Choosing the Right Camera for Nature Photography

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

There are a lot of reasons people take pictures of nature: to document a rare bird, identify a wildflower, share a beautiful landscape- the list goes on and on. For most things in life, the cameras on our phones do an amazing job. But when it comes to photographing nature- especially wildlife- our phone cameras don’t always do the trick. Getting a camera can definitely be a worthwhile investment- but where do you even start? There’s so many options and specs out there, it can be almost impossible to know what to choose.

In this post, I break down the pros and cons of 3 camera types for nature photography: phones, DSLRs, and point-and-shoot cameras.

Where I’ve Been

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: I broke the #1 rule of blogging, and haven’t done a great job keeping up with this blog over the last few months.

There are several factors which have contributed to this: managing my dissertation, prepping my thesis manuscript for publication, planning my wedding reception, etc. have taken up most of my mental bandwidth.

I go into more detail in this Instagram post:

My Experience with Nature Photography

I want to be clear: I am by no means a professional photographer. However, I do love nature and taking pictures of it. Photography has been an important part of both my professional ventures/research and also recreation. This post is based on my experiences and opinions regarding cameras, which other people may or may not agree with.

Note: If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know that I like to edit my photos using Adobe Lightroom. Because I really wanted to highlight the functionality of each camera type, the images I’ve included in this post are not edited in any way.

My Favorite Types of Cameras

Again- I am not a professional. The goal of this post is not to break down every type of camera that exists. I’m going to focus on 3- smartphone, DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras- which I’ve found to be especially useful for nature photography.

Smartphone Cameras

If you have a smartphone, I probably don’t have to tell you that it has a camera. The quality of cameras on smartphones has come a long way over the years.

Pros: Convenience

Most likely, you probably already have a smartphone with a decent camera in your pocket (which is super convenient, but also means you don’t have to spend money on a separate camera!)

Depending on what you’re trying to photograph, phones nowadays can take some really impressive pictures. I rely VERY heavily on my phone when it comes to taking pictures for my research. Here are a handful of pictures I’ve taken with my current phone (Samsung Galaxy S8 Active) through the years:

Cons: Zoom

Phone cameras have been steadily improving over time, but most still struggle when it comes to zooming in on things. I find phone cameras tend to work best on things you can get up close and personal with- like flowers, certain insects, tracks, etc.- or things that you can hold in your hand. Otherwise, you may want to consider getting a dedicated camera. In my experience, phones can also have a difficult time photographing fast-moving or flying animals and insects.

Tip: if you *must* zoom in using your phone, try taking a picture far away, then cropping the image. It usually yields a better quality picture than zooming with the camera.

DSLR Cameras

DSLR stands for Digital single-lens reflex camera. I’m not going to go into detail about how they work, because it’s honestly not that important for the purposes of this blog post.

Pros: Artistry & Image Quality

The main advantage of DSLRs is they give you a lot of control over things like aperture, depth of field, exposure, focus, etc. This is one of the main appeals of DSLRs (and why so many professional photographers use them).

In general, DSLRs tend to have better image quality, shutter speeds, and light sensitivity than point-and-shoot cameras. When using DLSRs, you also have the ability to change lenses, add external light sources, and make other modifications to the camera.

Cons: Lenses

One of the defining features of DSLR cameras is their lenses. Rather than being built in, you can switch between lenses with different focal lengths which are designed to work at different distances. When it comes to nature photography, this can create challenges. To zoom in on something which is far away with a DSLR, you may need a very large (EXPENSIVE) lens. Lenses can often cost more than the camera itself. Depending on what you’re doing, hauling around a gigantic lens may not be very practical either.

To use a DSLR well, you’ll also need to spend some time figuring out how they work. In honesty, there’s a lot of great resources on the internet that can teach you the basics of a DSLR. It took me a couple of days to start to get a handle on mine.

My Camera

Personally, I’ve been using a Canon EOS Rebel T5 DSLR camera for several years now. (Note: there are newer models available, like the Rebel T7). I find the Canon Rebel line of DSLR cameras to be very beginner-friendly, and it definitely gets the job done.

I own two lenses- a 18-55mm lens (which it usually comes with) and a 75-300mm lens (which runs about $200). There are certainly better lenses out there, but I find these two lenses to be a good balance of size, utility, and cost. It can be very tempting to try and buy off-brand (more affordable) lenses- but keep in mind that the quality of a lens can have a HUGE impact on the quality of images you can take with a DSLR camera.

Through the years, this camera has been a reliable staple for my research and recreation. I’ve been able to take some wonderful pictures, but it has its limits. In particular, I tend to have a hard time getting good pictures of small, far away animals. However, I find that it works very well at moderate distances and for macro photography.

Here are some of my favorite pictures I’ve taken with my DSLR:

Another advantage of DSLR cameras is cost (sort of). They aren’t necessarily cheap, but buying the lenses separately can potentially let you spread the costs out over time. I had my Canon for about a year before I decided to get the 300mm lens. By contrast, you have to pay all of the cost of a point-and-shoot camera up front (for comparison, my husband’s camera costs close to $600).

Point-And-Shoot Cameras

Unlike DSLRs, the lenses on point-and-shoot cameras are built in to the device itself. These cameras can vary wildly in size, cost, and quality.

Pros: Zoom & Ease of Use

In my experience, (certain) point-and shoot-cameras tend to be well-suited for taking pictures requiring a lot of zoom (which can be really handy when photographing wildlife). They also can be a little more straightforward to use than DSLR cameras are. As the name suggests- you just point and shoot. You don’t necessarily have to think a lot about constantly adjusting your settings.

Depending on what you choose, a point-and-shoot can be a more affordable and portable option than a DSLR (but this is not always the case). A high-quality point-and-shoot camera can be comparable to some DSLRs in cost and size. For reference, here’s a side by side of my husband’s point-and-shoot Nikon and my DSLR Canon:

While point-and-shoot cameras can be much smaller and cheaper than DSLRs, this is not always the case. My husband’s point-and-shoot (left) is comparable in size and cost to my DSLR (right), but has a more powerful zoom.

Cons:

Since some features are more automated than a DSLR, you don’t usually have as much control over things like focus, depth of field, etc. Sometimes it can also be difficult to focus on a specific object without a manual focus like my DSLR has. You also don’t have the flexibility of changing lenses or light sources.

That being said, these cameras can still take really good pictures. An old Sony point-and-shoot I had while studying abroad in 2015 yielded me these pictures:

My Husband’s Camera

Tom uses a point-and-shoot camera- specifically the Nikon COOLPIX P900. This camera is really popular among certain types of wildlife enthusiasts for one key reason: the zoom on this camera is INSANE. It has the equivalent of a 2000mm focal length.

Here are some of Tom’s favorite pictures he’s taken with it:

Considerations When Choosing a Camera

There a couple of things that I find very helpful to think about when choosing a camera for nature photography:

What are you trying to take pictures of?

A lot of times, the type of camera you need varies based on a) how big it is and b) how close you can get to it. Both of those things determine how strong of a zoom you will or won’t need from a camera.

If you don’t need to zoom in, a phone may work just fine. I find my phone works very well for things like wildflowers, plants, animal tracks, and things I can hold in my hand.

If you need to zoom in a little bit, a DSLR will probably work. I really like my DSLR for macro shots of insects and larger animals that I can get somewhat close to. Because of their faster shutter speeds, DSLRs also tend to be better for fast-moving objects.

If you need a REALLY POWERFUL zoom, a good point-and-shoot camera like Tom has is probably your best bet. My husband’s camera tends to be very popular among turtle enthusiasts and birders- animals that are relatively small and hard to get close to. If I wanted my DSLR to compete with the Nikon COOLPIX P900, I would need a MUCH larger lens.

Why are you taking pictures?

In my experience, there are two main kinds of nature photography: 1) identification images and 2) artistic expression.

In some cases, you might want to take a picture to a) figure out what something is or b) prove you saw a rare species. In this case, phones and point-and-shoot cameras work extremely well for this. I use my phone a lot when trying to identify things using iNaturalist. For things that move quickly or are further away, a point-and-shoot works very well.

However, if you’re really wanting to focus on taking the most beautiful picture you can, you might want to think about a DSLR. My husband and I have found that I typically have more control over focus, aperture, depth of field, etc. than he does. In particular, I tend to have a much easier time taking macro shots than he does.

Sadly, I don’t have a good side-by-side comparison of this (since Tom tends to delete photos that don’t turn out on the spot).

Final Thoughts

I want to be very clear about something: dropping a lot of money on a fancy camera does not guarantee you will take amazing pictures. A talented photographer can do a lot with a mediocre camera, and a sub-par photographer probably won’t utilize high-quality equipment to its fullest potential. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources on the internet nowadays that can show you how to make the most of any camera- whether it’s your phone, a DSLR, or a point-and-shoot.

Something else you may want to consider is size and portability. My husband’s Nikon is about the same size as my Canon, but this may not be the case depending on what cameras or lenses you want to use. Some point-and-shoot cameras can be much more compact than DSLRs, but may not yield the same image quality.

If you’re interested in dabbling in nature photography, I would recommend starting with your phone. My phone’s camera has a “Pro” mode, which lets me manipulate ISO, aperture, white balance, etc. Playing around with that is a good way to dabble in photography without dropping a lot of money on a camera. If you find that you really like doing that over time, it may be worth investing in a camera.

If Global Warming is Real, Why is it SO COLD?? Understanding the Polar Vortex

Let’s cut to the chase: it is COLD in Texas right now.

This week, temperatures in Ft. Worth were in the single digits. It was colder in Dallas than in Anchorage, Alaska. There was snow accumulation in Galveston (aka on the Gulf Coast). The entire state is under a winter storm warning, and many places are seeing the coldest temperatures they have in decades.

For years, scientists have been reporting the hottest years on record. We’ve been told the planet is consistently getting warmer. But how does that make sense when we’re seeing record cold temperatures and snowfall?

Climate vs. Weather

There is an important distinction to make when we have these types of discussions: climate is not the same as weather.

Weather is effectively the atmospheric conditions at a given space and moment in time. This includes characteristics like air temperature, humidity, cloud cover, etc. This extreme cold front would be considered a weather event.

Climate, by contrast, refers to the long-term average weather conditions in an area. It gives a much broader picture and understanding (usually over the span of years, decades, or centuries) than day-to-day fluctuations we see in weather. Examples of climate would be: Texas is usually warm or hot. Florida is hot and humid. Arizona is hot and dry. The Pacific Northwest is cloudy and rainy. Minnesota is cold., etc.

Why this is important: just because it is extremely cold today (weather) doesn’t mean that temperatures aren’t increasing on average (climate).

The Basics of Climate Change

I recognize that there are some differences of opinions as to whether Climate Change is real. I’m not going to go into extensive detail about all of the evidence for Global Warming and Climate Change in this post because it honestly deserves its own blog post. I’ve tried my best to include links and references which do a good job summarizing current data and research. In short: there is an abundance of scientific evidence that Global Warming is happening and that fossil fuel emissions are a major part of it.

Climate Change vs. Global Warming

The term “Climate Change” is an all-encompassing way to refer to multiple aspects of our changing planet, including:

  • Increasing temperatures (e.g. Global Warming)
  • Melting glaciers and ice sheets
  • Rising sea levels
  • More extreme weather events (droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, etc.)
  • Ocean warming & acidification
  • etc.

Often, you’ll see the terms “Climate Change” and “Global Warming” used interchangeably, but there is actually a difference between the two.

Global Warming refers specifically to global temperature increases (which is one aspect of Climate Change). There is a LOT of evidence that temperatures are increasing around the globe, including data from ice cores, tree rings, satellite/remote sensing data, ocean temperature loggers, etc. Although the earth is known to go through periods of warming and cooling, there is a strong consensus among scientists that current trends in global warming are likely a result of human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels.

Temperature data showing rapid warming in the past few decades, the latest data going up to 2020. According to NASA data, 2016 and 2020 are tied for the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 141-year record have occurred since 2005, with the seven most recent years being the warmest. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Obtained from NASA.

The Greenhouse Effect

The link between fossil fuels and increasing temperatures is in part a result of something called the Greenhouse Effect. Here’s a simplified version of how the greenhouse effect works:

  • Greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide and methane) trap heat in our atmosphere
  • Burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil has released an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • More greenhouse gas = more heat retention = global temperatures increase

There is a lot of evidence that the earth’s climate (including temperatures) is related to greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. There’s also a lot of evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been in the last 800,000 years. (See the figure below. I’ll explain where this data comes from in a different blog post) The scientific consensus is that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane have contributed significantly to the earth’s increasing temperatures over the last 50 years.

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Find out more about ice cores (external site). Taken from NASA.

How Does Global Warming Impact Weather Patterns?

Long story short: Global Warming and Climate Change are resulting in more frequent extreme weather events including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, and yes, even cold fronts. But how is that happening?

The Warming Arctic

One phenomenon of Global Warming is that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet.

Why?

Their are several contributing factors to this, but one has to do with ground cover. Objects which are the color white reflect light (and subsequently, heat), while objects which are the color black absorb light (and heat). Historically, land and oceans in the Arctic were covered in ice, which reflected most heat back into the atmosphere. As the Arctic has warmed, ice which formerly covered most land and oceans has begun to melt, revealing much darker water and land underneath. As a result, the exposed water and ground underneath begin to absorb more heat, causing the Arctic to get warmer, causing more ice to melt faster, and so on. However, climate is a complex and multifaceted issue, so this alone cannot explain the warming temperatures in the arctic, but research suggests that diminishing sea ice has played a major role. There are a lot of other important factors too, but the main takeaway is data shows that temperatures in the Arctic are increasing much faster than the rest of the planet.

Temperature trends for variability in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, taken from Post et al. 2019. The polar regions in a 2*C warmer world. Science Advances 5(12): eaaw9883. The graph on the left shows how surface temperatures have changed faster in the Arctic (green line) compared to the Antarctic (blue line) and the rest of the planet (brown line)

The Polar Vortex

So what does this have to do with weather patterns in the northern hemisphere in places like Texas?

The extreme cold front that we’re dealing with right now is in part the result of something known as the Polar Vortex.

Normally, the Polar Vortex is a large area of low pressure and extremely cold air that is centered in the arctic around the North Pole. It is held in place by the jet stream, a strong air current that surrounds the arctic. Normally, the jet stream is held in place by the temperature difference between warm air to the south and cold air to the north. The greater the temperature difference is, the more stable the jet stream is.

When the temperature differential decreases (either because of cold temperatures at southern latitudes and/or warm temperatures in the arctic), the jet stream weakens, and the super cold air from the polar vortex can essentially wobble southward around the northern hemisphere, bringing extreme cold temperatures. Subsequently, increasing temperatures in the arctic are causing the jet stream to become weaker. This allows more the polar vortex to travel more easily around the northern hemisphere, resulting in more frequent and extreme cold fronts.

Here is a visualization of how it works:

The science behind the Polar Vortex (from NOAA). The depiction on the left shows what the polar vortex is like under normal conditions, when the jet stream is held in place in part due to the temperature differential between the cold arctic and warmer southern latitudes. The image on the right shows what happens when the jet stream weakens. It begins to wave and wobble, allowing ultra cold air normally restricted to the northernmost parts of the globe to move south across the northern hemisphere.

In other words, part of the reason it is so cold outside is because of Global Warming, not despite it. Warming arctic temperatures mean that many places in the northern hemisphere are actually seeing extreme cold fronts more frequently because of reduced stability of the Polar Vortex.

Also, keep in mind that these Polar Vortex events are temperature outliers. Even though they may be associated with record breaking cold temperatures, the average yearly temperatures in most areas are still increasing around the globe.

Regarding Texas’ Power Grid & Renewable Energy

The entire state of Texas has been under winder conditions that our infrastructure is not designed for. This has put unprecedented strain on our power grid, resulting in widespread power outages and rolling blackouts. There are a lot of contributing factors to this, including a reduction in power supply.

Supporters of fossil fuels (such as Gov. Greg Abbott) have been quick to place the blame on renewable energy sources such as wind turbines (some of which have frozen and become non-operational, reducing supply). This might surprise you, but Texas leads the US in wind-powered electricity production. Under normal conditions, roughly 15-20% of Texas’ electricity is produced by wind turbines. Failing wind turbines would have a significant impact on electricity supply in Texas. However, only 7% of ERCOT’s winter capacity is expected to come from wind sources . Most (80%) of the state’s winter energy comes from natural gas, coal, and nuclear power (source).

However, other forms of energy production have also been failing. The simple reality is that all of our power plants are operating under conditions they were not designed for. Other power sources such as gas, coal, and nuclear are also failing. According to ERCOT, Texas has lost 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation from renewable sources (mainly wind). By contrast, we have lost 30 gigawatts from thermal sources (e.g. gas, coal, and nuclear; source).

So no, renewable energy is not the sole cause of current power shortages.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of why these temperatures are happening, I really hope that everyone is able to stay warm and safe over the next few days.

If you lose power, here are things that you can do to help conserve heat and/or power:

  • Avoid going outside, if you can.
  • Create as much insulation between you and the outside as you can
    • Keep curtains and blinds closed (if you get any direct sunlight, open them to let the sunlight in. Close them again once you are no longer getting direct sun)
    • Roll clothing/towels to block gaps in doors in windows
    • Cover floors (especially tile, linoleum, etc.) with fabric (towels, blankets, or dirty clothing)
  • Close doors to any rooms or closets you are not actively using. Use as few rooms as you can.
  • Keep freezers and refrigerators closed
  • Keep your phone as charged as possible
  • Wear multiple layers of clothing. If your pets are cold, try putting socks on their feet and/or clothing you have that fit them
    • Try to keep clothing dry and avoid wearing cotton, if you can. When cotton gets wet, it loses its ability to insulate, and can potentially increase your risk of getting hypothermia.
  • Make sure that you are eating and drinking. This provides the energy your body needs to produce body heat.

If roads are safe, consider going to an alternate location for heat, either with a friend/family member or at a local warming shelter.

  • Austin: Click here or call 512-305-ICEE (4233) for information about cold weather shelters and warming centers
  • DFW: Click here and here for a list of warming center locations
  • West and Central Texas: Click here for a list of locations in West Texas and the Edwards Plateau. Click here for a list of locations in Central Texas.
  • Houston: Click here for a current list.
  • San Antonio: This is the best list I could find. I will update it if I find a more detailed one.
  • El Paso: Click here for a list or contact 3-1-1 for more information. You can also visit ElPasoReady.org for more information about extreme cold safety.
  • Corpus Christi: Click here for a list of locations.

Know the signs of hypothermia (via the CDC):

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion or feeling very tired
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If a person’s body temperature falls below 95 F, seek medical attention immediately. Otherwise, try and warm the person up:

  • Remove any wet clothing
  • Warm the center of the person’s body (chest, neck, head, and groin) using an electric blanket
  • Warm drinks can help increase body temperature (but NOT alcoholic drinks)
  • Click here for more information.

Stay safe, everyone.

Recreating 7 Pinterest Outfits Using Items I Already Own

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

I don’t know about y’all, but I often struggle with impulse shopping…especially when it comes to clothes and shoes. At this point, I *know* I have more than enough clothes, and I can’t really afford to keep adding to my wardrobe. In the past, I’ve often looked to Pinterest as a source of inspiration for items I want, but this week I turned to Pinterest to help me make the most of items I already have. Over the course of the week, I re-created 7 outfits from Pinterest using clothing items I already had.

Initially, I wasn’t planning to write a blog post about this. I ended up changing my mind for a couple of reasons: 1) my science-oriented content takes me a while to research. I’m currently working on several posts (including accutane, teeth whitening products, hormonal IUDs vs “the pill”, and more), but I wanted to post something in the meantime. 2) This challenge ended up being a surprising amount of fun, but also helped me grow a bit as a person (so I wanted to take some time to reflect on it).

My Style & Wardrobe

Up until last year, my wardrobe was pretty simple and unsophisticated (lots of t-shirts, v necks, and leggings). Since I was going to be teaching a college course (and wanted to dress the part), I made a very deliberate effort to rebuild and rebrand my wardrobe.

Generally, I like to ask myself 2 questions before adding any new item to my wardrobe:

  • Is this significantly different from something I already own?
  • Can I picture at least 3 different outfits this item could be a part of?

If I could answer “yes” to both questions, then I would consider buying it. Based on that, my wardrobe is dominated by a lot of versatile staples and neutral colors- things which are mutually compatible with one another. More or less I have a capsule wardrobe, just with a lot more items than you might see in a “traditional” capsule wardrobe. I would say my style is pretty minimalist and casual or chic (depending on the day), and I tend to avoid bold colors and prints.

Here’s a good example of what I might wear on a typical day:

Given the nature of 2020, I ordered most of these items online over the past year. The key to ordering stuff online (in my opinion) is having accurate measurements (in other words, get a tape measure! it will save you a lot of headaches). When possible, also make sure that you read the reviews to see what the material is like, whether it might be see-through, etc.

I’m also a graduate student, which means I don’t make very much money. Inevitably, that means I try and stick to affordable pieces as well. Almost everything I wear costs less than $50 (typically I try to stick below $30, if possible). Occasionally I am willing to splurge on high-quality staples that I know will last me a while, and I’ve had a lot of luck getting those types of items on sale.

The Challenge

Knowing that I have a pretty well-established wardrobe at this point, I wanted to create a challenge for myself: recreate 7 outfits from my Pinterest over the course of 7 days, using items I already own. As an additional challenge, I also wanted to try my best to recreate the images themselves. In other words, for each outfit I had to recreate the outfit, find a similar location/background, and recreate the pose/image as best I could.

The Outfits

For all comparison images, I have the original pin on the left and my recreation on the right. Due to the nature of Pinterest, I’m not sure who the original creators are for many of these pins. If you happen to know, please let me know and I’ll link to their profile/blog. When possible, I’ve tried to include links for the items I used. I’ve also included the particular colors and sizes that I’m wearing. For reference, I typically wear a size 4/S on top, 6/8/M on bottom, and W 9.5 in shoes.

Day 1

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve probably pinned this outfit at least 10 times, so it seemed like a good place to start. I went with a top that I got on clearance a few years ago at Target, Levi’s mile high super skinny in “on the house” (the stretch on these is pretty forgiving, so I wear a size 4), and this belt from Amazon.

Something you may notice rather quickly is that I’m wearing pretty much the same jewelry in every outfit. There’s a reason for this: long story short, I’m doing a separate challenge where I wanted to test the durability of Ana Luisa jewelry for everyday wear. If you’ve read my blog post about rose gold, you’ll know that I’ve had some issues with the durability of gold-plated jewelry from other brands in the past. Check out the caption on this Instagram post for more details about my Ana Luisa wear test:

In this outfit, I’m wearing the onyx layered necklaces set, double hoop earrings (Scarlett), and the “rope slim” Gold twist ring (I wear size 7 for my middle and index finger). I also have the coin necklace set which you’ll see in some of the other outfits in this series.

Day 2

With this outfit, I’m wearing WearMe Pro women’s oversized full mirrored sunglasses in tortoise/black, A New Day women’s elbow sleeve high neck rib t-shirt in black (size: S), Levi’s women’s 721 high rise skinny jeans in “soft clean white” (size: 28/US 6), and A New Day women’s Rebecca ballet flats in cognac (size 9). If you’re in the market for white jeans, I highly recommend these. They’re closer to true denim than jeggings and in my experience are not see-through. I wear a larger size because they don’t have as much give as the mile-high super skinny jeans I have from Levi’s (which are more like jeggings). As for the rest of the outfit, I’m holding my A New Day women’s bi-stretch twill blazer in black (size 4), my Ello 16 oz ceramic Aspen travel mug in white, and my Universal Thread zip closure crossbody bag in cognac.

Day 3

With this outfit I wanted to go for something a little comfier and cozier. I’m wearing a hat my mother-in-law made for me, my “Scientist” sweatshirt from StemBabe (I’m wearing a size M but could have gotten a S), Amazon Essential Women’s mid-weight puffer vest in black (size S), these high-waisted leggings in black (size S), and these canvas sneakers from Target in white (size 10). I’ll note that these shoes don’t have a lot of arch support, so I usually wear them with insoles.

Day 4

I really liked this outfit. I’ve had this turtleneck literally since I was in high school, so I honestly couldn’t tell you where I got it. I’m wearing Levi’s mile high super skinny jeans (in “new moon”) and these women’s Bessie wedge bootie from Target in black (size 10). The coat was a gift from my mother-in-law, so I’m not *exactly* sure where she got it. I know that it’s Calvin Klein, and it looks similar to this Cashmere wool blend coat on Amazon. (Side note, I’ve decided that the Minnesotans show love by trying to keep you warm, since she gave me a hat, scarf, and coat for Christmas this year.)

Day 5

This was *probably* my favorite outfit. Both my blazer and shirt are from Target, but I was really disappointed to learn they’d been discontinued. I’m wearing Levi’s mile high super skinny jeans in “Quebec Storm” and these sunglasses in gold frame/grey lens. The shoes are Nine West women’s flax dress pump (size 9.5). These are my favorite pair of heels I own- aside from being cute, they’re surprisingly comfortable. I’m also wearing the Ana Luisa coin layered necklace in this photo (whereas most of my other outfits feature the onyx necklace set).

Day 6

This outfit has a few repeats from previous days, so I’ll just highlight the new items: this hat in color A-khaki and these Nine West women’s loafer flats (in size 9.5). Yes, I have multiple pairs of snakeskin shoes- remember that I study lizards (so I get pretty excited about anything related to reptiles).

Day 7

Like the outfit on day 6, there are several elements of this outfit that are repeated from previous days. The new pieces here are my Levi’s womens Original Trucker Jacket in “Jeanie” (size M) and Jockey women’s cowl neck sweatshirt in “heather oatmeal” (size M). If you’re looking for an outfit that is both comfy and cute- this is the one for you.

Bonus Outfit

When I initially planned out my week, I chose 8 outfits instead of 7. Apparently I can’t count, but I still wanted to recreate the image anyways.

I’ve had most of these items for a while. I’m wearing a tunic top I got several years ago from Old Navy (this is probably the most similar item they carry now). The SiiZU shawl was part of my Winter Causebox a couple of years ago, and you already know the details of the jeans and jewelry. I just liked the picture and thought it would be fun to share!

Takeaways & Reflections

There’s several things that I noticed over the course of the week:

  1. Almost every Pinterest outfit features a coffee cup and/or sunglasses. Don’t believe me? Go to Pinterest and check.
  2. My wardrobe has definitely grown and evolved a lot over the last year, and this challenge helped me look at a lot of my wardrobe staples with new eyes. In a couple of cases, I rediscovered clothing items I had completely forgotten about.
  3. I ACHIEVED MY GOAL. Forcing myself to wear clothes I already had helped me realize the massive potential my wardrobe already has, and I’m no longer finding myself obsessively wanting new clothing items.
  4. This challenge was a lot of fun, but it also helped push me out of my comfort zone. I have no previous experience doing any kind of modelling, so going and taking pictures of myself with a tripod in public is not something I felt terribly comfortable doing. I had to work through my anxieties about what people would think about me or if they would judge me for what I was doing. At a certain point, I had to accept the reality that it didn’t really matter what those people might think.
  5. Recreating pictures like this is NOT easy. I didn’t have anyone taking photos of me, so there was no one to tell me where to put my hands, where to look, what to do with my hair, etc. Recreating these photos involved a lot of running back and forth to my phone, but the payoff was sooooo worth it.
  6. I was absolutely blown away by the amount of support I got throughout this series. I honestly had *no* idea if people would be interested in this content. I just figured since I was doing it, I might as well generate content from it. I received SO MANY comments and messages on Instagram from people saying how much they loved the series (so you can guarantee it will be back sometime in the spring or summer).

What did y’all think? Are there any specific outfits you’d like to see me recreate in the future? Drop a comment, send me an email, or shoot me a message on Instagram at @missalenius_science!

Why I Chose TCU for 3 Degrees and 9+ Years

For today’s post, I wanted to talk about something a little different: my journey through college and graduate school at TCU. I started at TCU (short for Texas Christian University) in August of 2012, and am still here 9 years later. I’m working on my third degree, and thought it might be good to outline my thoughts and rationale for why I’ve stayed for each degree.

The Initial Decision

I’ll be up front: when it came to my undergrad, I only applied to 2 universities (TCU and Texas A&M). This isn’t necessarily something I would recommend- but it made sense to me at the time. (It’s worth noting that I was pretty much guaranteed to be admitted to both based on my academics).

I grew up in a household of Aggies. Both of my parents went to Texas A&M, and my brother went there for a couple of years before I applied to college. If you know anything about A&M, you probably know that there is a cult-like obsession with college football there. Growing up with that, I never intended to go anywhere without a D1 football team (because I knew I wanted that to be part of my college experience). That ruled out a lot of universities very quickly.

So what made me choose TCU?

Marching Band: If you’re not from Texas, you may not be familiar with the insanely competitive world of high school marching band. A huge portion of my identity in high school was centered around marching band, so it was something I wanted to potentially continue into college. However, if I went to A&M, that would require joining the Corps (their ROTC), which wasn’t something that I was particularly interested in.

Class size and research opportunities: generally speaking, classes tend to be smaller at TCU than A&M, and are more likely to be taught by professors than graduate students. Also, I had been accepted to TCU’s Honors College, and knew I would have an opportunity to do research as an undergraduate (something I was very excited about).

Money: TCU is a private university- which means it isn’t cheap. When I was applying to TCU, it cost around $40,000 a year to go there. Even though A&M (a public university) was theoretically cheaper, I ended up getting a full academic scholarship to TCU. In the end, it was cheaper for me to attend TCU, so at that point it was really a no-brainer.

My Undergraduate Experience

Student Life

Even though my family lived in Fort Worth, we made the collective decision that it would be best for me to live in the dorm. Personally, I think that living in the dorm is a invaluable part of the college experience, and would recommend it to anyone that can do it (financially and otherwise).

Like high school, marching band was an important part of my undergraduate experience at TCU- but for different reasons. In college, marching band served as a recreational outlet for me. It was an opportunity to hang out with my friends and get excited about football. I was a member of Tau Beta Sigma (a band service sorority), served as President of the Horned Frog Marching Band, and went to almost every TCU football game between August 2012 and January 2016. Looking back, most of my most cherished memories of undergrad either involve marching band or the friends I made there.

Religious Requirements

The name “Texas Christian University” might lead some to believe that TCU has rigorous religion requirements. I can assure you this is not the case. When I was a student, we were required to take a single religion course of our choosing. I chose to take “world religion,” which outlined the foundation and governing philosophies of most of the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). What I’m trying to say is that you do not need to be a practicing Christian to go to TCU.

Academics

When I started my undergraduate, I had a very vague idea of what I wanted to do- possibly something along the lines of chemical engineering? Maybe biochemical engineering? But those weren’t degrees that TCU offered, so I spent the first couple of years at TCU as a double major in either math, biology, and/or chemistry. (To be clear, I never wanted to be a medical doctor, which is what most students in TCU’s biology department are typically aiming for. Nevertheless, I ended up with a strong foundation in molecular biology.)

I struggled a lot with depression during my sophomore year of college, and found myself questioning what I really wanted to do with life. I’ve always loved animals. For most of my life, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but abandoned that idea when I realized I have issues with needles (and passing out). For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until this time of my life that I could study them in an academic context.

At that time, I switched to major in Environmental Science (focusing mainly on ecology-based biology classes). In essence, I spent my junior and senior years taking nothing but upper-division environmental science and biology courses. I ultimately ended up switching my degree back to biology, since it would be easier to meet the degree requirements based on the courses I had already taken.

I graduated with a B.S. in Biology with Honors and Chemistry and Math Minors in May 2016.

Study Abroad & Research Experience

It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 (between my junior and senior year) that I really set upon the path I find myself today. That summer, I had the opportunity to take two study abroad courses: Environmental Issues in Costa Rica and Biodiversity & Human Development in South Africa.

I could write an entire post about how these two courses changed my outlook on research and our relationship with the natural world. One of the big takeaways was that successful wildlife conservation often requires policy changes. But in order to change policy, we need researchers to define the problem and communicate it with data. Simply put, we can’t protect something we don’t know needs protecting. In that sense, I understood that scientific research is critical to conservation efforts. (On a less serious note, I also learned how much universities love pictures of students in university hats and clothing for promotional materials.)

After being primed to pursue science in the name of conservation, I serendipitously found myself in south Texas working with Texas horned lizards.

For those of you who may be familiar with horned lizards: they are an iconic, beloved lizard species found in the southwestern United States and Mexico. One of the things that makes horned lizards so unique is their diets. Horned lizards are considered dietary specialists- e.g. an animal that eats a very specific set of prey items. In the case of horned lizards, their diets consist primarily of ants, especially harvester ants (which are much larger than most other ants). Unfortunately, because their diets are so specialized, these lizards are highly vulnerable to habitat changes, especially those that impact the availability of harvester ants, such as pesticide use, the spread of invasive fire ants, and agricultural and urban development. The Texas horned lizard isn’t doing great- it’s disappeared from large portions of Texas and Oklahoma over the last 75 years, and is considered a species of conservation concern in both states.

Where I found myself that August was Karnes County, Texas, where populations of horned lizards managed to persist in small towns, despite low availability of harvester ants (their preferred food source). My undergraduate thesis was aimed at figuring what on earth they were eating by dissecting their fecal pellets.

I’ve always been a rather inquisitive person, so I found that I LOVED this research. My results found that these lizards were eating large quantities of termites- something that had never been previously documented for horned lizards. It seemed like the more data I collected, the more questions my advisor and I had.

Doubling Down: My Master’s Degree

Applying for Graduate School in STEM

Before I dive into my decision making process, it’s probably important to explain a little of how this process normally works.

In the US, starting a research-based graduate degree in the in STEM typically starts with reaching out to a professor whose lab you would be interested in working in. Basically, you email them, and if they’re interested, you might get an interview, and you eventually apply to the program/university (but only after getting the go-ahead from the professor).

It wasn’t initially my goal to stay at TCU- I reached out to a handful of professors for a combination of MS an PhD positions during my senior year. In every case, I never heard back (likely because I wasn’t a good fit or wasn’t qualified) or the position had already been filled. That left me with the option either to stay at TCU or to take some time off.

Why I Decided to Stay

There were a handful of reasons that I decided to stay. For one, this gave me the opportunity to answer some of the research questions that were raised by my undergraduate research (such as, do these lizards normally eat this many termites? How are they finding so many termites?, etc.)

I also knew my advisor, who I developed a good rapport with during my senior year of college. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a good working relationship with your advisor.

Lastly (but importantly), there was funding available for me to stay. When it comes to STEM, most graduate students get some form of funding which helps cover their tuition and living expenses. Usually, this comes from working as a research assistant (RA), teaching assistant (TA), or from an external funding source (such as an NSF fellowship). In my case, there was an available position as a TA which included a full tuition waiver and a roughly $1400/month stipend. In other words: I would get paid to go to grad school at TCU.

My Research

My Master’s research was effectively a direct follow-up to my undergraduate research. I wanted to do a more thorough dive into the diets of these horned lizard populations to understand how they varied over time, space, and related to prey availability.

Without going into too much detail (I’ll save that for another post), my research as a graduate student was able to answer some of the most compelling questions that I initially found as an undergraduate.

Something important began to happen during my graduate experience: I got connected to the world of Texas horned lizard conservation. There are considerable ongoing efforts to conserve and reintroduce Texas horned lizards back into the wild. My advisor has been working with institutions like Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and several zoos (including the Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio Zoos) to evaluate the genetics of Texas horned lizards in the wild and captivity. Being a member of his lab, I was fortunate enough to start building relationships with many of the people working in horned lizard conservation.

Teaching

In general, my department greatly emphasizes the teacher-scholar model of education. In practice, this means that the importance of teaching is considered on par with research. This means that both our graduate students and faculty dabble as both teachers and researchers.

Nearly every graduate student in our department is a teaching assistant (TA). Subsequently, I had the opportunity to teach several labs as a master’s student (including conservation genetics, comparative vertebrate anatomy, introductory biology I, and more. It turns out that I really like teaching (which I may not have discovered in a more research-focused program).

I finished my M.S. in Biology in May 2018. It was not without challenges (I struggled a lot with my mental health and managing my new diagnosis of ADHD, but I’ll save that for a different blog post). Bonus: I also met my husband during this time (and that alone made staying in the Biology Department at TCU worth it).

I graduated with my Biology MS in May 2018.

Round 3: Ph.D.

Considerations for Getting a Ph.D.

If you’re thinking about a Ph.D in STEM. I would not recommend pursuing a Ph.D. if it is based on the following reasons:

  • Because “you’re smart”
  • Because it seems like the next logical step

Simply put, you don’t get a Ph.D. by being smart. It’s a herculean effort that you complete through lots of hard work and dedication. To that end, I would only recommend pursuing a Ph.D. if you are confident it will help you achieve your career goals. The amount of effort that goes into completing a dissertation can be really difficult to do if you don’t have a clear picture of why you’re doing it. If you aren’t sure, you can always take some time off to figure it out.

My decision to pursue a Ph.D. was influenced significantly by my interest in teaching at a college level (which can often require a Ph.D., but not always).

Cons of Staying at the Same University

It’s typically frowned upon to get three degrees at the same college or university, and not without reason.

When you join a new lab, you have to learn how to work with new people, learn new research techniques, and adjust to other changes which can help make you a more well-rounded scientist and employee.

On paper, someone may see that I’ve been in the same lab, working with the same species for 5+ years and then question my ability to adapt to new environments, work with new people, learn new skills, etc. This was something that we discussed at length during my interview for the Ph.D. program. Additionally, the decision to stay at a smaller R2 institution meant that I might not have the same access to funding and resources that I might have at a large R1 institution.

Why I decided to Stay

Teaching

A major part of my decision to stay at TCU had to do with teaching.

Remember how I said my department focuses a lot on teaching? Part of the requirements for my Ph.D. program are taking courses in teaching pedagogy (e.g. learning how to be a good instructor) and serving as a graduate instructor for a course (teaching a lecture, not just a lab). This is NOT the norm for most Ph.D. programs, which typically put an emphasis on research over all things. As someone who is considering teaching as a career path, this made the program an especially good fit for me.

Research

Part of my decision to stay was that I knew my PhD research would be going in a different direction than my master’s research. Rather than focusing on diets of horned lizards in suburban habitats, I knew that I wanted to shift gears to the captive breeding and reintroduction efforts of Texas horned lizards.

In essence, although I’ve continued to study the same species, my focus is completely different. During my Ph.D., I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying captive breeding and conservation, the acquisition of foraging behaviors, and other concepts that my previous research had never explored. I’ve also gained new technical skills, including experience radio tracking hatchlings post-reintroduction. Although I’ve been working in the same lab, I’ve been able to develop working relationships with individuals at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and zoos (including the Fort Worth and San Antonio Zoos).

For my Ph.D. research, I’ve gotten a lot of experience using harmonic radar to radio track reintroduced Texas horned lizards- a skill I had no previous experience with.
Here’s a short video highlighting some of the research I’ve been a part of (as well as several of the wonderful people I’ve gotten to work with so far during my Ph.D.)

I’ve also deliberately sought out additional experience from side projects. For example, I spent 3 years volunteering with the Trinity River Turtle Survey– a 3 year long capture-mark-recapture project run by a local high school science teacher to monitor turtles living in the Trinity River in Fort Worth. Working on this project helped me establish professional connections, gain experience working with turtles, and expose high school students and the public to scientific research. I also volunteer to help other graduate students with their field work whenever possible (especially because I know many would do the same for me).

In other words, although I’ve stayed at the same school, lab, and study species, I’ve deliberately worked to diversify my experiences during my Ph.D. I’m confident that I could walk into an interview and make the case that staying at TCU for a third degree hasn’t pigeon-holed me professionally.

Final Thoughts

Looking back on my journey, I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve chosen, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to other people. Everyone’s journey through academia is different. What may work out well for some may not be a good fit for others.

For example, it is absolutely possible to go straight into a Ph.D. program after finishing an undergraduate degree. Looking back, I can say that I definitely wasn’t ready for that. For me, a Master’s degree gave me the experience I needed as a writer, scientist, and teacher to be successful as a Ph.D. student. It’s important to take the time to carefully weigh the pros and cons of any program before committing to it.

If you have any specific questions about my experience, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Betta Fish Care & Aquarium Tips

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

When it comes to aquariums, betta fish are a popular choice for many people. There’s a good reason for this: in addition to their vibrant colors and large fins, they can be relatively easy to care for. When properly cared for, betta fish can live 3-5 years in captivity. But caring for a fish isn’t as straightforward as throwing a fish in a bowl of water- there’s a lot more to it. Although this post focuses on caring for betta fish, it has information which may be helpful for anyone looking to setup a freshwater fish tank!

My Experience with Betta Fish

I got my first betta fish when I was a sophomore in college. Long story short: I was very depressed at the time, and thought that having an animal that was entirely dependent on me would motivate me to get out of bed (it actually did, but that’s a topic for another day).

My initial setup may sound familiar to some of you: a small (<1 gallon) fish bowl with marbles and a couple of fake, plastic plants. I wasn’t great about changing the water as often as I should, and didn’t have any kind of filtration system. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a picture of the initial setup

My junior year, I decided that my fish (Smaug) needed an upgrade. I switched to a 2.5 gallon filtered tank with live plants. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I lost the first couple of plants before finally getting a hornwort to survive. There was also a snail (named Gary). I honestly thought I was doing an amazing job at the time.

In hindsight, I know that I made a LOT of mistakes with Smaug, and I’ve always wanted another shot at a planted aquarium. I’m currently in the process of establishing a new 5 gallon planted aquarium (see details below). I am planning to get a betta fish once my aquarium and plants are fully established.

About Betta Fish

Like many houseplants, I’ve always found that understanding what a species is like in the wild makes it easier to care for in captivity.

Betta fish (aka Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens) are freshwater fish native to southeast Asia, especially Thailand. They live in canals, marshes, rice paddies, and floodplains- shallow bodies of water with abundant aquatic and floating vegetation. Because these types of habitats are prone to low oxygen levels, betta fish have a labyrinth, a lung-like organ allows certain fish to gulp air from the surface. They often feed on zooplankton, crustaceans, and aquatic insect larvae.

In the wild, betta fish are drab colors: olive green, brown, and grey. The spectacular colors and fin shapes you see in the pet store are the product of selective breeding (aka artificial selection– a topic for another post).

Sad fact: they’re not doing great in the wild, primarily as a result of pollution and habitat degradation. Betta splendens is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN red list.

Reproduction and Bubble Nests

If you’ve ever had a betta fish, you might be familiar with bubble nests– clusters of bubbles on the surface of the water. Bubble nests play an important role in reproduction. After mating, the male will place the fertilized eggs in a bubble nest, which he will guard carefully as the eggs incubate (also see this paper). The bubble nest helps keep the eggs aerated and protected from potential predators.

By understanding their ecology, we can glean a few things about caring for these fish:

  1. Males are aggressive and territorial: most betta fish that you see sold at the pet store are male, so it’s not necessarily a great idea for a betta fish to have a “tank mate.” You might be thinking, “but what if he gets lonely??” Let me share my experience: when I had Smaug, I impulsively decided to try adding an African dwarf frog to his tank. It was fine for a while, until the frog took a bite of Smaug’s fin. Thankfully I witnessed this happen (and was able to intervene), otherwise that frog probably would have died at Smaug’s hands (…er, fins). Male betta fish are known kill other bettas (including females). By contrast, if you want female betta fish, they can coexist in small groups of up to 10 females. There are some small fish species that can coexist in a community with a male betta (especially in a large tank with adequate hiding places). If you’re just starting out, it is probably easiest to treat bettas as a single-aquarium fish.
  2. They like warm water. These fish are from the tropics, so they’re adapted to warm water temperatures (between 75 and 82 degrees F). You’re probably going to want to get a water heater, otherwise your fish may be chronically stressed (which is bad for their immune system and overall health).
  3. They like to have shade. Most aquarium kits come with an LED light. While this isn’t a bad thing (especially if you’re planning to add live plants), a fish that is adapted for highly vegetated ecosystems isn’t gong to be crazy about being stuck in bright light all the time. In the wild, betta are accustomed to floating plants which they use for shelter from predators (amongst other things). In other words, without some kind of cover, your betta may be stressed, bored, or both. To that end, it’s good to provide some shade- especially in the form of floating plants or structures.
  4. They like vegetation. Because bettas involved in highly vegetated habitats, they enjoy getting to rest and move through vegetation. They do best in a tank with plenty of places to rest and hide (especially silk or live plants). Just make sure there is space for the fish to be able to swim around.
  5. They can get bored. In the wild, bettas spend time actively foraging, monitoring and defending their territory, etc. Giving them a sizable, complex tank (with plenty of vegetation and such) will help them stay occupied.
  6. They can tolerate harsh water conditions. The natural habitat of betta fish is prone to a) low oxygen and b) sudden, extreme changes in water availability, chemistry, and temperature. This is part of what makes them fairly decent pets- they won’t die immediately if the water quality isn’t perfect.
  7. They are mainly carnivorous. Their diet should consist mainly of animal protein. They aren’t adapted to digest carbohydrates like corn and wheat. It’s best to feed protein-based pellets, flakes, or invertebrates (such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and daphnia).
  8. They are prone to over-eating. This isn’t necessarily unique to bettas- most wild animals will capitalize on food whenever they can, since they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. It is best to feed bettas at most once a day to avoid over-feeding.
  9. Bubble nests are a good thing. If you think about it, the production of a bubble nest by a male is an indicator that he thinks the habitat is suitable for reproduction. In other words, if he makes a bubble nest, that’s a sign you’re probably doing something right.

What You’ll Need to Care for Betta

Something that is important to remember about setting up a fish tank: you’re basically setting up an enclosed ecosystem. It can take time, but also requires some more considerations for the environment than other pets in enclosures.

Water Chemistry & The Nitrogen Cycle

Fish are different from most terrestrial animals- which typically eliminate nitrogenous (nitrogen-based) waste as aurea or uric acid. Instead, fish produce ammonia, a toxic compound which they excrete into the water. Under normal circumstances, ammonia would be a) diluted in large bodies of water, or b) be broken down by bacteria into nitrite. In a fish tank, ammonia can build up and reach dangerous concentrations for your fish. It is very important to monitor ammonia levels and treat with chemical products that remove ammonia if necessary. Establishing a healthy bacteria population can help, since they’ll convert ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is *also* toxic, but can be converted into nitrate (not toxic) by bacteria. (The conversion of ammonia to nitrite to nitrate is generally referred to as the nitrogen cycle). With any fish tank, monitoring ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels is critical to the health of your fish.

Necessities:

  • A 5+ Gallon tank. One of the biggest mistakes most people (including me) make with betta fish is using too small of an aquarium. Often, you see them in the pet store in small plastic cups and think that anything would be an improvement…right? In reality, male betta fish should have a minimum of a 5 gallon tank. This allows them to exhibit normal swimming and hiding behaviors. If you’re wanting a smaller tank, you might want to consider a different fish. Can they survive in a smaller tank? Sure. But they won’t be living their best life.
  • A way to monitor ammonia and nitrite levels. I’ve been using API test strips as a quick way to check nitrite and nitrate levels while I get my tank set up. I also have a more precise freshwater test kit, which I plan to use as I get closer to adding my betta.
  • A way to detoxify ammonia (either by establishing bacteria or using a product like Ammo-lock)
  • Substrate (pebbles, marbles, etc.)- if you’re going with live plants, you’ll want to do some research on this one.
  • Decorations– especially Shelter and/or silk plants. I can tell you from experience- decorations and plastic plants with sharp edges can tear betta fins. If you don’t want to go all-in on live plants, look for silk artificial plants instead.
  • Protein-based food
  • Dechlorinated water. In case no one has told you this: most of our tap water contains a small amount of chlorine. While this works fabulously to prevent transmission of water-borne diseases, it’s not great for fish. If using tap water, you’ll want to use a water conditioner that removes or neutralizes chlorine first.

Things that may be helpful:

  • Quick start bacteria (to jump start bacteria in the nitrogen cycle)
  • Water pump and filter. It’s not a requirement, but getting a water filter will reduce how often you need to do water changes. Most aquarium starter kits will come with a pump and filter.
  • LED light
  • Water heater. Okay, this isn’t absolutely a requirement- a betta can survive without one. But heaters aren’t terribly expensive, and they definitely make things better for your betta.
  • Water siphon (this makes water changes SO MUCH EASIER)

Things which are totally extra (and not necessary):

  • Live plants (and everything that goes with that- grow lights, fertilizer, root tabs, tools for pruning, etc.)
  • Snails or other invertebrates
  • Live prey and treats

If you’re just starting out with a fish tank, I would recommend starting with the essentials. You can always build up and upgrade over time as you gain confidence for caring for fish.

My New Setup

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have a new betta fish (yet), but I thought it would be worth mentioning what I’m doing for my new tank.

For the tank itself, I decided to use the Marineland Portrait 5 Gallon Aquarium kit. It includes an aquarium, lid, LED light, filter, and pump. By choosing a tank with a relatively small base, we thought that the aquarium would be more versatile in our small apartment. We chose 5 gallons because I wanted to make sure it was big enough for a betta, but didn’t want to get over my head or take up too much space. I also like that the water pump and filter are hidden out of sight- it gives a very sleek, organized look.

When it came to substrate, I wanted to choose something that was designed to promote healthy bacteria growth. I ended up going with a white Imagitarium aquatic substrate (partially because that’s the best option I could find at my local pet stores because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for shipping). For decorations, I wanted a natural and organic look, so I went with a small piece of driftwood and lava rock. I have had some fungal growth on my driftwood- allegedly this is harmless, normal, and will go away with time, so I will address that in future updates.

I never used a heater in Smaug’s fish tank. This time around, I got a heater designed for fish tanks under 6 gallons which maintains my tank at 78 degrees F (this is good for my plants too, since most aquarium plants are also tropical and do best in warmer water temps). I strategically placed it behind the driftwood so that you can’t see it from the front of the tank.

Plants

Here’s a picture of my aquarium from my Instagram (if you click to show the second image, I’ve labeled each of the plants with their common names)

For the plants, I tried to do a bit of research (instead of grabbing whatever looked cool at the pet store, which is what I did the first time around). I opted to buy most of my plants in person, since I had concerns about shipping in the middle of winter. I also wanted to go with several different species just in case the conditions in my tank didn’t end up being suitable for one of them. Currently, my tank has the following plants:

  • Java fern (Microsorium pteropus)- this was the one plant I knew my tank needed. These plants are fairly tall, have large leaves and are supposed to be beginner-friendly (aka easy to care for).
  • Asian water fern aka el Nino fern (Bolbitis heteroclita): this was somewhat of an impulse buy. There weren’t a ton of healthy looking java ferns to choose from, so I did some quick Googling in the middle of Petsmart when trying to decide what other leafy plants I could get.
  • Needle leaf ludwigia (Ludwigia arcuata)- I got this plant as a bit of a challenge- it needs moderate to high light, so it tends to be harder to care for than the other plants I chose. So far, it looks like they’re putting out new growth, so I’d say it’s going well!
    • If you look closely at the setup of my tank, you’ll notice that the floating plants are on the opposite site of the tank from the ludwigia. This was deliberate- I wanted to make sure it was getting as much light as possible.
  • Cryptocoryne wendtii “Green”: I wasn’t initially searching for this one, but came across it at Petco and decided to look it up. It is supposed to thrive in all light conditions and be easy to grow. (Can confirm- all 4 that I purchased have put out a fair amount of visible root growth in the last week.)
    • Rookie mistake: I didn’t read the instructions carefully before I started setting up the tank. Unlike most other plants (whose roots should be buried in substrate), this plant does best when placed on top of rocks or other surfaces. Over time, its roots grow to hold it in place. Had I realized that before I began setting up my tank, I would have glued these plants to the driftwood and lava rock in my tank. Instead, I had to awkwardly wedge them between the rock and sides of the tank to hold them in place. They’ve come loose several times, so these aquascaping tools have definitely come in handy.
  • Floating plants: I wanted to include floating plants for a couple of reasons: 1) to capitalize on the height of my tank, and 2) to create shade for the betta fish. My tank doesn’t have a ton of clearance between the water and lid, so I ended up choosing Amazon frogbit (Linobium laevigatum) and water spangle (Salvinia minima), which both have flat, lily-pad shaped leaves and long roots. These were the only plants that I ordered off the internet instead of purchasing in person, and I was really impressed with how healthy the plants were when I received them.

When it comes to floating plants, it’s not uncommon for them to completely cover the water surface of an aquarium, which can prevent other plants from getting enough light. As a way to balance the needs of my future betta with the other plants, I created and secured rings using airline tubing and suction cups that serve as enclosures for the floating plants. I can’t take credit for the idea- it’s based on something I saw in a YouTube video a while back, but it seems to be working extremely well.

Floating plants in my aquarium. I chose Amazon frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum) and water spangle (Salvinia minima) because of their small lily-pad esque structure and long roots. Both sets of plants are enclosed by a short length of airline tubing, which are secured to the sides of the tank with suction cups.

One of the big changes I made this time around was adding a grow light (in addition to the LED light that comes with the tank). Not providing enough light is a common problem when it comes to planted aquariums, so getting an LED grow light isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Like all of my grow lights, this one is plugged in to a outlet timer (so I never have to worry about turning it on or off).

Because plants require additional nutrients, I’m fertilizing my aquarium twice a week with Aqueon aquarium plant food. When I initially set up the tank, I also used a handful of root tabs. I don’t think these were actually necessary for the particular plants that I purchased, but I figure that they couldn’t hurt (especially since I didn’t choose a substrate designed to provide nutrients to plants). I haven’t had any issues with algae yet, but I’ll update this post if/when I deal with that in the future.

I recently added a Nerite snail. There’s a few reasons I’ve decided to go with a Nerite snail- for one, they eat algae and waste (but not live plants). However, unlike other snails (which can be real aquarium pests), Nerite snails can only reproduce in brackish water (a mixture of salt and freshwater). In other words, one Nerite snail will stay one nerite snail. I’m 90% sure that Gary was a Nerite snail, and he and Smaug seemed to work very well as tank mates.

The Nerite snail I recently got for our aquarium. Let me know if you have any name suggestions! (Not Gary. I’ve already had a snail named Gary).

The tap water is EXTREMELY hard where I live. To try and balance this out, I’m alternating between distilled and (dechlorinated) tap water for water changes. I’m testing the water chemistry regularly using API test strips, which measure water hardness, pH, nitrite, and nitrate levels. I’ve been writing down the values each time I use the test strips so that I can monitor how the water is changing over time.

Final Thoughts

I plan on doing future updates about how to deal with aquarium algae, as well as my aquarium progress.

If you’re interested in starting a freshwater fish tank, I hope you found this post helpful! Let me know if you have any thoughts, insights, or questions in the comments.

What You Need to Know About mRNA Vaccines

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

The COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer are the first widely-implemented vaccines to utilize mRNA. Understandably, some people have some concerns and questions- What even is mRNA? Are these vaccines safe? Can they alter your DNA? – I’ll do my best to try and address some of those questions in this post.

What is mRNA?

To explain what mRNA is, we’re going to have to explain a process called protein synthesis.

Brief synopsis: proteins are molecules which are formed by stringing together smaller molecules called amino acids. This process of protein synthesis is completed by ribosomes within the cytoplasm of our cells. Proteins serve a variety of functions within our body, from structural components to enzymes (which facilitate different chemical reactions within or body). Pretty much every living organism is built in part and kept alive by proteins.

The human body consists of an estimated hundreds of thousands of different proteins- but these proteins have to come from somewhere. Something has to tell our bodies how to assemble the amino acids together.

That is part of the function of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). I’m not going to go too much into the structure of DNA here, because it’s not hugely important for the subject at hand. In summary: DNA is another molecule, which is found within the nucleus of our cells. It consists of two strands of nucleotides (smaller molecules), which join together to form a double helix (sort of like if you took a ladder and twisted it).

One of the major functions of DNA is that it contains the instructions for building proteins. But there’s a problem- to build proteins, our ribosomes need the information found within our DNA, but the ribosomes are found outside the nucleus, while DNA is trapped inside the nucleus.

This is a simplified diagram of a human cell, featuring the components involved in protein synthesis. DNA (white) is found within the nucleus (dark brown). Proteins are assembled by the ribosomes (grey dots), which are found either attached to the endoplasmic reticulum (brown blobs) or freely floating in the cytoplasm (pink). mRNA (not shown) is a copy of a section of DNA which contains the instructions for building a single protein, and can move from the nucleus to the ribosomes within the cytoplasm.

That’s where mRNA comes in. RNA (ribonucleic acid) is similar to DNA, but consist of one nucleotide strand instead of 2 (which makes it less stable- that’s going to be important when we talk about the vaccines). There are different types of RNA, including mRNA (short for “messenger RNA”). The function of mRNA is to copy a small section of DNA in the nucleus (through a process called transcription). Because mRNA is much smaller than our DNA, it can leave the nucleus of the cell and travel to our ribosomes, which can read the information contained in mRNA and use it to build proteins (through a process called translation). [DNA and mRNA tell the ribosomes which amino acids to use to build the protein, and what order to put them in).

Here’s a more succinct summary:

  • DNA is trapped in the nucleus
  • A gene (section of DNA with the instructions for building a single protein) is copied (transcribed) into mRNA
  • mRNA leaves the nucleus and travels to a ribosome
  • The ribosome reads (translates) the mRNA to create the corresponding protein (by assembling specific amino acids together in a specific order)

I like to think of protein synthesis like building a LEGO set.

The goal is to build something (a LEGO set or protein) from individual pieces (LEGO blocks or amino acids). But you can’t just put the blocks together randomly- for it to work, they need to be assembled in a particular order and structure.

To do that, you need instructions. In the case of proteins, those instructions are found in our DNA (in the nucleus of our cells). In the case of LEGO sets, those instructions are found in LEGO’s databases. In either case, you can’t use the original copy- both because of its 1) physical location (DNA is in the nucleus, but protein synthesis occurs in the ribosomes found within our cytoplasm. In the case of LEGOs, you obviously cannot access the original file on LEGO’s servers from your home), and 2) as a safety precaution to keep the “originals” (DNA or files) safe from being damaged or corrupted.

When it comes to LEGO sets, you typically get a printed copy of the instructions telling you how to assemble the pieces together. Likewise, mRNA is a copy of a section of DNA explaining how to build a specific protein. This is often referred to as a gene. It is estimated that humans have roughly 30,000 genes.

How do mRNA Vaccines Work?

To understand how vaccines work, we need to understand how our immune system protects us from foreign microbes in the first place.

The Immune System

Our immune system consists of the organs and cells which help protect our body from pathogens (bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc.). There are three major components to the immune system:

  • Passive immune system: the passive immune system consists of physical barriers (such as skin) that help keep pathogens out of our body
  • Innate immune system: the innate immune system consists of mechanisms which are not specific to individual pathogens, such as fevers (which can be used to fight a variety of infections).
  • Adaptive immune system: when you think of “immunity,” this is what you’re thinking of. The adaptive immune system consists of a variety of cells which recognize, destroy, and remember specific pathogens.

The way the adaptive immune system works is complex, but here is a simplified/generalized summary of how it works:

  1. A microbe (virus, bacteria, etc.) enters the body and begins to reproduce.
  2. White blood cells ingest some of the microbes, then present proteins from the microbe on their cell surface (these foreign proteins are often referred to as antigens). Alternatively, the antigens may be released into the bloodstream.
  3. T cells recognize the antigen, which triggers a series of events resulting in the activation of B cells, which produce and secrete antibodies (highly specific protein which circulate in the blood and bind to antigens). Antibodies can function in many ways to help fight off a pathogen, including the neutralization of toxins, immobilizing microbes, etc.
  4. After activation, B cells clone themselves to produce other cells, including memory B cells, which are long-lived and facilitate a rapid response to the same microbe in the future.

Memory B cells (along with Memory T cells) are specific to individual pathogens. Once we have developed these cells, our immune system will have a stronger, faster response if exposed to the same pathogen in the future (which can help prevent us from getting sick).

Key takeaway: in order to develop immunity to a disease, you have to be exposed and develop an immune response to the pathogen that causes it.

Vaccines

Normally, developing immunity requires you to become infected with a pathogen, which takes time and carries the risk that you may not survive.

The concept behind vaccines is simple: instead of waiting to get infected to gain immunity, why not try and trigger an immune response by exposing the immune system to antigens associated with a pathogen? This could quickly activate the immune system without the risks associated from the actual disease.

Most “traditional” vaccines work by injecting antigens in the form of weakened pathogen, pathogen proteins, etc. into our bodies. Our immune system recognizes the contents of the vaccine as foreign, and mounts an immune response to the antigens. This allows us to develop immunity to a disease and produce antibodies without necessarily having to get sick with it. (By the way, there’s no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, but that’s a post for another day.)

Here’s a short video explaining how the immune system and vaccines work: (it mentions DNA vaccines, which are similar to mRNA vaccines, but aren’t exactly the same. The differences are beyond the scope of this post)

With mRNA vaccines, you aren’t injected with proteins, pathogen fragments, or weakened pathogens at all. Instead, you are injected with copies of mRNA from the pathogen. Eventually, these pieces of mRNA make their way to our ribosomes, which results in the production of proteins associated with that pathogen. Although our body built the proteins, our immune system can tell that they didn’t come from our DNA, recognizing them as antigens and triggering the immune response. Once the proteins are produced, the mRNA is broken down by normal cellular processes.

When we think about the COVID-19 vaccines, they are specifically designed to produce a “spike protein” normally found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. This protein is harmless, but triggers an adaptive immune response, eventually granting immunity from COVID-19.

This Isn’t New Technology

The technology for mRNA vaccines has existed for decades– The first study using mRNA vaccines was published in 1990.

There are essentially two reasons an mRNA vaccine has not been previously approved by the FDA:

  • Efficacy: human trials of most previous mRNA vaccines have had “somewhat modest” results
  • Logistics: as I mentioned earlier, mRNA is not very stable. This poses problems for both storage and delivery of the vaccines (both of which have improved in recent years. The super cold storage requirements still pose logistical issues for distribution though.)

Advantages of mRNA Vaccines

There are quite a few advantages of mRNA vaccines, especially for a new virus like COVID-19. (Summarized in this paper.)

  • It is non-infectious; You can’t potentially get sick like you can from a weakened virus
  • mRNA is degraded by normal cellular processes after translation
  • They have the potential for rapid, inexpensive, and scalable manufacturing. (In summary, producing genetic material is much faster, easier, and cheaper than proteins, weakened virus, etc. It’s no accident that the first two COVID-19 vaccines were both mRNA vaccines; the process of developing and producing them is easier and faster than traditional vaccines.)

For anyone who is concerned about the safety of these vaccines- tens of thousands of people have received both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already. If they weren’t safe, they would not have received emergency use authorization (but that’s a topic for another post). It is worth noting that trials on children and pregnant individuals have not been conducted yet, as they normally follow trials for the overall population. Those trials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should hopefully begin within a month.

Can mRNA from COVID-19 Vaccines Enter our DNA?

In short, almost definitely no.

The process by which foreign DNA is inserted into our own DNA is called insertional mutagenesis. Insertional mutagenesis can happen with certain kinds of vaccines, mainly DNA-based vaccines. However, this is virtually impossible with mRNA vaccines (which is actually considered to be one of their advantages).

Aside from the fact that mRNA is quickly broken down by normal cellular processes following protein synthesis, there are several hurdles that would need to be overcome for mRNA to become integrated into our DNA:

The first requirement would be for the mRNA to move from our cells into the nucleus, for which it would need something called a nuclear localization signal. In short, the mRNA in the COVID-19 vaccines doesn’t have such a signal, so it can’t enter the nucleus. (Strike 1)

The second requirement would be converting the mRNA fragments into DNA. That requires an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. Our bodies don’t make reverse transcriptase, and it isn’t found in the COVID-19 vaccines. (Strike 2)

Lastly, the vaccine would have to contain an enzyme called integrase, which would allow the DNA fragment to be spliced into the genome. This also is not found naturally in our bodies or the COVID-19 vaccines. (Strike 3)

Final Thoughts

Regarding references: This post doesn’t contain as much primary scientific research as some of my other posts, for a good reason: the process of protein synthesis and the function of vaccines/the immune system are well understood- you can find a fair amount of this information in basically any biology textbook. If anyone is skeptical of my references, these are the textbooks I referred to:

Biology: the Dynamic Science by Russell et al.

Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts et al.

There are a lot more things that are worth discussing about the COVID-19 vaccines, and I am doing my best to write blog posts about them. But if you’re concerned that mRNA in these vaccines could fundamentally and permanently alter your DNA- don’t be.

I’m sure that I have missed something. Please feel free to leave any thoughts or questions below- I only ask that you take some time to fact-check before you post.

Understanding & Treating Keratosis Pilaris

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Picture this: It’s finally spring. You’re excited to wear a new tank top, but grab a sweater too because you’re embarrassed of small bumps covering your arms. Or maybe you’re like me and spent most of last summer wearing long-sleeved shirts to hide the unsightly bumps on your skin.

If this sounds familiar, you might be struggling with a condition known as keratosis pilaris (KP).

What is Keratosis Pilaris?

The good news is that you aren’t alone if you have KP. Despite what the internet might lead us to believe, no one has perfect skin. KP is different from acne. It is a very common condition resulting from a buildup of keratin in hair follicles. Keratin is a hard protein which normally works to protect skin from harmful substances and infection. With KP, keratin forms a plug which blocks the opening of hair follicles, resulting in small bumps. As a result, it is sometimes referred to as “chicken skin.” KP is most common on upper arms, legs, and butt. Although the bumps are harmless, KP can cause psychological distress and make people hyperaware and/or self-conscious of their skin.

There are two major factors which contribute to the severity of KP: dry skin and keratin production.

The drier your skin is, the worse KP tends to be. It’s common for KP to get worse as humidity falls during winter months.

Factors influencing keratin production are less straightforward, and researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes the buildup of keratin in KP. It seems genetics may play a role, as KP tends to run in families. Other factors can contribute to the severity of KP, including pregnancy, diabetes, and obesity.

My Struggle with KP

I first started dealing with KP in April 2020 when I finished Accutane. I’ve always struggled with body acne, so I didn’t realize at first that I was dealing with KP. Because of COVID, I couldn’t get in to see my dermatologist. It was actually thanks to Curology I was able to identify my KP and find a treatment regimen that worked for me. I mainly deal with KP on my arms, although I’ve been getting it more on my legs and butt too now that my skin is drier in the winter.

This picture was taken in June 2020, about 2 months after I first started dealing with KP. For most people, KP will never look this severe or inflamed. My skin got to this point as a result of excoriation disorder (aka “skin picking disorder”). I plan on going into more detail about this in a different blog post- in summary, skin picking disorder belongs to a group of conditions called “Body-focused repetitive behaviors” (BFRB) which involves becoming fixated on real or perceived imperfections on my skin. This often results in compulsive picking, scratching, and popping to the point of bleeding. This frequently causes infections, inflammation, and permanent scars (like you can see in this picture). For me, managing my KP has also required management of my excoriation disorder (but that’s a subject for a different post).

How to treat KP at Home

There is no way to cure KP. As with most skin conditions, there are a variety of effective treatments which are available though dermatologists and healthcare providers, including lasers and topical prescriptions like retinoids. However, there are also a number of products you can use at home to help reduce the appearance and severity of KP.

Most products designed to treat KP help exfoliate, hydrate the skin, or both. These are the products I currently use to manage my KP at home.

Products I use

Personally, I’ve had a lot of success treating KP at home. I use a combination of products to help (gently) exfoliate and keep my skin hydrated.

One of my skincare staples is CeraVe Moisturizing cream. I’ve seen this product recommended by basically every dermatologist- it is dye and fragrance free, doesn’t clog pores, and it works. I apply this to my entire body whenever I get out of the shower. It uses hyaluronic acid and ceramides, which work together to help skin retain moisture.

Without getting too technical: hyaluronic acid plays an important role in many areas of our bodies, including our skin. In the skin, hyaluronic acid binds to water, which helps the skin stay hydrated and regulate water balance. Overall, hyaluronic acid is extremely important for our skin structure, physiology, tissue repair, and a lot of other things. By contrast, ceramides are lipids (fats) that make up a significant amount of our skin barrier. In other words, they help hold skin cells together and play an important role in moisture retention. Products which use both hyaluronic acid and ceramides (like the CeraVe cream) don’t just moisturize your skin, they help your skin retain that moisture better.

Another product I rely heavily on is 2% salicylic acid body wash. Salicylic acid is an ingredient which can treat a wide variety of skin conditions, including KP. Generally, salicylic acid makes it easier to shed dead skin cells in the epidermis (the outermost layer of our skin), which can help prevent the clogging of pores. Currently, I use Curology’s acne body wash (with 2% salicylic acid). Another alternative is Neutrogena’s Body Clear Acne Body Wash (also with 2% salicylic acid; $5.94). I try and avoid the versions with exfoliating beads, since they can create micro abrasions that irritate your skin. Tip: for both body acne and KP, I’ve gotten better results by massaging and allowing the cleansers to sit on my skin for 30 to 60 seconds before rinsing off.

The product that really made a difference in my struggle with KP was Amlactin Daily moisturizing body lotion ($12.97). Amlactin uses 12% lactic acid, which is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Like salicylic acid, AHA’s promote exfoliation (shedding of surface skin). I apply this lotion to my upper arms, shoulders, and chest twice a day almost every day, and the results speak for themselves. More recently, I’ve been trying out First Aid Beauty KP Body Eraser Body Scrub (with 10% AHA; $10). This product is more abrasive, so I only use it a couple of times a week. I haven’t been using this long enough to really know how much of a difference it is making.

My results treating KP at home using Amlactin lotion.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind: products used to treat KP like salicylic acid and AHAs can increase sensitivity to UV rays. If you use these products, make sure to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing whenever you are spending time outside.

Although KP is technically harmless, I know firsthand the toll it can take on your self-image and confidence. If your skin isn’t responding to at-home treatments, it may be time to see a dermatologist.

Rose Gold: Everything You Need to Know

Either I’m crazy, or rose gold has gained a *lot* of popularity in recent years. It seems like almost every technology device from phones to Fitbits now come in a metallic pink color dubbed “rose gold.” (The same goes for office supplies and home décor.)

Rose gold was never something I thought much about prior to getting my engagement ring. Something that I never realized is that true rose gold isn’t pink at all- it’s copper. Being the science nerd that I am, I immediately wanted to know why.

In this post, I wanted to take a deep dive into rose gold, including how I became interested in it, why we use gold for jewelry, what rose gold even is, whether you should get a rose gold engagement ring, what it means for jewelry to be gold-plated, and more.

My Engagement Ring

Personally, I’ve never liked the look of yellow gold, so I had always assumed my engagement ring and wedding band would be white gold. Rose gold simply wasn’t something I had really seen before I got my engagement ring.

My husband worked with my best friend (who could access my Pinterest) to design a custom engagement ring using the diamonds from my mother-in-law’s rings. They knew I didn’t like yellow gold, but ended up choosing 14K rose gold. It really surprised me, but I immediately loved it. The contrast between the copper color of rose gold and the diamonds made my ring pop in a way that white gold never could.

Why Wear Gold Jewelry?

Why do we use gold so much for jewelry in the first place?

Generally, metals are elements or compounds which are shiny (“metallic”) and conduct heat and electricity well. Many metals undergo a process called oxidation– chemical reactions with molecules in the air that alter their properties or appearance. A common example is oxidation is when metals like copper and silver tarnish. Tarnishing occurs when metals react with chemicals like oxygen or sulfur dioxide to form a dark, grey, or black film that covers the metal surface. This reaction is usually limited to the surface of the metal, so it can be removed via polish or chemical reaction.

Another familiar example of oxidation is rust, which forms when iron reacts with oxygen to produce reddish brown iron oxide. Over time, a sufficient buildup of rust can compromise the structural integrity of iron, which has contributed to numerous building and bridge collapses.

Iron products (like this chain) have a tendency to react with oxygen to form iron oxide, aka rust. Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

There are a handful of metals which tend not to react with oxygen in the atmosphere- including palladium, platinum, and (surprise!) gold. It isn’t just oxygen: gold doesn’t react with most chemicals (including most acids and bases). In other words, it stays nice and pretty and shiny without much upkeep. It’s also fairly soft, which makes it easy to form into jewelry. (Fun fact: gold is also a great conductor of electricity, so it is used in a fair amount of electronics too).

Is rose gold “real” gold?

In short, yes. (Or at least, it’s not any less “real gold” than most yellow or white gold rings)

In its pure form, gold is a bright, soft, yellow metal. When we think of gold in jewelry, most people think of yellow gold, which is more or less the color of pure gold. However, pure gold is very soft, which makes it poorly suited for jewelry (especially rings). Most yellow gold rings are made of 14 or 18 karat gold- which are only about 58% and 75% gold, respectively. In other words, yellow gold rings are made of a gold alloy: a mixture of gold and other elements, typically copper and zinc. Alloys are substances which are formed by a mixture of metals and one or more other elements. Combining metals to form alloys can alter their properties. In the case of gold, alloys tend to have increased hardness or a different color compared to pure gold. The purity of gold is measured by Karats, topping out at 24 Karat gold (which is 99.9% gold).

Most people are probably familiar with white gold. White gold is a gold alloy made with silver-toned metals such as nickel, silver, and/or palladium. Rings which are 14 or 18 Karat white gold are as much gold as 14 or 18 karat yellow gold rings- the only difference is what the gold is mixed with. It is worth noting that white gold can potentially be irritating if you have nickel allergies.

Similarly, rose gold is also a gold alloy, but is made instead with copper (although it may also include small amounts of silver). A ring which is 18 Kt rose gold is roughly 75% gold and 25% copper (hence why the color resembles copper), although the exact amounts of different metals may vary between sources. Because it is mixed with gold, the copper in rose gold shouldn’t tarnish like pure copper. However, high durability of copper compared to the metals in yellow and white gold supposedly can make it more durable than yellow or white gold.

There are variations of rose gold, depending on the amount of copper used. 18 K Pink gold is rose gold which uses slightly less copper (~20%), whereas 12K red gold is rose gold with a higher percentage of copper (~50%).

Rose, yellow, and white gold jewelry are all made of gold alloys. Image from Diamonds Pro

Things to Consider

Gold Plated vs. Pure Gold Jewelry

I’m not going to beat around the bush- gold is expensive. For this reason, a lot of people (including me) tend to opt for cheaper options- like gold-plated or gold filled jewelry.

What does that mean? This post by Automic Gold illustrates the differences very well.

Gold-plated jewelry is any metal (silver, brass, etc.) coated with a thin layer of gold. It’s cheaper than other options because it uses less gold. Gold-filled jewelry is basically gold-plated jewelry, but with slightly more gold. The drawback of these kinds of jewelry is that the gold can rub off or wear down over time, revealing the metal underneath. Unlike tarnished silver, you can’t fix this because the gold is simply gone. This is something I’ve had a lot of issues with when it comes to rose gold jewelry in particular. As my friend Amanda put it: It’s all rosy until it’s not.

Quite simply, you get what you pay for with gold jewelry. With gold plated jewelry, you may find yourself having to replace the items every few months (a cost which adds up over time). I’ve purchased a number of rose gold plated jewelry, and most of them have not stood the test of time. Not only is this frustrating, it’s not very sustainable either. Gold mining is a major source of mercury and other types of pollution, and that worn-down gold plated necklace will most likely end up in a landfill. For items you wear regularly, it might be better to purchase solid gold. When you consider the cost of having to regularly replace gold-plated items, the cost of one solid gold piece may not actually be much different. Bonus: there are companies like Automic gold which make solid gold jewelry from recycled and reclaimed gold (which helps minimize the impact from gold mining, since roughly 50% of new gold production goes towards jewelry).

There is a time and place for gold-plated jewelry- especially for items you don’t wear often. Ironically, I would recommend gold-plated options for special occasion jewelry (like wedding jewelry). For my wedding, I opted for rose-gold plated earrings and bracelet, which has been fine since I’ve only really worn them once. By contrast, my engagement ring and wedding band (which I wear everyday) are both solid gold and have held up extremely well.

For my wedding jewelry, I opted for rose gold plating since I knew I would not be wearing the pieces regularly.

Style & Fashion

Personally, I’ve really come to love rose gold. As someone with fair skin, I like the warmth that it brings while contrasting nicely with my skin. However, it’s definitely not as common as yellow or white gold. If you have a rose gold wedding band or engagement ring, it can be hard to find everyday, durable, affordable jewelry in rose gold.

If you’re considering a rose gold engagement ring, I would ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • Do you mind mixing metals? In other words, will it bother you if your necklace is silver and ring is rose gold? Your everyday rose gold options may be pretty limited, so rose gold may not be a good fit for you if you like wearing jewelry but don’t like wearing mixed metals. (If that sounds like you, white gold may be a better fit since sterling silver jewelry is pretty easy to come by. Even if it tarnishes, that can be remedied pretty easily with some polish and a cloth).
  • What colors are in your wardrobe? Personally, I don’t think rose gold goes well with all colors. Take stock of your wardrobe and ask yourself “do I like how this looks with the color copper?” If you feel like it clashes, you might want to pick a more neutral metal. Most of my wardrobe is neutral colors, so rose gold meshed well with most of my clothing.

If you don’t think either of those will be an issue for you than rose gold might be a good option for you! Although each type of gold alloy has their pros and cons, they are all well suited for rings. At the end of the day, your choice of metal for an engagement ring, wedding band, or other jewelry should largely be based on your personal preference.

Final Thoughts

To recap:

  • Gold tends not to undergo chemical reactions, which is part of why it is so popular in jewelry.
  • Yes, rose gold is “real” gold.
  • When it comes to jewelry, solid gold pieces are more sustainable and durable than gold-plated ones.
  • I really love my rose gold engagement ring, but it’s not for everyone. It’s something that should likely be left to personal preference.

How do you feel about rose gold? Would you get a rose gold engagement ring? Let me know in the comments down below!

The Best Way to Propagate Spider Plants

If you follow my Instagram, you know that I own a *lot* of plants. A few weeks ago, I was handed down my grandmother’s spider plant. I’m not one to say no to a free plant- besides, how hard could it be?

What is a Spider Plant?

Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are a common houseplant which are allegedly easy to care for (I just got one, so I don’t have much firsthand experience to back that up). These plants are native to tropical and southern Africa, and tend to do best indoors with bright, indirect light.

This is the spider plant I received from my grandma. It actually consisted of several plants together in a single large pot. You can see tendrils extending from the plant with a handful of young “plantlets”

What makes spider plants unique is their reproductive strategy- they produce long tendrils which produce small plantlets, which are basically tiny plants with their own roots and leaves. What makes spider plants fun is that these plantlets are easy to remove and grow into new plants, aka propagating. (Disclaimer: it helps if you wait until the plantlets have begun developing roots).

When I received my spider plant, it had A LOT of plantlets. I removed 33 which had already begun to develop root nodes. Since I had so many (and had never attempted propagating this plant before) my husband and I thought it would be fun to try three different propagating methods: damp paper towels, water propagation, and soil propagation.

The Experiment & Methods

On November 23, 2020, I removed 33 plantlets from the mother plant, dividing them equally into three groups of 11 (each with a variety of plantlet sizes). These groups were then assigned to one of three propagating treatments:

  • Damp paper towels: I placed 11 plantlets into two bowls lined with paper towels. I heavily misted the plants/towels with distilled water until the towels were thoroughly damp. I repeated this at least every morning.
  • Water propagation: I divided the 11 plantlets among 4 small glass containers, which were filled with tap water until the roots were submerged. If water levels got low, I would add more until the roots were submerged again (once or twice a week).
    • Tip: For containers, I use a variety of glass containers that I’ve acquired over time. I find shot glasses to work especially well for propagating.
  • Soil propagation: I divided the 11 plantlets into two 3.5 inch nursery pots containing soil medium (Miracle Gro potting soil). I ensured that the roots were below the soil surface, and lightly packed the soil down. At the initial planting, I watered thoroughly with tap water until water drained out the bottom. In the following days, I would periodically spray the soil every couple of days (the goal was to keep the soil damp, but not saturated).

All 33 plantelets were placed in a northeast-facing window, which recieves bright, indirect light for 8-9 hours a day.

The experimental setup. The “Paper Towel” group is in the white bowls on the left, the “water propagating” group is in 4 glass containers at the top of the image, and the “soil propagating” group is in the two pots in the bottom right of the image.

The Verdict

The Loser

Propagating the plantlets on damp paper towels did. not. work. for. me. As of December 1st, there was no visible root growth and the leaves were beginning to wilt. At that point, I decided to terminate that treatment and shifted the plants to water (where they quickly recovered and began growing roots). I *might* have been more successful if I had attempted to create a small greenhouse using plastic wrap- but since there were other clearly effective methods, I didn’t feel like it made a lot of sense trying to make it work.

Aside from the fact this method did *not* work for me, there were some clear cons- the most obvious being that I had to water these every. single. day. Possibly more than once a day, as the towels often dried out in a matter of a few hours. Even if this method worked, the upkeep made this technique far inferior to the other two (in my opinion).

After 8 days, there was no visible root growth on the paper towel group. (Any new growth on the roots would be visibly white)

The Winners

Both water propagating and soil propagating worked very well. Let’s break down what happened for each one:

Remaining plantlets in the soil and water propagating groups as of December 9, 2020.

Water Propagating

With the water propagating treatment, plantlets began growing new roots within 24 hours. I simply left the plants be, checking the water levels about once a week. I’d say that within 14 days the plantlets were ready to be potted in soil.

Personally, this might be my favorite method since it is easy to gauge root growth. It was low maintenance and it worked. What’s not to love?

ProsCons
1. Easy and low maintenance
2. Can easily view root growth
3. Easy to assess when more water is needed
1. water lacks nutrients, so it is not sustainable long-term- you will want to eventually move the plantlets to soil
Pros and cons of water propagating

Soil Propagating

The progress of the soil propagating group was harder to assess. All I really had to go on was whether the plantlets felt stable (from well established roots). I had no idea how they were really doing until I pulled one up on December 9th to compare it with the water propagating group. I wasn’t a fan of the fact there wasn’t an obvious indicator when the soil needed more water. (Unlike the water propagating group, where you can see if the water level is getting low).

ProsCons
1. Easy
2. Plants have access to nutrients
3. No re-potting necessary
1. Cannot view root growth
2. More difficult to gauge when water is needed
Pros and cons of soil propagating

Something I wasn’t expecting was how different the roots grown in soil looked from those grown in water. The water propagated plantlets had long, healthy roots, but the soil propagated ones were much more…robust.

Root growth after 16 days for soil propagating group (bottom) and water propagating group (top)

Why do the roots look different?

At maturity, spider plants produce fleshy, tuberous roots. These tubers are enlarged roots that help store nutrients that can sustain the plant in times of hardship (sort of like our body fat, which helps store energy for future use- more on that in another post).

These are the roots of the mother spider plant. You can clearly see the enlarged tubers compared to the normal roots. These sections of root store energy and nutrients for future use.

I was having a hard time finding any research to explain the different root results between the propagating methods, so here’s my best guess: spider plants need access to nutrients in order to store nutrients (e.g. produce tubers). The plantlets that were propagating in water didn’t have access to any nutrients, meaning there was nothing to store in tubers. On the other hand, the soil propagating group *did* have access to nutrients. The enlarged size of the soil propagating plantlet roots makes me think that they were beginning to form tubers. I’m not sure what difference (if any) this will make in the long-term success of the plantlets.

Final Thoughts

Something to consider: the ultimate goal is to eventually move your plantlets to soil. At this point, I can’t say whether the differences I observed in root growth will impact the plants at all in the long run. (Perhaps I will have to make an update in a few months!)

Whether soil or water propagating works best is probably up to you- would you forget to regularly dampen soil? Do you want to avoid the hassle of moving the plantlets to soil after water propagating them? I’ll leave it up to you which method to use.

On December 9, I moved all remaining plantlets to soil.

Would you like to see me do a future update on the spider plants? Have you ever tried propagating spider plants? If so, how did it go? Let me know in the comments!

35+ Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Affiliate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

What’s the problem?

Plastic is EVERYWHERE. It’s cheap, lightweight, and durable, which means that it makes really great packaging for a lot of products.

Unfortunately, most plastic is not recycled. The EPA estimates that less than 10% of plastic in the US is recycled (I’ll go into the reasons for this in an upcoming post).

Most plastic ultimately ends up in landfills or polluting the environment. It is estimated that 8 million pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year. This is especially problematic because plastic doesn’t really break down, it breaks up- forming microplastics. These microplastics can pose risks to both aquatic life and human health.

Photo by Mumtahina Tanni on Pexels.com

Unfortunately, the supply of plastic for recycling far exceeds demand- meaning that plastic pollution is not a problem that can be solved by recycling alone. If we want to reduce plastic pollution, we need to try and cut back on the amount of plastic we use.

Here are 37 ways to help reduce plastic waste (broken up into 4 categories).

Tip 1: Minimize Plastic Packaging

One of the easiest ways to cut back on plastic is to opt for products with plastic-free packaging. Look for glass, metal, and cardboard alternatives (which are more likely to be recycled than plastic).

Examples:

  1. Buy eggs with a cardboard carton instead of plastic or styrofoam.
  2. Buy milk in a cardboard carton or glass bottle instead of a plastic jug.
  3. Opt for hygiene products which have plastic-free or “zero waste” packaging (more on this in a future post), such as:
  4. Buy in bulk: If you can afford it, buying large containers helps minimize plastic-to-product ratios. For example:
    • Buying a single refill 56 fl oz bottle of hand soap instead of 4+ individual soap pumps uses less plastic in the long run (especially since soap pumps are not recyclable).
    • The same applies for things like shampoo- I buy several 1L bottles of shampoo and conditioner when they go on sale, which is ultimately more cost-effective and produces less plastic than buying small bottles.
    • Buying one large bag of chex mix produces less plastic than several snack-sized bags.
Two plastic bottles of soap
When you buy a 56 fl oz bottle of liquid soap, it produces less plastic than 4+ individual 12 oz bottles, especially because soap pumps are not recyclable.
  1. Buy cat litter that comes in a paper bag instead of a plastic bin.
  2. Buy bulk coffee that comes in a paper bag.
  3. Bake your own bread.
  4. If you have access to a butcher when buying meat, have them wrap it in paper (instead of buying plastic-wrapped, pre-packaged meat).
  5. Shop in person when possible. I know this is particularly hard during the pandemic (and may seem a bit hypocritical given how many amazon links I’ve included in this post)- if you can find any of these products locally and feel comfortable going to the store, you’ll minimize plastic from shipping envelopes, bags, etc.

Tip 2: Minimize Single-Use Plastics

Single-use plastics account for 40% of the plastic produced every year. Here are some ways to cut back on single-use plastics:

  1. Switch to reusable metal or silicone straws (or forgo the straw altogether).
  2. Carry reusable cutlery.
  3. Use a reusable water bottle instead of disposable water bottles.
  4. Get less takeout- this cuts down on plastic from takeout containers, bags, styrofoam cups and lids, straws, napkins, etc.
  5. If you feel comfortable going in person to the grocery store, use reusable shopping bags.
  6. Tom and I buy our vegetables in bulk and use reusable mesh produce bags like these to reduce plastic packaging from fresh produce.
  7. Consider switching from pre-packaged makeup remover wipes to makeup removal cloths or reusable cotton rounds.
  8. Switch to more sustainable menstrual products, like Thinx period underwear or menstrual cups (more on that in a future post).
  9. Use reusable Keurig cups.
  10. Use reusable silicone bags instead of ziploc bags (they’re dishwasher safe, too!)
  11. Switch to reusable alternatives to plastic wrap, like reusable beeswax wraps, silicone stretch lids, or reusable elastic bowl covers.
  12. Use or make reusable cloth face masks
  13. Get a reusable silicon q-tip
  14. Buy gatorade powder and mix it in reusable bottles instead of buying pre-mixed, bottled gatorade
  15. Bring your own containers and buy spices, tea, coffee, etc. in bulk.
  16. Buy replacement ink cartridges for pens instead of buying new pens.

Tip 3: Switch to More Sustainable Alternatives

Disclaimer: before you go running out to buy any of these things, make sure that it is something you actually need. Don’t go throwing away your perfectly good plastic hairbrush in the name of sustainability. Wait until you need a new hairbrush, then think about buying a bamboo one.

  1. Switch to a bamboo hairbrush or toothbrush.
  2. Buy a metal razor– the blades are recyclable!
  3. Replace plastic tupperware for glass or steel containers.
  4. Use or make reusable cloth face masks
  5. Buy clothing second hand at a local thrift shop or from ThreadUp.

Tip 4: Reuse

Inevitably, you’re probably going to find yourself in possession of plastic items at some point. Before recycling, one option is to reuse these items. For example:

  1. Use a plastic cat litter bin as a mop bucket
  2. Use a plastic egg crate as a seed propagation tray
  3. Use plastic containers to store craft supplies
  4. Reuse old spice jars
  5. Use plastic bags for trash bags or to collect pet waste
  6. Use plastic to-go containers to propagate plants (watch a video on how to do this here)

Looking for more ideas for reusing plastic items? Check out these blog posts:

Progress, not Perfection

If you’re like me, thinking about the amount of plastic in our lives can get very overwhelming very quickly. Please don’t feel like you need to implement every single item on this list in your life. Focus on what seems practical and achievable for you. We don’t need a handful of people living a plastic-free life perfectly, we need everyone doing it imperfectly.

Have other ideas or product recommendations for reducing plastic consumption? Share them in the comments section!