Friday, 8 November 2013

Paws For Science

Since the demise of the International Mr Bear contest in 2011 there hasn’t been a world-wide focus for the celebration of the bear community. So, to celebrate the bear community’s contribution to science (yes, they have one) I’m writing this article as the San Francisco Bear Pride festival is taking place. San Francisco was the birthplace of the International Mr Bear contest so this is an ideal date to chose.

When I was planning my year of science the San Francisco Bear Pride festival was one of the reasons why I chose zoology for November’s Ology of the Month – bears, you see!

To begin with I should point out that not all scientists who may be physically suited to be called a “bear” may like, or want, me to do so. This article deals with 2 scientists who have publicly declared their “bear” status by being openly active in the bear community.

I’ll start in San Francisco itself and with a pioneer of the early years of the bear community. His name is Chris Nelson (1960-2006). If you had to sum up both his professional and personal life in as few words as possible it would be “Creator of Images”.

Chris worked at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley laboratory as a microscopist. Starting out as a technician with the National Centre for Electron Microscopy he became proficient in the use of the atomic resolution microscope and the one-angstrom microscope. Chris’s expertise led to many researchers and scientists coming back time and time again to ask for his help to produce images for their research. A big bear of man with a big bushy beard, Chris resembled a young Father Christmas and his personality seemed to match. He knew how to make people feel at ease.

In 2005 he received the Outstanding Technologist Award from the Microscopy Society of America, and was appointed to take on the responsibility of the new Transmission Electron Aberration-Corrected Microscope in 2007. Sadly, Chris died from an unexpected heart attack in 2006.

Chris’s other role as “Creator of Images” revolved around his hobby as a photographer. His partner, Richard Bulger, is said by many to have been the first to popularise (though probably not invent) the term “bear” for the big and hairy community. Two years later, in 1987, Chris and Richard produced the first edition of “Bear Magazine”, a photocopied publication which they distributed around San Francisco. It contained some of Chris’s own photos of “leather bears” from around the city. Very quickly the magazine grew into a national publication, and except for a few years in the 1990s has remained so. Chris’s photos of the bear community formed the backbone of “Bear Magazine” and provided the growing bear community with an identity.

As the bear community grew members began to move away from the leather/biker community in which most them moved, and separate bear clubs began to emerge. All of this culminated in the creation of the International Mr Bear contest.

One prominent bear who served as a judge for several International Mr Bear contests was Michael S. Ramsey (not to be confused with Michael Ramsey-Musolf featured in September). Michael S. Ramsey is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a founder member of the Phoenix Bears club when he was studying for the PhD at Arizona State University. During the 1990s he contributed to the “American Bear” magazine and used his extensive experience in computers to co-ordinate the Resources for Bears website between 1996 and 2002.

Michael’s scientific career is based mainly on geology and, in particular, vulcanology. When he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in 2000 he set up the Image Visualisation and Infrared Spectroscopy laboratory and currently serves as webmaster on its website. He began using infrared spectroscopy, which hasn’t been used in this way before, to look at the chemical and structural changes in rocks and minerals that are heated beyond their melting points. This research could help to understand the processes involved in lava flows and magma within volcanoes. Michael has also been heavily involved in research at NASA and has done research into Martian volcanoes and impact craters.

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