Stories tagged diversity


We've all heard statistics about how boys are better than girls when it comes to math. Especially the kinds of advanced math it takes to find solutions to complex problems, to win important prizes and to invent world-changing technologies. According to some people, you can blame this gender gap on basic biology. Female brains are smaller than male brains, which means males are just naturally smarter, and really, what else do you need to know?

It's easy to believe assumptions and stereotypes about girls and math when you look around classrooms where advanced technical subjects are taught. Fewer women fill the seats, and in the top math and science positions, men outnumber women by a dramatic margin. It seems like no matter how many women prove that female brains can be every bit as good at math and science, we still hear that women are just not cut out for crunching numbers.

In other words, if you're a girl and you like math, you should probably quit now, because you will never be as good as the boys. And if you're a girl and you just don't understand math, it's okay, you won't need math anyway. Like Barbie says, Math Is Hard! Let's go shopping!

Or not? Could it be that fewer women excel in math and science fields because they have fewer opportunities? Or because everyone tells them they will do poorly, so they never really try? Is biology to blame for the math-science gender gap, or is culture the culprit?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says girls are not born to be bad at math. Instead, the authors say, the gender gap stems from cultural inequalities that put girls and women at an unfair disadvantage. Fewer educational and professional opportunities, negative stereotypes, and classroom or workplace dynamics all hinder the potential of girls and women to excel in math.

The authors of this study came to their conclusion by comparing data on gender inequality and math scores from around the world. They found that in countries where men and women had more equal opportunities, women did much better at math. If you're wondering where the United States stands, in 2007 the US was number 32 on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Not the greatest place to be, but in the US it appears as though the math-science gender gap is narrowing. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are now more opportunities than ever for women in science and math. If only they paid as well!

An international team of more than 80 marine biologists has surveyed a coral reef in the Philippines and discovered thousands and thousands of species -- one of the most diverse spots on Earth. So far, over 100 have been confirmed as new to science, though the team estimates there could be several thousand new species in their study. (What makes this all the more amazing is that coral reefs grow in the tropical oceans -- one of the most hostile environments on the planet!)


Prairie grasses: This experimental plot contains four species of prairie plants. The nearby plots, going clockwise, contain eight species, four species, and 16 species. (Photo courtesy David Tilman, University of Minnesota)

Scientists at our very own U of M have made some exciting new discoveries about the prospect of using biofuels for energy! They found that planting a diverse mix of native prairie species is more efficient than corn or soybeans, even on degraded soil. Amazingly, their most diverse plots, with 18 different species, produced 238% more bioenergy than the plots with only 1 species.

While there is still a lot of research needed to make this system useable on a wide scale, these findings are encouraging for a few reasons. Unlike all of our other forms of fuel, including corn ethanol or biodiesel from soy beans, the native plants actually absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than is released when used for fuel. Because of the vast root network associated with prairie plants (which allow them to withstand Minnesota’s hot and dry summers), much carbon is stored below ground and is not harvested for fuel. Also, these environmentally friendly crops can be grown on land that is unusable for traditional food crops. They do not need to be fertilized, a benefit to growing a native species, and thus can be grown in nutrient poor areas. Fertilizer runoff from traditional agriculture is a big contributor to water quality problems. Additionally, because native prairie species are perennial crops, they can help prevent erosion. For much of the year, particularly during the rainy months in the spring, corn or soybean fields are bare. This leaves the ground vulnerable to soil loss. Planting a native mix, particularly on steep slopes or along riverbanks, which are less suitable to traditional crops anyway, could mitigate many environmental issues. Plus, we could increase the amount of prairie habitat for native wildlife!

For more information on sustainable agriculture and the latest research check out Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.


Seed bank:: Through a new facility being built in Norway north of the Arctic Circle, seeds from all over the world will be kept safe to be used in the event of catastrophic natural disasters. (Photo from U.S. Agriculture Department)
Seed bank:: Through a new facility being built in Norway north of the Arctic Circle, seeds from all over the world will be kept safe to be used in the event of catastrophic natural disasters. (Photo from U.S. Agriculture Department)
What could be a safer place than the frigid temperatures of the Artic along with roaming polar bears to protect the world’s rich diversity of seeds? That’s the conclusion that scientists have come to I planning a way to save our most precious seeds.

Work started this week on a northern Norway island to build a seed vault. Carved into an Arctic mountain, the vault will hold a supply of food crop seeds. Run by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), the vault will protect the seeds from being lost forever if some natural catastrophe should sweep the Earth or parts of it.

GDTC currently has about 1,400 crop gene banks spread across every corner of the globe except Antarctica.

The new vault will be imbedded into permafrost and rock above the Arctic Circle and be covered with a layer of ice. Eventually, seeds from every nation will be stored there. It will have the capacity to hold up to 1 million seeds.

Seeds will be kept in watertight foil packaging and will be stored in an area that doesn’t need artificial refrigeration. Temperatures on the island of Spitsbergen never get over 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The island is only a couple hundred miles from the North Pole.

So what kind of seeds to you think should be put in the vault? What kind of conditions do you think it should take to get seeds out of the vault?

By the way, the Science Museum of Minnesota has its own project involving old, saved seeds. The Three Sisters Garden in the Big Back Yard grows corn, beans and squash that have been stored for hundreds of years by Native Americans.


Prairie grasses: This experimental plot contains four species of prairie plants. The nearby plots, going clockwise, contain eight species, four species, and 16 species. (Photo courtesy David Tilman, University of Minnesota)

Ecosystems containing many different plant species are more productive and better able to deal with stresses such as climate extremes, pests, and disease. Those are the findings, published in last week’s issue of Nature, of University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman and colleagues Peter Reich and Johannes Knops.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The debate about whether or not diversity stabilizes ecosystems has been going on for 50 years! But Tilman’s experiment is the first to collect enough data, over enough time and in a controlled environment, to confirm the hypothesis.

Tilman, Reich, and Knops spent 12 years studying 168 9-meter-by-9-meter experimental plots at the Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site near Cambridge, Minnesota. Each plot was randomly planted with 1-16 perennial grasses and other prairie plants. Over the 12 years of the study, temperatures and rainfall varied, but the plots with more species and more root mass did better than the others. (Why root mass? Roots store nutrients and provide a buffer against climate variations. And perennial prairie plants have far more root mass than annual plants, such as corn and other crops.)

Experimental plots: This aerial photo shows the individual nine-meter by nine-meter plots. (Photo courtesy David Tilman, University of Minnesota)

So what does it mean?

Two things. First, biodiversity does matter when it comes to healthy ecosystems. Second, biodiversity is decreasing worldwide as human populations increase and forests and prairies have been replaced with farm fields, buildings, and roads. Tilman thinks that increasing diversity may be the key to both restoring ecosystems and meeting the energy needs of people around the world.

In a National Science Foundation press release, Tilman said:

”Diverse prairie grasslands are 240 percent more productive than grasslands with a single prairie species. That’s a huge advantage. Biomass from diverse prairies can, for example, be used to make biofuels without the need for annual tilling, fertilizers, and pesticides, which require energy and pollute the environment. Because they are perennials, you can plant a prairie once and mow it for biomass every fall, essentially forever.”