Alison Campbell

Senior University of Waikato biological sciences lecturer Dr Alison Campbell is well known in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty for promoting science to community groups and school students. She has been nicknamed the skull lady by secondary school students after her presentations on human evolution. Dr Campbell established Cafe Scientifique in Hamilton as part of an effort to encourage the community to discuss scientific issues. She has also launched BioBlog website to support secondary school biology students and teachers preparing for exams. That blog is syndicated right here on Sciblogs. Alison is on Twitter @AcampbelTeacher

Smallpox stories & shill accusations - BioBlog

Feb 01, 2019

A couple of days ago Newsroom published an article about smallpox, by Farah Hancock. It’s a very good story that covers the nature of smallpox and the history of efforts to develop a vaccine for this particularly nasty disease. And it’s the first of a science-based series about vaccines. Smallpox is a disease that’s extinct in the wild, with its final eradication being due to the success of ‘ring-vaccination’ (i.e. all contacts of every detected case were vaccinated). Farah’s article is carried on the Newsroom webpage, and of course also on its Facebook page. Newsroom encourages comments on its social media sites, rather than on the main webpage, so off to the FB site I went. Sadly (& sort of predictably), the first comment to appear was an attack on the reporter. You might expect queries … Read More

Measles outbreaks and the role of anti-vax misinformation - BioBlog

Jan 28, 2019

Recently Grant Jacobs discussed a paper which indicates that many people strongly opposed to genetic modification think they are well-informed, but in reality know little about the subject. On current evidence, the same applies to those opposed to vaccination. I originally sat down to write about this piece of nonsense, but it can wait. Instead – NZ readers will probably be aware of the handful of measles cases in the Waikato. It could be worse. My Twitter feed today has included a lot of updates on a rapidly spreading outbreak in the US state of Washington – an outbreak that’s seen the Governor declare an emergency. Earlier today there were 31 confirmed cases, 21 of whom were children under 10. So far, one of the 31 has been hospitalised. Most of the 31 were unvaccinated. Those numbers are expected … Read More

Ocean acidification may have unexpected impacts - BioBlog

Jan 20, 2019

A substantial proportion of the CO2 we release into the atmosphere, via burning fossil fuels, ends up dissolved in the ocean. The impact of this is a change in the ocean’s acidity: the pH drops. According to the Smithsonian, oceans have become substantially more acidic over the last 200 years (the period of the Industrial Revolution) – waaaay faster than any natural changes in pH in the previous 300 million years. One of the known effects of this decrease in oceanic pH is that some animals can struggle to build or maintain their shells (you’ll find one example here; others are listed here), which can have a range of flow-on effects. But the other day my colleague Chris Battershill told me that changes in pH can also affect animals’ behaviour, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Read More

WHO: ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is one of the top 10 health threats in 2019 - BioBlog

Jan 17, 2019

You read that right. Vaccine hesitancy – “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines” – is viewed by the World Health Organisation as one of the top 10 health threats we face in 2019. And worse, that hesitancy will have an effect on other threats in that top 10 list. Ebola and the potential for an influenza pandemic are also on that list; vaccination is a tool available to address those threats; and yet reluctance or refusal to vaccinate can (and sadly, probably will) reduce the effectiveness of that tool. The WHO has already described the value of vaccination in the fight against Ebola in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for health workers to control its spread in this war-torn region – a difficulty made worse by fears … Read More

Human evolution and attention-grabbing headlines - BioBlog

Jan 16, 2019

Every so often there’s a new story claiming that a study has overturned our understanding of human evolution. (Or something along those lines.) I’ve just come across another one**, & thought I’d write this post as a warning to year 13 biology students. As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – something that’s lacking in this particular case. The article wears its heart in its title: 700,000 YEARS OLD SKULL DISCOVERED IN GREEK CAVE, COMPLETELY SHATTERS THE OUT OF AFRICA THEORY (yes, it really is written in all-caps). The writer claims that the hominin fossil known as the Petralona skull dates back 700,000 years; that it’s “not connected to the species that came out of Africa”; and that the “out of Africa” model for the origins of Homo sapiens is thus disproved. However. (There’s always a ‘however’, isn’t … Read More

The sad state of science learning in primary school - BioBlog

Dec 06, 2018

In 2011, Sir Peter Gluckman released his report, Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century. In it, he noted the need to improve science teaching in primary schools, commenting that: there should be an attempt to improve the confidence [my emphasis] of all teachers within primary schools to assist in science and that all primary schools should be encouraged to develop a science champion. And in 2012, David Vannier pointed out that: there is growing evidence that too many children are not doing well in science and do not have access to effective instruction, especially at the primary level. and that: [at] the same time that the New Zealand government is seeking to spur innovation in science as a means to improve the economy, less and less emphasis is being placed on science instruction in primary schools. Fast forward to Monday this week, when Radio … Read More

Teachers’ reactions to this year’s Year 13 Bio exam - BioBlog

Dec 03, 2018

Over the weekend I heard from some very unhappy teachers. As in, teachers – excellent, experienced teachers – who are upset to the point of tears on behalf of their students. The reason for their unhappiness? This year’s NCEA Level 3 (Year 13) biology exam, sat by their students just a few days ago. And at this point, I should emphasise that the teachers’ concerns were focused towards the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, and not the individual examiner(s) who, after all, prepare these documents with advice and guidance from NZQA staff. Their concerns were focused on the system. Now, it’s several years since I was an examiner at this level, and I know that the nature of the exam has changed. And of course the teachers themselves are well aware of what’s been expected in the past; they’re just very concerned … Read More

A pivotal species? What’s that? - BioBlog

Nov 20, 2018

By the end of the school year, Year 13 students preparing for Schol Bio should have a pretty good grasp of the concepts and content they’ve encountered in their studies. What tends to throw some, though, is the fact that the context used for each question will almost certainly be something that they haven’t come across before. I experienced that “what the heck?” feeling myself, the first time I saw the third question in last year’s paper, which used a term I hadn’t come across before: “pivotal species”. Why? Because I do a fair bit of reading but hadn’t actually come across that one before. (Here’s an example of the term in a different context.) This particular question provided relatively little resource material: a graph comparing the tempo of biological and cultural evolution in hominins (divided into four time periods), plus … Read More

A new take on out-of-Africa - BioBlog

Oct 23, 2018

One of the key features of science is that its findings aren’t set in stone. Bring forward a new body of evidence, and it’ll be reviewed and considered, and may just result in a particular model or view being changed. I remember, back when I was in the 7th form (year 13), learning about how the human lineage went back about 12-14 million years to a species called Ramapithecus. (It’s now known as Sivapithecus, a genus of ape from India.) These days we believe that our hominin line parted company with that of the ancestors of chimpanzees, just 5-6 mya. However, up until now, the general view has been that Homo sapiens arose from a single African population. A paper published in June this year (Scerri et al., 2018) argues otherwise: that Homo sapiens evolved within a set of interlinked groups living … Read More

Agenda 21 and crank magnetism - BioBlog

Oct 08, 2018

What with WAVES, and anti-1080 groups, and Rethink Fluoride (which, like FFNZ, opposes water fluoridation), there’s quite a lot of ‘alternative’ activity online these days. It’s actually quite interesting to look at the similarities that you can see in attitudes & opinions expressed on those sites. I mean, Agenda 21, anyone? Back when Making Sense of Fluoride was first set up, we had a regular commenter (hi, Ray!) who was most insistent that fluoridation was all part of an Agenda 21 plan to depopulate the planet (& also to dumb us all down). Now, here in the Tron the City Council is a signatory to Agenda 21. In fact, back when we signed up to it, I had a look at what we were – as a city – committing to. It turns out that Agenda 21 … Read More