You Make My Heart Race

April 9th, 2014

Just finished the first day of

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four with 10th graders at Frances Perkins Academy in Brooklyn. We spent the day introducing Daphnia and the microscopes to the students, and for the most part we had a good time. In one of the groups, the students kept punching each other in the testicles and, in another group, half of the students kept complaining that they were a) hungry, b) tired, or c) ready to go home so they could go shopping. I’d like to chalk this up to a combination of halloween weekend and tomorrow being a day off.

In spite of an overall lack of focus, we still reached some of the students. A 16 year old boy, after telling everyone else to stop punching each other in the testicles, jumped at the opportunity to use the microscope, and quickly mastered turning the very delicate stage control knobs. We then made this movie of Daphnia’s heart beating.

IMAGINE: the BioBus on a Boat

June 15th, 2012

The BioBus crew is still finding glitter behind their ears and on their cheeks after last weekend’s art and science explosion at the FIGMENT art festival on Governor’s Island. The BioBus was just one of over 200 participation-driven, hands-on, experimental projects catering to adventurous visitors during this free annual public event.

Flanked by a dance floor and a station with over 300 cardboard boxes for playhouse building, the BioBus provided a unique opportunity for observation, participation, and creation.

Outside the bus, a handheld personal microscope wowed passers-by with images of their eyeballs and arm hairs magnified up to 140 times. Individuals who boarded the bus got to meet our scanning electron microscope and zoom over 1,000 times on a butterfly wing, oo-ing and ahh-ing at its intricate and beautiful structures. In the back of the bus, more mobile scientists manned another microscope and let all ages fiddle and take pictures to print out and use in their artwork outside.

With supplies lent by the Lower East Side Girls Club, the BioBus featured a creative tent where participants could use acrylic paint, glitter, fabric, sidewalk chalk, face paint, and more to express themselves. The photographic souvenirs generated with microscopes and printed inside the bus were often used outside the bus as inspiration for colorful, glitterful, wonderful artwork.

One woman remarked, “I love that the outside is covered in crayon pictures. It makes it such a surprise when you come on board and find out that there is serious science going on!” The BioBus got totally decked out as festival participants taped their creations on the starboardside of bus. [This seafarin’ allusion is merely one of many in a recent trend on the BioBus. Putting the bus aboard a boat was definitely one of the many triumphs of this past weekend. Please note that as a result of this recent voyage to Governor’s Island, Dr. Ben has begun to refer to himself as “Captain Ben.]

Overall, the BioBus’s first fling at FIGMENT was a veritable creative milieu of maritime magic, inquisitive minds, and as always, magnificent microscopes.

– Li Murphy


Summer Streets with New York Botanical Garden

August 18th, 2011

Things on the BioBus were simply floral during a NYBG street fair on Saturday, August 13, 2011. The fair was held to celebrate Farmers’ Market Week, and it is safe to say that there was a large variety of produce offered by both NYBG stands and the actual farmers’ market. There, the BioBus’ staff (comprised of Dr. Ben, Nikki, Juliana, & Jordan) bought some beautiful bouquets hosting a variety of flowers…most of which were immediately brutalized by one Juliana (an intern at the BioBus) via scalpel. These lovely dissected samples were not wasted though! No, every and each sliver was carefully placed under the BioBus’s stereo microscopes under high magnification. Many children learned about the reproductive aspects of those flowers: where the specific organs are located and how a flower is pollinated. Some even got a short description of a plant’s vascular tissue, by yours truly. All the while, each person was given a sheet of paper containing visual aids with labeled arrows to aid them in their search for the plant reproductive organs.

“He’s so amazed; he’s trying to look at every part of the flower,” exclaimed an enthused mother, whose son was preoccupied with a

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bright red specimen.

These sheets even had spaces laid out for everyone, mainly the children, to draw what he had seen! Everything that was viewed, from the original flowers to their magnified samples were messily recorded and pasted onto the bus itself, and there they stayed until the event’s end.

The festival was a great success; as a man on a loud speaker announced, people were caught groaning that they had to leave. That made me snort. It was a long couple of hours that were extremely enjoyable.



—Jordan Sutphen

The Intricacies of Solar Panels

July 30th, 2011

The first thing some notice about the BioBus is its green technologies. Those who learn more about the BioBus often realize that its

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main focus is not only teaching science, but also reducing negative environmental impact by spreading awareness. The BioBus has noticeable technologies, which provide the bus with electricity without producing harmful wastes. The BioBus’ four large solar panels, located on its roof, harness the sun’s energy to provide electricity. The side of the BioBus has a panel that slides away, revealing eight two-volt batteries that store the collected energy. Adults often wish to discover the intricacies of solar panels and younger children proudly exclaim that they have learned about solar panels in school and explain that they use the sun’s energy. However, no one really knows how solar panels work
The following is a simple explanation of how and why solar panels work:
Solar panels are composed of many solar cells, or photovoltaic cells, which are electrical devices that convert sunlight into electricity. These cells are made of semiconductor material, such as silicon, because it can only conduct electricity under certain conditions. Once activated by sunlight, the photons in the solar cell are absorbed and transferred to the semiconductor, causing electrons to break loose and freely flow. Using electric fields, the electrons are forced to move in one direction, and this makes a current—just like when electricity passes through a light bulb. Metal on both sides of the solar cell create an electrical circuit, which allows the electric current to be captured within the aforementioned batteries and used externally.

—Juliana Castrillon
…with help from Jordan Sutphen

The BioBus’ Third Annual Visit to the Gathering of the Vibes

July 27th, 2011

From July 21st  to July 24th, 2011, the BioBus was busy attending the Gathering of the Vibes, a four day music festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was a huge hit and as word spread about its powerful microscopes depicting an almost alien world of creatures, people flocked to sneak a peek. A local radio station interviewed Sarah Weisberg about the BioBus, and numerous listeners who heard it on their way to the festival couldn’t wait to see for themselves.

Every morning at 11:00 AM, Dr. Ben and his anxious helpers would visit the water during high tide and collect samples. The samples would be observed throughout the day utilizing the professional microscopes. They were extremely diverse: krill, snails, lipids, barnacles, baby starfish, sand worms, crabs, and hermit crabs were just a few of the organisms collected from the Long Island Sound that fascinated the spectators. Once the festival-goers were taught to use a microscope they would visit the white pail teeming with life and choose what to discover next. A young man stood in awe in front of the screen projecting the magnified barnacles and exclaimed it appeared to be another world—one of the many reactions to seeing organisms that, without a microscope, appeared to be little more than tiny moving specks. Those fascinated by the BioBus would often come back later with companions and introduce them to an unbelievable new way to look at ordinary animals. People of all ages realized that there was so much more in our world than what can be perceived through the naked eye.


—Juliana Castrillon

BioBus: Why the Green Roof?

July 27th, 2011

Any Joe Schmoe who has visited the BioBus has had ample opportunity to learn about its ecofriendly attributes. However, one that is relentlessly overlooked by visitors is the green garden that resides at the bus’ fore-roof! Sure each person knows it is there, but many just mentally mark it down as an environmental bio-trend before making googly eyes at the fact the engine runs on cooking oil instead of gasoline. However, the BioBus’ green roof is more than just some pro-environmental fashion statement. Like all aspects of the bus, it also has a purpose; it helps filter the air and water, stabilize the BioBus’ temperature, block UV radiation, and prevent damage to that area of the roof.

I know this may shock some; how could something as simple as a rooftop garden do all of that? “Well, that’s simple,” says BioBus intern Jordan, “That isn’t just some garden planted on top of a bus, it’s an entire population of organisms—each living, breathing, and regulating like any other!” Well, Jordan has hit a large point in saying this. Each one of those plants acts as any autotrophic organism (light-absorbing plant) does. When one draws water and air into itself, it filters both through its body, releasing clean air and water vapor. By absorbing the sun’s heat energy, a plant on top of the BioBus evaporates excess water to cool down not only itself, but the BioBus too. Just like your skin, a plant acts as a barrier between UV radiation from sunlight and the people inside the BioBus. The legion of plants on the BioBus’ roof also acts as a barrier from harsh weather conditions and protects the section of roof that the plants cover.

As you see, every part of the BioBus is in place for a reason. No space was wasted in its construction, and even the most unremarkable aspects of it are useful in some way. This time, we discovered the uses of the BioBus’ undermined green roof. Who knows what other mysterious objects with cool uses can be found on the BioBus? Visit soon and find out for yourself!

—Jordan Sutphen

How Dr. Ben influenced me…

July 19th, 2011

Hey I’m Ingrid. I used to work for Ben as an intern when I was in High school. He was still a graduate student working at Columbia University towards his phD. He showed me how to use microscopes to look at cells and find out something interesting about them. He’s a pro at using high powered laser microscopes and he taught me how to take care of cells and prepare them for an experiment. I learned how to take movies of the cells and then analyze them to learn something about how they move. It is now four years later and I’m already done with collage and have started working on a project as a graduate student. Can you imagine what I’m working on? Well no surprise here; I’m looking at cells in the body and trying to figure out how to help chronic wounds heal!
Have you ever wondered how wounds heal? The cells in our body must work together to heal a wound. First a clot forms and then specialized cells called fibroblasts come to the scene to reconstruct the extracellular matrix. Under certain conditions a wound will not heal properly and it becomes chronic. Doctors can use scaffolding materials or supply genes to the local cells to help the wound heal. For this latter technique, DNA has to be packaged carefully so that it can get into the cell safely and then can make it to the cell nucleus. If the DNA successfully reaches a cell nucleus and can be used by the cell, then this is called transfection. The packaging necessary for successful transfection requires some engineering.
Cells have surface receptors that feel the environment. Some of these receptors such as integrins can bind to certain extracellular components like collagen. Collagen is a very strong protein that is found everywhere in the body and makes up 25% of the protein found in our body. We would like to take our packages of DNA (called DNA polyplexes) and physically adhere them to collagen so that fibroblast cells can uptake them through their caveolae with high transfection. We will try to do this by attaching collagen mimetic peptides to the DNA polyplex surface. We would also like to add adhesion sites to these packages so that the fibroblasts can easily bind to them through their integrin receptors. This may also enhance DNA transfection.

Thanks Dr. Ben!!!

BioBus—Divide, Embryo, Divide!

July 14th, 2011

Prof. Mark Allegro, at MBL in Woods Hole, decided to help the BioBus capture live cell division on film Wednesday, July 13, 2011!

The video can be viewed here:


This synchronized proliferation of cells is the beginning of life. In the video, what appears to be a round boundary starts out filled by two seemingly-large, but really microscopic, cells. This boundary, and its contained cells, is what make up an embryo, or the first sign of a living thing after an egg is fertilized. That ball is really just the beginnings of a baby…sea urchin. Well, that sea urchin must have some very proud parents, because the BioBus has decided to use it as an example depicting the early development of practically all organisms: “Look, that’s my developing urchin on TV!”

While the video made the division of these cells appear to only take a few seconds,  in reality the event was recorded over the span of an hour and was sped up for our enjoyment. If you pay close attention to the embryo, you will see that the cells making up the embryo keep getting smaller as they divide. They have to do this to divide as fast as they do. They cannot just stop to refill on cell juice (a.k.a. cytosol), or other parts just yet! So, they divide a few hundred more times until the cells are extremely numerous and tiny, then they reorganize themselves in specific shapes, and they grow in size by taking in nutrients.  The subsequent embryonic divisions and reorganization of cells actually precede the formation of something more universally recognizable: a fetus, or a baby.


—Jordan Sutphen

The BioBus Is Famous for Its Locomotion: Availability (2/7)

July 8th, 2011

Availability: to be accessible at a certain time, date, or place

Most stores have standard times of service or schedules that are strictly enforced, because of a combination staff limitations and busy business hours. Many of us know, though, that not all schedules fit the usual standard—especially in New York! The BioBus does not have that little problem, though. Given that the BioBus is a lab on wheels, and it also cannot be run on any rigid schedule, either because Ben Dubin-Thaler himself has a life outside of his beloved bus, or because the bus itself needs to be maintained like any other vehicle, it is very flexible in what times and dates it is available. If anyone wants to visit the BioBus, you may see it near you on a specific date, or you can even schedule

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your own day with the bus! The fact that the bus is so easy to get at a place near you is very appealing to anyone who is interested in it. All you have to do is sign up online and the bus can be at your school, local park, or even your home (in the driveway, not your living room) at a specific time and date. So, with the BioBus, availability is not a problem!


—Jordan Sutphen

BioBus—Vegetable Oil Filter

July 6th, 2011

It is true that the BioBus’ current engine runs on ecological fuel—fuel that harmless to the planet. It is also true that the bus can attain that fuel—vegetable oil—for free from any restaurant or fast food place. Don’t forget, though, that any oil that is donated to the BioBus is used, dirty oil! All of that dirty oil can’t get poured into the BioBus’ engine straightaway!

No, that oil contains copious amounts of food gunk, bacteria, water, and glycerin (a thick, colorless, and sweet-tasting liquid found in most beauty products) that would ruin any engine. Before using it, Dr. Ben has to separate the refuse from the vegetable oil.

Luckily, the BioBus owner has thought up an answer to this dilemma: a filter system. Said system, when I tried to research it, was a total mystery to me! In fact, Dr. Ben had to send me a diagram of the BioBus’ engine, only for me to stare at it blankly in confusion. Thusly, I asked Dr. Ben to explain to me just how the four-step filtration system works, and here’s how he put it:
“Step 1: When we suck grease out of any dumpster behind a restaurant, there is a strainer that filters large chunks (over 150 micrometers) of matter from the oil before it ever enters the bus.

Step 2: Between the dirty tank and the clean tank, there is a PRIMARY VEG FILTER that separates matter 30 micrometers or more—a marine-grade fuel filter.

Step 3: Between the clean tank and the valve assembly in the engine, the SECONDARY VEG FILTER separates water from the fuel, as well as anything 10 micrometers or larger—another marine-grade fuel filter

Step 4: There is a 10 micrometer water separating diesel fuel filter that is a normal part of the engine, which both the vegetable oil and the regular diesel fuel passes through—called the SECONDARY DIESEL FILTER.

Filters 1, 2, & 3 are ones that we put in, filter 4 is a regular part of the engine.”

His explanation, which was much easier to understand than the diagram was, gave me the impression that each filter is like different level of filtration. The first level is easiest to get through, because the stuff that gets stuck in it is the largest. Then, as the filters progress, more and more refuse is limited by the smaller filters. The vegetable oil at the end of the last filter is then guaranteed to be perfectly suitable for the engine!


—Jordan Sutphen