Sunday, June 14, 2009


I am back in Maine after a busy last few weeks in Maribor wrapping up my responsibilities at the University, closing bank accounts and packing up the family. What an amazing experience we have had. The last week of classes I attended an evening talk and was surprised by the Dean with nice words of appreciation for my visit and a beautiful Slovenian pottery bowl and book. I really appreciate their efforts to make me feel welcome and valued.

A special thanks to Dušan Devetak and Tone Novak for all the coffee chats and considering more long-term collaborations in our research. Slovenia is such a beautiful country – everyone traveling to Europe should visit!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Discussion #2

I have been teaching Insect Ecology at the University of Maribor for 10 weeks now. It seems that the students have become fairly comfortable with me and me with them. So, as we headed into our 2nd article discussion during the lecture time of week 11, I was hopeful that the students would be more daring in their verbal reporting in English and in interacting with each other in groups.

We read an article discussing ant-caterpillar-plant symbioses. A few students before class told me how much they liked the article this time (I am not sure they really enjoyed the last one!); so I was fairly confident that the students would enjoy talking to each other about the paper.

At the beginning of class I arranged the students into groups of 4 and asked them to assign a recorder and a reporter. Immediately a very active and engaged atmosphere began. Students were bent over their papers in groups speaking rapidly in both Slovene and English (when I came around), and referring to their paper summaries. I walked around the class helping with some explanations of the questions, and encouraging students as needed. But I must say that because the students had already experienced the group work – they had no shyness and jumped right in!

After about half an hour of group discussion, we came back together as a class and I asked each group to report their answers for a question. This dissolved nicely into a less formal discussion of the paper and its findings and their general understanding of the evolution of these interesting symbiotic relationships. Overall, I think that this was a success and hopefully a fun experience for the students.
Student Groups immersed in Discussion

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lions on Mount Broč

A trip to beautiful Mount Broč near Maribor yielded an interesting limestone topography, unusual plants typically found closer to the Mediterranean, and quite a few of the predacious, pit-building ant lion larvae that I am studying with Dušan Devetak. As we drove up into the mountain amid the luscious green vegetation, the grass hung over where the road cut into the side of the hill. This is where the small, symmetrical pits of the ant lions are to be found -- under the grassy overhangs, where the soil is dry and sandy. The most common species, Euroleon nostros (Neuroptera Myrmeleontidae), was found at frequent sites along the road. To find the second ant lion species, Myrmeleon formicarius, my son, Caleb, Dušan, and I hiked along a beautiful path with huge beech trees and wonderful views of the valley. The larvae were found on a hillside about 20 minutes along the path. They were very cryptic and, according to Dušan, not as common as they used to be. We only found a few of this species before heading back. These larvae will be used in our substrate choice experiment. Right now we have the larvae set up in separate cups and are feeding them one ant per day for 5 days. We will then starve them for a few days before putting them into the substrate choice “cakes”. Next week I will report on how the experiment is going!

Saturday, May 2, 2009


I just returned from an incredible week of exploration with my family along the Croatian coast. We live half an hour from the border with Croatia and it is only about an hour drive to Zagreb, the largest city. Crossing the border was easy and we quickly found ourselves zipping along a nice highway heading south toward Dalmatia through beautiful rolling hills. There were very few homes – just miles of green. We were impressed with the presence of wind farms and “wildlife bridges” that were essentially tunnels with untouched land on top for bear and wolves to use as a crossing point. These wildlife bridges were placed about every 15 km or so for most of the stretch of the highway. As we neared the coast the weather became warm and balmy and the vegetation Mediterranean with low shrubs and jutting rocks.

We stayed in a nice apartment in Brela with amazing views of the Adriatic. The water was an intense turquoise color with beautiful pebbled beaches, palm trees, agaves and cacti. The weather was mixed so we swapped outdoor time with visiting the cities nearby. Our first day on the coast we played on the beach and visited Makarska - the largest town close to where we were staying. We explored the local seafood restaurants (one of the main dishes is octopus salad!), looked at the boats and played on the beach. We also ended up going into Split which is a sprawling industrial town on the outskirts hiding a beautiful city surrounding the “old town”. In the center of the old town is Diocletian’s Palace dating back to 295 AD. Diocletian was a son of slaves who proved himself in the Roman military and became emperor in 284 at the age of 39. Our son was excited because near the old town, we found a pizzeria that had the best pizza that we had eaten so far on our trip – and we have eaten A LOT of pizza!

Our big travel day was exploring Dubrovnik at the far south end of Croatia. To get to Dubrovnik we had to go through 9 km of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which we didn’t realize, but was interesting. Dubrovnik, of course, is incredible. It was first settled in the early seventh century and has been occupied since then by many different groups. The large wall around the city has protected it for centuries. An earthquake in 1667 killed about 5000 people and destroyed many of the buildings. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik was occupied by the Yugslav People’s Army. Unfortunately, the ancient city was heavily bombed and many buildings were destroyed. Amazingly it is hard to see any damage today as Croatia worked swiftly to rebuild the city, a great source of national pride. If you look at the picture of the roofs, the bright red roofs are new and the orange ones date back to the 16th century.

On our drive back to Maribor we stopped at Plitvice National Park in Croatia, a spot that came highly recommended by friends. It was definitely worth the stop. We wandered through the rain among 8 km of beautiful calm lakes hemmed by densely forested hills and an incredible sequence of rushing waterfalls. What a wonderful trip.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Vienna in a day...

On Friday I went with a class from the University to visit Vienna. I walked from our apartment in the dark to meet the bus in front of the Faculty building. After three hours in the bus, driving through the Austrian countryside, the skyline of Vienna rose before us. We made our way into the city, through a large suburban industrial area, and into the older part of town. The zoo is housed behind the Schloss Schönbrunn palace. The palace is huge with 1441 rooms. Around the palace are “The Gardens”, which are incredibly extensive and manicured, amazing fountains and long groomed tree-lined avenues which radiate in all directions. Behind the gardens is the world’s oldest zoo, Tiergarten. It was founded in 1752 as a menagerie and now houses about 750 different types of animals – thankfully most of the original cramped cages have been replaced, although some of the small cages were on display. We had a great time watching a polar bear play, saw pandas, giraffes, elephants and poison dart frogs, and an amazing aquaria and insectarium. Plus, as with everything Austrian, there were plenty of outdoor coffee shops to relax when your feet got tired.

After the zoo, the class visited the Museum of Natural History. The museum was housed in an amazing Habsburg-era building with incredible statues and ceiling murals, plus impressive displays of stuffed animals, minerals, and some human artifacts.

I was exhausted after the zoo and the museum, but headed out with a few friends to see a little bit of Vienna before heading home. We walked to the central part of Vienna to look around and also to visit the Stephansdom, which would be recognizable to most of you. It is probably the most recognizable structure in Vienna. The cathedral was built in the 12th century and is built in the Gothic style. It was incredible to be there – quietly looking up at the high ceilings, the famous pulpit, the tiled roof and the crucifixes. A marvelous choir was practicing for a concert that evening – the whole scene was magical.

We walked tiredly past the designer stores, beautiful horse-drawn carriages, intricate old Habsburg palaces and buildings, and wiener schnitzel shops to our bus and made our way back to Maribor. A delightful whirlwind of a day.

This is the stairwell of the Natural History Museum

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Biodiversity Discussion

Okay, so the day came on the class schedule that said “biodiversity paper discussion.” From the loud chatter, I could tell right away when I walked in that my students were excited and nervous. As the long hand on the clock ticked closer to 11:00 when class begins everyone settled and looked at me expectantly. I took a moment and explained what we were going to do – count off into eight groups, each group assign a “recorder” and a “reporter,” work on the prompts together and then report out the answers. Before I had even finished explaining, everyone was standing and chatting excitedly – as I was trying to bring the class together for another moment, one young man leaned over and said, “We’re just excited because we have never done this before.” I appreciated the insight that comment provided for me.

After the groups discussed the prompts (I had asked them to try to speak English so I could understand – some groups did this better than others), they reported out. At first no one wanted to speak, but one group reported and then another, and eventually everyone got bolder and more confident, and we had a good discussion of the reading with quite a few people participating. Overall, I think this was a novel learning experience for almost all of the students - they were great! I concluded the lecture period with a smile and a good feeling. It will be interesting to see if folks jump into the discussion next time, now that they know it is a fun process. We’ll see!

Students from the class listening.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Electron Microscopy

The electron microscope at the University of Graz.

Here I am with Dr. Devetak and Dr. Pabst, with one of her photographs on the wall behind us (it is a pollen grain).

This week I traveled to the University of Graz with ant lion larvae from Yemen to be prepared for electron microscopy. I traveled with two of my colleagues from the University of Maribor. It is a quick trip to Austria from Maribor (about 15 km). We whizzed through the border and on to Graz, the second largest city in Austria. The trip was approximately an hour drive through a flat agricultural plain. We parked on a side street and made our way to a very modern building that houses much of the cell and molecular biology departments. We went to the 7th floor to meet Dr. Marianne Pabst and her technicians. The building was immaculately clean. Everything was white and the labs were very impressive with beautiful equipment. Marianne is an expert with electron microscopy and has worked on the famous frozen “ice man” of the Austrian Alps and is currently working on mummies from Peru. Her first love though is to take pictures of insects. She also enlarges her electron microscope pictures and paints them. Some are incredibly beautiful and surreal. We also visited Dušan’s friend, Karl, in the Zoology Department. Zoology is housed in an interesting old building (probably 300 years old), with high ceilings and marble columns. Karl studies the “peering” behavior of the praying mantis (basically the behavior of looking around). It was fun to learn about his studies and we made plans to go collecting for mole crickets in May.