The baleen traps particles such as krill, which the whale then eats. This is a form of filter feeding, which is the same method that the sponge described above uses to eat.

These and thousands of other specimens on display daily in the Naturalist Center located on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.

Wonderful World of Worms

October 9, 2014

This blog post comes from Julia Olszewski, a fall intern in the Naturalist Center.  Julia is a Biology graduate student in the lab of William Kier at UNC Chapel Hill.


Sandworms (Nereis virens)
Photo by Julia Olszewski

The Kier lab in the Biology Department at UNC Chapel Hill is interested in a type of muscle found in sandworms, earthworms, leeches, and many other invertebrates. Earlier work on earthworm and leeches suggested that these animals have special arrangements of muscle proteins that allow their muscles to produce forces when very contracted and very stretched out. This is important for these animals because, as you know if you’ve ever played with an earthworm, they are capable of large changes in body length.  I did some preliminary work on the sandworms, trying to figure out if their muscles have the same abilities. By working on this, I started to become more interested in the theoretical models that try to connect the protein arrangements to the muscle’s abilities to produce forces at various lengths. Currently, I am working on my own model.

Sandworms in tank

Live Sandworms in Tank
Photo by Julia Olszewski

Sandworms (Nereis virens) are in the same group of animals as earthworms and leeches, but sandworms live in the ocean, buried under the sand. They have many legs that also have gills on them that allow them to breathe. They are common off the East Coast, especially up north. I bought my sandworms from a fishing bait supplier in Maine.

Earthworm Races and Sandworms on Display at this year's BugFest

Earthworm races and sandworms on display at this year’s BugFest.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln

For her intern project, Julia left the world of worms temporarily and created an activity about the recent discovery of a new mammal–the Olinguito!  Dr. Roland Kays, co-discoverer of the Olinguito is Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the Musuem.

Olinguito Activity

Olinguito Activity in the Naturalist Center
Photo by Julia Olszewski


Sauropods: Feats of Engineering

September 30, 2014

On October 11, 2014 the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will open its special exhibition doors for our new traveling exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. The exhibition explores how scientists study fossils and living animals to understand sauropod biology, and what we can learn from these extinct animals about what it means to be big; like, really BIG. For those like me who are not a dinosaur expert by any means, I did some background research on what exactly a sauropod is.  When we hear the term dinosaur it might evoke mental images of voracious beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex or a Velociraptor. However, the sauropods, while viewed as gentle giants, and sometimes even regarded as stupid creatures, have a very complex story that is intriguing and impressive.

Described as ‘feats of engineering,’ the largest sauropod dinosaurs weighed close to 100 tonnes — almost ten times the record weight of a modern elephant. Sauropods therefore include the largest land animals ever to have lived. They were a very successful herbivorous group, arising in the early Jurassic and surviving for around 140 million years. Fossil footprints show that sauropod dinosaurs traveled in herds. Notable sauropods include Diplodocus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) and the record-breaking heavyweight Argentinosaurus, which may have recently lost its title to the newly discovered Dreadnoughtus.


Alamosaurus, author: Bogdanov, 2006.

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will give visitors a chance to learn more about sauropods and their giant stature, but the real highlight and centerpiece of the exhibit is Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (Mah-MEN-chi-SAWR-us ho-CHOO-an EN-sis). One hundred and sixty million years ago, Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis lived in what is now China. Mamenchisaurs were not the largest sauropods, and — immense as she is — the specimen in the exhibit is not the largest mamenchisaur. She and her relatives have at least one big distinction, though: they have the longest necks for their body size of any dinosaur known.

By looking at the fossils, paleontologists were able to determine that Mamenchisaurus was a giant sauropod with a very long neck — among the longest of any animal that has ever lived. Measuring up to 11 meters, the neck was almost half the overall length of the animal. Its long neck and its tail were held in position by a series of ligaments anchored at the hip — a bit like a suspension bridge. Mamenchisaurus would have walked with its stiff neck held almost horizontal. All the vertebrae of its neck, body and tail were hollow and light, while its leg bones were quite solid. This kept its center of gravity low, which helped the animal maintain its balance.

"Mamenchisaurus in Japan" by Kabacchi - Mamenchisaurus - 03Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Mamenchisaurus in Japan by Flickr user Kabacchi: Mamenchisaurus – 03. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like all sauropods, Mamenchisaurus was a plant-eater. Its spoon-shaped teeth were not for chewing, but were used like a rake to strip leaves off plants. These were swallowed into its huge vat-like stomach. Its long neck allowed it to reach food otherwise inaccessible to an animal with such a huge body. Mamenchisaurus, like all herbivores, would have had to eat almost continuously to get enough nutrition to sustain its massive body.

The exhibit is more than just replica dinosaurs posed in dioramas, it explores deeper questions about dinosaur research. The last four decades have witnessed a change in how dinosaurs are studied. Scientists no longer examine just the structure of the skeletons and the relationships among these fascinating animals, but have started inquiring about their biology. How did dinosaurs move? What were their circulatory systems like? How did they feed? How did they breathe? Many of these questions involve soft tissues and organs that are never preserved in fossils, so paleontologists have to draw on other scientific disciplines to interpret the evidence they do have.

And this exhibit does exactly that. Drawing on the latest science that looks in part to existing organisms to understand these extinct giants, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will answer such intriguing questions as how an extremely large animal breathes, eats, moves, and survives by illuminating how size and scale are related to basic biological functions. It is definitely an exhibit too BIG to miss out on!

 For more information about sauropods:


My Summer As an Intern in the VisLab

September 30, 2014

The following was written by Martha Vorder Bruegge about her time as an intern in the Visual World Investigate Lab. Martha is a sophomore at Agnes Scott College in Georgia majoring in neuroscience. She spent the past summer assisting visitors in the lab, helping with lab projects, and creating a multimedia exhibit focusing on the human brain. Her project is currently on display in lab.

Martha VisLab Robotics

Martha assisting a participant in one of the VisLab’s robotics classes

I thoroughly enjoyed working as an intern for the Visual World Investigate lab this summer. For my first internship, this was a phenomenal, unforgettable, and extremely rewarding experience. My job in the lab intertwined two of my greatest loves – social interaction and learning – by allowing me to introduce visitors to the lab and assist Matt and Walt with their classes and projects. Whenever a visitor curiously wandered in, I demonstrated the electronic gadgets and robots on display and explained the topics and technology used at different computer stations. In addition, I got the opportunity to develop my own informational multimedia display on major brain structures and functions for my internship project.

The process of creating this display provided valuable experience in the research and development of a multimedia project that delivers a clear message to viewers. During my internship I learned how to write code, how to troubleshoot and perform routine maintenance on computers, the names and functions of various electrical components, and most excitingly, how to put together an Arduino robot. The individual computer stations themselves provided me with a wealth of new information. For the interactive solar system stations I learned facts about the planets and sun so I could impress and educate visitors, and by doing this I learned more about astronomy.

I chose the Visual World lab for my internship so that I could challenge myself in an unfamiliar field and get a feel for how internships work. Because I am considered the most technologically savvy member of my family, I recognized this internship as a chance to improve my current knowledge about computers, software, and electronics. With this enhanced and marketable knowledge, I can further advise and assist family, friends, and fellow peers. Additionally, I am familiar with and fond of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences from going on school field trips there throughout my childhood. This personal connection to the museum made working there more comfortable and inspiring. I especially appreciated that since I came into the lab from a non-technical background. Because I lacked experience with circuits, coding, and computer software, the advanced technology and strange gadgets in the lab initially overwhelmed and scared me. Whenever Matt and Walt discussed electrical components or details for a programming project, it seemed like they spoke a foreign language. However, I adapted to the new environment within two weeks by listening to volunteers describe the purpose and mechanics of the stations and gadgets. I basically memorized the script and then shared facts in my own words. Visitors actually commented that I sounded very intelligent and impressive when I blew their minds with “Did you know…” facts.

Walt, Martha, and Matthew

Martha in the electronics workstation with her Arduino robot.

If I had to pick one aspect I enjoyed most, building Arduino robots and interacting with the public would tie for first place. Assembling robots appeared similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. When every piece is placed in the right location, a functional masterpiece is created. I found it extremely surprising that I could actually understand and confidently operate electronics and robotics. Prior to this internship, robots with complicated networks of wires intimidated me because they seemed difficult to comprehend. However, Matt debunked the complexity of robots with his simple explanations, thereby making robot construction incredibly easy and exciting. Interacting with the public appealed to me because every visitor that entered brought unique questions and perspectives that I couldn’t anticipate. Answering questions and demonstrating the programs made me feel useful and meaningful, while sometimes the individual knew more about a topic than me and enlightened me with intriguing facts and findings.

Much of what I learned and accomplished during this internship can be transferred to my academic pursuits and scientific studies. I developed many valuable skills including research ability, public speaking, memorization, work ethic, professionalism, organization, productivity, and flexibility. As a result of this summer experience, I am more confident and eager to conduct research and educate the public about scientific topics, and I will more efficiently organize my time in college and on projects I get involved in so that I can prepare myself for my ultimate goal of attending medical school. I don’t regret choosing this internship at all, and if I could, I would do it again.



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