NAU scientists and engineers showcase their world with all their mites

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Mountain Campus Science and Engineering Day will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, with most activities in the High Country Conference Center. It is part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science, in which all activities during the 10-day event are free. For information, log on to

Are you a good mite or a bad mite? That’s one of the questions scientists are asking with the help of Northern Arizona University’s powerful electron microscope on display at Mountain Campus Science and Engineering Day on Saturday, Sept. 26.

Magnified at 10,000 times its true size, even a good mite looks pretty scary. It’s a creature that lives on bark beetles and eats their eggs. A bad mite is one that grooms bark beetles and keeps them healthy.

Bark beetles have wreaked havoc on the drought-stricken ponderosa and pinyon pine forests of the West in recent years, killing thousands of trees and increasing the risk for catastrophic wildfire. Researchers are trying to figure out how the beetles know when a tree is stressed and how they communicate with one another.

“Students and scientists are looking at how bark beetles make sounds,” said Marilee Sellers, assistant director of NAU’s Imaging and Histology Core Facility. “If we can learn how to re-create the sounds or the pheromones that are attracting swarms of beetles to a tree, we can create a trap like a bug zapper to get the bugs before they get to the trees.”

Among the many displays, interactive exhibits—some with live unusual creatures—and fun exploding science activities like Alka-Seltzer rockets, Sellers will be showcasing some of the bugs that look particularly fierce when magnified 50 to 100 times.

magnified ant
An ant magnified 50 times larger than it’s normal size looks a bit more intimidating than usual.

If you can imagine a stink bug or cockroach gold-plated like jewelry, you may be able to imagine the kind of odd display she will have. She’ll be asking participants to vote for the ugliest bug, which she will have “blown up” to 50 or 100 times their normal size.

“Our Ugly Bug Contest is lots of fun,” Marilee Sellers, assistant director of NAU’s Imaging and Histology Core Facility, said. “It allows adults to be children again, and kids get interested in science by reading the descriptions of the bugs and learning about the electron microscope.”

Besides the monstrous magnified bugs, Mountain Campus Science and Engineering Day offers a mesmerizing Physics Magic Show, super-mileage and human-powered vehicles and robots.

“These robots are created and demonstrated by high school teams like Coconino High School’s Coconuts and the Verde Valley’s Sporks,” said Verde Valley Robotics board member Allison Kipple. “Our local teams have been super successful; the Coconuts have gone to nationals the last two years.”

“One thing that I am grateful for is the faculty involvement in Mountain Campus Science and Engineering Day,” said Deb Larson, associated dean of the College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences. “It’s a great example of how much our faculty members care about science and engineering and getting the community involved while engaging tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.”