Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part III: Basilisks

For my third Fantastic Beasts issue, I wanted to focus on another beast from a city I – albeit briefly – lived in: the basilisk.

In the meantime, the movie has been released, and I also couldn’t come up with anything more to say about the basilisk than I already have, here and here.

So I’ll just leave you with this comic:




Last week, I was in New York City.

For the most part, I was on holiday.
*cue 3-line rant about how amazing it was*
I can’t stress enough how amazing it was – obviously; New York is awesome – and how much delicious food we had – lobster sandwiches and NY pizza and (no-Turkey-for-me) Thanksgiving dinner – and how sad I am about being back in the real world.
*end rant*

But alongside the fun and leisure, I also volunteered for a science education event organised by RockEdu, Rockefeller University’s educational outreach office.

Apparently, it was surprising that I would give up half a day of my holiday to volunteer at an outreach event. But to me, it was an interesting experience, an opportunity to try out my outreaching enthusiasm in a different context, make some useful connections and most of all, a whole lot of fun! After this experience, I’d really like to pitch a new idea: EduTourism (#EduTourism, spread the word, folks): volunteering in educational programmes while on holiday. It gives a new perspective on outreach, it gives you a good excuse to visit another academic institution, and it is a perfect way to interact with locals! Also, it makes you feel that your trip was more than just a – albeit entertaining – waste of money.

What I especially liked about the RockEdu lab, was how organised everything is. Instead of the usual format of a science education team, i.e. a bunch of volunteering PhD students and PostDocs who want a break from their research and the occasional coordinating staff member, RockEdu has a team of 5 or 6 people permanently working in outreach. They write grants, create activities, set up mentoring programmes, coordinate summer projects, etcetera etcetera. Moreover, they have a lab space that is exclusively and specifically used for science education. Instead of activities carried out in some corner between labs or in an improvised table-based laboratory missing crucial equipment or sockets, these benches are meant for education! Classes can come in – for free – and participate in a science experiment tailored for their age and level.

So I spent part of the day helping a group of 16ish-year-old AP bio students through a GFP purification process, something I myself knew about but had never actually carried out. Using blue flashlights and yellow goggles, the whole process could be followed closely, which was pretty neat. We learned about proteins, fluorescence, jellyfish, what doing a Phd is all about. We ran a gel and looked at some GFP-expressing worms as an example of an in vivo application. I thought it all was pretty cool and the students also seemed to have enjoyed themselves (while learning something, of course).

Overall, I’m really glad I took the time to participate in EduTourism, and totally hope that this will become an actual thing.


Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 09.25.24.png
C. elegans with GFP. Image from @RockEdu (twitter)


Dundonian chicken

A few days ago, the Dundonian police made an unusual arrest: a chicken. She had been terrorising East Marketgate’s traffic by performing her own version of a very well-known chicken related joke [I’m not sure anyone knows the actual punch line though]. This caused major distractions to passing drivers and what I presume was a “viewing traffic jam”. [Google translate tells me “rubbernecking” is the correct translation of the work “kijkfile”, but I don’t quite believe it; I basically mean cars slowing down because their drivers want to look at the spectacle, resulting in congestion.]

The police arrested the chicken in their very own headless chicken manner. Twitter tells me this was hilarious to watch and possibly led to more VTJ. The chicken is still in custody, for all I know, until someone claims her back. The police promise to be taking very good care of her – maybe so she would provide them with omelette ingredients – and has placed a lost-and-found post on facebook.


For me, the best part of this story is that I found out thanks to my friend, who lives on the other side of the channel and read the story this morning in Metro during her daily commute. This Dundonian chicken has reached international news.

A tale of four giraffes

I have a sweet spot for giraffes. I’d like to say this is because they remind me of myself. Tall. Graceful. Beautifully spotted. Elegant. Content with strolling around all day slowely and chewing leaves. Have scary but awesome looking neck fights.

I’m taller than average, granted, but other than that I am not graceful, if I have spots they’re definitely not beautiful, elegance has never been used to describe me (clumsy however…), I tend to walk quickly and need a bit more nourishment than just leaves, and whoever even dares to get close to my neck will probably get a face-elbow in reply.

Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t find giraffes interesting, and I was quite excited to read that a giraffe-related discovery had been made recently.

There is more than one kind of giraffe.

There are four.

For years, well since 1758, it was assumed that there was one species of giraffes, grouping together nine sub-species. These nine are all relatively similar looking, except for some differences in their spot size and patterns. However, researchers have discovered that there are actually four genetically distinct species. They do not mate with each other in the wild, which was an unexpected finding because giraffes migrate over vast areas and they are able to interbreed in captivity.

You might not find this particularly intriguing, but I can’t help but thinking that it’s a “fun fact” to know that two giraffes, looking very similar, can actually be as different from each other as a brown bear to a polar bear.

Also, it’s like seeing evolution in action. Giraffes are a relatively young species so we are seeing the emergence of different species happen in real time.

Finally, it can give society the boost it needs to protect giraffes. Now that they are different species, three of them can be added to the list of highly endangered species. Which is awful, of course, but can provide the awareness we need to get the numbers back up. We need more of these majestic giraffes in the world. Not more weird tall people who clumsily stumble around in giraffe onesies. (Not me, at all.)


Read more about the four giraffe species in the original publication:




Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part II: Dragons

Now that I read (obviously, within 12 hours) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt is was time to continue my endeavour of fantastic beast post series.

So without much further ado, we’re here to talk about dragons.

Dragons are amazing and so are wyverns and drakes for that matter,because who doesn’t marvel at the thought of giant fire-breathing, flying lizards existing; and are the subject of many fantasy stories and fairy tails. Just to mention a few (it won’t be a few): the dragon Smaug that Tolkien envisioned in The Hobbit (and got surprisingly little screen time in the three movies), the four dragons that the Triwizard Tournamant champions battled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donkey’s fiery  girlfriend in Shrek, the topic of Lady Brent’s studies in Marie Brennan’s books, the telepathic Saphira (let’s forget there was ever a movie), Dani’s dragons (hopefully we’ll see more of them soon), and – of course there are many more – the dragon of Dundee.

Which is who I wanted to focus on in the first place.

Walking through the the city centre, it is hard to miss the Dragon statue perched on the main shopping road. Of course I have posed there for my very own “Mother of Dragon” photo (though I don’t really look blond or fierce enough), and it is quite common to see children climbing on it. But why is it there? All the other statues of Dundee (or at least the big ones, there are a few subtle hidden ones like the monkey and the squirrel that might be just random) are linked to Dundee itself; there is a Lemmings statue because the game was developed in Dundee, there are several statues of comic figures reminiscing the Journalism J of the three Js of Dundee, but what is the meaning of the Dragon?

Dundee Dragon (designed by Alistair Smart, photo from

I’m sure if I had lived through them, I would have now missed the days where I would have to go roaming in the archives of an old library to unravel the origin of the statue and the legends of Dundee Dragon. But it was a much easier task in the days of internet and google, the answer was just a click away. How anticlimactic.

As far as I understand, the story – the tale of Dundee Dragon and the Nine Maidens of Pitempten – was transcribed by Jervise, who lived in the nineteenth century. Though the story must be much older.

Because it obviously happened long, long ago, as these stories often do.

In that time, there lived a farmer in Pitempan (google does not give me an indication whether this place is real). He had nine pretty daughters, as one would have in those days. One day, the farmer was very thirsty, he probably had just woken from a night of ales with his mates in Pitempan Pub. The well, or his favourite well – because in those days one could be picky about the source of water – was in a marsh nearby the house. His youngest daughter, the fairest of all nine, though they were all so fair that had all one the Miss Pitempan title at some point in time, loved her father dearly and wished to aid him in quenching his thirst and ran to the well to fetch water. It was already noonish, so all the water had been used to do the washing and therefore new water was to be fetched. But the girl took too long to return and the father grew more restless. The eldest daughter took it upon her to check on her sister and fetch the water for her father. When she did not return either, the next sister took the trip to the well and so on (there are nine in total, the story is quite repetitive) until only the middle sister was left. She assured her father that she would return soon, and followed the path her eight other sisters had taken into the woods. When she reached the well she was faced with a terrible sight! Among the bulrushes, her sisters lay mangled at the feet of a horrific dragon. She let out a cry in horror and tried to run away, but her head was chopped off immediately. Her cries had however attracted the attention of the inhabitants of Pitempan; amongst these townies was her bae, Martin, who was very noble and brave. He took up his sword, challenged the dragon and a long battle ensued. It is said the battle carried on from Pitempan to Balkello, whatever that means, but that eventually Martin succeeded in slaying the dragon. He was however overcome with grief, and his tears cause the spring in Pitempan, that was henceforth named the Nine Maiden Well, to be 0.01% more salty than fresh water springs should be. Multiple sculptured stones where erected to commemorate the tragic event: St Martin’s Stane at Balecco and the sculptured stone at Strathmartin. A carved Pict symbol marks the spot where the dragon was slain and Bishop David de Berham dedicated a church to St Martin – oh, did I mention this caused Martin to be sainted – in 1249.The farmer/father was never heard of again, legend says he tried to shed tears he did not have (you know, dehydrated from the night before) and shrivelled up and died (his body was never found). Finally, the city of Dundee wished to remember the tragic death of the dragon by erecting a statue in the centre of town, centuries later. *

Tempted at Pitempton,
Draigled at Baldragon,
Stricken at Strathmartin,
And kill’d at Martin’s Stane.

*Note, I may have made some of this up.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part I: Unicorns

Welcome to the first piece in our three-part series on fantastic beasts and where to find them. Or rather, exploring the question of why some countries or cities choose creatures from mythology and fantasy to represent themselves.
In this first part, we look at Scotland, that has chosen the unicorn as its national animal. That beautiful, noble creature that has annoying friends (Heeeeey, Charliiiieeee) perhaps, or maybe you know it for it’s mercury-like blood that grants the drinker an eternal but cursed life. 


The Unicorn.
Maybe first, let’s point out that unicorns


exist. They’re just not as elegant as we thought. No, I’m not talking about rhinos, their horn is made out of only keratin and do not have a bone core. So they are not technically horns.


Okay, I misspoke, unicorns 


existed. Quite recently 

scientists found

 that the last unicorn roamed Siberia 29,000 years ago. 
Elasmotherium sibericum. Face it, it’s just a really hairy unicorn.

And in a way narwals are the unicorns of the sea.

Or not.
So why is the unicorn the national animal of Scotland then? Well, it’s quite straightforward actually. Unicorns are the natural enemy of Lions. The symbol of the English royals was a Lion. And Scotland hasn’t always been the biggest fan of England. Especially not in the late 1300s. Bam, you have just been 



The Lion & The Unicorn - Traditional Nursery Rhyme Poster

The (mythological) hatred between Unicorns and Lions goes back 3,700 years, to ancient Babylon, where unicorns where worshipped (and Lions presumably were not?). Another random fact: in the Middle Ages, recipes for how to cook a lovely unicorn steak circulated, many think these were spread by the English, perhaps in an attempt to prey on the Scottish urge for fine cuisine.


In any case, one can understand the Scottish choosing the unicorn as their national animal. Apart from the lion-unicorn-feud, unicorns where known for their nobility and purity. As one myth goes, a snake would regularly poison the water hole, but luckily the unicorn would always come and dip it’s horn in it, cleansing there water for all the other animals. It would use its immense powers to protect the others rather than dominate. In times where chivalry was considered one of the greatest virtues and everyone wanted to seem nobel, this mythical animal must have sounded very attractive. King Robert thus chose this animal, with amazing powers and the ability to dominate but with the modesty and grace to use this power to protect the other animals, to be the national emblem of Scotland in the late 1300s.

The unicorns’ existence wasn’t disproved until 1825 when the evil scientist Baron George Covier, who theorised that an animal with a split hoof could never have a single horn. (I’m sure Baron Covier was not actually evil, I just don’t understand why anyone would want to disprove it’s existence!)
In Scottish folklore, the Unicorn is not the only mythical creature thought to exist. And after I’ve spent some time in the highlands, I’ve started to understand why. Some landscapes, views and forests seem to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale (or out of a Lord of the Rings movie sometimes. It’s not so hard to believe that fairies and Will o’ the wisps reside somewhere in mighty redwoods or in a lone blooming trees…