Ten minutes with…Leslie Vosshall

Fernando Bejarano


Leslie Vosshall Photo by Fernando Bejarano

Last year, gender inequality in science hit the headlines of numerous major scientific journals. Several remarks from notable scientists about their thoughts on women working in science brought up again the dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to the public consciousness. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nowadays women make up almost half of the total US workforce and half of the college-educated workforce. However, women are much less represented in STEM fields, holding less than a quarter of the STEM jobs.

It is known that women hold a low share of undergraduate STEM degrees. It is curious that women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to become STEM professionals. On the other hand, women with STEM majors are twice as prone as men to work in healthcare or education. One imagines that there are many factors contribute to this disparity of men and women in STEM fields, such as gender stereotyping, lack of female role models, less family-friendly flexibility, motherhood or even gender biased hiring.

There is considerable research demonstrating gender biased hiring practice in a variety of fields, but do these practices also plague the science field? A study published by Moss-Racusin et al. in PNAS (2012), tells us that these types of practices not only occur in science but they are more common than we imagine, happening frequently in a field where its members have been rigorously trained to be objective. You may be surprised to know that if your name is Jennifer your chances of working in science, technology, engineering or math are considerably lower than if your name is John. It won’t make much difference if your name is Mary, Lisa or Amy. There is a disparity when you compare yourself with other male opponents such as Charles, James or Brian. You will also make less money for the same job, and if you ever get a tenure track position in an elite institution you will be surrounded by many male colleagues. Such is the worrisome situation of women in science presented by this study.

However, looking at the career of our guest, you could think that things would be different if your name was Leslie Vosshall. Success seems to follow her around. She managed to thrive in a challenging environment, while achieving a meteoric rise to excellence in science. Her career could be considered as a perfect illustration of gender equality pursuit in biosciences. Born and raised in New York City, Vosshall received her B.A. in biochemistry from Columbia University, and her Ph.D. in molecular genetics from The Rockefeller University (RU). After graduate school she returned to Columbia University for her postdoc under the mentorship of Nobel Laureate Richard Axel. Leslie Vosshall has made important discoveries in the field of olfaction since her early days in as a neuroscientist. She started by decoding the olfactory sensory map of the very cute fly Drosophila melanogaster. Her scientific discoveries continue to unveil the mysteries of the brain, covering a variety of models from insect to human. After a successful postdoc, she came back to RU as an assistant professor, where she currently holds the position of Head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. She spent years having fun with pheromone perception, odorant receptors, chemotaxis behavior, odor memories, and building a molecular architecture of smell in flies, mosquitoes and vertebrates. In another era, she could have been the most prosperous perfume chemist in all of Europe. Let’s say that with her proficiency, she would have blown away the sense of smell of Louis XIV! With the Sun King in her favor, I imagine her as one of the most influential people in the eighteenth century Versailles Court.

Once again, knowledge is power and whether in the eighteenth or the twenty-first century, it is no doubt that she is an outstanding female role. As a sign of quality, we can observe a consistency in her publications in top peer-reviewed journals. She also manages to share time with her family, including two children. During her career she has been the recipient of many awards and honors: the Prize for Innovative Research in Neuroscience by Duke University, the New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) among others. In 2015 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, quite an outstanding achievement reserved only for top leading researchers, and where every year only a few women are picked to be part of this select group of scientists.

I am certain that her career path was not easy; that it was hell until she got here; but also despite the draining effort, she enjoyed it all along. I assure you that she would not switch places with any male coworker, or have chosen a non-STEM career. Leslie Vosshall would do it all over again for gender equality in science, for a more family-friendly environment in STEM careers and for the future generations of women participating in life sciences.

This is what Leslie told us: Continue reading


Susan Russo

The Pew Research Center has over the past few years collected data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States Elections Project, and other national and international election authorities to estimate voter turnout in thirty-five nations in each of their last national elections. The countries studied are the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In six of these countries (Australia, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, and Turkey), voting is compulsory, but the laws aren’t always strictly enforced and the penalty for not voting may be modest. For example, in Australia the penalty for not voting is the equivalent of US $20, which is waived if you can prove that you had no way to get to the polls or legally submit a ballot.

Of the thirty-five nations included above, the United States is thirtieth in this list (based upon the most recent national election and excluding the U.S. mid-term elections), with 53.6% of the estimated 241 million “voting-age” population voting in the 2012 Presidential election. However, we do rank above Switzerland, where the estimated turnout for the last national election was less than 39% (even though one section (“canton”) in Switzerland does have a compulsory voting law).

The highest voting percentages were in Belgium (87.2%), Turkey (84.3%), and Sweden (82.6%). Of course there can be serious political divisions, loss of confidence, and economic and social factors (as now in the United States) in every country, which can alter the turnout over the years. For instance, in 1992 Slovenia’s voting turnout was 85%, but was 54% in 2015. Japan, as well, had a high voter turnout (75%) in 1990, but fell to 52% in 2014. In addition, the voting-age population used to calculate these statistics includes people who are not eligible to vote (e.g. non-citizens) and the percentage of the population that is ineligible to vote may vary among the OECD countries.

The statisticians at Pew found that in the US, in 1996, when President Bill Clinton ran for his second term, the voting percentage was 48%, and in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected for his first term, the percentage rose to 57%.

A US Census Current Population Survey calculated statistics from the 2012 election, which report that the percentages of voter turn-out by region were Northeast 58%, Midwest 62.7%, South 55.7%, and West 53%.


Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes

Part XXII: Roderick MacKinnon, 2003 Prize in Chemistry

Joseph Luna


Photo Courtesy of THE rockefeller university

In the early 1950s, two English physiologists named Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley wrote a five-part magnum opus of papers formally describing the electrochemical basis of action potentials, those short lasting impulses that travel along nerve cells. Starting with electrophysiological measurements of squid giant axons, they formulated a precise mathematical model of how action potentials arise and propagate based on the movement of small charged atoms called ions, across a cell membrane. Hodgkin and Huxley made their way to Stockholm in 1963 for this work, having achieved a true breakthrough in neuroscience. Yet such a complete synthesis was more of a molecular starting point founded on a key assumption: the Hodgkin-Huxley model critically relied on the idea that the cell membrane underwent transient changes in ion permeability. In other words, the cell membrane possessed a highly optimized border control system that would permit some ions in (or out) at one specific time and place, but not at others. How such a system actually worked at the molecular level could only be guessed at. For their part, Hodgkin and Huxley dryly wrote that the “details of the mechanism will probably not be settled for some time.” Their assumptions turned into predictions—the richest of guides for future scientists, among them Roderick MacKinnon.

One vital element of the Hodgkin-Huxley model that captured MacKinnon’s fascination centered on potassium ions (K+) and the heroic feat they needed to pull off to escape the cell. With a radius of 1.38 Ångströms, these water-loving ions manage to cross a cell membrane that resembles a great wall of grease, over 40 Ångströms thick. This would roughly translate into a barrier eight stories tall for a human sized potassium ion—scalable perhaps by Superman, were the building not made of solid Krypton. K+ ions can’t manage such an exploit alone. To get around this, Hodgkin and Huxley postulated the existence of a channel that would ferret K+ ions out of the cell. Despite the idleness implied by the name, the channel they predicted was no ordinary hallway for K+ ions. For the Hodgkin-Huxley model to work, this channel needed to be a complex machine capable of differentiating K+ ions from among scores of other (often smaller) ions, and it also needed to open and close at precise moments. In other words, it was a very selective gate.

For MacKinnon, this presented a tantalizing puzzle to determine the molecular basis of ion selectivity. How did the channel conduct potassium ions, but not others, such as physically smaller sodium (Na+) ions? After undergraduate thesis research in Chris Miller’s laboratory at Brandeis University, MacKinnon took a slight detour to go to medical school, before finding himself back in the Miller lab, thirty years old and feeling behind as a scientist, for post-doctoral work. He quickly caught up, and found himself amidst exciting times for ion channel research in the late 1980s. As a postdoc, MacKinnon worked out the mechanism of how a scorpion venom toxin blocked K+ channels in skeletal muscle (it plugged the pore). The first K+ channel called Shaker was cloned from fruit flies around the same time. Performing a “let’s see what happens” experiment, MacKinnon determined that the scorpion toxin also blocked the Shaker channel. This was fortuitous, since it meant that the specific amino acids that interacted with the toxin could be mapped to help define the pore of the channel. It was a solid first step that harnessed the power of molecular biology to explain potassium selectivity. Over the next few years, MacKinnon with his newly established lab at Harvard, determined which amino acids were essential for potassium conductance, and in broad strokes, worked out what the channel ought to look like. They imagined a tetramer of protein subunits encircling a central pore that could open and close, and where each subunit contributed a loop of amino acids whose job it was to discriminate K+ ions. And yet, despite a wealth of biophysical and biochemical data, a satisfying explanation of how the channel conducted potassium much better than smaller sodium ions remained elusive. MacKinnon sought to “see” an ion channel.

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Culture Corner

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and the 2016 Presidential Election

Bernie Langs

I am close to finishing a masterpiece of historical and philosophical discussion written by Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), The Origins of Totalitarianism. My purpose in writing about this book is not to convince anyone to read it, because it is an extremely dense and difficult nonfiction tome. I subscribe to my belief in a “trickle-up” theory, that if certain opinions get into the public sphere, perhaps they will rise not only to the level of a wider public discourse, but eventually reach someone who has influence somewhere in the chain of actual political power.


Photo Courtesy of Harcourt Publication

Dr. Arendt’s book is a painstaking view on how Hitler and the Nazis and the likes of Joseph Stalin could create the totalitarian states in Germany and Russia, which depended on cooperation and coercion to their purposes of the existing political and military structures and personnel, along with crafting an agenda that would attract and integrate their general populations to their ideologies. I think that many of us believe we know how this happened. My personal narrative went something like this before I picked up this book: Hitler rode a tide of German resentment after its defeat in World War One, taking advantage of the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, economic calamities such as monetary inflation and unemployment, and utilizing as “scapegoats” the Jewish population with relentless propaganda and attacks. The choice of the Jews for Nazi hate and annihilation, I believed, was the remnant and culmination of medieval Christian anti-Semitism which basked in physical attacks on Jews for hundreds of years.

Aristotle wrote in his work, Politics “…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal…Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech…And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust…and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” I have always instinctively fought against and disliked this idea, mostly because I sense that if man is a political being, unlike the Greek’s belief that it leads to the common good, it is political nature that leads the species down the path to horrific events such as the Second World War and the Holocaust. And it was the “gift of speech” that was the incalculably helpful ally in the rise of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks that unleashed terror on the world that left countless millions dead.

After reading just the first few pages of The Origins, my idea of what caused the war (and why Hitler chose the Jews to attack) was shamefully exposed not only as overly simplistic, but downright ignorant. The first edition of the book appeared in the late 1940s and was revised over the next few decades for subsequent publications. I went in thinking I would take what I could from it, given that it is half a century old, and that in this current age of information, this is only Dr. Arendt’s view, and there are most likely many historians and social scientists who carefully refute her claims and ideas. But the real point is that Dr. Arendt doesn’t just study the post-Great War European climate to get to the causes of the unspeakable and well-organized slaughter, but meticulously traces it back to the late eighteenth century revolutions and the societies of the nineteenth century, showing how the situation slowly simmered to the boiling point of carnage. In this book we journey through France’s Dreyfus debacle and relive the nightmare of British imperialism. We follow both large and small political and social movements that are racist, jingoistic, hateful, and so on, some of which resonated with the populace of Europe, some that had no success, but all of which set the table for the rise to totalitarianism as practiced by Hitler and Stalin. There is an in-depth study of post-World War One stateless peoples of the European continent, noting how this sense of limbo experienced by millions gave rise to the horrific solutions offered by the Nazis. The Nazi ideology also finally gave an inclusive purpose to the listless masses of not only Germany, but other European nations as well, the breadth of which I had previously not been aware of.

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For Your Consideration – Ones to Watch, Vol. 2 Edition

Jim Keller

The storm of film festivals galore began at summer’s end with the one-two punch of the Venice (August 31 – September 10) and Telluride (September 2-5) film festivals. In recent years the former has been credited with birthing our eventual Best Picture winner into the world and so begins the Oscar race. In the second of a three-part series, we discuss the performances that are likely to feature in the Best Actor race.

billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-joe-alswynThis year’s race feels peculiar in that at September’s end the festivals have not yielded any consensus of frontrunners. By this time last year we had already seen the performances of Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) by way of Telluride and Venice, respectively, and Matt Damon (The Martian) via The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Currently, we have little to go on because the films that have been shown have centered on a female, not a male, lead. Considering the Academy’s history of mostly nominating films for Best Picture that have a male lead, this is a very good problem to have. One thing is certain: in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, there are high hopes for Denzel Washington (Fences) and Dev Patel (Lion). This isn’t to say that there aren’t performances already out there that could become consensus decisions (Casey Affleck, Joel Edgerton, Ryan Gosling), just that it’s too early to tell what critic groups might circle back to.

Before we get to this year, let’s recap last year’s awards.

Of the eight roles that were discussed here, three went on to secure Best Actor nominations. The biggest story was that after 22 years, the Academy finally broke down and awarded the top prize to Leonardo DiCaprio for his searing performance in The Revenant. There really wasn’t much of a competition, given how overdue DiCaprio was for a win. But outside of Fassbender’s performance in Steve Jobs and Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) and Damon (The Martian) managed to sneak in. There was a short snub list comprised of Johnny Depp (Black List) and Michael Caine (Youth) as Fassbender’s other performance (Macbeth), and Ben Foster’s in The Program were not able to find early footing. Mark Ruffalo, the last actor discussed here, wound up being nominated in the supporting actor for Spotlight.

THE HEE-RO: Joe Alwyn – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (director: Ang Lee):

FYC: Based on the novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, this drama concerns infantryman Billy Lynn (newcomer Alwyn) who recounts at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys halftime show that he and his squad members made an appearance in during the final hours before the soldiers return to Iraq. Alwyn is as green as they come, with only a single screen credit to his name for the TV series documentary short, A Higher Education. As one of Lee’s many directorial strengths is getting brilliant performances from his actors (see Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain), there is reason to expect the same here. Having been shot at 120 frames per second, the highest frame rate for a film to date, all eyes will be on Lee’s film when it bows at New York Film Festival later this month.

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New York-ese, or a Guide to the New York City Dialect

Aileen Marshall


Photo Courtesy of Daniel Schwen

People come to New York City for different reasons. Many come as tourists, others come to live and work here, not only from other parts of the United States, but from every corner of the globe. American citizens study standard American English in school. Visitors from other countries usually learn British English. Then they come to the city and hear phrases like “Hey, watcha doin?” or “Aw, fuhgeddaboudit”. Confused? Studies in standard English do not always prepare someone to interpret the New York City dialect. With that in mind, Natural Selections will be providing a new service. For the next few months, this column will give lessons in New York-ese. Each month will have a few new vocabulary words. Hopefully by the end, non-native New Yorkers will have a better idea what that man pushing past you on the subway is saying, or what those two hot dog vendors you just passed are fighting about.

Where did the New York City accent come from? Like the city itself, its origin is diverse. It was first studied and documented in the 1890s. The first influence was the Dutch. That’s why we refer to the stairs in front of a building as a stoop. Then the Irish, Scottish, French, German and Scandinavian groups came in and influenced our language. The term deli, used for a store where cold cuts, salads, and other prepared food is sold, is short for delicatessen, a German word. In the early twentieth century, Eastern European and Italian waves of immigrants added to the dialect. Yiddish words are often incorporated into the speech of a native New Yorker.

Linguists say it is the most recognizable accent in the world. Some famous speakers of the New York dialect include Woody Allen, Tony Danza, Fran Drescher, Robert De Niro, Cyndi Lauper, John Leguizamo, Rosie O’Donnell, Rosie Perez, Bernie Sanders, and Jerry Seinfeld, among many others.  Sadly, this accent is slowly disappearing. It is not heard in Manhattan as much as in earlier generations. Recent immigrants usually cannot afford Manhattan housing. Middle- and upper-class professionals from other areas of the country, who speak standard American English, make up most of the population of the main island. The dialect survives among working class natives of the metropolitan area, but linguists say there is a tendency among the millennial generation to try to drop the accent because of a perception of an association with a lack of education.

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It is no easy task to be good. Anyone can act: get angry, give money, speak to friends, and so on. But to do something to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not easy.

(Aristotle, 384 – 322)

Second Monday in October


George Barany is a Rockefeller alum (1977) currently on the Chemistry faculty of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Martin Abresch is a graduate of the University of Wyoming, currently living in Seattle, and this is his first published puzzle.  For more information, including a link to the answer, visit here. More Barany and Friends crosswords can be found here.

1. Name hidden by Hirschfeldcolumbusdaynaturalselectionscpuzzle
5. Piece of Gail Collins’ mind
9. Candy launcher?
13. Like jelly beans
14. Nice old man?
15. Ballerina Tallchief
16. Thorpe and Alexie, for two, and peoples honored by California and South Dakota with an October holiday
19. Pushkin dandy who kills his friend in a duel
20. His final game in pinstripes marked the only time during the 2016 season that he played 3rd base
21. Mid-sized?
22. Winter time in NYC
24. Symbol for viscosity or index of refraction
25. They’re gained by RBs, WRs, and TEs
26. Beauty, it’s said
31. Mighty companion
33. Perfect
34. It’s spun about
36. Attic, perhaps, to bats
39. Long-time host of “Scientific American Frontiers”
40. Nick name?
42. No-win situation
43. Nation formed from a successful slave revolt
45. “Quit it!”
46. Site of Nobel Peace Center
47. Sonorous disc
49. Some Rio 2016 competitors in sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball
51. West who said “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”
53. ___ Jones
55. Word before diem or capita
56. Coffee vessel
57. Largest dwarf planet in the solar system
59. One who will stop watching … after just one more episode
64. 18-Down’s first book … and a possible wish for the name of an October holiday
67. Astronaut getup
68. Place for lovers?
69. Absolute ___ (temperature at which all molecular motion ceases)
70. Rural agreement
71. Scott in an 1857 case
72. Fr. holy women

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Life on a Roll

Qiong Wang

One amazing thing about New York City is that it is never the same experience whenever you step out onto the streets. You will always witness different details, even if you are walking on the same street, at a different time of the day, on different days of the week, and in different seasons of the year, such as brand-new street arts that appeared overnight, new décor from fashion store windows or random moments of a New Yorker that fit beautifully into the city backdrop. It is like you are going on a date with a different city at different times. Here are just a few examples of these city moments on a roll.


Political Science

Paul Jeng

July was an exhausting month for anyone paying attention to the current presidential election. Like many other Americans, I lived the weeks surrounding the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a news addict trapped in a cycle of abuse — cramming nearly every spare weekday hour with analysis, op-eds, and internet commentary, crashing under a wave of hopelessness by Friday, and finally tuning out the world for the weekend to binge-watch fifteen episodes of HBO’s Veep as a sort of politics nicotine patch. Come Monday, the pattern would start anew. In my mind I was fulfilling a civic duty to stay informed, but the entire experience was pretty harrowing.

It didn’t take long for my politics habit to start impacting my day job. I zoned out while counting cells to listen to Terry Gross’s interview with the New York Time’s Amy Chozick about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. I pretended to be reading protein expression data from Nature when I was actually reading polling data from FiveThirtyEight. Most notably, there was a distinct shift in mental priorities. After spending half a decade in graduate school studying only science, this suddenly-consuming focus on the executive branch of the United States government felt like an unpleasant fugue state. Most people who are in research at any stage are there in part because of a belief that the world can be improved by the accumulation of objective truths, or at least our best approximation of truths based on scientific evidence. In that regard, politics, —which is in some ways the exact opposite of “objective”—would appear to have no seat at the science table. We have yet to figure out a way to quantify patriotism.

In reality, the present and future of science are inextricably tied to government, both in terms of funding resources and research policy. The NIH invests over 30 billion dollars in medical research each year, financing roughly 300,000 researchers in more than 2,500 institutions throughout the nation. The recently-approved budget for fiscal year 2017 would increase this amount by $825 million, a welcome change after a decade of funding that saw budget cuts in twelve of the past fourteen years. It’s no secret that money for research project grants has been historically tight, especially following extensive sequestration of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The only way for the United States to remain a leader in science is if Americans elect officials that continue to prioritize spending in research.

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The Science of Brexit

Johannes Buheitel

Brexit_use this one

Photo Illustration: Johannes Buheitel

David Cameron looked tired but determined, as he took on the short walk from his front door to the podium opposite a battery of journalists that had congregated in front of London’s 10 Downing Street. On June 24, England’s Prime Minister announced that he will be stepping down from his post October as a consequence of the British people voting to exit the European Union (EU). Even though David Cameron went on to ensure that he will do his best to “steady the ship over the coming weeks” but that he will not be “the captain that steers [the United Kingdom] to its next destination”, it is hard to shake off the feeling that he chose this metaphor for more reasons than he cares to admit in front of the cameras.

As the shockwaves of the Brexit decision rippled through the continent, they inevitably also reached the European scientific communities, which are left in shock and confusion about the future. Because, like so many others, they were not expecting this outcome. Three months before the referendum the renowned scientific journal Nature (based in London) reached out to over 900 active researchers in the UK to ask them about their feelings toward a possible Brexit. A whopping 83% wanted Britain to remain in the EU, a number that is almost double that of the polls among the general population at that time. Most of these researchers explained their vote with the belief that Brexit would harm UK science, which, given the extensive ties between European scientific communities and the EU, seems very likely. According to Times Higher Education, UK universities have received roughly 1.4 billion euros (1.5 billion US dollars) of funding from EU programs per year; funding, that is bound to dry up once Brexit has been completed. Whether this impending gap can be filled by the UK’s domestic budget is unclear. It is specifically this state of limbo that makes UK researchers worry the most. Not even the EU’s Science Research and Innovation Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, has many words of solace to offer and notes that “all implications […] will have to be addressed in due course”

But it’s not only funding that worries UK researchers. Brexit could pose new moving and working restrictions for non-British EU nationals, which make up about 15% of the UK’s scientific community. The upcoming Brexit negotiations will determine whether they will be allowed to stay and work in the UK but the more important question might be, do they want to? In addition to the worries about EU funding in the aftermath of the referendum, there have been reports about xenophobic incidents at British research institutions such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, where some of the staff were told to “go home.”

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How the approval of the “Against Mass Immigration” initiative threatens science in Switzerland

Juliette Wipf

Credit: Die Schweizerische Volkspartei

Credit: Die Schweizerische Volkspartei

Over the last decade, nationalist and anti-immigration parties have gained voters throughout Europe (Front National, Golden Dawn, Alternative für Deutschland, Lega Nord, and many more). Brexit is not the first case where citizens have decided in favor of legislation that jeopardizes international academic cooperation. In Switzerland, scientific collaborations are at stake after the passage of an initiative launched by the national-conservative and right-wing populist “Swiss People’s Party.” The initiative, entitled “Against Mass Immigration,” threatens the free-movement policy of the Schengen area (a group of EU and non-EU European countries with an agreement of free movement). In response, the European Union has expelled Switzerland from mutual science and exchange programs. To date, Swiss scientists are still in fear of the consequences resulting from the implementation of this initiative.

Free movement inside the Schengen area

Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are not part of the EU, but have signed the Schengen Agreement. Together with the EU-member states, those countries therefore form the Schengen area. Inside this area, border controls have been abolished and the principle of free movement is pursued, which immensely aids scientific exchange in Central Europe.

Horizon 2020

As the biggest EU Research and Innovation program ever created, Horizon 2020 made nearly 90 billion dollars of funding available to researchers between 2014 and 2020. The aim of the project is to further develop the European Research Area and to “break down barriers to create a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation.” Non-EU countries inside the Schengen area take part in EU projects such as Horizon 2020, and Switzerland plans to contribute 4 billion dollars to the project.

The “Against Mass Immigration” initiative

Switzerland’s semi-direct democracy is unique and practices direct democracy in parallel with the representative democracy voting system. A vote can be organized by the people to oppose any law newly accepted by the Federal Assembly, as well as to modify the existing constitution with a so-called initiative. In 2011, the “Swiss People’s Party” launched the “Against Mass Immigration” initiative, aiming to limit immigration through quotas. Even though no number was specified for such a quota, the idea stands in stark contrast to the free-movement policy of the Schengen area. The party’s arguments fueled the fear of unemployment, the financial crises and the refugee flow. These arguments are similarly exploited by many other nationalist parties in Europe or other people who would like to secure their countries by building walls. Unfortunately, Swiss citizens approved the initiative with a narrow majority of 50.3% in 2014.

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Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes

Part XXI: Paul Nurse, 2001 Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Joseph Luna


Photo Courtesy of THE rockefeller university

All cells, in the end, are copies of copies. But unlike the loss of quality in the Xerox sense of making a copy, a cell needs to be perfect. It must faithfully and exactly duplicate its genetic information, gather extra membranes, energy and microtubules, and then begin a dramatic line dance to separate its two genomes during mitosis. This entire process—known as the cell cycle—ensures the timely and correct reproduction of cells that is crucial for the growth of any organism.

But from the time of Virchow’s famous 1850s epigram that all cells come from cells (Omnis cellula e cellula) through the birth of molecular biology in the 1950s, all a biologist could do was watch this central process of development. The awesome molecular logistics that made the cell cycle so precise and ordered were a mystery. Who, from a molecular perspective, was in charge? How did a cell know when to execute a particular phase of the cell cycle? These questions weren’t just idle puzzles, for by this time it already been suggested, that many cell proliferative diseases such as cancer might be manifestations of cell cycles gone horribly wrong.

In 1974, a young post-doc named Paul Nurse set out to explore the cell cycle in fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe). Fresh from earning his PhD, Nurse spent half a year learning the genetics of Sz. Pombe with Urs Leopold before joining the laboratory of Murdoch Mitchinson, a pioneer of fission yeast genetics in Scotland. Nurse was inspired by the work of Leland Hartwell, who devised a way to isolate mutants of budding yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that were stuck in their progression through the cell cycle. Because such mutations were lethal, Hartwell relied on a quirk of yeast genetics that permitted temperature sensitive mutations: the yeast divided normally at lower permissive temperatures, but at higher temperatures, mutations would become apparent, and were usually lethal. Through the painstaking work of taking time-lapse photographs of many yeast mutants, Hartwell identified dozens of cell division cycle (cdc) mutants, each displaying a distinct problem in their cell cycle.

Nurse decided to apply a similar approach to rod-shaped fission yeast, which on paper, seemed tailor-made for such studies. Unlike budding yeast, fission yeast grows at a fixed diameter, and cells partition automatically once lengthened to roughly double their size. Nurse figured that cell cycle mutants would be unable to separate, and so should yield lengthened rods that were whole multiples of a single cell. Reasoning that such mutant cells were heavier, Nurse had the bright idea of trying to isolate them with a centrifuge instead of laboriously screening with the microscope.

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Weightlifting at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Francesca Cavallo


Photo Courtesy of Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games, the first time the host nation has been in South America. The 2016 Olympic Games opened on the August 5 and closed on the August 21, to coincide with the start of the host country’s soccer season. These Olympic Games are the 31st edition of the Summer Olympics, and four competition zones were assigned as sporting venues: Barra, Deodoro, Maracaña, and Copacabana. Fourty-eight are track and field sports and twenty-eight the total sports; among them we have two new categories: golf and rugby sevens. 205 countries are competing for the 306 medals on offer.

In particular, weightlifting has been assigned fifteen medals: eight for the male category and seven for the female category.

During these Olympics, weightlifting has become a very controversial sport because of the prevalent doping issues involved. The Comité International Olympique (from the original French name CIO) had to ban over fourty athletes from various countries including Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, North Korea, Cyprus, Turkey and Kazakhstan.

Unfortunately, this issue has been around for a while. At the last world championships, in 2014, there were twenty-four positive for doping tests in the first thirty positions.

A re-examination of Beijing’s 2008 and London’s 2012 Olympic weightlifting drug tests found 20 more doping-positive athletes, including four Olympic champions. The empty seats and the crowd’s displeasure, were therefore not a surprise at the current Olympics. The mistrust can be said to be warranted due to the previous examples of drug cheating.

August 16th was the last day of the Rio heavyweight competition. Georgian, Lasha Talakhadze, won the gold medal and he now holds the world and Olympic records of 473 kg, previously held by Iranian Hossein Rezazadeh since the Sydney 2000 Games. Talakhadze lifted 215 kg in the snatch and 258 kg on clean and jerk. He benefited from the disappointing performance of Behdad Salimikordasiabi, who was able to achieve the snatch world record (216 kg), but failed at 245 kg in the clean and jerk category in three attempts.

Talakhadze also beat Armenian Gor Minasyan, who lifted 451 kg in total (210 kg snatch and 241 kg on clean and jerk). In the meantime, the Georgian celebration was completed by Irakli Turmanidze who claimed the bronze medal (207 kg for snatch and 241 kg clean and jerk). In fourth position was Armenian Ruben Aleksanyan (440 kg), followed by Brazilian Fernando Saraiva Reis (435 kg) in fifth position.

Most of us are amazed by the strength and skill of weightlifters, but what exactly is weightlifting? What do they mean when they mention the snatch and the clean and jerk?

Weightlifting is a sport in which the athletes lift weights loaded on a barbell. Weightlifting competitions have been in existence since ancient times and have been a part of the modern Olympic Games since the first edition in Athens in 1896. From the 1950s to 1980s, most of the weightlifters originated from Eastern Europe, particularly from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Soviet Union. Since then, weightlifters from other nations including China, Greece and Turkey have dominated the sport and the nations with the best athletes at the current Olympic Games have included those of Russian, Bulgarian and Chinese heritage. Female weightlifting started to spread in the 1980s and was added to the Olympic program in the year 2000.

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Culture Corner

An interview with art gallery owner David Tunick

Bernie Langs


David Tunick, Photo by Bernie Langs

David Tunick Inc. is an art gallery located at 13 East 69th Street, specializing in fine prints and drawings from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries. The gallery boasts high quality and rare examples of works by Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya, Fragonard, Matisse, Picasso and many others. David Tunick, the gallery president, has been active in the field of works on paper since 1966. Mr. Tunick kindly agreed to answer email questions for Natural Selections.

BL: The information you provide for each Old Masters (and other) prints is detailed and exhaustive. Not only must you research the history of the physical print and the artist, but trace its provenance as well. How do you undertake such background work?

DT: We work at it, but some discoveries are luck. If by provenance, you mean its actual meaning, the history of ownership, we go about it carefully and methodically. We take note of every collector’s stamp, mark, notation, scribble, etc. on the recto and verso of the sheet. Can we identify them if we don’t know them? To do that we go to Lugt, Les Marques de Collections de Dessins et d’Estampes both in the old two volume hard copy and the augmented online version. If a mark is in there—there are thousands— we read about it, and that may lead to other sources. We want to add to our description of every print and drawing that comes in as much in the way of ownership history as possible. Sometimes that means looking in old gallery or sales catalogues, or correspondence with a museum, more often with a former owner or gallery owner, to see if there are further records in old files. Here’s an example of the luck part: recently a man unknown to us called me from France. He had seen an important 1950 Leger gouache on our website that had turned up on the wall of old master drawing collectors here in NY. It had been “missing” since 1971, when it was last seen in public in an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.  The NY collectors asked us to sell it for them, and we were thorough in researching the provenance, but there were gaps. The man from France said he remembered seeing this Leger on his aunt’s wall when he was a child. He filled in all the blanks, which we went on to verify. It felt good, as if we had fulfilled a responsibility, in a way, to the work of art.

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New York State Of Mind

This month Natural Selections interviews Leslie Diaz, Associate Director CBC

Guadalupe Astorga

interviewHow long have you been living in the New York area? 

My entire life. I grew up in the old Williamsburg area, in the pre-hipster era. I’ve always been a New Yorker born and raised.

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I currently live on the Upper East Side, and my favorite neighborhood is Williamsburg because I have so many fun memories from growing up there.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

For me the most overrated is Times Square. I think there are too many tourists and it’s almost impossible to walk around. I also think the quality of the restaurants there is terrible. Underrated, I think, the Bronx Zoo in winter. This is the absolute best time to see in action all of the cold weather animals, such as the polar bears, Siberian tigers and Snow Leopards. The Siberian tigers playing in the snow are a MUST see. Best of all, the zoo is usually empty so you have the entire park to yourself and you can treat yourself to a hot chocolate at the Dancing Crane Café.

 What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

NY is the city that never sleeps, there is easy access to public transportation 24/7, access to restaurants, and even clothing stores are open until late hours. I’ve never been able to find this convenience in any other city.

 If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

There are many beautiful luxury apartments nowadays, but they are displacing many of the native New Yorkers due to the expensive living costs. So, it would be great if the city could support affordable housing so that NYC can continue to accommodate a diverse population.  

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“Let us all resolve: First, to attain the grace of silence; Second, to deem all fault-finding that does no good a sin…Third, to practice the grace and virtue of praise.”


(Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811 – 1896)

Stronger Together!

George Barany and Friends

This politically themed puzzle comes to you from a consortium of progressively-minded friends of Rockefeller alum (1977) George Barany, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For more about this specific puzzle, including a link to its answer, visit here. More Barany and Friends puzzles can be found here.


1. Guinness who played Obi-Wan KenobiPuzzle
5. Piece of Gail Collins’ mind
9. Controversial cab alternative
13. Bohr or Borge
14. Election contest, e.g.
15. Fear-mongerer’s feelings
16. Secretary campaigning in 2016 for a promotion
19. Word before and after “baby,” in a Sarah Palin slogan
20. They play ball in New York
21. “___ Got a Secret”
23. Magician’s cry
25. Rodeo ropes
28. “When there are no ceilings, ___” (optimistic vision from 16-Across)
32. José or Francisco’s leader?
33. Consigns, as the nuclear launch codes, say
34. Besides
36. It’s frozen in Frankfurt
37. Kids’ guessing game
41. Gourmet burger chain with a bird mascot
46. Dessert choice, especially on March 14
47. Kate Smith’s signature song (and patriotic closing words for 16-Across)
51. Bad atmosphere, as in a brutal political campaign
52. Innovative
53. Like a fox, it’s said
54. Force in the OJ trial spotlight
57. Faith for Ghazala and Khizr Khan
60. Apropos sound bite from 16-Across
64. Old Peruvian
65. Calculus calculation
66. Sikorsky or Stravinsky
67. Okla. or La., once
68. Give a little
69. ___ Le Pew

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