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Archives for March 30, 2015

Profile: Alumnus on Mission to "Democratize" Biotech

Cowell displays a translucent sheet printed with a tiling pattern of hand-drawn cells, DNA strands, transfer pipettes, OpenPCR machines and other DIY motifs. It served as the master image used to screenprint the prototype packaging for the GENELASER DNA sequencing kit he developed at Cofactor Bio.

Davidson alumnus Mac Cowell ’06 notes that computers started out as just spare parts and big ideas in a dreamer’s garage, and ended up changing the world. Cowell is now on a mission to help repeat that scenario in the field of synthetic biology. It’s a difficult task, though. He’s been at it for a decade without a breakthrough creation like solving the energy crisis with algae, or lighting homes and towns at night with plants that glow in the dark.

But Cowell has remained optimistic and enthusiastic, and recently received good reason to maintain his spirits. He is among 23 synthetic biologists worldwide to receive a year-long fellowship from The Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (SynBio LEAP). The organization selected recipients from academia, corporations, start-ups, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and community labs based on “their visions and aspirations for shaping biotechnology for the public good.”

The description fits Cowell well. This San Francisco-based biotechnologist is currently working on low-cost molecular biology tools through a startup he founded called Genefoo. During the past decade he has also worked for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition at MIT, co-founded the online community for biotechnologists, started public wetlab in Somerville, Mass., and researched patent use in the genetic diagnostic industry at the Berkman Center at Harvard University. In 2011, he cofounded Cofactor Bio and developed an innovative $25 PCR + DNA sequencing reagent kit for consumers and educators.

His dedication to the “democratization” of biochemistry is reflected in the fact that Cowell, like about 30 percent of LEAP winners this year, does not have a doctoral degree. “The fellowship validated for me personally that I’m capable of making contributions without needing an academic certification,” he said. “And if I can do it, so can others.”

Crafting Through Code

Cowell with an early OpenPCR thermocycler that clients used to amplify and mail-order sequence DNA samples.

Cowell said the LEAP fellowship gives him credentials to seek previously unavailable partnerships, networking opportunities and funding. He also will work with other fellows during the year to collaboratively develop Strategic Action Plans that explore synthetic biology’s impacts, and propose ways to advance its positive outcomes. They will explore not simply what can be done with biotechnology, but what should be done.

LEAP’s year-long, non-residential program began with a “landscaping” gathering of the new fellows in early February to explore the social, economic, technical and political state of the field. They were introduced there to a variety of high level policy makers, regulators, funders and corporate representatives, and explained to them the challenges and opportunities for biotech.

“I came into the meeting with a vision,” Cowell said. “Then, being with so many influential fellows and lawmakers who work at the level of national policy left me feeling deeply empowered to make the vision bigger. Now, if I decide I need a large grant from the National Science Foundation, I know who to call to execute my idea.”

Fellows left their initial gathering with a charge to work on a personal proposal that they will present to each other at a week-long follow-up meeting in June. Cowell is working on a proposal for the Foundation for Automated and Accessible Biotech (FAAB) dedicated to demonstrating how to build and use existing and new products so that the reliability of biotech research is increased, and the manual labor required to do it is decreased.

Cowell said he is motivated by biology’s ubiquity. “It’s what we’re made of. We’re surrounded by biology,” he said. “But biology is driven by a code. Reading the code is easy for us now, but using it to create new things is still hard.”

Cowell has dedicated himself to ameliorating the “using it is hard” part, and looks forward to the day that biotech can be applied to solve everyday problems in arenas such as healthcare, energy and infrastructure.

Cowell believes success is inevitable, and already becoming apparent. He noted that lab testing and automation used to be so challenging that only large drug companies could afford the cost. Likewise, 3-D printers were available, but cost-prohibitive to the public. Now, with equipment cost at a fraction of its initial price, more scientists and even everyday tinkerers can afford its pursuit.

A Good Start

Cowell with an early prototype of another PCR thermocycler, which eventually spun-off into another company,, and an “arduino-shield” version. Both OpenPCR PersonalPCRv1 are free and open-source hardware products available on the Internet for people who want to build one.

Cowell arrived at Davidson with an advance placement credit in biology, exempting him from introductory biology courses. During his first two years he took several biology-related courses that reminded him of his passion for biology, but he fell behind the curve in taking courses needed for a major. He didn’t take his first required class until the beginning of his junior year. Catching up wasn’t easy. He recalls one “brutal” semester with three labs. Among the classes he took was genomics with Professor Malcolm Campbell. Things clicked with the subject and the professor, and Cowell asked Campbell to be his adviser.

Campbell was delighted to accept. He recalled that, as an undergraduate, Cowell was always looking for novel ways to do things, and new areas to explore. He also was impressed with Cowell’s eagerness to help make biotech accessible to everyone.

“Mac is a pioneer for sure,” Campbell said. “When he graduated, he was bothered that the only people able to conduct synthetic biology research were those attending the best colleges and universities in the world,” Campbell said.

He continued, “Mac saw synthetic biology the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates saw computing-it belongs in the hands of the people. Mac has worked to democratize synthetic and molecular biology by making equipment affordable to bio hackers working in garages today. He also has educated bio hackers about ethical use of molecular tools and responsible research conduct.” 

Noodling around the Web one day in 2005, Cowell landed on the home page of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition, an international challenge to undergraduate programs to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

The list of schools participating included all the usual suspects like MIT, Stanford and Columbia. But much to his surprise he also saw “Davidson.” He hurried to ask Campbell if he could sign up for the team. Campbell explained that the IGEM team roster was already complete with research students from the previous summer. However, Campbell agreed to accept Cowell as an honorary member, and he attended the event. “I was wowed by the experience,” he said. “That set me on the course I pursued after college.”

In 2008 Cowell founded, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of do-it-yourself biologists. “Central to our mission is the belief that biotechnology and greater public understanding about it has the potential to benefit everyone,” Cowell said.

He has recently founded Genefoo LLC, a research and development lab in San Francisco. In addition to importing inexpensive lab equipment, Genefoo developed a synthetic biology exhibit at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation that involved hands-on transformation and measurement of a three-color reporter system. He has also helped the museum establish an IGEM team, and has agreed to chair the “community labs” section of this year’s IGEM.

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PTI hopes to enhance travelers’ experience – Winston



Artwork by Andrew Doss on display in the lower level between the baggage area and rental car service, Monday, March 16, 2015, in Greensboro, N.C. Piedmont Triad International Airport has gone the route of other airports in its desire to spruce up with public art. It has created an art master plan and is now receiving proposals from artists for a piece to be suspended from the ceiling of the main terminal. For now, they have installed some sculpture, paintings and photographs.

Posted: Sunday, March 29, 2015 8:45 pm

PTI hopes to enhance travelers’ experience

Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane/Greensboro News Record

Winston-Salem Journal

GREENSBORO –Four metal sculptures soon will greet Piedmont Triad International Airport customers as they walk to its rental car lot.

Come fall, a large piece of art created by a North Carolina artist will hang from the ceiling in the main terminal.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015 8:45 pm.

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Garden walk series offers landscaping advice, gardening tips

Spring Cleanup with Anita Gall, Anita’s Greenscaping

Friday, April 10, noon-1 p.m.

Location: Cappuccino Company, 1703 Broadway Phone: 308-635-9997

Garden: 1st Ave. 18th St.

Tree Selection with Galen Wittrock, South Platte NRD

Friday, May 8, noon-1 p.m.

Location: Grace, 1625 1st Ave. Phone: 308-633-4722

Garden: Constitution Park, 1809 3rd Ave.

Downtown Garden Dedication with Justin Evertson and Bob Henrickson, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum

Friday, June 5, 10 a.m.-noon

Location: Emporium deck, 1818 1st Ave. 308-632-6222

Garden: All downtown gardens, an hour walk

Insects, Pollinators Habitat with Jeff Bradshaw, UNL Extension, Entymologist

Friday, July 10, 11 a.m.-noon

Sam Louie’s 1522 Broadway Phone: 308-633-2345

Garden; 18th St. Ave. A

The Stormwater Perspective with Leann Sato, City of Scottsbluff Stormwater Program Specialist

Friday, August 7, 11 a.m.-noon

Location: Café de Paris, 15 16th St. Phone: 308-633-2529

Garden(s): 18th St. Ave. A

Sustainable Landscapes with Lucinda Mays, Chadron State College

Friday, September 11, 11 a.m.-noon

Location: TBA

Please arrive a few minutes early to order lunch.

Garden: Library Bioswale

Fall Grass Showcase with Jim Schild, UNL Extension

Friday, October 2, 11 a.m.-noon

Location: Runza Conference Room, 1823 Broadway

Please arrive a few minutes early to order lunch

Garden(s) 1st Ave. 18th St.

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Birmingham Zoo asks spring breakers to exercise caution as construction …

Dr. William R. Foster, President and CEO of the Birmingham Zoo is asking for the public’s patience and understanding this Spring Break as construction crews continue to work on improving the zoo entrance and its vicinity. Cahaba Road, already crowded with heavy construction equipment and workers, is expected to be even busier this week as both the zoo and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens expect an influx of visitors over the holiday.

“My main concern is the public’s safety,” said Foster in an interview with, “there’s a lot going on right now.”

Still, said Foster, it will all be for the better.

“The zoo and The Gardens are the jewels of the Birmingham park system,” said Foster, “these road and sidewalks improvements will help improve the commute between the two and help visitors safely make their way from one facility to the other whether in a car, on foot or on a bike.”

Crews are working to take Cahaba Road from a three-lane road to a two-lane road and build two lighted sidewalks–one on the zoo side of Cahaba and one on the Botanical Gardens side.

Foster said although there will be fewer lanes, the lanes will be wider, made to accommodate both vehicles and bicycles. The sidewalks being built along Cahaba will connect with sidewalks in Mountain Brook and in English Village.

A roundabout will also be built at the entrance to the zoo that will help slow traffic on Cahaba. The roundabout will be similar in style to the one found at Key Circle, where Argyle, Aberdeen, Arlington and Cahaba roads intersect.

“We’re going a ‘road diet,'” said Nimrod Long, landscape architect on the project in a previous interview. “We had this wide swath of asphalt that wasn’t really needed. People were going 50 or 60 miles an hour past the zoo because they had plenty of lanes and nothing to slow them down. We’re solving that by taking the road down to two lanes and by putting in a roundabout that will make people put on the brakes and pay attention to who may be crossing the road.”

Long said that traffic will be slowed to 5-8 miles per hour as it makes its way around the roundabout. A pedestrian crossing between the zoo and gardens will also be marked.

Additional landscaping and water control is also part of the plan. Additional components, some of which have been in the works for years, are still possible sometime down the line.

The project has been made possible Thanks to a $1.2 million federal grant and $700,000 from the City of Birmingham. The entire project- including all the streetlights, sidewalks and roundabout- is an ALDOT project.

Foster said construction crews hope to wrap everything up by July, weather permitting.

“In the midst between now and then,” he said, “we are asking people to be patient, to understand that the short term our mess will result in a safer, better looking and more functional area. We are also asking people to slow down, allot a little more time for their transit and drive safely around the area.”

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Word on the Street: Spino opens Lotus Gardens in southeast Fresno

Local News

Fresno firefighter injured in fall through garage roof

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Vendors, gardening tips, therapy dogs part of annual Wellness Fair

Donate blood, learn about your foot type and the best shoes to wear, get gardening tips and visit with therapy dogs. Those activities and much more will be part of the UW-Stout Wellness Fair, the largest in Dunn County.

The annual fair is scheduled Wednesday, April 1, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the Sports and Fitness Center. Free parking will be available in Lot 4, on the west side of the Sports and Fitness Center, off South Broadway Street.

About 50 vendors will be on hand with product samples, coupons and information. Visitors are encouraged to bring a reusable bag to collect handouts from vendors, and they can register for door prizes, including a bike.

A blood donation drive will be held by the Memorial Blood Center.

Nonperishable food items will be collected for the food pantry at Stepping Stones of Dunn County.

The event is sponsored by the Campus Wellness Committee. For more information, go to

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Gardening Tips That Can Save You Over $700

a recent morning walk, I noticed a lot of my neighbors spreading mulch, pulling
weeds and planting
in their front yards. It made me smile and also made me a bit
jealous – with two young children keeping us busy, my husband and I haven’t gotten
around to sprucing up our yard or even budgeting for the cost it would take to
make it happen.

I went home and started doing some research. What should we do this year and
how much will it cost? What’s the return on our investment? I was pleasantly
surprised to discover that landscaping and gardening would actually save
us money
. I love being outside anyway, and now I have good reason. Here’s
what I learned:

Proper landscaping reduces
household bills.

On a recent trip to a
warehouse club, my husband and I spotted some gorgeous redbud trees for $45
apiece. We considered buying them, but instead walked away. I hope they’re
still there, because according to the Arbor Day Foundation, trees not only drop
the temperature by about 20 to 40 degrees in the summer, but they also cut the
amount of energy used for heating a household by 20 to 50 percent. To put that
in perspective, the Energy Department estimates that only three well-placed
trees save the average household about $100 to $250 per year in energy
costs.  For $135, we can improve the look
of our lawn and save as much as $115 annually.

You also can reduce
your water bill by incorporating native plants into your landscaping plans.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, native plants save money (and
time) by reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and water. We have a
hard time keeping our grass green, so we definitely utilized this tip. The EPA
estimates lawn irrigation in urban areas uses 30 percent of the water
consumption on the East Coast and as much as 60 percent on the West Coast.
Native plants have adapted to their region’s climate and require little
watering or care, making them a smart choice over grass.

Also, remember that trees
and plants grow! A small or medium-sized tree or plant is a better investment
than spending hundreds of dollars (or more) on a large one. We purchased
starter-sized Mexican heathers last spring (which are native to our region)
that were on clearance. A lot of the leaves were dead and they were very small,
but by summer’s end we were pulling them out and cutting them back because they
took over. We are so glad we didn’t spend more just to get instant results.                                                                                         
Mulch offers many benefits.

I always love the
immediate impact mulch makes when it’s freshly applied. It makes plants pop because
it provides such a nice contrast and smells like spring. Apparently mulch is
the unsung hero of the garden. According to the Agriculture Department, mulch
protects land from soil erosion and reduces compaction from heavy rains. It also
will help reduce your water bill by eliminating the need to frequently water,
and provides an even soil temperature to protect your plants.

If you’re spending a
lot of money on weed killer, fertilizer and bug spray, mulch will help you out
there, too. It prevents weed growth, and organic mulch will decompose and provide
nutrients to encourage plant growth. And some types of mulch, such as cedar,
cypress, redwood and eucalyptus, naturally deter insects.

When buying mulch,
consider how much coverage you’ll need. You might be able to save
with bulk purchases online

Consider eating what your garden produces.

Last year, the National
Gardening Association released a survey that shows one in three U.S. households
are growing food, which is the highest participation in a decade. The top
reasons for doing so are to have better-tasting food (58 percent), to reduce
food bills (54 percent) and to grow better-quality food (51 percent).

For one reason or
another, we haven’t yet started growing food at my house. My husband loves all
things spicy, so we’ve considered growing some peppers, and probably tomatoes,
lettuce and herbs. In addition to having the convenience of produce in our own
backyard, we think it would be a good way to teach our girls about how sun and
water make things grow, as well as to give them some responsibility (and, maybe
even get them interested in eating
more vegetables
). In 2009, the NGA estimated that an average
600-square-foot garden requires about a $70 investment and produces nearly 300
pounds of fresh produce worth $600 during the growing season. Simply put,
that’s a whopping $530 return and a whole lot of fresh food. 

Review your grocery
list to see what produce you spend the most on each season, and try to grow it
in your garden. For example, at our house we tend to spend a lot on basil,
which is expensive, so we’ll be looking to plant some of that. And while buying
peppers isn’t really expensive, we buy them all the time. Growing them will
save us many trips to the store.

These tips will save my
family about $700 this year. I hope you enjoy similar
, as well as the warmer weather. Now go out there and discover your
green thumb!

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Tips to taking close-up garden photos: Patience, steady hands and a wide aperture

A large part of the fun of having a garden — or just visiting one — is to take a photo as a keepsake. Rarely, however, can we get in close enough to really capture the details.

Here’s your chance to practice photography — maybe even taking macro images — before we call for entries in our annual Homes Gardens of the Northwest’s Garden Photo Contest in the fall.

Photographer Cindy Dyer of Alexandria, Virginia, took photographs of water lilies that have been reproduced on four new Forever stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service. She shot the water lilies at the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC.

The Postal Service printed 500 million of the Water Lilies Forever stamps and released them March 20. Typically, the agency prints between 20 million and 40 million stamps of an individual subject. More Water Lilies Forever stamps were printed in anticipation of extreme customer demand.

Getting the shots

Dyer captured the images on a hot, overcast July day using a Nikon D300 with a 105mm Nikkor 2.8 macro (close-up) lens and a tripod. She set her exposure at f8 and 1/125th of a second with an ISO of 400. Read more about her techniques.

Her tips:

Explore a garden first, looking for interesting lines and curves of flower beds. A shot with curving lines leads your viewer’s eye into the photograph. The goal is to not only tell a story, but to invite my viewers into the photos.

Start with overall images of garden areas, then move closer in to capture the details of individuals plants, flowers and insects.

Harness the sunlight by capturing images that are backlit.

Try putting your subject off-center. Be sure the other two-thirds of your photo have visual impact as well.

Focus on the subject. A large aperture ensures that the background will be out of focus, allowing the subject to shine.

Patience, steady hands and a wide aperture can capture an image when you can’t use a tripod.

Winners of the 2014 Homes Gardens of the Northwest’s Garden Photo Contest also offered details about their timing, type of equipment used and inspiration. Read their advice and see their winning image:

  1. Clark Allworth’s “Seed Umbrellas”
  2. Christopher Morgan’s “Hummingbird Jack Flash”
  3. Anita Caviglia’s “October Morning Mist”
  4. Robert Brummitt’s “Red Leaf on Green Clover”
  5. David Walsh’s image of “Laceleaf Maple”

Dyer lists these resources and inspiration:

Free training sites

Subscription training sites

Garden photography

Insect and macro photographers

Recommended reading
“Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers: The Essential Guide to Digital Techniques” by Alan L. Detrick (2008, Timber Press)

“Macro Photography: Learning From a Master” by Gilles Martin and Ronan Loaec (2003, Harry N. Abrams)

“Nature Photography Close-Up: Macro Techniques in the Field” by Paul Harcourt Davies (2003, Amphoto Books)

“Small Things Big: Close-Up and Macro Photography” by Paul Harcourt Davies (2003, David Charles)

“Better Picture Guide to Flower Garden Photography” by Michael Busselle (1997, Rotovision)

“The Art of Garden Photography” by Ian Adams (2005, Timber Press)

“Close Up Macro: A Photographic Guide” by Robert Thompson (2005, David Charles; 2nd edition)

“Close-Up on Insects: A Photographer’s Guide” by Robert Thompson (2003, Guild of Master Craftsman)

“Photographing Plants Gardens” by Clive Nichols (1998, David Charles)

“The Art of Flower Garden Photography” by Clive Nichols (2007, Aurum Press)

“Digital Macro Close-up Photography” by Ross Hoddinott (2015, Ammonite Press; Revised and expanded edition edition)

“Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds” by Harold Davis (2011, Focal Press)

— Homes Gardens of the Northwest staff

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A Little Chaos: a true gardening film

A Little Chaos is a rare film about gardens (Alex Bailey)

The film begins with Winslet, playing the fictitious designer Sabine de Barra, buying a ridiculous hat to wear for a job interview with André Le Nôtre. Not the great Le Notre Snr, creator of Versailles, but his son, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who is – I am given to understand – rather dishy in a Belgian sort of a way. (One can’t quite imagine him as a gardener – though admittedly his immaculate designer stubble must require some careful cultivation.) The “little chaos” of the title is signalled by the Winslet character surreptitiously moving a pot at the centre of Le Nôtre’s own garden, thereby disrupting its formal symmetry. Never mind that Le Nôtre himself had already experimented with naturalism at Marly – this is cinema.

After a predictably rocky start, an equally predictable romance develops between the two, as Winslet struggles to complete her assignment: the creation of the Salle de Bal, or water ballroom, as one of the bosquets (ornamented glades) situated in the woods that flank the Great Canal at Versailles. Again, it is marvellous that an actual garden feature is accurately depicted.

Not all of the garden history is spot on – there are a number of plants (including astilbes and brugmansias) in Winslet’s own little garden which were not in cultivation in Europe in the late 17th century – but one does get a sense of the mud and hard engineering work involved with the creation of a water feature of this scale and complexity. For her part, Winslet revealed that her research for the film consisted of gardening – “getting my hands dirty . . . there would always be little bits of mud somewhere or other”.

• Are there really ghosts at Versailles?

The film portrays the hardwork gardening demanded in the era (Alex Bailey)

Rickman obviously delighted in playing the king – an unexpectedly sympathetic portrayal of an essentially lonely man – and the supporting cast includes Stanley Tucci playing against type as the homosexual Duc d’Orléans (his amusingly mannish wife taking an interest in Winslet). The rituals of the French court are particularly well done, with much decolletage in the bocage. The most touching and delicate scene in the film is a quick-fire conversation ‘backstage’ at court where our gardener discovers a strange sense of community with the ladies of the court, as they talk of transactional marriages and the children they have lost. One elderly aristocrat relates how her husband and son were both killed on the battlefield on the same afternoon, quietly concluding, ‘I am barely here.’

Not everything in this cinematic garden is lovely, however. While there are some convincingly intimate scenes involving Winslet and Rickman, the chemistry is not quite there between the romantic leads, with Winlset’s gardener permanently stricken because of a ‘terrible secret’ which haunts her. We discover the truth about this just before the film’s grand finale, which is the unveiling of the Salle de Bal itself. In a final coup de horticulture, the garden is allowed to steal the show, as Rickman and Winslet dance in front of the cascade and the all-too-palpable magic of CGI whisks us up and away above Versailles.

• French gardens: the best of the Loire

The rituals of the French court are well executed throughout the film (Alex Bailey)

Film critics will dislike the stately pace of A Little Chaos, and it is certainly let down by its romantic interest – so this will probably be adjudged only a three-star effort for a general audience. For readers of this section, though, it has to be five stars. This is a ripe and juicy pear of a gardener’s film, with much to sink one’s teeth into. Catch it while you can, as I have a feeling it will not be on general release for long.

• Famous movie scenes in gardens

A Little Chaos is in cinemas from April 17

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