Category Archives: Profiles


Grow plants without water

Ever since humanity began to farm our own food, we’ve faced an unpredictable frenemy: rain. It comes and goes without much warning, and a field of lush leafy greens one year can crackle, dry up and blow away the next. Food security and fortunes depend on rain, and nowhere more so than in Africa, where 96% of farmland depends on rain instead of the irrigation common in more-developed places. It has consequences: South Africa’s ongoing drought — the worst in three decades — will cost it at least a quarter of its corn crop this year.

Biologist Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water) of the University of Cape Town in South Africa says that nature has plenty of answers for people who want to grow crops in places with unpredictable rainfall. She is hard at work finding a way to take traits from rare wild plants that adapt to extreme desiccation and use them in food crops. As the Earth’s climate changes and rainfall becomes even less predictable in some places, those answers will grow even more valuable. “The type of farming I’m aiming for is literally so that people can survive as it’s going to get more and more dry,” Farrant says. Continue reading


Ronnie Nader: Ecuador’s One-Man Space Program

Ronnie Nader is practically a one-man space program. Nader, a systems engineer and Ecuador’s only astronaut candidate, completed four years of cosmonaut training in Moscow in 2007, subsequently helped establish Ecuador’s own “vomit comet” zero-gravity training program, and managed the design, construction, launch, and operations of the country’s first two orbiting satellites in 2013. Continue reading

Why we need to build our own tsunami

Nobody likes tsunamis, but earthquake engineer Tiziana Rossetto at University College London (TEDx Talk: Engineering against tsunami) is hard at work building one of her own. Don’t worry — it’s not going to destroy your coastline. It’s a scale model designed to help Rossetto and other engineers better understand the precise sequence of events that take place during and after a tsunami. That could help them build better coastal defenses and more resilient buildings — and perhaps even tame the terrible toll of the next big one. Here’s why Rossetto’s ideas matter: Continue reading

Photo: Lucas Laursen.

Cave detective hunts for clues to past sea level

A yellow splash of light from Bogdan Onac’s headlamp bounces around the dripping orange walls of a cave like a frenetic firefly. At the other end of the beam, the University of South Florida paleoclimatologist explains that the walls of this cave, on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, have collected a bathtub ring of minerals as brackish water washes in and out. “Majorca is like a Gruyère,” Onac says, its underlying limestone filled with holes just like the cheese. Continue reading