Category Archives: Science & Environment

Make it Blue! Make it Pink!: How and Why Hydrangeas Change Colors

Haley Huett

A&E Editor




As we enter the days of balmy spring weather, we can expect to see many of our favorite flowers once more. Daffodils that come in the early days of the season or honeysuckle in the hot days of summer are some classic staples, but perhaps the most anticipated floral debut is that of the hydrangea macrophylla, or the big-leafed hydrangea. 

A common sight in many gardens, the plant is known for its large, spherical blooms comprised of what appear to be smaller flowers. In shades of blue, pink, red or purple, the hydrangea is appreciated throughout for its beauty and vibrance. However, something else makes this plant stand apart. The hydrangea is a backyard pH test!

A hydrangea’s hue indicates the pH level of the soil in which it grows. Blue blooms mean that the shrub is growing in acidic soil that has a pH less than seven. When the blooms turn red or pink, one can expect the plant to be growing in neutral or basic soil, where the pH is greater than six. 

This process occurs because the color of hydrangeas is determined by the availability of aluminum ions in the soil. The presence of aluminum in the hydrangea is responsible for changing the color. In acidic soil, aluminum ions can easily be absorbed by the flower, and there are plenty of ions available to interact with, turning the blooms blue. In neutral or basic soil, on the other hand, aluminum ions combine with hydroxide ions, which, when absorbed by the plant, keep the blooms red. 

Typically, aluminum is taken in through the roots, which changes the color. However, scientists are experimenting with new ways to change the hydrangea’s color without changing the soil. The plant will still change from red to blue if the aluminum is taken in through the petals, although this method is not effective in changing the blooms from blue to red.

Because the color of the flower is determined by the pH levels in the soil, many gardeners attempt to manipulate their blooms by adding different compounds to the soil. Dolomitic lime can be introduced to the soil to turn blue blooms pink, as well as phosphorus-based fertilizers. For a gardener who prefers blue, aluminum sulfate, as well as fertilizers with low levels of phosphorus and high levels of potassium, are sufficient in changing the color. Coffee grounds and compost can also be an effective way to lower the pH levels over time, leading to consistently blue hydrangeas. 

It is easiest to change a hydrangea’s color when it is planted in a pot, as opposed to open soil. Regardless of where it’s planted, it will likely take at least one growing season to see the full effects of the color change. The hydrangea is a beautiful addition to any garden, but it is so much more than just a pretty thing to look at. Next time you find yourself staring at a blue hydrangea, take a moment to consider exactly what that means!

How Do Seasonal Allergies Actually Work?

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor




Springtime at Wooster comes with a beautiful array of blooming trees, flowers and plenty of green grass. The spring seasons at Wooster also come with plenty of allergies. How can the magnolia trees lead to the continuous suffering of the student body? Blame your immune system. In an effort to protect you from foreign invaders such as pollen or other infectious particles. The immune system reorganizes an allergen as a foreign invader that could harm the body and creates a type of very specific protein, Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, that travel throughout the body and stimulate other immune cells to release inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. Cytokines are inflammatory agents that can react with normal cells of the body to cause reactions such as sneezing, coughing, inflamed and watery eyes and difficulty breathing. However, there is hope in the form of antihistamines, or anti-inflammatory drugs often used to treat allergies. These drugs contain chemicals in the correct shape to bind to the cellular machinery inside of T-cells to prevent them from becoming activated by foreign substances and stimulating the production of antibodies in response. Thanks to antihistamines, you can enjoy the plethora of flowering trees without an overreactive immune system. 

The Clean Water Act Celebrates Fifty Years

Jonathan Logan





The Clean Water Act (CWA) was presented by Congress in 1972 as a series of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Though it was vetoed by then President Richard Nixon, Congress ultimately overrode Nixon’s veto with a two-thirds majority. Now, 50 years on, the CWA remains among the United States’ most important environmental protection laws and has guided environmental policy for the past five decades. The CWA’s sister law, the Clean Air Act, was enacted in 1990. Since its passing, the Clean Water Act has made significant progress in “making our water swimmable and fishable.

During the 1960s and 1970s the American public became increasingly concerned with anthropogenic effects on the planet following revelations about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), carbon derivatives produced from the breakdown of methane, ethane and propane found in air conditioning units and blowing agents in foam which are used in aerosol sprays, and the igniting of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH in 1969. The amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act were so sweeping and wide-ranging that it took a completely new name, the Clean Water Act. Some of these amendments included establishing a system by which point-source pollutants could be regulated and controlled indefinitely, providing the funding for constructing sewage treatment plants and recognizing the importance of the problem of controlling nonpoint source pollution.

On that topic, lawmakers, policy advocates and scientists have come to realize that much work still has to be done in the way of nonpoint source pollutants. Nonpoint source simply refers to any and all contaminants that “do not originate from a discrete source.” Instead, these pollutants are total in their effect as they accumulate from multiple, mostly untraceable sources. Examples of nonpoint source pollutants include those generated from fertilizers and pesticides. In 2010, storm runoff saturated with fertilizers from nearby agricultural fields caused a toxic algae bloom in Grand Lake St. Mary’s, a large, shallow lake in western Ohio. The blue-green algae that coated much of the lake’s surface, Microcystis and Aphanizomenon, created a multitude of paralyzing neurotoxins which completely decimated the local ecosystem and the $160 million tourism business upon which many locals depended.

 Following the enactment of the CWA, a series of Trichloroethylene (TCE) plumes were discovered in Wooster’s well field. Previous students of the College have devoted their Independent Studies to the study and understanding of the contamination of Wooster’s freshwater supply by these TCE plumes. The CWA granted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) full authority in ordering and overseeing the clean up of the country’s water, and they wielded this power in Wooster concerning these TCE plumes (TCE is known to cause cancer).

While the Clean Water Act remains one of the greatest success stories in environmental law and protection, it still has a long way to go in truly making the waters of the United States “swimmable and fishable.” Due to climate change, the waterscapes of the country are changing in rapid and largely unpredictable ways; some regions receive far less precipitation while others receive much more. The overall effect is to create an uncertain future in which people must now consider access to clean, safe and abundant supplies of fresh water before they make big life decisions such as moving to a new state or starting a family. The CWA has made these decisions much easier in its 50 year history, but we are continually reminded of the great work that still lies before us.

Yoga Is Not Just for Soccer Moms, It’s Good For Your Health

Emma Davidson

Contributing Writer




If you were asked right now to quickly picture someone who practices yoga, chances are you might envision a very “granola” person, the suburban soccer mom or a preppy Lululemon type of 20-something woman. While these types of stereotypes persist, the reality is more and more people have begun practicing yoga for its physical and mental health benefits. 

Increasing numbers of peer-reviewed studies have found that regular yoga practice can be an effective intervention for affective disorders such as major depressive disorder, PTSD and various anxiety disorders in addition to physical ailments such as chronic pain. This is great news considering the stark rise in stress and stress-related illnesses in the United States and around the world. 

Yoga may have these effects by increasing the activity of the branch of the nervous system responsible for calming us down, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite of our “fight or flight” response, and not only helps us calm down mentally, but also mitigates some of the negative physiological effects that stress can have on the body. Stress is not just a mental feeling, but rather an entire cascade of events that occurs inside our bodies. Small and infrequent bouts of stress are helpful and are part of the process of learning and growth, but sustained or repeated stress, referred to as chronic stress, takes extreme mental and physical tolls. 

Activation of the stress response system, or “fight or flight response,” essentially leads to the release of cortisol, which has lots of different effects on various tissues and organs of the body – including the brain. Chronic stress takes a toll on our mental health by making it easier to activate our stress response system, and shifts our thought patterns from the more logic-based processes to more “stimulus response” reactions — essentially knee-jerk reactions rather than thinking things through carefully. Additionally, chronic stress has been shown to cause immune system suppression, increases in cellular damage and increases in inflammation and reactive oxygen species, which often manifest as physical pain.

Having a regular yoga practice can help mitigate these effects of stress by shutting down the stress response system of our central nervous system. In doing so, we can not only decrease the emotional feeling of stress, but also shut down the physiological stress response that occurs in our bodies, thus minimizing the negative physical effects of stress as well. This is a large claim to make, yet study after study continues to show that a consistent practice of yoga helps decrease stress and mitigate the physical effects listed above. For instance, one recent study found that a targeted regimen of Hatha style yoga significantly lowered ratings of chronic lower back pain compared to the normal medical interventions. Another study found that regular yoga practice decreased symptoms of PTSD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. One study even found that yoga was able to decrease the frequency of seizures in those with poorly controlled epilepsy.

But how do these changes happen? Widely defined, yoga is the practice of physical postures known as Asanas, and the way that you move through these postures differs based on the type of yoga that you are practicing. What is arguably most beneficial about the practice of yoga is the incorporation of mindfulness and breath work in addition to the physical work of moving through Asana postures. 

In addition to the endorphins that are released with physical movement, the control over your breath that occurs during yoga practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to calm you down and shut down the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response). The additional component of mindfulness – being consciously and intentionally aware of physical sensations – also helps to bring awareness back to the present moment and pause the stress response. This is one great example of how our brain not only controls our body, but physical bodily actions actually feed back to our brain and can operate as a “reset.” This mixture of concurrent physical movement, breathwork and mindfulness seems to offer a powerful triple whammy way to shut down the stress response, and in turn stop the negative effects of stress from occurring. 

Even better, the effects of practicing yoga can last much longer than just the time you are practicing. Some studies found that the positive effects were found up to six months after the completion of a six week yoga program. This is due to the way that pausing the stress response activation interrupts the feed forward loop that usually sustains high levels of stress.

 All this goes to say yoga is a wonderful practice – there are many types of yoga and finding one that suits you may be a great way to increase physical and mental wellbeing. In Yin yoga, or relaxation yoga for example, you hold each posture for long periods of time, working to increase flexibility, and paying special attention to your breath and bodily sensations. In contrast, vinyasa style or power yoga can be fast paced and physically demanding while still incorporating aspects of mindfulness.

Conveniently, Wooster offers three different styles of Yoga classes, each occurring weekly on campus in the Scot Center. Rachel David (who also serves as the Health Education Coordinator at the Wellness Center) teaches a beginner-level movement and mindfulness class Thursdays at 11 a.m. in the Hot box gymnasium, Annie Yoder teaches an all levels vinyasa class (well suited for beginners and the experienced alike) Tuesdays at 11 a.m. in the Hot Box gymnasium, and yours truly teaches a vinyasa power yoga class on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. in the aerobics studio in the Scot Center. These are great ways to try out yoga, and any of the instructors would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

Let’s Talk About Shit: How Fecal Waste Helps Detect Traces of COVID

Geoffrey Allen

Viewpoints Editor




That’s right! You read the title! Let’s talk about shit! I remember last year, two good friends of mine used to talk about it all the time in the toilet and I never got the appeal of it. But the other day I kinda did…if a Vox post on Instagram counts. You see, pooping is not just important for the sake of getting rid of human waste, nor is it just a social affair for two buddies in adjacent stalls to chat about what’s been going on in their life to pass time in the bathroom. Instead, it has become a way we fight off entire pandemics. This is because our waste helps detect traces of COVID-19 in our community. This strange, rancid and definitely stinky method of viral tracing has proven to be effective over the years and is finally getting the attention it deserves – including in our very own college spot here in Wooster, Ohio.

When analyzed, feces and urine are signifiers for an individual’s health. Perhaps we are all familiar with urine drug tests, but we never really knew why. This is because, due to human advances in genomic sequencing, scientists can decode what is found in waste. When we do our #1 or #2, our waste is distributed in wastewater and is taken to a treatment plant. Indeed, our sewage doesn’t just filter water in sewage systems. When collected at a treatment plant, samples are sent to environmental and public health laboratories for SARS-CoV-2 testing. Whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, people with traces of COVID-19 can shed a viral RNA in their feces. Once found, the data is sent to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on an online portal. The system then analyzes the data and reports results for use in their COVID-19 response. The results are also returned to the public through the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker so public health measures can be enacted. 

This method of epidemiology has been proven easier for contact tracers to locate COVID-19 in communities compared to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid antigen tests. Not only is it used by the CDC, but 63 other countries, including Israel, where the method was first tested in 2013. Many researchers hope that wastewater has the potential to be a basic part of global public health infrastructure. The head of the public health research data firm Biobot sees wastewater surveillance as a solution to many urban challenges in society – and it already is! Here at Wooster, wastewater surveillance is used as a COVID-19 tracing method as a part of an Ohio Health Department initiative from the fall of 2020.

So even if you may have considered shelving a nice poop collection in your dorm, it may just be best to simply let shit be – in the toilet. It may not be the most conventional method for health safety and prevention, but it has been able to contain COVID-19 in our communities and can combat the global crises of the future. It’s important shit to know.

The Many Ways to Say Happy Valentine’s Day

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Co-Editor


With Valentine’s Day coming up, lots of us are preoccupied with finding a partner. Aside from receiving flowers and an attractive personality, one trait that people often look for in a relationship is good communication. People are not alone in this quest. In fact, many organisms also look to communicate with each other, although it may look a bit different. There are many mutually beneficial relationships in the world of animals, plants and microorganisms. 

For example, bioluminescent bacteria (V. fischeri) can live inside of squid (Euprymna scolopes) to help them glow and evade predators and hide from prey. In this mutualistic symbiotic relationship, colonization of the bacteria triggers developmental events in the squid through the release of the correct sugars and amino acids. They quite literally grow up and spend the rest of their lives together. How romantic! 

Another common, somewhat risqué natural relationship is bacterial conjugation, also known as “bacteria sex” (or the subject of my IS). In this process, a bacteria senses a specific chemical inhabitant (like an antibiotic or cleaning solution) and will not survive unless it has a certain resistance gene to that compound. If the gene is present on one microorganism but not another, it will reach a segment of its filament out and pass the genetic information onto the other. This allows both organisms to serve in the inhibitory conditions. In certain conditions, they cannot live without each other. < 3

However, my favorite example of relationships in nature comes not from ocean animals or my own IS, but from plants. Even seemingly solitary trees in forests form partnerships among themselves and the bacteria at their roots. According to a research article by Dr. Suzzanne Simard, professor at the University of British Columbia, trees form partnerships in many ways. Chemical signals from one tree can be interpreted by another to warn them of danger. Tree roots and fungi can form a partnership, known as mycorrhizae, in which the fungi envelopes and fuses with the tree roots to help them extract water and nutrients. This can supply the trees with up to 40% of their nitrogen supplies and allows trees to share between 10-40% of the carbon stored in their roots. A true give and take relationship! 

The roots are a communication method within themselves. Stress signals upon the changing of leaves can transfer stress signals to nearby trees and cause them to increase and speed up their production of defensive enzymes. This may sound crazy, so how do we know that trees are in constant communication? Dr. Simard sent radioactive carbon molecules to one tree, caused distress (by putt a cloth over) a neighboring tree so it was shaded from the sun and then waited to see if the radioactive carbon would show up in the neighboring tree. It did. Through these back and forth conversations, trees can help each other out and increase the resilience of the whole community, much like a kindhearted neighbor loaning you some sugar. Given how long trees are around and how frequently and altruistically they communicate with each other, it makes the hope of a long and happy partnership seem more and more possible. 


For more information on talking trees, go to this TED Talk: