Category Archives: Science

Complimentary fumigation during flight to Galápagos Islands

Before arriving in the Galápagos Islands, you get to watch the cabin being fumigated with insecticide. Because the plane is full of Prius owners who listen to NPR, it was fun to watch peoples’ faces as they slowly realized what’s going on. The audio couldn’t pick up everyone’s conversations, but trust me, it was funny. They don’t ask, “Would anyone mind if we sprayed a little insectide right now?” They just start doing it.

I think the prior to the spraying the captain should have cued up a short video on what introduced insects can do to the islands. For example, showing the devastation of Philornis downsi. Then again, people might be eating …

By the way, when you step off the tarmac after the flight you walk over a spongy mat that has even more chemicals, suspended in a soapy liquid, to kill the things that might be hiding in your treads. Pro tip: watch your step after coming off the sponge mat … it’s incredibly slippery, and will make you wonder whether the airport planners have a firm grasp of basic safety protocols.

Posted in Biology, Photography, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Minor victory in my war against yam labeling fraud

In my futile quest to convince people that sweet potatoes shouldn’t be called yams (which are unrelated plants), I discovered that one can actually report vendors who label sweet potatoes as yams. So, for giggles, I reported Giant Foods to the USDA’s Misbranding and Misrepresentation Office. Below is a photograph I took in November of their organic sweet potatoes:

giant-sweet-potato-05 (1)

And now in all of their stores (that I’ve checked), they sell sweet potatoes labeled as sweet potatoes:

Nature's Promise sweet potato at Giant

It might be a small victory, but Giant Foods is giant, so I’m pleased. If you want to know more about my futile war, please see my page on Yams versus Sweet Potatoes. If you want to make your own report, just visit the above USDA site and send the contact person a photograph of the label along with store contact information. They’ll do the rest, and apparently in a persuasive way.

Posted in Biology, Education, Food, Gardening, Graphic design, Health, Photography, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vaccinating kids against sugary drink addiction

One out of three kids these days is overweight or obese, and consumption of drinks that have sugar is likely a big part of why, especially because some parents think such drinks are healthy. Sugar drinks also cause tooth decay (I know, big surprise there), and might even cause little kids to be aggressive. So I got to wondering what public schools are actually doing to educate kids about the sugar content of beverages. The answer: not a whole lot, at least from a cursory search of the internet.

So here’s the class activity I think all kindergarten classes should do: construct a poster for the hallway or classroom wall that visually displays how much sugar is hidden in common beverages. Here’s an example:

Sugar in drinksThis project would fit in perfectly with most state standards (for example, see page 10 in Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools). And because it includes numbers (of teaspoons), teachers can use the poster content to visually drive discussions about addition and subtraction. If this poster was done in a fun way, the experience might vaccinate kids against over-consumption of sugary drinks for the remainder of their lives. The parallel to brushing teeth might be appropriate: you teach kids how to do it even though the chemistry of decay is beyond their understanding. If you don’t brush and floss, you’ll lose your teeth. That’s a lesson best taught when really young.

There are lots of ways to make the poster, but what I like about the one above is that water (no sugar) and plain milk (contains lactose … which is a sugar) are included. There should also be a sampling of common juices (apple, orange, e.g.) because they are loaded with sugar. And just for scale, it might be good to show how many teaspoons of sugar are in a typical bag of candy (e.g., Skittles).

Poster titles matter here, just like they do at a scientific meeting, in that they can provide a take-home message. “Rethink your drink” is a popular title (it rhymes), but I prefer something that confronts the point more directly. Here are some ideas: “Don’t drink dessert all day”, “Don’t drink your dessert”, or “Sugary drinks are candy drinks”. If snark is allowed in your district, then something like, “Sugar is a sweet way to gain weight!” The idea is to be direct and memorable and to not shy away from the point: sugary drinks can (and do!) make kids fat.

If you want some background information relevant to lesson plans on sugar for K-3 levels, here are some resources from BrainPOP. If you’re looking for more examples of posters, here’s a Pinterest board where I collect them:

Pinterest board Educating kindergartners about sugary drinks on Pinterest.

Posted in Biology, Education, Food, Graphic design, Health, Photography, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research has finally stopped plagiarizing me

I’m delighted to report that The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR) has finally decided to stop plagiarizing me. Details below. But first, the back story in case you missed it, which is likely.

For the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, CPBR included approximately four pages of my poster advice (my full version is here) as an appendix in a PDF they emailed to thousands of researchers around the country who wanted CPBR grant funding (the PDF was a call for proposals). A sample page of this appendix is at the bottom of this post, with the plagiarized text highlighted in red. There was no indication anywhere in the entire document that the text had been copied from my web page (e.g., there were no quotation marks around text, and no generous citation like, “Text on how to make a poster courtesy Dr Colin Purrington”). This type of plagiarism would be classified as “blatant plagiarism” and would earn you an automatic F in a college course, with possibility of expulsion from the school (I know this because I had served for years on the Swarthmore College judiciary board, where plagiarism cases were often heard). I was also annoyed that they’d decided to copyright my text: at the bottom of the pages in question there was the line, “Copyright CPBR”, verbiage that claimed legal ownership of the text. CPBR also told recipients of the PDF to not post the document online, effectively hiding it from public scrutiny.

But somebody at Purdue University’s grants office decided to post the document (oops), and I stumbled onto it in 2013. Via email, I asked that the document be taken down (or my content removed), and CC’d the folks at CPBR.

At this point, CPBR might have contacted me. For example, they might have said, “Oh, gosh, we had a moron on our staff back in 2006, and he must have just copied that text because he thought it was funny. So sorry, we’ll remove it. Can we link to your web page??”

Instead, they hired a large law firm (Arnold & Porter) and threatened to take me to court if I didn’t take down my website. Yes, that’s right: CPBR officially accused me of plagiarizing them. They threatened very large legal fees, too. In hindsight, I suppose I should have let those threats play out: it would be really amusing to see them try to get my site unplugged. But because the threat was totally legal (so to say) and could potentially bankrupt me, I decided to hire a lawyer, too.

And this is when the story gets completely unsatisfying: I haven’t heard from CPBR or it’s lawyers for over a year. I suspect CPBR’s lawyer became furious at CPBR, because CPBR probably assured its lawyer that I was the guilty party. But I provided crystal clear proof of the contrary to their lawyer, so their relationship probably soured rather quickly. I was hoping to eventually hear from the lawyer that the threat had been lifted, but I guess that’s not going to happen. And CPBR has never contacted me, either.

My only evidence that CPBR admits to the plagiarism is that they’ve finally stopped using my text in their most recent PDF (kindly sent to me by several of the member universities).

So that’s the update.

What continues to depresses me about this whole experience is that CPBR and Dorin Schumacher have faced zero consequences for (1) plagiarizing me rather extensively and (2) falsely accusing me of copyright violation. Most people roll their eyes about (1), viewing advice on “poster design” as far too boring to care about (note: my goal was to craft advice that was less boring than other how-to guides; the theft of my text suggests I might have been successful). But (2), making knowingly false allegations about copyright infringement is really terrible regardless of the topic. I would have thought that after the story went public last year, that Dr Schumacher would quickly lose her job or that CPBR would stop getting government money. But Dr Schumacher still gives herself $250,000+ per year (she owns the company, it turns out) and CPBR still gets millions of dollars each year from the USDA, Department of Energy, and EPA. Some — perhaps tens of thousands — of that money went to a lawyer directed to pursue a legal claim she knew was false. That’s public money, some of it contributed by me (!), a taxpayer. If there was any justice in the world there would be a high-level governmental liaison who would say, “Dr Schumacher, this use of public money is objectionable and you are officially defunded.” (I’ve contacted all the government officials that give the checks to CPBR; they all have told me they cannot get involved.)

What makes this especially bizarre is that CPBR’s goal is to get plant biotechnology research ideas into trademarked products. Hence there’s a lot of talk in CPBR’s documents about trademarks, privacy, and copyrights. For an organization that clearly values intellectual property, it’s really shameful it engaged in blatant plagiarism. And it’s shocking that such an organization would falsely accuse somebody else of copyright infringement as a way to bully the weaker party (me) into ceding legal ownership. Simply shameful.

It’s also rather strange that CPBR would ever choose to plagiarize me in the first place. First, when in doubt, don’t plagiarize from sites that have “please don’t plagiarize” verbiage on their pages (I do), especially if the author also has a page dedicated to the evils of plagiarism and how to stop fight it (I do). There are thousands of sites on how to craft conference posters (plus plenty of articles and books), and the vast majority have no such verbiage. Second, don’t ever plagiarize from people who might reasonably come across your stuff. I’ve actually published on plant biotechnology (e.g.), and it would be completely likely that I’d eventually read CPBR’s PDF on funding sources (and thus discover the plagiarism). So odd, on both counts.

If you’d like to see the PDFs with and without the plagiarism, just let me know and I’ll send them to you (I don’t want to post them). If you have questions for Dr Schumacher, here’s her email: And here’s her lawyer’s: And, just in case you’re curious: I do have official copyright on my text from the US Copyright Office; CPBR most certainly does not.

Thanks to all the people who’ve sent kind words of support to me during over this issue, or who’ve sent messages to member universities or governmental officials. I’m truly grateful for all.

By the way, The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research is on day 2 of its annual symposium today (March 4th). If you’re in DC, please stop by the (posh) George Town Club (1530 Wisconsin Ave, NW) if you have a few minutes to spare. It’s fully funded by US taxpayers so I’m sure they’d let you come in. Oh, and there’s a poster session! And I’d love to know if the posters are any good this year, so if you go, please drop me a line.

Plagiarism by The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research



Posted in Biology, Education, Graphic design, Plagiarism, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is your school ready for measles?

I was wondImage of sign at public school announcing measles outbreakering that, so I asked the school nurse what percentage of the students at our local high school were unvaccinated, and how many had non-medical exemptions. Here’s her response:

“We are unable to provide this information to you because it is in violation of the FERPA laws.”

FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prohibits the release of any information that identifies students. For example, schools cannot release the names of students who are unvaccinated due to philosophical objections of parents. But an aggregate statistic like % unvaccinated does not identify the unvaccinated students, so FERPA is not a concern. Indeed, dozens of states put their vaccination statistics in searchable databases to make it easy for parents to see. And these databases don’t just show a % — the spreadsheet usually provides the numbers of students at each school with medical, religious, and personal exemptions. And for states that don’t publish these data on behalf of schools, parents can just contact their kids’ schools and ask for the information. Unfortunately, some schools use the FERPA card as a way to hide information that might generate criticism of the school’s readiness for, say, a measles outbreak. 

Here’s the thing: parents need to know this percentage. If measles were to come to a school next week, can parents still send their children into school? What if a student has a medical exemption — is the herd immunity strong (perhaps 96% vaccinated), or is it dismal (50%)? Only when the parents know these data can they assess whether the school is safe.

By the way, the school principal is ultimately responsible for granting vaccination exemptions to the parents who request them. For example, a principal can (and should) refuse medical exemptions if the reasoning is ignorant (“I don’t want my kid to get autism”). Similarly, religious and philosophical objections can be rejected if they are baseless or contrived. For example, a parent might write, “The Pope would be displeased if my kid was vaccinated”, and the principal is allowed to reject that claim because it’s demonstrably untrue. Low vaccination rates at a school, therefore, are not just a reflection of who lives in the area — they can reveal problems in how exemptions are granted.

To make it easier for parents, I have made a list, by state, on how to get school-based vaccination data. There are gaps, however. Some states have websites so poorly organized that I couldn’t find it (if you know it, send me the link, please). And some states I contacted said they don’t publish the data but said I could just contact schools directly. Finally, some states claim they cannot release the data due to privacy concerns. FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) clearly prevents a school from releasing the names of the kids who are non-vaccinated (for example), but it does not prevent schools from sharing the overall vaccination rate. States and schools citing FERPA just need to be educated about this, which is partly why I’m compiling this list (parents can share it with school officials who didn’t get the memo).

If the links below don’t work, try asking your school principal for the data. (Don’t ask the school nurse, because s/he’ll will instinctively cite FERPA.) When you get your data, please share it with other parents in your community via Facebook or Nextdoor. Only communities that know their vaccination coverage can determine whether they are prepared for disease outbreaks. If your school has rates below 96%, parents need to formally request to school board and principals that fewer exemptions be granted. Yes, the principal can deny requests if they are unwarranted.

Alabama (I could only find county data)
Alaska (I can’t find anything; maybe too cold for viruses?)

Kentucky (county data)
Maine (have to ask your school nurse)
Montana (county data)

Nebraska (need to ask your school, Health Dept said HIPPA prevents schools from releasing data)
Nevada (they are working on this right now; until then, ask school)
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico (ask State Dept of Education)
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Pennsylvania (county data in PDF near bottom)

Rhode Island
South Carolina (see PDF at bottom of page)
South Dakota
Tennessee (partial county data)
Texas (district data)
Utah (district data; ask school, and if they balk, contact this person for help)
West Virginia (ask this person for PDF)
Wisconsin (district data; county)


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