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Peter Marra, ’85, says a love of nature saved his life. Today, the longtime Smithsonian scientist and newly named director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative is returning the favor.

Peter Marra, '85, on shoreline releasing bird with tracking device back to the wild.
Smithsonian Institute Photo

Scientist Peter Marra, ’85, views the world through the eyes of a naturalist — and that includes his childhood. “I was a feral kid,” says Marra, of growing up largely unsupervised in a wooded neighborhood in Norwalk, Conn. The youngest of four siblings, he was raised in a broken home. His father, an Army veteran turned baker, left when Marra was only 1 and his mother was left seriously struggling.

By middle school, Marra was struggling as well, smoking and experimenting with alcohol. He also spent time wandering, often ending up at the neighboring Westport Nature Center. One day, the center’s staff set up a mist net: made of very fine threads, it blends with the surroundings and is used to catch birds without harming them. “I was able to experience a chickadee up close and personal. I’m pretty sure I even held it,” says Marra. “I don’t remember a lot, but I remember there being this moment that was pretty magical.”

The experience was an epiphany and a saving grace. “I could have continued down this really bad road. Some of my friends from that time did, and it didn’t end well,” says Marra, who, instead, opted to pursue his passion. Today, he’s an internationally recognized naturalist and ornithologist (expert on birds), an emeritus senior scientist with the Smithsonian Institute, and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014).

“You could live without art. You could live without music. But would you want to? Would we want to live in a world without warblers, shorebirds, and hawks?”
— Peter Marra, ’85

In August 2019, Marra left the Smithsonian after a 20-year tenure, where he most recently served as director of the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. For the next chapter of his career, he’ll direct the Georgetown Environment Initiative, which integrates Georgetown University’s scholarship and outreach efforts related to the earth’s stewardship. Marra also was named the Laudato Si’ Professor of Biology and the Environment, and a professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy.

The significance isn’t lost on Marra, who notes he was first in his family “to even think about going to college.” He’d applied only to Southern for his undergraduate degree. The draw: the late Noble Proctor, ’70, M.S. ’72, professor emeritus of biology — a nationally recognized naturalist and author who, during his lifetime, traveled to some 90 countries conducting avian research. Marra, like many students, called him Nobe.

Southern proved a great match for Marra. “I think it cost me $350 a semester. Having a really quality education available to me at an affordable price made all the difference in the world,” says Marra, who studied — and often simultaneously worked — full time. As a senior, he received the university’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Biology, and more than 30 years after graduating, he easily recalls his professors’ names. He credits Proctor with helping him secure an internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture — he researched the interaction between gypsy moths and birds — and says the professor also helped him get into graduate school. Marra earned a master’s from Louisiana State University and a doctorate from Dartmouth College, before joining the Smithsonian in 1998.

SCSU alumnus Peter Marra, '85, with students observing bird, writing in journal
Scientist Peter Marra, ’85, has co-authored more than 225 papers in journals such as Science and Nature.

 

Through it all, curiosity was a driving force. He’s jointly published more than 215 peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His research has three broad themes: the ecology of migratory birds, urban ecosystems, and disease. Basically, if an issue relates to birds, Marra has probably investigated it. He’s studied migratory birds wintering on military bases; what happens to birds and otters when a dam is removed; and the role migratory birds play in the spread of West Nile virus.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Marra, who’s received top research awards from organizations such as the Smithsonian (Secretary’s Distinguished Research Prizes in 2008 and 2010) and the American Ornithological Society (the Elliott Coues Award in 2018). In sum, Marra is an experts’ expert — the one the White House and members of Congress call for briefs on the highly contagious bird flu.

Of course, in most cases, the birds are the ones in danger, and Marra has spent his career studying direct anthropogenic stress: the many ways humans harm birds. “The number one killer is cats,” says Marra, who discusses the issue in-depth in his book, Cat Wars, the Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, co-authored with Chris Santella.

Marra estimates that cats kill 1.3 – 4 billion birds annually in the U.S. — and three to four times that many native mammals. (There’s limited data on feral cats, hence the wide-ranging statistics.) But the end results, Marra says, are devastating for bird populations. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species around the world, he explains. “DDT, in comparison, has never caused the extinction of a species,” he says, stressing the importance of keeping pet cats inside and on leashes when outdoors. The book also advocates management of feral cat populations, including euthanasia in some cases.

Bluethroat
The Bluethroat • Smithsonian Institute Photo

Another decidedly less controversial research project is centered just outside of Nome, Alaska, and focuses on a small bird called the bluethroat. It’s primarily an Old World species — meaning it breeds and spends most of its life in Europe and Asia, says Marra. But long ago, one population of bluethroats started traveling to Alaska. The birds annually arrive in May and remain through June to breed. These bluethroats then migrate to another location. “Probably to someplace in Southeast Asia, but we don’t know where,” says Marra.

In summer 2018, Marra and other researchers began catching the birds and tagging their backs with light-level geolocators that use daylight to estimate location. It’s an intense process. In Alaska, Marra jump-started the day with a cup of coffee, followed by trudging through deep snowbanks to reach small patches of vegetation. The goal: stay clear of musk ox and grizzlies while searching for the newly arrived bluethroats, which must be caught and tagged.

The scientists then wait. “If we catch the birds again when they come back next year, we can download the data off their backs,” says Marra. The project was a dream assignment for the naturalist, who is working on The Atlas of Migratory Connectivity for the Birds of North America. Still, recapturing a bird is a challenging task. Only about one in every five birds that scientists tag is captured again the next year, according to the Smithsonian. But Marra remains undaunted, inspired by how much remains to be learned.

“The last 10 years, we’ve made some real advances because of the miniaturization of tracking devices and other technology. It’s been a remarkable time to be in migratory animal ecology,” he says.

Marra’s new post as head of the Georgetown Environment Initiative will capitalize on his commitment. Ask Marra why we should care about the conservation of various bird species, and he turns thoughtful. There are practicalities: removing insects and rodents, spreading seeds, pollinating plants. Birds fulfill critical ecosystem services, he explains: when populations decline or worse, become extinct, it’s a sign that something is deeply unhealthy with the environment.

Other motivations are more difficult to articulate, says the conservationist. “You could live without art. You could live without music. But would you want to?” asks Marra. “Would we want to live in a world without warblers, shorebirds, and hawks? I don’t think so. . . .When I wake up in the morning and hear birdsong outside — that fulfills me.” 

Bird Calls

Want to attract more birds to your yard? Get planting — and be sure to include as many native species as possible, according to a study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. The magic ratio of native plants? Seventy percent.

“If more than 30 percent of the [plant] species in your yard are non-native, your yard will not produce enough insects to successfully support bird populations,” says Peter Marra, ’85, outlining the results of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The research looked specifically at chickadees, but has widespread implications. More than 90 percent of herbivorous insects target only one or a select few plants for food. “Everybody, even those in an urban or suburban environment, should be thinking about their yard as a natural park, a place that wildlife depends on — including insects and birds,” says Marra.

The Smithsonian suggests these online sites for information on bird-friendly plants: the Audubon’s Native Plants Database, the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness map. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in conjunction with the University of Delaware.

Southern Alumni Magazine cover, Fall 2019, featuring Peter Marra, '85

Read more stories in the Fall ’19 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

Christine Caragianis Broadbridge, Ph.D., professor of physics and executive director of research and innovation at Southern Connecticut State University, has been appointed vice president of the Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering. Broadbridge will serve as vice president through June 30, 2020, with the Council’s recommendation that her name be submitted for election by the membership for President (2020 – 2022) and Past President (2022 – 2024).

Broadbridge began her faculty career at Trinity College. In 1998, she was appointed Visiting Fellow in Electrical Engineering at Yale University and in 2000 joined the Physics Department at Southern. She has been a principal investigator or co-principal investigator on ten National Science Foundation projects and a researcher on many others, including grants from NASA, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Broadbridge participated in the establishment and is a researcher and education director for the Center for Research on Interface Structures and Phenomena (CRISP) at Yale/SCSU and is the director for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Center for Nanotechnology. Throughout her career she has implemented numerous industry workforce initiatives, most recently BioScience Academic and Career Pathway Initiative (BioPath) and the New Haven Manufacturer’s Association Summer Teachers’ Institute.

An active member of the Academy since her election in 2008, she chairs the Membership Committee, serves on the Development and Advocacy Committee, and was elected to the Council in 2016.

“I am honored to continue working with such a distinguished and dedicated group of scientists and engineers from Connecticut’s academic, industrial, and public sector communities,” said Broadbridge. “The work that the Academy does adds value to the state of Connecticut from promoting science education for K-12 students and the citizens of Connecticut to providing expert advice on issues of science and technology.”

Broadbridge has a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Rhode Island, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in engineering from Brown University. At Brown, she conducted research in the fields of materials science, physics and nanotechnology. Selected awards include the 2006 Connecticut Technology Council’s Woman of Innovation Award for Academic Leadership and the 2014 Connecticut Materials and Manufacturing Professional of the Year Award. Broadbridge was a Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame Honoree in 2008 for Outstanding Women of Science in Academia and was a Connecticut Science Center STEM Achievement Award nominee in 2016. She is a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of Sigma Pi Sigma and Tau Beta Pi (national honor societies for physics and engineering respectively).

The Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering is a nonprofit, 501(c)3 institution patterned after the National Academy of Sciences to provide expert guidance on science and technology to the people and to the state of Connecticut, and to promote the application of science and technology to social and economic well being. The Academy’s 400+ members include leading scientists, physicians, engineers, and mathematics who are experts in a wide range of science and technology-related fields.

From award-winning undergraduate to a prestigious fellowship at the National Cancer Institute and a doctorate in microbiology. Meet Norbert K. Tavares, '06.

Norbert Tavares, '06, is one of two Science and Technology Fellows with the National Cancer Institute.

Norbert K. Tavares, ’06, first attended college in Florida where he was discouraged from planning a career as a biologist, despite his passion for the field. “I wasted a lot of time pursuing majors that were hot at the time like computer science and pharmacy, but I didn’t enjoy them,” he says.

A move to Connecticut and subsequent transfer to Southern set Tavares on a better course. Today, he holds a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Georgia and is an American Academy for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] Science and Technology Fellow at the National Cancer Institute — where he helps lead the fight against the deadly group of diseases.

Last fall, he shared thoughts on Southern, finding a mentor, and the importance of diversity in science and other areas. Here are some excerpts.

What inspired your interest in biology?
I remember taking personality and career assessments early on in college that said I would be good at science and engineering, and not being surprised. I was mostly taking math and science courses, and enjoying them.

My specific interest in microbiology stems from reading about bacteria that could eat oil. Digging further, I learned about bacteria that could “breath” metals instead of oxygen, live in hot springs, and do all the other crazy things bacteria can do. I was hooked.

I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors – climbing trees, playing in the dirt and ocean. That coupled with a strong curiosity and wild imagination, there was only one thing I could be, a scientist or a transcendentalist poet, I guess.

Give us five adjectives that describe you.
Curious, contemplative, solution-centric, humanist, inclusive.

It seems that biology was an early calling.
I was wavering on sticking with biology because at the time you really needed a Ph.D. to go anywhere in the field, and I didn’t want to stay in school forever. I was also previously discouraged from pursuing a Ph.D. by a professor in Orlando, [Florida].

Launched by the Biden Cancer Initiative, the #cancerFIERCE campaign “celebrates the FIERCE that we know is in everyone touched by cancer – patients, families, caregivers, healthcare providers, researchers” — including Norbert Tavares, ’06.

What changed?
When I transferred to SCSU I decided I would pursue biology because I enjoyed it. . . . Nicholas Edgington, [associate professor of biology,] was my assigned academic adviser. I told him about my goals, my interest in microbiology, my desire for a Ph.D., and to peruse an academic career. He listened and gave me specific, practical advice. He was the first academic adviser I had at three separate institutions who actually gave me good advice specific to my desires.

I did exactly what he said, starting with applying for and doing a summer research program for undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin. I then applied for and was awarded a Sigma Xi grant-in-aid of research after Dr. Edgington nominated me for membership to this scientific society.

I think he was surprised that I followed through with all of his suggestions. He then took me on as an undergraduate researcher in his lab. Because of the training I gained in his lab and the three other summer research programs, I was more than competitive for graduate school and was accepted into the number three microbiology program in the country at the University of Wisconsin. I owe a great deal to Dr. Edgington. He put me on the academic and professional path that I’m currently on.

What was your research focus?
My previous laboratory looked at how bacteria make vitamin B12. Bacteria are the only organisms that make the vitamin, which humans get from our diet via meat. There are no plant sources. The herbivores we eat, like cows, get B12 from the bacteria in their guts. I studied the genes and enzymes that bacteria use to make B12.

Norbert Tavares, ’06, presents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

What is your current position?
I am an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in D.C. I work in a center that analyzes the cancer research landscape – and builds programs and collaborations to develop technology, standards, and innovative ideas to fill the gaps in cancer research and move the field forward. In my role, I analyze the cancer research field to find these gaps and opportunities — and manage and evaluate the existing programs we have built. In other words, I build and fund grants, infrastructure, and programs to help cancer researchers study, understand, treat, prevent, and eventually eliminate cancers.

Your bio with the National Cancer Institute lists your strong interest in the advancement of women and underrepresented individuals in science and other areas. Can you talk a bit about that commitment?
If you have at least two women in the room — whether that room is a meeting, a board room, or Congress — it changes the conversation in a way that is important. You’ve heard it said, “If there’d been a woman in the room at the time this idea was put forward, it never would have happened. We would not have made this mistake.” I believe that’s true. Whenever I write a policy document, I always make sure to get it in front of the eyes of a number of different women. And the things that have come back – “Hey, maybe you should change this.” – I would never have thought of without their input.

I’ve learned you need to have that diversity, and there’s data to back it up. If you have lots of diversity, you tend to have a slower start. But the group makes much greater progress and they are more creative.

We live in America during sensitive times and race has always been and will continue to be a touchy topic. I am a scientist – and, as I mentioned earlier, there is good data that shows diversity matters. If a girl has had a woman math teacher, she’s much more likely to excel in the subject and choose it as a major. I’m much more likely to pursue the sciences as a career if I’ve had a science teacher who is African American. It makes a difference . . . and I think the influence occurs as early as elementary school.

The truth is this is passive. . . . But I really believe existing in the world as an African American Ph.D. – as a scientist – and trying to do well is important and hopeful. Increasing exposure [to my educational and career path] is part of my obligation. And if I can maybe inspire another African American to study the sciences – or maybe go to Southern or another college – I am happy to do it.

For students who are considering a career in scientific research or who are interested in doing work to help food, farms, forests, or the environment, a new internship program co-sponsored by Southern and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station could be an ideal way to become immersed in field- or laboratory-based research projects and engage in hands-on learning.

The Summer Undergraduate Fellows in Plant Health and Protection program offers 10 undergraduate research internships during summer 2017. During the internships, which will be funded by the USDA, students will participate in research projects focused on plant health and protection, including: plant pathology, analytic chemistry, entomology, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, and forest health.  Weekly enrichment activities will include field trips to learn about research careers in the public and private sector, and workshops to develop scientific leadership and communication skills.

i-MvGxgZC-X3Interns will be provided with free housing, a meal plan, and a stipend. The nine-week program beginning on June 5 will culminate with student presentations at Plant Science Day held on August 2 at the CT Agricultural Experimental Station’s outdoor research facility, “Lockwood Farm”. Students interested in conducting scientific research in areas related to agriculture and crop health are encouraged to apply.

The program is open to undergraduate students from any college or university who: are U.S. citizens or permanent residents; are at least 18 years of age; will have completed two to four semesters toward a biology, chemistry, or related science major by June 2017; are in good academic standing; and can commit to live at SCSU and to work full-time from June 5-August 4, 2017 (not including July 4). Underclassmen and novice researchers (students with no prior paid research experience) are strongly encouraged to apply, as are first-generation and minority college students. The deadline for applications is March 10, 2017.

For more details or to apply, visit www.planthealthfellows.com.

Scott Graves, drone

In April 2010, Scott Graves was watching news coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A geologist and oceanographer who spent his early career making maps from aerial views of the landscape, Graves began wondering: How would scientists document the spread of the spill along the coastline and into surrounding marshes?

Curious, he started poking around the internet. The federal government had basically shut down flights over the area, but Graves learned a small group of researchers was getting aerial shots by dangling cameras from kites and balloons.

Thinking it would be great to bring the technique to Southern, Graves, associate professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marines Sciences, decided to learn what he could and worked with his department to acquire a balloon and a kite.

“I just started ‘MacGyvering’ camera systems together,” he recalls, referencing the 1980s TV character known for cobbling together everyday items to get out of tough situations. Then, a few years later, drones became widely available, and Graves thought: “That’s it.”

Today, Graves is a pioneer in the growing movement to use drones for environmental research and conservation — and he’s passionate about sharing that technology with Southern students. Over the last year, he has donated about $10,000 worth of drones, mapping software and other related equipment to forward the effort at Southern.

He has also gifted about $70,000 to establish the Osprey Endowed Scholarship for Environmental and Marine Studies, named for the coastal bird that flies at the same altitude as his drones. The scholarship is earmarked for undergraduate and graduate students who are conducting research with a faculty mentor through the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies or the Center for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Education, both research centers at Southern. Although it’s not required, the first two recipients have included drone technology as a focal point of their projects.

Peter Broadbridge, who is pursuing a master’s degree in science education at Southern, notes that receiving the scholarship in 2015 changed his perspective on life — and possibly his career path. Broadbridge, who studied the health of marshes along West Haven’s Cove River, worked with Graves to parlay the scholarship into a NASA-funded grant to continue his drone-assisted research. This year’s winner, Christine Woehrle, is using drones to study the health of local vineyards.

Graves’ commitment to students and the environment also is forwarded through his leadership-level involvement with GLOBE — The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program — which is sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with support from other government agencies. An international science and education program, GLOBE connects students, teachers, scientists and citizens from around the world, inviting them to conduct hands-on science related to their local environment and put it in a global perspective. GLOBE’s 21st annual meeting and student research experience is being held at Southern from July 30 to Aug. 4.

In Graves’ opinion, drones hold enormous potential as a less expensive, more effective way for environmental scientists to collect data from aerial perspectives. “This is an incredibly powerful tool for getting information on landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible,” says Graves. “In the past, if you wanted to have aerial photography, you either had to hire a helicopter or an airplane — either of which needed to fly very high. But now, for a couple thousand dollars, you can get a drone that carries a 4K camera, learn how to fly it yourself, and get very low-altitude imagery.”

Graves’ obsession with learning about his surroundings dates back to childhood. Growing up in Malibu, Calif., he spent hours with friends exploring the creek near his family’s home.

“I’d get home from school and my mom would say, ‘See you at sundown,’” he recalls.

During his senior year in high school, he took an earth science class and decided he wanted to become a geologist. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz, he took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was charged with producing a map of coastal erosion in the Arctic.

In 1986, Graves’ quest to earn a doctorate in oceanography led him to the University of Rhode Island. But funding for research was sparse, and Graves ultimately graduated with a master’s degree when his major professor retired abruptly before he could finish the program.

“I was devastated because I’d spent five years in a Ph.D. program and passed all the preliminaries and qualifications,” Graves says. “Here’s your dream. You’re pursing it and the door slams right in your face. So what do you do? You have to change directions.”

He took a break from academia to work as a snowboard instructor before landing a job with a nonprofit organization, where he co-designed an environmental education curriculum for middle schoolers. While presenting at a conference at the University of Idaho, he was recruited into a doctoral program, and earned his doctorate in science education in 1999.

It was there that he got his big break — authoring a successful $7.5 million federal grant to train teachers from New Jersey to Oregon in how to use GIS (geographic information system) technology to document 200 years of change along the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail — a career highlight that would consume his time for the next five years.

In 2005, wanting to move to an urban area near the coast, he came to Southern and never looked back. “I fell in love with the programs and the people in this department,” he says.

While he has made smaller donations to his various alma maters, he reserves the bulk of his philanthropy for Southern. Graves also was among a group of benefactors — that included the Werth Family Foundation and others — who recently bought the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse in New Haven for student research.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his own career, Graves says his philanthropy is a “pay it forward scenario,” noting he’s “had some breaks along the way.”

“I know what it’s like to have your dreams shut down — and I know what it’s like to suddenly see a new horizon and go for it,” he says.

iGem 2016, Boston

A team of Southern science students recently earned a bronze medal at a prestigious international synthetic biology competition for its work to find a faster method to detect tuberculosis.

The nine students – hailing from a variety of disciplines within the sciences – participated in late October at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in Boston. The event included nearly 300 teams of students – mostly undergraduates, but some graduate and high school students. It marked the first time Southern competed in the program, and SCSU was among only three teams from Connecticut to do so this year. Both Yale University and the University of Connecticut also earned bronze medals.

“This was a terrific opportunity for our students to showcase their talents and abilities, and the team is extremely proud to have earned a bronze medal,” said Nicholas Edgington, team advisor and SCSU associate professor of biology.

The teams competed against one another in various categories, as well as sought to attain a medal (gold, silver or bronze) in their own right by meeting a variety of criteria. Unlike the Olympics, every team can earn a medal. But not all do.

The team sought to develop a screening test for tuberculosis that is both accurate and speedy. The more accurate tests today require a wait that can take several weeks before learning the results.

“TB is one of the leading killers of human beings worldwide with a third of the world’s population infected by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” said Bryan Pasqualucci, student leader of the leader said. “Like so many diseases, early detection is important in treating TB. Unfortunately, some tests for TB require a wait of several weeks before learning the results, so we want to see if we can find a way to shorten the time needed for some of these tests.”

The SCSU team sought to use gases called Volatile Organic Compounds that a person infected with TB emits. One particular gas, 1-Methylnapthalene, has been shown to be a positive marker for TB.

While the project is incomplete, the information attained has been sent to the iGEM headquarters repository for future teams to advance. In addition, Thomas Hoang, a member of the team, has applied for an SCSU Undergraduate Research Grant to complete the project.

Most infected by the TB bacteria develop a latent state of the disease for many years, if not forever. But even those individuals face a 10-percent lifetime risk of developing an active form of the disease.

In addition to Pasqualucci and Hoang, members of the team are: Karalyn Farr, Patrick Flynn, Rye Howard-Stone, Christopher Wojtas, Hafssa Chbihi, Julio Badillo and Zachary Matto.

Male college students tended to predict higher scores on their impending chemistry tests than their female classmates, even though their actual performance on those tests was nearly identical, according to a study co-authored by a faculty member at Southern.

The results of the research by Jeffrey Webb, assistant professor of chemistry at SCSU, and Andrew Karatjas, associate science professor at Johnson and Wales University, were published in in a recent article in the Journal of College Science Teaching. Karatjas is a former faculty member at SCSU.

“This difference in perception could play a role in the gender gap that we see in the higher levels of the sciences,” Webb said. “There is parity in ability, but their perceptions were significantly different.”

Among students who tallied scores of higher than 90 percent, as well as those with scores of less than 50 percent, gender played little or no role in perception. “A” students tended to underestimate how they would fare with little difference based on gender. Similarly, male and female students who failed with scores of less than 50 percent overestimated their eventual score by about the same margin.

But among the mid-level students – those scoring between 50 and 90 — a statistically significant difference was found. A perception gender gap of 2.3 percent existed among “B” students, a 3.6-percent gap existed among “C” students and a 4.2-percent gap existed among “D” students. Those who scored between 50 and 59 percent had a 4.1-percent gap.

In general, “A” students underestimated their abilities; “B” students slightly underestimated their skills; while “C” “D” and “F” students overestimated their abilities, but males overestimated at a more pronounced level.

A total of 2,547 surveys were collected in the 100-level courses at SCSU during a 16-month period that included the spring 2013, summer 2013, fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters. The surveys asked students what grade they believed they would get on that particular test, and the process was repeated before each test.

Webb, a resident of Branford, said that far fewer women than men nationally are enrolled in doctoral science programs.

“There is a slight difference at the master’s degree level, but a major difference at the Ph.D. level,” he said. “Based on this study, that gender gap might be associated with how women tend to perceive their science ability. If you don’t think you are good at something, you are less likely to pursue it at the higher level. That might well be what is happening.”

Few would like to return to the days of the Cold War — an era during the 1950s and 60s when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for military supremacy in a nuclear chess match. But the sense of urgency generated by the geopolitical struggle was the impetus — certainly one of the driving forces — behind America’s push to become the first nation to successfully land a man on the moon.

To accomplish that goal, the United States needed to ensure that its science and technology education was second to none. The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 — the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth — jolted the United States into action. Science education became a priority in this nation. And dividends were paid with a successful manned space flight in 1969 — nearly a decade after President John F. Kennedy outlined that goal. It left little doubt about the technological superiority of the United States.

blogphotoscienceliteracyBut nearly four and a half decades later, the state of science education in the United States has become much more ambiguous. For example, tests measuring scientific aptitude and knowledge show that American children are not at the top of the list. Not even in the top 5. And many educators have decried a lack of interest in science at the middle and high school levels.

So, what has gone wrong? Like most such complex questions, the answer does not lie in a single cause. But a de-emphasis on science education — and especially science literacy — has played a role in that decline, according to Susan Cusato, chairwoman of the Science Education and Environmental Studies Department at Southern. During the last few decades, education has placed more emphasis on literacy and mathematics — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – but Cusato contends that it has come at the expense of science education.

“It is generally not until middle school that actual science teachers begin teaching science,” Cusato says. “What happens is that there is a continual catch-up process in the classroom.”

Cusato also feels that science education has done a disservice in focusing too heavily on training scientists, rather than promoting scientific literacy. She says students should have achieved basic literacy skills in all the major disciplines before college, including science.

“No matter what career path or profession our students choose, knowledge and wonder of science is critical,” she says. “By avoiding science you miss out on experiencing incredible things on a different level that can bring you great joy and insight.” She points to driving a car, riding a plane, or going to a concert, as examples of everyday tasks people often take for granted without understanding how science makes those things happen.

She says that scientific literacy is needed, not merely to fulfill an academic requirement, but to gain a better appreciation and understanding for what is happening around us. This would include climate change, pandemics and the search for sustainable energy sources.

So, what can we do to improve our scientific literacy? Cusato recommends several steps we can take that are relatively simple and don’t require a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics.

  • Visit museums, parks and nature centers. Pick out some activities you enjoy, or would like to try, such as maple syrup weekends, bird watching, fishing or nature walks. Science is part of all of them.
  • When reading the paper or listening to the news, try to pay attention to science stories. They may be more interesting than you think initially.
  • Read science magazines and other publications. They don’t have to be dissertations on string theory or Einstein’s theory of relativity. But many science-based magazines are available at local bookstores, and are written for the general public with photos and diagrams that help illustrate the subject matter.
  • Mention a timely scientific topic at a family gathering or when you are with friends. It may actually inspire others to learn more about a subject.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask science-related questions of your teacher, doctor, or anyone involved in the sciences. Many people enjoy talking about their chosen fields of expertise with others.

Speaking of science education, Southern will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Friday on a new academic and science laboratory building. To read more, check out: http://www.southernct.edu/about/construction/new-science-building.html