1. "If someone tells you it can't be done that often means it can be done". An interview with Sarah (Mims) Cooper

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    GlobalLab is proud to partner with project developer Forrest M. Mims III, a renowned scientist, known for his series of electronics books, scientific publications, and many science experiments, especially in the areas of ecology and environmental science.

    He has many great ideas for young and curious minds wanting to learn about science and the world around them. You will definitely want to explore the following projects (the first of many to come!) on our website authored by Mims: Secrets in Tree RingsHow to Photograph Earth's Shadow, and Particles in Snow.

    Forrest’s passion for science and discovery is central to his life and this excitement for learning and inventing runs in his family. Forrest and his wife Minnie have three children, all of whom did many science projects before they started college. All three are, like their father, scientists.

    Their son Eric built a very sensitive optical fiber seismometer that detected many earthquakes and two underground nuclear tests. Their daughter Vicki measured the rotation of the sun, a project Forrest described in a science magazine*. Vicki also detected 12 X-class solar x-ray flares using a Geiger counter, a project that became a chapter in a book**. 

    One of their daughter Sarah’s projects attracted the attention of many professional scientists, for Sarah discovered that living fungi are present in biomass smoke that arrives from distant agricultural fires. So far, her scientific paper about her discovery is cited in xx papers by professional scientists. You can learn more about Sarah’s discovery from many websites, including a NASA website called “Smoke’s Amazing Secret” and “Up in Smoke”, a Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website. 

    GlobalLab interviewed Sarah, who is now married to biologist and chemist Brent Cooper, about some of her science projects and how they have helped her in her career working with environmental companies after graduating from Texas A&M University. 

    Sarah Mims examines smoke samples for smoke and carbon

    We at GlobalLab would love to see our young learners follow in the footsteps of the Mims’ children…excited to learn and make new discoveries!

    What was your first science fair project?

    The first science fair project that I can remember was in first grade. I made pH paper using red cabbage juice and coffee filters. I then tested the pH of various household cleaners and foods. The simplicity and coolness of that project makes me want to get some red cabbage and repeat the project today.

    What were some of your other projects?

    One of my projects during elementary school was raising and tagging monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. I collected some of these plants that had monarch butterfly eggs on their leaves and kept them in a controlled environment. The eggs hatched into caterpillars that ate the leaves. The caterpillars then formed into chrysalises from which the adult monarch butterflies eventually emerged. After the monarchs were ready for flight, I tagged them with tiny labels on their wings.

    Another project was a study of heat islands. This project involved a road trip from Texas to New Mexico. I used a data logger to record temperatures outside the car throughout the trip. This was done by hanging the instrument outside a car window using a net bag. During the trip I kept a written log of the time and date when we passed through various towns and cities. When I downloaded the data from the instrument, every town and city we passed was warmer than the surrounding country.

    What was your favorite or most important project? Please explain.

    My favorite and most important project was actually a series of two projects during my junior and senior years of high school. For my junior year project I detected dust particles from Africa’s Sahara Desert at my home in Seguin, Texas. This was done by placing microscope slides on an elevated surface when Saharan dust was expected to be in the area. I separated Saharan dust from local particles by viewing the microscope slides with a microscope and crossed polarizers. The Saharan dust particles exhibited the birefringence that is characteristic of desert sand. The project received several science fair awards and First Grand Prize in Physical Science from the Texas Junior Academy of Science.

    Throughout the Saharan dust project I noticed unusual black particles and biological particles. After some research, I learned that the biological particles were actually fungal spores and the black particles were carbon. SeaWiFS satellite imagery showed that smoke from agricultural fires in Mexico and Central America had arrived over my site in Texas on days when I detected carbon and spores. This led to my senior year science fair project.

    First, I showed that fungal spores can be found in smoke by carefully burning dry grass from our field and exposing a fungal growth media (Petrifilms) to the smoke from the fire. I also exposed some control Petrifilms to clean ambient air. After incubation, the Petrifilms exposed to smoke had many more fungal colonies than the Petrifilms exposed only to the ambient air.

    To prove that I was actually detecting spores transported in biomass smoke from Mexico and Central America, I moved the experiment to the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico at Padre Island. Because the wind blows from the gulf to the land, this site would greatly reduce any contamination of the air samples with spores from Texas.

    I constructed a very simple, low-budget air sampler for the Gulf Coast study. The sampler was made from a plastic cup, 2 binder clips, yarn and a microscope slide. I flew this air sampler from a kite when the wind was arriving across the Gulf from Yucatan, Mexico. On a day with no smoke the sampler collected very few carbon particles and spores. On a day with smoke, the sampler collected both carbon particles and spores.

    Sarah flies her smoke sampler from kite at Padre island

    This project, which I called "Smoke Bugs," received various science fair awards and First Grand Prize in Physical Science from the Texas Junior Academy of Science. The discovery of viable spores in smoke also led to my first peer-reviewed publication, which my father helped me prepare from my science fair report (http://www.patarnott.com/atms360/pdf_atms360/04034Mims.pdf).

    I also made trips to present my project in Seattle, Washington, and Baltimore, Maryland. The project also received the Popular Mechanics Young Achiever Award in New York City during my second year of college. 

    Sarah testing spores presence in smoke

    Have your science projects played a role in your working life after college?

    Yes, especially with public speaking. I become very nervous when asked to speak in public. But because of having to defend my research before many panels of judges, I know how to properly prepare for public speaking. All the nervousness goes away soon after I begin to speak. Science fair experience has also helped me with technical writing and organizing various projects at work. I know how to outline a project and make everything come together.

    What is your advice for students who want to do serious science projects?

    If someone tells you it can't be done that often means it can be done.

    You were involved with your high school robotics club. What do you think about student robotics?

    I think robotics is an excellent hands-on teaching tool. More schools should participate in robotics competitions. I went to a very small high school and was fortunate to have such an opportunity.

    Any further comments?

    When I was in first and second grade I used to envy the students who made volcanoes from molding clay, vinegar and baking soda for their science fair projects.

    Some years there were more than five volcanoes at the science fair. While a simple demonstration like this teaches basic science, it is not original and is very over-done in the younger grades. I didn't realize until later how fortunate I was to have a father who encouraged me to do something original. Think outside the box and do a project that stands out from the crowd.


    * Sunspots and How to Observe Them Safely, Scientific American, pp. 130-133, June 1990
    ** Joseph J. Carr, Radio Science Observing, Vol. 1, Delmar Learning,1998

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