Here be dragons: RISD’s Nature Lab


(Pictures taken in RISD’s Nature Lab)

Here’s a riddle for you: where can you find a dragon, a preserved dog fetus, and a whale vertebra, all in one place? The answer is 13 Waterman St, a spot that is incredibly close to Brown’s campus and is home to RISD’s Nature Lab. Having heard of it last summer, I made the not-so-long trek over to the building last Thursday, unsure of what to expect; would I find one small room with a couple of fish tanks?

This was most certainly NOT the case.

Walking into the main room of the Nature Lab can be overwhelming. Not because it is disorganized or crowded, but because there is so much to explore. Cabinets and drawers line the walls, filled with specimens of all kinds, from butterflies to minerals. There are all types of plants, and multiple tanks and cages, homes to turtles and other living animals. Larger preserved animals occupy space outside the cabinets: you might notice a bear, a deer, or the puffer fish hanging from the ceiling.

What’s really cool is that you can take out, handle, and study most of these specimens. Basically, you feel like a kid in a candy shop and keep asking, “What’s that? And that??!” At least that’s what I did, to some extraordinarily helpful Nature Lab staff, including Lab Coordinator Betsy Ruppa, who answered many of my questions about what the different specimens were.

Ruppa said the facility ends up functioning as a library. Students often use the Nature Lab as a resource for various projects and are even allowed to check out many of the objects. Entire classes, many from RISD but also other schools, will come in to use the space. The lab additionally helps students out in a myriad of ways beyond providing them with draw-able subjects. Students of everything from apparel to architecture come in to investigate the forms, shapes and textures of natural objects. Ruppa explained that students use the lab to study “anything that relates to nature and how nature solves its problems of design.” For example, she explained that an architecture student might want to examine the structure of a bird’s nest. Clothing designers might need inspiration for prints. The way bones connect can give insight into how hinges work; the way certain insects’ wings unfurl and then return to their resting position mirrors the way the top to a convertible opens and closes.

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Life lessons from Dr. Jane Goodall: An overview and interview

On Monday, October 19, the Brown Lecture Board hosted Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist and activist. Goodall, who began her work in Gombe Valley in Tanzania 50 years ago, has contributed immensely to the study of chimpanzees and the scientific understanding of animal behavior. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 with the aim of inciting individual action to create global change.

Goodall imparted her wisdom and stories to a packed Salomon auditorium; we also had the opportunity to interview her, which appears below.

Goodall began the lecture by walking on stage with two companions—a stuffed cow and gorilla—and greeted the crowd in a language foreign to most: chimpanzee speak. After uttering her guttural sounds, she translated it for the audience: “This is me. This is Jane.”

She took the audience through her life, one story at a time. Throughout the talk, Goodall radiated with the same exuberance and fascination with the world that she described in many of her childhood stories. From hiding in a hen coup for four hours to find out where hen eggs came from, to leaving her family, friends, and country at the age of 23 to venture to a distant, then-less-known land, Goodall always followed her curiosity. She stressed the importance of her mother in her life, who always supported her endeavors and even traveled with Goodall to Tanzania so that she could pursue her dream.

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What we’re reading


A 2015 Pew Research Center study reports that 89 percent of American cell phone owners have used their phones during their last social gathering. Of American adults, 82 percent believe their cell phone use in social settings has negative effects on the conversation. Sherry Turkle, professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program at M.I.T., explores the detrimental effects of cell phone use in her New York Times piece. Our increased dependence has led to a decrease in the ability of some to engage in “empathetic conversations” and read others for emotions, among other effects.

Hipster alert! “The Mason Jar, Reborn traces the history of the trusted beverage container you see many of our classmates walking around campus with. The piece traces the transition of the mason jar from being used as a convenient method for preserving food to a symbol of “thrift, preservation, and personal labor” that has become ubiquitous in the capitalist system. Continue Reading

A Cool Thing You Shouldn’t Miss: ‘Strandbeest’ workshops for Theo Jansen’s upcoming visit

Theo Jansen, Dutch artist and all around badass, is coming to College Hill this month. Merging art and engineering, Jansen is known for building large, kinetic mechanical animals out of PVC—”Strandbeests,” as he calls them. Jansen’s Strandbeests walk down beaches in Holland on their own accord, with spindly legs that are powered by wing-like sails.

Some of his creatures, such as the Animaris Percipiere, are able to capture and store air pressure in plastic bottles to continue to move without wind. Without any electronic components, the Strandbeests can navigate between soft and hard sand, and some can even detect and change directions if they encounter water or can anchor themselves in the ground if they sense a storm is coming.  Using recycled bottles, pumps, and valves, Jansen is able to equip the beasts with a muscular and neural system of sorts. Jansen is coming to Brown and RISD this month to talk about his Strandbeests, delivering a speech Friday, November 21st in the RISD Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Before his talk, you can create your own version of a Strandbeest. Continue Reading

Science Beyond the SciLi: Are we alone in the Universe?

It can seem like the field of science is limited to torturous problem sets in the SciLi dungeon basement. But there is awesome stuff going on in the sciences at Brown and beyond, though it can be difficult to find when you’re wasting away in the library. BlogDH presents “Science Beyond the SciLi”; so even if you’re reading this inside those concrete walls, you can see a glimmer of scientific hope.


Science isn’t a mystery novel, so here’s the punch line: we are probably not alone. There are most likely other life forms out there wondering if they are alone in the universe. Makes your midterms feel a little less important, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s back up a second. How can I make this crazy claim? Well, I went to the inaugural lecture of the Presidential Colloquium Series ThinkingOut Loud: DECIPHERING MYSTERIES OF OUR WORLD AND BEYOND (the formatting of the title might be the biggest mystery of them all). President Paxson introduced the speaker (hence “Presidential Colloquium”), John Johnson, a professor of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who lectured on “Searching For Life Basking in the Warmth of Other Suns.”

Johnson’s job is to search for life on other planets. But he doesn’t just sit around basking in sunlight while sending signals to aliens and waiting for them to respond (although we have done that). He researches exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than our own sun. A stellar astrophysicist by day and a planet hunter by night, Johnson finds undiscovered exoplanets and characterizes them, looking for planets that are not too hot and not too cold—ones that might be just right to harbor life. Continue Reading

Science Beyond the SciLi: Professor John Davenport on the State of Neuroscience

It can seem like the field of science is limited to torturous problem sets in the SciLi dungeon basement. But there is  awesome stuff going on in the sciences at Brown and beyond, though it can be difficult to find when you’re wasting away in the library. BlogDH presents “Science Beyond the SciLi,” so even if you’re reading this inside those concrete walls, you can see a glimmer of scientific hope.


On Thursday night, a packed audience gathered in the back of Flatbread Company to listen to neuroscientist R. John Davenport speak on “Wiring Connections in Brain Science.” The talk was hosted by Science Underground and powered by free Flatbread pizza, which is the ultimate brain food, as everyone knows. Davenport, an adjunct professor of Neuroscience and the associate director of Brown Institute for Brain Science, gave an overview of the current state of neuroscience and where the field is going.

Fun fact: The brain is made of 100 billion neurons. That’s as many stars as there are in the Milky Way galaxy. Each neuron makes a thousand connections with other neurons, so basically a neuron would be killing the LinkedIn game. But these connections are way more important than your endorsement-seeking acquaintances: they make up the brain functions that allow you to do everything from reading a map to playing chess. Neuroscientists are working on mapping all of these connections in what they call the “connectome,” the equivalent of the Human Genome Project for neural connections, so it’s a pretty big deal. Continue Reading