The past few weeks have highlighted the mental health crisis that our society is facing. Two high-profile and esteemed celebrities, fashion designer Kate Spade and Chef Anthony Bourdain, were found dead just days apart. These perplexing suicides remind us that success does not make one immune to unhappiness. Spade and Bourdain were far from alone in their struggles with mental health, but their deaths do stress a public health issue that has long been set aside. Suicide rates have risen in the past ten years, and this increase has not been addressed adequately by our society, our policies, or our institutions. It is time to destigmatize depression as a society, and especially here in our own circle at The Rockefeller University.
The realization that important figures in society face the same mental health challenges that many of us do has the ability to start a movement to combat this crisis. Spade and Bourdain gave the appearance of mental stability to the outside world, though people close to them admitted that they were both struggling with depression. These tragic suicides have resonated with people who have realized how they themselves have been grappling with anxiety and depression and has also motivated others to reach out to their loved ones, friends, and acquaintances who may also be struggling. The Twitter hashtag #MyStory has gone viral as many people, including celebrities, address their mental health struggles in a public forum.
Why have people suffered in silence for so long? And why do we still have so far to go in preventing these tragedies? The Center for Disease Control recently released a report indicating that 54% of people that have committed suicide in the past decade are people who were not known to be suffering from a mental illness like depression prior to their death. But many of these people were struggling with relationship or job problems, addiction, physical illnesses, or other immediate crises in their life. While people facing physical illness are often readily supported by friends and acquaintances, those suffering from mental illness usually feel that they must cope by themselves. Society regularly brushes off depression as mere sadness and suggests that, if someone just controls their thoughts, they will get over their feelings of misery.
We need to make mental health a priority. People who suffer need access to affordable and accessible mental health services. Adding more barriers to treatment deters the people who need it the most who are already overwhelmed and who we should nurture rather than push aside. The Trump administration is trying to strike down a provision of the Affordable Care Act that prohibits insurance providers from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions, which include any history of depression or anxiety. If this is passed, it could be devastating for people who need mental health services, making them essentially unaffordable. Empathy for those suffering from mental health conditions is also lacking. Depression and anxiety are not a choice—they are real conditions derived from physiological changes and our health system needs to address them as such. Pharmacological and behavioral therapies do make a difference when treatment is done properly.
In the type of academic environment that I work in, a shift in focus on mental health is paramount, because it has been shown time and time again that individuals in academia suffer greatly. A recent study published in Nature Biotechnology showed that graduate students experience depression and anxiety at rates six times higher than the general population. Sleep deprivation, stress, and the scarcity of tenure-track positions all play a role. Young trainees put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well, and often face many internal mental challenges even though outwardly they may appear incredibly high-functioning. Females and non-gender conforming individuals suffer at higher levels than cis-males, and the relationship of the trainee to the principal investigator also contributes greatly to anxiety and depression, suggesting that mentorship is a crucial factor in student health.
I am now almost three years into my PhD and I fully understand how this environment can breed depression and anxiety. At breakfasts and lunches with prominent scientists hosted by the University where we have the chance to discuss career development, I have repeatedly heard that to make it to the top, you have to be tough. You have to battle to move up and not be affected too greatly by the challenges along the way. Although it is easy to suggest that resilience is the most important trait, I am often left with the feeling that success in academia is largely a solitary pursuit. Yet not everyone can just ignore an assault, or struggle on their own to come out on the other side stronger. Without a reliable network of mentors, friends, and other people you feel are facing the same things, it can be easy to get lost. Feelings of isolation and despair can be overwhelming. Yes, resilience is crucial, especially when failure is inherent in scientific research, but, as a community, we need to be better at developing this resilience in our trainees and showing them that they do not have to weather their struggles alone.
There is no one factor that leads to depression, anxiety, or suicide, but there are steps that we can take to cultivate mental health in our community. This must go further than sending out an e-mail once a year listing the mental health services available. Some things that can help are stress and mindfulness workshops as well as events that promote physical, mental, and social health among the trainee population. Students should feel as if they are able to talk to their mentors to gain advice about career opportunities, especially if they are interested in careers outside of academia, in order to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with reaching post-graduation goals. At the University of Minnesota, students are required to fill out annual evaluations that address both research progress and also overall well-being. Principal investigators then look over these self-evaluations and discuss the reports with their mentees. Simply having this formal system in place has led to increased communication between mentors and mentees about expectations and continuing steps in the training process. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, we must cultivate a culture that makes individuals who are struggling with mental health feel as if they can speak up and ask for help rather than suffer alone in silence.
Recent celebrity suicides have shed light on mental health issues. Now society needs to step up and address this public health crisis. Change can be made at the community level, and institutions should assess how they can prevent similar tragedies. Graduate students are a particularly vulnerable population and because the system of graduate education is a known risk factor for anxiety and depression. It needs to be addressed head-on. We must shift towards more openness in the ability to discuss these issues. Our communities do have the choice to increase access to mental health services and to promote cultural change. At Rockefeller, a vibrant institution full of some of the best scientists in the world, no one should have to go it alone.
Rockefeller University Counseling and Mental Health Care Resources:
Confidential access to personal counseling and mental health care for all students is available through the Tri-institutional Employee Assistance Program Consortium (EAPC). If your life seems to be getting harder to deal with, do not hesitate to contact EAPC. In an emergency, they are available at (212) 746-5890, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Employee Assistance Program
409 East 60th Street, Rm. 3-305 (between York and 1st Ave.)
Regular hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
EAPC provides short-term counseling to members of the Rockefeller, Cornell, NY Hospital, Hospital for Special Surgery, and Sloan-Kettering community—students, their families and significant others included. The service is provided at no charge to individuals.
EAPC is a confidential referral service geared towards short-term problems-solving for any personal problem you may have—depression, loneliness, relationship or family issues, substance abuse, legal or financial problems, child care services—anything. The social workers on staff will first help you evaluate what your situation is, and then discuss all possible avenues for resolving the situation to your satisfaction. There is no long-term counseling offered at EAPC, but they can set you up with counseling if it is needed. Referrals for counseling include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists of other types, and social workers. A few visits to EAPC (maybe only one!) may be all that is necessary for you. Appointments may be made during normal business hours and there is a 24-hour emergency cover given through the number given above.
On site counseling services are also available. Dr. Daniel Knoepflmacher, M.D. is available two days a week to meet privately with members of the RU community. If interested in scheduling a confidential appointment, please contact Occupational Health Services at (212) 327-8414.
For those who prefer a more holistic approach to mental health, Rockefeller Wellness has got you covered:
Mindfulness Practices for Stress Reduction
Stress is one of the biggest contributors to poor health. Its effects can cause physical illness, damage relationships, and negatively impact work performance. Mindfulness meditation is a means to reduce stress, boost the immune system, improve attention, and promote well-being. Try Sitting Meditation or the Body Scan on your own with a guided audio clip of Dr. Patricia Bloom.
Patricia A. Bloom, MD is a Clinical Associate Professor of Geriatrics at the Icahn Medical School of Mount Sinai and the past Director of Integrative Health for the Martha Stewart Center for Living at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. Her main interests include the promotion of healthy aging, integrative health, stress reduction and Mind Body Medicine. She teaches meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for patients and conducts stress reduction workshops for professional and workplace groups. Dr. Bloom has been listed as one of New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors” for 15 years. In 2012 she was honored by the New York City Zen Center for Contemplative Care for her work advancing integrative medicine in academic settings.
Mindfulness Resources in and around New York City.
Editor’s Note: Access to the URLs in the above Rockefeller Wellness section is restricted to those within the Rockefeller community.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Guide:
Warning Signs of Suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Are you looking forward to the Fourth of July holiday? It’s great to get a day off from work, and, of course, it is a celebration of the country’s independence. Yet another thing to get excited about is the traditional fireworks displays. Fireworks have been a part of the Independence Day tradition since the holiday started. There are all sorts of displays across the country, from hour-long, high-tech shows in big cities to local fire departments setting off Roman candles and a few standard fireworks in small towns.
Where did fireworks come from? Although some sources credit India as the country of origin, most sources say they were invented in China as far back as 200 B.C. People would roast bamboo branches, then the air pockets inside the bamboo would make a loud pop. At first, the Chinese would use these to ward off evil spirits. Some time between the tenth and twelfth centuries, they learned that if they put an early form of gunpowder inside the branch, it would make an even louder bang, which is credited as being the first firecracker. Adding shavings from iron or steel inside the bamboo make them sparkle. After a while, they learned to attach firecrackers to arrows, and shoot them at enemies. They even created simple rockets by putting gunpowder in a wide tube with the bottom end open and lighting a fuse, which they then aimed at opposing armies.
During the twelfth century with the development of the Silk Road, gunpowder and fireworks started making their way to Europe. Throughout the Renaissance, fireworks spread across Europe and became popular to use for celebrations. They were used during the wedding of Henry the VII of England and the coronation of Anne Boleyn. Italy became famous for its experts in fireworks manufacturing and the production of colorful displays. In 1742, George II ordered a display to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession and commissioned Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks specifically for the event.
The early European settlers brought fireworks with them to the American colonies. Captain John Smith set off the very first fireworks in America in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. It was John Adams who started the tradition of using fireworks, or “illuminations”, as they were then called, to celebrate Independence Day. On July 3, 1776 he wrote a letter to his wife about the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence. In the letter, he wrote, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. … It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Philadelphia held the first Fourth of July fireworks show the following year, along with shooting off guns and cannons. In 1789, fireworks were used for George Washington’s inauguration. At that point, fireworks were widely available for sale to the public. Over the years, it became common for politicians to use them to attract attention to their speeches, though early displays were relatively small by today’s standards. By the mid-1800s it was common throughout the country to have fireworks for the Fourth of July. A relatively long fireworks show was launched over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. Notable pyrotechnic shows were held in Washington D.C. in 1976 for the Bicentennial and New York in 1983 for the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial. What many consider the greatest display was held over New York Harbor in 1986 for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
The very early fireworks were nothing more than a big bang and a flash of orange light. It was the addition of various chemicals over the centuries that created the different colors and shapes that we know today. The Chinese early form of gunpowder consisted of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and carbon from charcoal. In the 1800s, Italian masters added various chemicals to create colors and the sunburst shape. Today, pyrotechnics are made up of two parts: the mortar that propels it up into the air and the shell that explodes in the air in a pre-determined shape. The mortar contains gunpowder, where currently, potassium nitrate is replaced with potassium chlorate, an oxidation agent, raising the combustion temperature of the fireworks to 2,000 °C (3,632 °F). This allows for the utilization of a variety of chemicals for colors. The shell holds gunpowder and nodules of chemicals, called stars, which give the firework its colors. Various metal salts burn to give off the different colors. Calcium salts burn orange, sodium salts burn yellow and copper salts burn blue. If the stars are distributed randomly in the shell, they will explode in a circular shape. If they are packed in the shell in specific patterns, they will explode in specific shapes, such as a weeping willow or concentric circles. The chemical reaction of gases expanding faster than the speed of sound makes the loud boom.
Unfortunately, fireworks also have their downside. They can be very dangerous and cause damage, injuries, and even deaths. As early as 1731, a law was passed in Rhode Island banning the “mischievous” use of fireworks. By 1783, out of a growing concern for public safety, weapons for Independence Day celebrations were phased out and municipalities encouraged only official fireworks shows. From 1903 to 1907, 1,153 people were killed and 21,520 were injured in the United States from fireworks. In 1964, a Macy’s barge set up with fireworks for the Fourth of July show went off prematurely. Two people were killed and four were injured. A fireworks factory in the Netherlands exploded in 2000, destroying 400 houses and killing 17 people. As late as 2013, eight people died and 11,000 were injured in the U.S. A. alone. On July 4, 2015 Jason Pierre-Paul, a defensive end for the New York Giants, severely injured his hand trying to setoff some fireworks. He subsequently had to have his right index finger amputated, which significantly affected his career. Today, the sale of fireworks is illegal in many states, including New York. In those states where it is allowed, fireworks sold to consumers are supposed to contain less than 50 milligrams of gunpowder.
However, here in the city, we can enjoy some great pyrotechnics without the danger. Macy’s has had a Fourth of July fireworks show for over fifty years. The barges will be back on the East River this year, which means that some of it can be seen from the Rockefeller campus. The actual fireworks show starts at 9:20 p.m., but the television broadcast on NBC starts at 8:00 p.m. There are always a number of celebrities performing. This year they will be marking the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, with a rendition by Kelly Clarkson. Whatever you do during this holiday, be sure to be safe.
This month, the Natural Selections Editorial Board bids farewell to Dakota Blackman. We would like to thank her for her dedication and for helping Natural Selections to become what it is today.
Dakota joined Natural Selections in May of last year as a contributor and editor. She served as the Editorial Assistant and contributed a regular column titled Word of the Month, where she provided the origins of a particular word and deftly examined the timeliness of that word and relevance in today’s society. In a short time, Dakota has made an indelible impact on the Editorial Board. She leaves us this summer in pursuit of a Ph.D. at Princeton University.
We wish her all the best!
Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018
Consider the Barreleye, a deep-sea fish named for its two long, cylindrical eyes pointed directly upwards towards the water’s surface. These googly eyes are covered by a clear, membranous dome, giving the fish the distinct look of some unhappy alien, stuck in a space suit, drifting along listlessly on its back. These aesthetic quirks are not what make the barreleye interesting; it is what is inside the eye. The Barreleye uses tiny microcrystals in its eye to reflect light back into the retina, acting as little mirrors collecting every trace of ambient light. It is the only known animal to use mirrors to see.
The Barreleye is just one of the many strange, finned beasts we meet in Helen Scales’ new book, Eye of the Shoal, which takes a wide ranging, deep diving look at the fascinating history and biology of fish. Eye of the Shoal focuses not on a particular underwater ecosystem or community, but a hodge-podge of fishy players exquisitely adapted to fill every watery nook and cranny across the globe. Scales makes a compelling case for looking closely at any fish that crosses your path; although many of the characters we meet live in the reef, she makes sure to give the residents of your local fish tank their due. In Eye of the Shoal, Scales brings us into the rich, diverse, glorious world of fish full tilt—and has a good time doing it.
Eye of the Shoal is the story of fish told through their evolution, their diversity, their colors, their communication, and their intelligence. Scales, a veteran science writer and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has a knack for meshing storytelling with scientific insight. In one section, she brings us into the complicated inner life of a cleaner wrasse, a small, blue-streaked reef fish, which makes a living cleaning parasitic crustaceans off the bellies of fish and picking gunk out of the teeth of normally vicious predators. The wrasse’s customers line up around the metaphorical block to get a lippy scrubbing down by the cleaner wrasse, many returning multiple times a day. Although the wrasse mostly subsists off of his customers’ unwanted detritus, he would much rather take a big nutrient rich bite of fish flesh instead. If the wrasse becomes known as a flesh-eater, however, he will be distrusted and lose his customers. Scales walks us through the complicated social dynamic that controls the wrasse’s business—when can he take a chance for a fleshy bite? Which clients will continue to patronize his business given this breach in social contract? Navigating this complex social exchange “requires a surprising amount of brainpower”, Scales points out, and the reader is sure to come away with a deeper appreciation for this fish’s non-human intelligence. Helen Scales, breaking down species bias one fish at a time.
Within the larger structural framework, Scales leaves plenty of room for animal rarities and oddities. We meet the Pacific and Atlantic herring, which are “the only animals known that communicate with flatulence.” We meet the long-lived Greenland Sharks, who “may mate for the first time when they’re 150 years old.” We meet fish who scuttle between ponds (the Walking Catfish) and fish who live for months out of water (the Mangrove killifish). We meet the beaky parrot fish, which have “a second set of teeth at the back of the throat” used to grind up between four and six tons of limestone a year, building veritable islands out of their poo. Scales highlights these “fish stories” to make a bigger point about fish, their diversity, their lives—but she also brings a feeling of genuine glee to all her interactions with these weird and wonderful animals.
Although Scales does not explicitly set out to make a statement—about global warming, loss of habitat, overfishing, or any of the other slow motion ecological disasters affecting fish—any book on the topic of fish and their many environs would have a gaping hole without mentioning how humans have impacted their water-bound neighbors. The most touching of these examples is a personal anecdote from Scales, who studied a community of humphead wrasse in the South China Sea during her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. After spending years studying these fish and their complicated mating habits, she discovered that the entire community was fished out of existence shortly after she left her field station. “My efforts to study humpheads suddenly felt hollow,” she writes—and we, the readers, are left feeling hollow as well. If we come away from Eye of the Shoal caring more about fish and the ocean, it is not through overt messaging but through the genuine feeling Scales communicates.
Eye of the Shoal is largely a fun romp through fishy space and time, but it does suffer from overreach. Summarizing the whole of fish science and history in 320 pages is impossible, and the attempt leaves the book, at places, weak in its connective tissue. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of fish throughout human history, Scales scatters fish-related myth and legend throughout the book—a conceit that frequently seems forced. In order to orient the reader in fish ancestry, Scales spends the first chapter climbing through the evolutionary tree of life, branch by laborious branch. Unfortunately, it drags. I sincerely hope this slow opening does not turn the reader off of Eye of the Shoal, as it is out of character with Scales’ normal carnivalesque approach to her subject matter.
In the end, Scales does what she set out to do: “to convince you that fish matter, and that they’re worthy of our attention and esteem.”
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Houghton Mifflin, 1990; originally published in 1976
Two cylinder seals with modern impressions; top: Weather god on a lion dragon, Northern Mesopotamia, Mitannian period, mid-2nd millennium B.C.; bottom: Worshiper and a god with a rod and a ring, Mesopotamia, Kassite period, reign of Kurigalzu I, early 14th century, B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photo: BL)
Wall-sized Assyrian palace scupture (detail); 883-859 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: BL)
Mable statue of a kouros (youth) with close-up of face; Greek, Attic, ca. 590-580 B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photos: BL)
Having read two-thirds of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, Ph.D., I am comfortable in discussing the ideas proposed in this groundbreaking, extraordinarily exciting treatise prior to finishing the book. Dr. Jaynes lays out his theories and conclusions from the very start, working backwards by examining detailed supporting evidence, which he offers as proof of his hypotheses. The Origin has evoked a wide spectrum of reactions since its publication in 1976, labeled by some critics as nothing more than an outlandish set of propositions, while others embraced it as a revolutionary and unique perspective on how the mind developed in the ancient world.
Dr. Jaynes’ presentation of such a large-scale and all-encompassing overview on the subject of the history of mankind’s inner thinking can’t possibly hit the bullseye. Yet in The Origin he proposes with confidence and endearing, affable humility that he has discovered how human neurological development worked in tandem with historical, religious, cultural, economic, and social events mostly over the last three thousand years he discusses how this ultimately leads to the unique, individual, and highly structured voice we maintain today: our inner consciousness.
Although this book is at times scattershot, it must be recognized at least as a great start to further engage in a more complete, nuanced, and timely follow-up. Dr. Jaynes’ theory centers around details of the biology of the brain and interpretation of the vast ancient historical record, and he readily notes that such an enormous theory of everything needs more work and study. Dr. Jaynes concedes that many of his ideas are speculative, but he does not waver from his belief in its basic foundation. One may criticize, for example, his dependence on selective writings, artifacts, and remains from the ancient period for use in generalizing what motivated the behavior and interior observations of all people thousands of years ago.
When looking at the statues, buildings, imprints of seals, ivories, and so on from ancient Middle East, we can’t help but make assumptions about the past based on our contemporary atmosphere. Yet it is apparent, as Dr. Jaynes notes, that in the regions covered by the book the expressions and features of kings, gods, attendants, and others are coldhearted and emotionally distant.. Eventually, there’s a slow progression, culminating with the ancient Greeks at about 700 B.C, as the images morph into representations graced with loving beauty, heroic postures, grand gestures, and an appreciation, bordering on ecstatic at times, on notions of both body and soul.
Dr. Jaynes details the Greek reaction to the horrific misery of the “Dark Ages” which were initiated in about 1200 B.C. and lasted several centuries, set in motion the timeline that will eventually resolve into the way we speak to ourselves in our heads to day. The proposed “bicameral mind”, presented in The Origin can’t be observed or proved to actually exist, yet the theory is beautifully described with personal passion by Dr. Jaynes. He believes that the left and right portions of the brain were divided in the way they processed the external world surrounding ancient mankind, with one half fooled by the other to believe that hallucinated voices originated from sources that could be deemed as commands by the gods. These voices, heard only by some, arose as spoken language along with the development of the written word. Those with the strongest connection to what they believed was the forceful directing of society by these vocalizations took on the roles of king, priest, or intermediary with the gods.
Dr. Jaynes proposes this system developed regionally and with individual characteristics throughout the area under study. The so-called “breakdown” of the bicameral mind occurred slowly over centuries, after populations grew, war became unexpectedly common, and trade led to increased contact between varying tribes and societies. These changes introduced incompatible rival gods and customs in the region leading to confusion of the voices, akin to the described mayhem in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Dr. Jaynes also describes several natural crises that put the normalized system of the period into panic. By the start of the first millennium, Homer’s work had been passed down for generations and finally canonized in The Iliad, and Dr. Jaynes unveils the tense struggle within the general population, as the hallucinated commanding voices needed to be replaced for survival’s sake by an emerging personal, inner dialogue. Jaynes’ discussion and analysis of these changes motivating the non-evolutionary, yet biological shift, reads as the most historically and scientifically sound section of the book. Ancient mankind perceived the world through external instinctual sensation, which Dr. Jaynes’ believes was dominated and ordered by invisible vocalizations. After 1000 B.C., the world had to adapt to changes on many levels making internal decision-making processes take over based on reactions to visual stimuli. The world moves from the shackles of auditory constraints towards the eye’s window to the soul.
I have to admit that I do not completely believe Dr. Jaynes’ idea that the minds of those living in the ancient civilizations under study lived and died by the commands and rules laid out by hallucinated voices of the so-called gods and divinities. The tenuous biological support of the wider theory, which relies on studies that discussed observations of patients today with neurological conditions and symptoms mirroring what he believes were the hallucinated and god-like voices in the heads of the ancients (e.g., schizophrenia).
Perhaps the works of the Pre-Socratics and others who put aside the conception of the gods as creators of the physical world and the actions of men can be read as the evidence of the final labor push of the birth of the inner individual. Standing in front of the famous Kouros sculpture from ancient Greece the other day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I meditated on its mysterious face in light of the theories of Dr. Jaynes. The sculpted youth appears ready to wake up, was along with the whole world, to freedom granted by new consciousness. You can almost hear the voice of reason speak for the first time.
“She is quick and curious and playful and strong. She is a voracious reader and a fantastic dancer. She saves old snapshots but always loses her umbrella. Her emails pile up, but she never forgets to call her grandmother. She has $7 in change at the bottom of her handbag.”
-Kate Spade on the typical Kate Spade girl
Qiong Wang – Morocco Series #2 – Fes
Fes, one of the four royal cities in Morocco, is famous for its rich culture and history. The old medina is like the sacred labyrinth of the moors. Hundreds of uneven narrow lanes turn and terminate capriciously, and thousands of short old houses have managed to squeeze themselves inside this royal city for over a thousand years. The tiny streets are so narrow that when a horse passes by, everybody needs to stand by to let them pass. Sometimes the lanes are ensconced in darkness — even during the day, keeping you alert. Less than 10 minutes after stepping into the medina, I found myself lost completely, and realized that English and Google Maps were not that useful.
The most famous scene of Fes is, of course, the colorful view of the dye pits from the rooftop at the expense of a very bad sulfur smell. This is where whole pieces of skin are stripped off the animals and processed into genuine leather. Luckily, the smell was not as strong during winter, but, still, it was not a pleasant scene to see up close. It is hard to imagine the factory workers submerging themselves in the dying barrels for hours each day. Fes might be a sacred place for many, but I think I will avoid a second visit.
Bernie Langs – Italy
Italy remains a favorite spot for my family to enjoy vacations. In May, we spent several days sightseeing in Florence and took a fabulous day trip for wine and cheese tasting, which included stops around Tuscany in Pienza, Montepulciano, and Montalcino.
As one climbs inner, narrow stairways to the roof of the Florence Cathedral (Il Duomo di Firenze), there are areas where one can emerge to view the cathedral from catwalks high above, including the fantastic sight of the upper painted interior under the dome. The Duomo, a majestic wonder of both architecture and engineering, was completed in 1436 from designs by Filippo Brunelleschi, and features paintings of the “Last Judgement” done by Giorgio Vasari, Federico Zuccari and their collaborators in the mid- to late-16th century.
The interior dome of the Florence Baptistery of Saint John is covered with spectacular mosaics. The octagonal building was constructed between 1059 and 1128 with the mosaics added over a century starting in the year 1225. The building’s famous “Gates of Paradise”, sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the early 1400s, have been restored and are now housed in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Pienza is a beautiful small city in Tuscany near Siena. The 15th century Pope Pius II had the town rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance village, working with the Florentine architect Bernardo Rosselino. The views of the surrounding countryside are heavenly.
Every group of students that graduates from The Rockefeller University is quite exceptional. Along the way to their PhDs the students who have worked here, struggled here, and accomplished here have become a family. Just like a family, each individual is unique—there is the crazy uncle, the positive go-getter sister, or the cousin that is late to every family meal. This year there are 30 students graduating with PhDs and they voted on who was at the extremes of different personality traits. Here are the results.
|Remzi Karayol and Sandra Jones|
|Best Facial Expressions|
|Malik Chaker-Margot and Yuehyi Gloria Wu|
|Gregory Goldberg and Thomas Hsiao|
|Emily Dennis and Michael Mitchell|
|Most Changed Since 1st Year|
|Zhenrun Jerry Zhang|
|Most Likely to Affect Policy|
|Most Likely to be Famous|
|Most Likely to be President|
|Most Likely to be Working All Night Long|
|Sean McKenzie and Sze Sing Shaun Teo|
|Most Likely to Live the Longest|
|Kenneth Atkins and Jonathan Steinman|
|Most Likely to Return to Rockefeller as a PI|
|Most Likely to Win a Nobel Prize|
|Most Likely to Write a Best-Selling Novel|
|Christopher Jenness and Kimberly Siletti
- a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
- the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.
Briefly: LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer—terms that are meant to represent a diversity of sexualities and gender identities. Of course, there are only five letters in this acronym and many, many more than five identities within this group. For the purposes of this article, I refer to members of the LGBTQ+ community; some members (myself included) identify with one of these terms, some identify with all, and some do not identify with any. It is not my intention to leave out or invalidate those who do not align themselves with any of these five identifiers, but instead to describe a group that, in the month of June, is remembered, acknowledged, and celebrated through pride.
Given the complex and often fraught history of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, it is appropriate that the movement is summed up by a word of equal complexity. According to Merriam-Webster, “pride” has a myriad of definitions, but I will focus on two here: the first, bearing a neutral (or perhaps even positive) connotation, is “a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” Conversely, the second holds a pointedly negative connotation: “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.”
The word’s etymological history, interestingly enough, mirrors the movement it describes: pride, which shares its roots with the adjective “proud,” is derived from Old English prud or prut, meaning “excellent and splendid” as well as “arrogant and haughty.” In Old English, in addition to other Indo-European languages (including Old French, Greek, and even Late Latin), there is only one word for pride, and it bears both a positive and negative connotation. In its negative form, pride is, by and large, discouraged. Perhaps most telling is the fact that pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins; too much pride and humans will assume they are God-like. In its positive form, some amount of pride is encouraged: it is a way to recognize one’s own achievements, “qualities, or possessions that are widely admired.”
For a very long time in the United States, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was not considered a positive quality. Even if one was proud of their identity within this group, one had the potential to face very real and very serious repercussions for openly and visibly defying the norms of gender and sexuality. A particularly salient example of such repercussions was the 1969 police raid and subsequent riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The raid was said to be due to a substandard liquor license, but police often targeted designated LGBTQ+ spaces at this time. The riot at Stonewall Inn is considered the start of the LGBT rights movement in this country because those in the community openly and actively defied mistreatment on the basis of their identities. For many today, the ability to be visible, and to have pride, largely stems from the actions of these activists who fought and continue to fight for LGBTQ+ equality.
Today, pride is not all rainbows and glitter. (It’s a fair amount of rainbows and glitter, don’t get me wrong, but there’s certainly more to it than that.) Pride, as the definition suggests, is warranted for qualities that are “widely admired,” and being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is certainly not universally accepted, much less admired. Persecution for these identities, particularly among queer and trans people of color, is still rampant. We must not lose sight of the fact that, within the LGBTQ+ movement, having pride was, and still is, an act of resistance. However, we must also remember to acknowledge that the diversity in identity, self-expression, and school of thought within this community is certainly something to be uplifted, celebrated, and—to those in the community—to be proud of.
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to cross the famous Promenade de la Croisette of the Cannes Film Festival. So when my husband, Dom, and I were planning our trip to Europe last year, we made sure that the dates coincided with those of the festival to ensure we could at least be in the presence of festival—even if we wouldn’t be able to attend any film screenings. What follows is an account of how we were able to attend it and what our experience was.
Step 1 – Accreditation
In February, we came across two helpful blogs: Best of Nice and Almost Ginger, which confirmed that we had a few options to actually attend some of the screenings. For one, we could apply for accreditation as a “Cannes Cinephile”. Second, we could purchase tickets to films that screen in the Director’s Fortnight and International Critic’s Week sections of the festival. Finally, if all else failed, we could simply park it on the beach and take in a selection or two from the Cannes “Cinema on the Beach” program. It seemed clear that the right path was accreditation, so we applied right away because the window was already open, and a few short weeks later we both were granted accreditation! It’s important to note that only 1,000 non-French citizens are granted this level of accreditation. As our trip drew nearer, the Official Selection was announced, followed by the schedule, and we set to work identifying the films that we wanted to see. In retrospect, we were naïve to think that we might be able to access some of the festival’s bigger offerings, but I digress. All along we had managed our expectations—even with our accreditation, we were excited just to have the opportunity to be there in the thick of it all. After all, the festival is primarily an event for critics, the press, and other industry professionals involved in everything from pitching films to acquisition and distribution.
Step 2 – Transportation Musical Chairs
Spring in France is often fraught with transportation strikes affecting both regional trains and flights. Unfortunately, this year was no different but thanks to Twitter updates on the strikes, we could adjust our schedule accordingly. When all was said and done, we made several changes to the number of days we would stay in Nice once we received our accreditation, and our trip began in Berlin on May 4. But when we were gearing up to leave Berlin, we received notice that our Air France flight had been canceled and that we had been rebooked on a flight that was not scheduled to arrive in Nice until midnight. Not cool! We already had to be up at the crack of dawn to take the 40-minute train ride to Cannes; there was no way that we could lose nine hours in Nice. Luckily, I rebooked us on a flight that arrived in Nice at 6pm, whew!
Step 3 – The Mad Dash
Our hotel was conveniently located behind the famous Hotel Negresco that sits on the Promenade des Anglais, and so it was a quick (15 minutes or so) walk to the train station. Here are some notes from the train:
“We’re up early to catch the train to Cannes from Nice. After a good night’s sleep, we are looking forward to all that Cannes has to offer. A quick walk up the street brought us to the Gare de Ville where we waited in line and purchased our roundtrip tickets for both days. The blue ticket machines were impossible to navigate—even with a little blog help. Some pictures of la mer et le soleil from the train along with a light breakfast of oeufs et des riz and we are more than ready for our day to begin! Next: Procure our badges!”
8:40 a.m. –
After running around like mad men, we found the Pontiero side and are safely waiting in line at the Cannes Cinephile tent to pick up our registration.
9:05 a.m. –
Success! We scored free tickets to two screenings:
Rendez-vous with Ryan Coogler at Salle Buñuel (Palais) at 4:00 p.m. and 10 Years Thailand, the latest from Thai director Aphichatpong Weerasethakul at 7:00 p.m. at the Salle Du Soixantième. Afterwards we scurried over to the Marriot to score tickets for Les Confins De Monde by Guillaume Nicloux at 11:45 a.m. and then to the Miramar to try for tickets for the 3:00 p.m. screening of Paul Dano’s premiere Wildlife, but were told we don’t need tickets with a badge. Curiously enough, the guards at Theatre Croisette (Marriott) told us it is better to have tickets (blue line) than Cinephile access (green line) so we are calling their bluff and waiting in green.
While Dom held our place in line, I grabbed a quick bite at a nearby café on the Croisette: a continental breakfast consisting of tea, orange juice, a baguette with butter and strawberry jam—delish.
11:12 a.m. –
Well, we’re inside the Theatre Croisette! When the crowd began to move, we realized quickly that the ticketed line was given priority (as the guard had said), and after a suggestion from a fellow Cinephile, we ducked under the cords that separated the line and into the ticketed line. In we went! SUCCESS!
First Film: Les Confins De Monde by Guillaume Nicloux – 11:45 a.m. Theatre Croisette
The film follows Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel) from 1945-1946 as he seeks Vo Binh, who is responsible for killing his family. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute (Lang-Khê Tran) and develops a friendship with a writer (Gérard Depardieu). The film has several awkward transitions and skips along rather unevenly. It also has a very unresolved ending. What’s more, the gunshots in the battle scenes sounded very cheap and there is too much focus on the male sex organ—from talking about it to showing it.
I appreciate the gay character, but the idea of it was introduced too late in the film to hold any real weight. The relationship with the writer is unestablished. After the film, several cast members, including Ulliel and Tran, came out for a Q&A.
1:45 p.m. –
I joined Dom in line to try to get into the 3pm screening of Paul Dano’s Wildlife, we’ll see!
After we failed to get into Wildlife, which I’ve since learned is amazing, with a particularly strong performance by Carey Mulligan in the leading role, we decided to take some photos on the opposite side of the Croisette while making our way slowly to Salle Buñuel for the Rendez-Vous with Ryan Coogler. When we finally found the theater, we were told by a woman that there were a ton of people queuing for the event upstairs. I wanted to at least have the experience of trying to get in the Buñuel, so Dom and I forged ahead. But Dom became anxious about the bag checks because he had his food and didn’t want to throw it out so we agreed to meet at the gate where the Salle Du Soixantième was visible from. It wasn’t like I had a chance to get in anyway, right? WRONG!
Once through the security, I decided to take the elevator up as opposed to the escalator because I figured that people would be queuing in them. I stepped in the elevator, and after a stop or two, a young woman exclaimed “This elevator is so slow!” I turned to her, recognizing her as another English-speaking American, and we probably had but a minute or two to chat when the doors opened onto the 5th floor. We stepped out together and were trying to get our bearings on where we should be when people started running (presumably from the escalators). She grabbed my hand and said “Come on, we’re getting in. I’ll use my face if nothing else.” It was the Cannes Film Festival’s version of “Come with me if you want to live!”
Before I knew it, I was being pulled through the crowd, and though a woman behind me protested, straight into the Salle Buñuel with nary a security guard asking either of us for anything. Once the door was open with the frenzied crowd, it couldn’t be closed. We found some seats following a run-in with a young security guard who was trying to explain that the reserved seat sign on one seat meant the entire row was reserved. I kept apologizing for my newfound friend, who was fearless and uninterested in jumping through anyone’s hoops. Once seated, we became fast friends and learned that we would be in Paris at the same time (also in Le Marais) and that we both lived in New York City
We were both planning to take a few photos and take off within 20 mins. So, after a litany of famous people were announced and revealed themselves, including The Weeknd, and Ryan Coogler and his wife, we began plotting our exit. Ubha, as she was named, said that we had no choice but to duck down as we walked between the slightly elevated stage and the seats where The Weeknd was sitting. It was another “Come with me if you want to live!” moment, but this time I had my doubts. I was certain that if I followed her, I would be lambasted by security. So, we said a bit of a sad goodbye (but not before Ubha had taken my contact info), and I watched as Ubha made her way between the stage and disappeared through the far exit unscathed. I shrugged, took a deep breath and followed suit. Once outside, I looked feverishly for Ubha and found her going down the escalator. I shouted “Ubha!” She turned with a smile and we were reunited. Inside, Ubha decided to join me to meet up with Dom. We met him at the designated spot and began chatting. Ubha mentioned that she wanted to stop by the Scandinavian location and before we could join her, we saw a demonstration on Muay Thai kickboxing (from the Thai delegation at Cannes). One woman held a pad while another woman kicked it high over her head twenty times! Pretty cool stuff. Ubha had to jet but said she’d be in touch.
Next up, we headed to Salle Du Soixantième for 10 Years Thailand, which ended up being four short films created by Weerasethakul along with three other Thai directors. Before the screening, I met Niger, a gay writer from the U.K. He told me that Wildlife was a masterpiece and that it was his favorite film so far of the festival. Because we had a lot of time, I ended up chatting with him and another woman who worked with distributors to bring films to Bermuda. For the first time at the festival, I really got a good grasp on just how much of an industry event it is.
Anyway, the three of us chatted about films, actors, actresses, the industry, and even Trump and Brexit. It really was fascinating to get the foreigner’s perspective on all these things, and especially on Trump. I was also able to impart my knowledge of films that premiered in New York (and Los Angeles) that Dom and I had already seen: Annihilation and Disobedience, and was able to give the woman the tip on Hereditary doing well because she mentioned her difficulty in securing several films for screening in Bermuda.
I said goodbye to my two new pals when the press line started to enter and returned to my ever-patient Bunny (my pet name for Dom) waiting in the Cinephile ticket line just around the corner.
Second Film: 10 Years Thailand by Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng, Chatayarna Sriphol, and Aphichatpong Weerasethakul – 7:00 p.m. Salle Du Soixantième
As I mentioned, the film was a collection of shorts and all the directors were on hand to present the film. In fact, they filed past the four of us (we sat with Niger and the woman from Bermuda).
2a: The first is a film about how art is monitored by the authorities in Thailand and about the difficulty of putting oneself out there altogether. There were two arcs, one: the plight of an artist to display her work in a local, hip gallery, and two: the difficulty faced by a local soldier in disclosing his true feelings about a female friend. I quite liked the film for its simplicity and restraint. It was very interesting to see a contemporary view of Thailand.
2b: The second film is set in a world where creatures with feline heads and mannerisms wear human clothing and walk on hind legs. These creatures have one objective that we know of: to track and kill their prey (humans). But in this world, one human has found a way to disguise himself among them, even participating in the rituals of howling and throwing stones at suspected humans. This human is unwittingly lured into a trap that leads to his own demise. The film touches on themes of kindness to strangers and the plight of the outsider. It’s also a film that fits snugly next to the first.
I should say now that where the first two short films were easily palatable, the next two were increasingly less so. Therefore, they are more difficult to describe.
2c: The third film is set in a world where a regal looking woman controls everything around her, literally with the touch of a button. At least, that is what we are led to believe by the filmmaker from the outset. What follows is a world that works according to the clockwork dictated (presumably) by the regal woman, where children carry other children around a track, the same children are indoctrinated into a society similar to the Boyscouts of America, where once in, they are taught a chant: “Thumbs up!” In the chant, they slap their chests with one hand, draw it out in front of them, and make the “thumbs up” sign—perhaps a comment on social media “liking” culture? The world is disrupted when the woman presses the pause button on a smart phone device, which also stops the music of the film. Up to this point, the film is fairly easy to follow, but the film takes off in a very trippy direction and it impossible for me to describe everything that happens. But needless to say, it becomes trippier and trippier as it progresses.
At this point, I’ll pause to say that the theatre this entire time had no A/C and people began to take notice as their attention waned.
2d: As I mentioned, the films became progressively difficult to follow but none more than the last film. Here, traditional Thai music mingles with the sounds of a marching band (offscreen) while the camera focuses on a statue. The marching band remains off camera the entire film, and aside from the obvious focus on the leader and a few quips from locals hanging around the spot where the statue is, there is no real through line to the film. This, combined with the heat, caused many people to walk out, including the woman from Bermuda.
Afterwards, we reconvened with Niger for the rest of the evening, chatting and learning all he has learned from ten years covering the festival. We got to see the red carpet come alive during one of the premieres that evening from several feet away, tucked safely behind a barricade with everyone else. But thanks to the enormous LED display, it was easy to see who was walking down the stairs and making their debut on the Croisette. We also got to see the chairs being setup for “Cinema on the Beach”. At around 9pm we took the train back to Nice with Niger, where we discussed any number of things, least of all politics.
The next day, because we had experienced a full day at Cannes the day before, we decided to catch one film in the morning and then head back to Nice to walk the Promenade des Anglais and Old Nice. Not being enthused with the slate of Cannes Classics tickets available to us from the Cinephile office, we opted instead to buy tickets to the Director’s Fortnight screening of Joueurs by Marie Monge.
Third Film: Joueurs by Marie Monge – 11:45 a.m. Theatre Croisette:
The film follows Ella (Stacy Martin) who helps run her father’s restaurant. Here, she hires Abel (Tahar Rahim) as a server. Abel, a staple in the cosmopolitan Paris underground circle of gambling, including extreme sports and organized crime, turns Ella onto a life where adrenaline and money prevail. Soon Ella’s life is turned upside-down as she falls deeper (in love and trouble) with Abel; she even turns on her own family. The film chugs along at a clip until the third act, which sees at least three opportunities to end the film, but regrettably passes them by. With that said, it was one of the better films we caught at the Festival.
Thank you for sharing in my experience. There certainly is a lot more that I could say, such as how I more than likely saw Jessica Chastain and Fan Bing Bing in Nice being ushered into a van outside of the Negresco Hotel, or how we got denied entry into a screening of Christophe Honoré’s Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite, but those stories will have to wait for another time.
Next month, For Your Consideration returns with a look at some of the performances to look out for this year as the Oscar race inches closer.
Emotional Immediacy in Recent Movies
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The powerful lessons of the arts, can be used by each of us as tools for enabling the expansion of our emotional dictionaries. As the woes of the world grow in seemingly new dimensions with undercurrents of danger and potential violence, we are experiencing them through media and social network platforms at any moment of our day. I have come to depend on artistic media as a way of allaying the underlying state of anger and frustration induced by the current pervasive toxic political and cultural environment. There are many recently produced movies available on cable channels, Netflix, and other services that remind us of the complexities of our inner states, and teach us lessons about life, love and more, giving us respite and pause from the daily grind of pervasive anxieties. After a typical day’s deluge of negative news stories, I watch movies and shows to find solace in characters placed in extraordinary and unique situations, and in doing so, I become attuned to a broader depth of emotions.
As contemporary comedic dramas go, The Edge of Seventeen is a marvelous movie, starring the formidable Hailee Steinfeld as high school student Nadine Franklin caught in the whirlwind of being a strong-headed outcast at school, save for her bond with her childhood best friend. There have been many movies about the odd-person-out at school, but I venture to say that this is absolutely the best. Edge is startlingly funny, with Woody Harrelson playing one of her teachers who is placed in the uncomfortable position of having to hear out the details of Nadine’s constant travails. Harrelson has proven to be a powerful actor over the years, recently starring in and receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the small-town sheriff in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and as a beastly drug lord running a bare knuckle fight ring in Out of the Furnace. Almost every line he speaks in Edge generates delightful laughter, a return to the masterful comic timing he displayed on television years ago in his first major role as the dim-witted, endearing character Woody on NBC’s hit Cheers. Edge is much more than a study of teens going through growing pains. It’s a beautiful snapshot of young people today with in-your-face, realistic dialogue about sex and drinking and the tricky dynamics and pressures of friendships in a text messaging world. The supporting cast of Nadine’s schoolmates includes the nuanced and understated performance by Hayden Szeto as Erwin, her shy, smart, and talented admirer. The plotline mostly revolves around how Nadine’s one true friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is ruined as she angrily refuses to accept that Krista has become the girlfriend of her older brother, Darian Franklin (Blake Jenner). Darian is popular, and is a school star in academics and sports. He has also become the rock for their needy widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who often depends on him while serving in her role as single parent and family breadwinner. By watching the maturity and awareness of many of the movie’s high school students, I unexpectedly understand more of the world of my 20-year-old daughter. This is a joy of a film and I’ve watched it on cable at least five times.
Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an overwhelming study in tragedy, with its actors and actresses displaying stunning skills and emotional range. I’d heard about the powerful sadness of Manchester before viewing it but the harsh sorrow of the movie still came down on me with an intense immediacy. Casey Affleck plays the lead role for which he won an Academy Award. I expected a “situational” tear-jerker, a film about men and women facing a bad turn of life and learning to cope with the fallout. Instead, Manchester is the story of how a man sets off a series of events that leads to the accidental death of his children and how, years later, he has made no progress in moving on. Michelle Williams, a young actress of extraordinary brilliance, plays his ex-wife; their final confrontation, where she pleads with him to discover a way to forgive himself in an act of surprising reconciliation and healing, is an incredible cinematic moment. As the movie began to wrap up, I was suddenly devastated with the realization that Manchester would not have a typical Hollywood ending where lessons are learned, and everyone moves on to some degree. Oddly enough, I found myself hoping for that sense of cliché and relief. But Affleck’s character, on the surface a simple man, but at times violent and unlikable, is so completely lost in guilt and grief, which he will carry in an internal prison for all his remaining days. It is a portrait of a young man unlike any I’ve ever witnessed on the screen, a hard lesson about actions and circumstances from which someone chooses not to return to any semblance of normal life after experiencing a terrible loss.
The Florida Project is a superlative “dramedy” co-written and directed by Sean Baker and for which Willem Dafoe earned Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. He shines as Bobby Hicks, the manager of the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida near Walt Disney World. Bobby handles tricky situations again and again, struggling with the problems of the motel’s residents, many of whom are engulfed in near destitute situations. The story centers on a single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as Halley falls deeper and deeper into desperation and trouble. As Moonee and the other children literally run around the area without supervision and with surprising independence, the viewer can’t help but fall into their strange yet innocent world. These children, all under ten years old, are crude, wild, and unexpectedly sharp and funny. I couldn’t tell if these young actors and actresses had been allowed to purely improvise many of their well-delivered and hysterical observations or if the script called for them. The various motels, abandoned fields, and apartment complexes, along with kitsch fast food and souvenir joints, are presented through a cinematography with a rich palette of muted colors. I am a frequent visitor to Orlando, and The Florida Project exposed me to a disturbing societal underbelly of which I was not aware. Looming large in the background throughout the movie, for both the film’s characters and audience, is the shadow and unseen majesty of Disney World, a contrasting paradise to what these children experience daily as they hustle tourists for ice cream money and create other dangerous mischief. The final sequences left me completely stunned and overwhelmed, especially the final closing minutes which were as uniquely memorable and moving as it can get..
Another notable film available for streaming is Get Out, which has been widely praised, earning first time director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, resulting in the category’s first African American winner. The movie is billed as a horror flick but it is much more than that, especially with its tension-relieving humor. Outside of one difficult sequence, the violence in Get Out is in line with what has been readily shown on television. There has been a lot of press about how Get Out is an original take on race relations in the United States. I found that the movie’s lessons are unusually subtle and it takes a lot of thinking on the part of the audience to appreciate the depth of what Peele is trying to convey. The film sets up clichéd characterizations of white and black tensions that veer off unexpectedly and don’t quite resolve the way the viewer might think they would. Peele is smart, quick, and extremely funny. I recently caught much of his hysterical 2016 film acting debut alongside Keegan-Michael Key, his partner for many projects, in Keanu; an absurdly laugh-out-loud adventure of two middle class friends forced to pose as tough street assassins as they work to infiltrate a violent gang who has kidnapped Peele’s kitten and made it a coveted gangster mascot. Peele is a force to be reckoned with, a young director and writer who knows how to make his audience laugh and recoil in shock, while also giving them much to think about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
– Dalai Lama XIV (born 1935).
Between Sea and Sky
Taormina in Sicily is a corner of paradise, especially when you discover it before the busy tourist season starts.
It is perched 200 meters above the Ionian Sea and surrounded by small mountains. Mount Etna keeps an eye on the ancient city. The 360-degree view from the Greek Theatre (“Teatro Greco”) is probably the most beautiful panorama I saw. For further adventure nearby, nothing was better than discovering Isola Bella by foot via its isthmus.
Visit Elodie’s photoblog:
Natural Selections interviews Ali Brivanlou, Principal Investigator Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology, the Rockefeller University.
Together with his team, Ali investigates the molecular pathways underlying cell communication during development. Notably, his team was recently able to preserve human embryos in culture for up to 14 days. This revolutionary achievement will illuminate unknown information about our own origins that may be crucial to understanding and reversing neurodegenerative diseases, repairing diseased tissues, and growing human organs in vitro.
NS: What differentiates a stem cell from any other cell type?
AB: Stem cells come in different flavors: embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and adult stem cells (ASCs). The former are derived from the early embryo, a few days after fertilization, while adult stem cells are continuously present in almost all tissues of our body, and allow for regeneration. The big difference between these two groups is their range of ability. A human or a mouse ESC can give rise to all the organs of the body. As time moves forward, their potential decreases. So, i.e., an adult hematopoietic stem cell can only give rise to blood derivatives, and bone stem cells will give rise to bone. This difference is intense, because ESCs are the only cells that can mimic a fertilized egg and give rise to a whole organism. They contain all the information sufficient and necessary to create all the organs and their organization. These are very unique properties that put ESCs on top of the hierarchy of decision-making that allows all the fates to be established. This is really exciting because we can use human stem cells in clinical settings to repair or replace tissues; and also because it teaches us, at the most fundamental level, how cell fate is established.
NS: What gives a stem cell the information to form a whole individual?
AB: This is a very old biological problem. About 2,300 years ago, Aristotle described the development of a bird inside an egg and created the foundation of current embryology. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th there were two schools of theories. One defined by the British school of embryology, suggesting that fate is based on lineage – you know who you are based on who your parents and grandparents are. The other is the American school, suggesting that [it] is not the lineage that determines your fate, but your neighborhood – you know who you are depending on where you end up being and who your neighbors are. It ends up that the American school was correct, not the British. Fate in an embryo is determined by where a cell finds herself. I figured out that this is mediated by cell-cell communication, cells have a dialogue. As the embryo grows and the number of cells increases, their neighborhood becomes more complex and their fate more refined. This is mediated by receptors and secreted factors. Ligands come out of the cells and bind receptors in the recipient cell that sends the signal to the nucleus. An extrinsic piece of information becomes an intrinsic response in transcription. This allows cells to gradually figure out what they will be. We learned their language and how to manipulate it to change their fate. Many people in the stem cell field are interested in the applications of this knowledge. I am still interested in learning more about this communication.
When I was a graduate student at Berkeley and during my postdoc at Harvard, it was still questionable whether the American school was right. So I asked, “If the neighborhood defines your fate, what kind of fate would you have if you don’t have any neighbors?” Cell communication as a fate determination mechanism is conserved over millions of years. So, I took a frog embryo, which is a ball of 2,000 cells, and I dissociated them so they could no longer communicate. Any ligand sent was diluted to infinity in the medium so other cells could not “hear” it. The result was very surprising. All embryonic cells: those going to become gut, or kidney, liver, muscle, bone; every single one converted to a brain cell. Not receiving any signals pushes a cell towards a brain fate. This was very controversial when I published it because one thinks that this is the most sophisticated organ, but how can this sophistication arise from zero communication? At some point, a group of cells in the embryo decide to no longer listen to their neighbors. They close all communications and give rise to the dorsal anterior part of the nervous system. In order to generate other fates, cells have to say “Do not close your windows or your doors, listen”. This complexity is something I’m still trying to dissect.
NS: Before it was possible to obtain embryonic stem cells only from embryos. Now they can be taken from different tissues. How is this done?
AB: In 2012, a Nobel Prize was given to two of my heroes: John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. They showed different things with a common denominator: that biological time can go backwards. Yamanaka showed that any adult cell can be reprogrammed to behave like an ESC. John Gurdon, who mentored both my postdoc and graduate student advisor, was the first to clone an animal. He showed that [it] is possible to create a whole individual from the nucleus of a skin cell of a tadpole (that is ahead in time) placed in an egg. But it took more than 50 years to recognize John Gurdon for his contribution. If you ask people which one was the first animal to be cloned, they always say Dolly, never the frog. But Dolly was cloned decades after the frog, people didn’t care the same. It was only when it got closer to humans that people started to really get interested.
NS: Usually embryos are implanted in women about one week after fertilization. Before you were able to keep embryos in culture for 14 days, nothing was known about this second week of development. What are the potential implications of these discoveries?
AB: It has tremendous implications. Mammalian development post implantation has always remained a mystery. The architecture and geometry of the embryo changes as it attaches to the walls of the uterus and it becomes invisible. We showed what happens after implantation in humans, unveiling, for the first time, our own origins. This was spectacular and unexpected because we showed that the human embryo has all the information to sustain its development at least for 14 days in the absence of maternal inputs. It was mesmerizing to see that self-organization occurs in the embryo, cells decide their fate and they organize in a specific structure of concentric circles, generating waveforms from the center to the edge. We stopped at 14 days because there’s a guideline in the United States, called the 14-day rule.
NS: If there was a reevaluation of the 14-day rule, where would you set the new limit and why?
AB: We are in discussions with the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Bioengineering. A lot of this work is done in collaboration with my physics colleague Eric Siggia from RU. We are trying to answer questions like “Do we want to move further than 14 days?” If the answer is yes, “How far do we want to go?”.
I’m very happy and proud to initiate the debate so we can create a dialogue regardless of our background, culture, language, or religion and together discuss how the new technology available can [help us] reevaluate this rule. This is a great question and the debate will resolve by itself. My personal opinion is that if we can double the 14 days, if the embryo survives, that would be a great advance for the 21st century, and we could get important information about organ formation, or organogenesis, because it happens during this time window.
NS: How far are you from creating human organs from stem cells?
AB: Very close actually. This work is in review in Nature now. Once you can make a human embryo, the mother of all the organs, you can make organs by [the] hundreds. If you know the language being used among cells to distinguish fate, then I can assure you, it’s a matter of [a] short term.
NS: What other passion do you share with science?
AB: The passion of curiosity, pushing the boundaries of the limit of what’s beyond. This is a human tradition, from Christopher Columbus wanting to see what is on the other side, to the pioneers of the West Coast wanting to see the boundaries of the land. It’s a natural phenomenon in us, to be attracted to the unknown. When I look down that microscope, my eyes send signals to my brain that tell me, “I want to know where I come from.” Where does that need derive from? That need of self-understanding, I think is very human. What drives it? I don’t know, but for me it’s a necessity, not a choice. I need to know, I don’t know why, but I need to know.
“My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues, and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”
Morocco Log #1
Stepping straight onto the tarmac of Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport after a 6 hour flight with the Royal Air Morocco, I am officially on the continent of Africa!
The reputation of Casablanca would be overrated if it were not for the magnificent Hassan II Mosque by the Atlantic Ocean. Marrakesh, on the other hand, is what I imagined Morocco would be like – vibrant colors, ancient history, and exotic culture blended with chaos everywhere. Djema Square at the heart of the old medina is the biggest outdoor marketplace in Marrakesh. Every day, when the sky dims into a scarlet sunset and the square is re-lit with a sea of tent light bulbs, when the delicious smell of BBQ travels to your nose through clouds of smoke that rise above vender stalls, when the boisterous crowd and circus animals pour into the square from all directions, you can’t help but realize that this place has just woken up and the show is about to begin.