Natural Selections Salutes Nobel Prize Winner Mike Young!



The Nobel Committee has awarded Professor Michael W. Young the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 2. Together with Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, professor Young has made an outstanding contribution unravelling now the circadian clock anticipates and adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Michael W. Young is the 25th scientist associated with  Rockefeller to receive the highest accolade in science.


Our biological clock helps to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone  release, blood pressure, and body temperature.

Word of the Month


Dakota Blackman



Noun, plural kakistocracies

  1. Government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power


Late this past June, journalist and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid tweeted the following: “Look up the definition of ‘kakistocracy’ today, my fellow Americans. Things will make much more sense.” The tweet, which was liked over 8,000 times and retweeted nearly 4,000 times, prompted such a significant spike in searches for the word that Merriam-Webster devoted an entire article to it.  Briefly, the word is Greek in origin, combining the root kakistos (meaning “worst”) with the familiar English ending -cracy (meaning “form of government”), which itself is derived from the Greek kratos (meaning “strength” or “power”). notes in its definition that the root may also be tied to the Greek word kakos, meaning “evil” or “unpleasant” (its derivatives are recognizable in English in such words as cacophony), and perhaps even connected to the Greek prefix kako-, a not-so-subtle origin of the English slang word for “defecation”. Taken together, kakistocracy quite literally translates to the worst government.

Reid’s tweet was published on June 29th, 2017, a date in which kakistocracy was indeed helpful in contextualizing the day’s news.  Some highlights from the day—other than the sale of an original R2-D2 model used in the Star Wars films for a whopping $2.76 million—included the passage of the second watered-down iteration of the travel ban. This action barred people from Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Somalia from entering the country without proof of “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship” with a person, job, or educational institution in the United States as well as the passage of two bills aimed at targeting undocumented immigrants. One of these bills, titled “Kate’s Law,” increased criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants previously convicted of crimes in the United States; the second, titled the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act,” allowed for the withdrawal of federal funding to sanctuary cities, those which do not actively comply with the federal government in their enforcement of immigration laws.

These controversial immigration laws and others that have since been passed by the administration, along with the overall erratic behavior of the man in charge, must call into question why, upon Reid’s tweeting, the Google searches spiked—and why this word resonated with so many. Perhaps it is the often flagrant dismissal of the conventions of our democracy (a meaningful or at least respectful relationship with the media, alleged collusions with foreign governments, the almost comical turnover of staff members, and the use of Twitter to disseminate thoughts, just to name a few); perhaps it is the type of legislation being advocated for and passed, much of which strips rights from those who already have little power (the work to further defund Planned Parenthood, public radio, and the arts, to revoke Obamacare and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), just to name a few); perhaps it is even what is not being said, or the latency to take what seems to be the obvious, just side (the lack of ability to disavow white supremacist groups and their support, for example). Perhaps this is a kakistocracy for most people because most of us believe that those in power are indeed “the worst persons.”

New York State Of Mind


Guadalupe Astorga

This month Natural Selections interviews Kipchirchir Bitok, Postdoctoral Associate.

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

Five years now.

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

I first moved to Brooklyn before I came to the Rockefeller housing. I like the Upper East Side, because it’s convenient to go to work, I can go running to the Central Park and the East River esplanade, Randall’s Island, even Brooklyn. You also have access to several subway lines, so it’s very convenient.

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

Overrated, I think is the subway. It’s always crowded and delayed. I like the Citi Bikes over the subways. Underrated, the diversity of the city, there’s people from all over the world, and a great variety of food. I really enjoy meeting people from far countries.

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

Even if I think the subway is overrated, I miss it when I’m out of town. When I go to a city without a subway I really miss it.


Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us New Yorkers?

Not really, I can’t think of anything negative or positive that has changed. I thought I wouldn’t like the city because it would be overwhelming. But, I really like it now, and I know how to navigate the jungle, so that’s positive.

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

Pay fewer taxes. I feel I pay too much in taxes and get little out of it.

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

I like finding hidden places with delicious food, I like to walk around different places, do my groceries. I like to run on bridges all around the city. I also enjoy getting out of the city and to go hiking.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?  

When my parents came, I enjoyed showing them the city and watching their surprise was a great experience.

Bike, MTA or walk it?


If you could live anywhere else, where would that be? 

I would live outside the city. I like the area of Mountain Lake, upstate. The city can be overwhelming.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

Oh, yeah!

Culture Corner


Television review: The Defiant Ones (HBO documentary)

Bernie Langs

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones”

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones” (promotional photo: HBO)

The HBO television network changed the landscape of TV programming for the better and for many years has offered innovative, well-written, and imaginative shows and documentaries that leave the cliché plagued series of the established networks in the dust. Its latest triumph is The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, directed by Allen Hughes, covering the long careers of former music producer turned music mogul, Jimmy Iovine, and rapper, Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.

 In his book series, Parallel Lives written in the second century AD, the historian Plutarch gives a biography of a Roman politician, general, or famous, personality and offers a corresponding history of someone from ancient Greece in an effort to expose their moral and ethical similarities, and examine their triumphs and failures in tandem. In The Defiant Ones, we similarly get a rendering of two men from extremely different backgrounds, but unlike those written about by Plutarch, these two lives eventually come together and intersect in the most unexpected ways. What stands out to me as the defining parallel quality of both men, each of whom approach music and its industry from different vantage points, is their unflagging commitment to artistry, stripped away from any monetary or social gain. Both have unrelenting pure visions of what comprises great music and neither is willing to compromise their ideals, often risking ruin toe hold fast to their creative principles.

The series offers incredible footage and photographs from the early careers of both Iovine and Dr. Dre, and Allen Hughes was able to procure interviews with many of the main players throughout their lives, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Pattie Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor for Iovine, and rappers such as Ice Cube, Sean Combs, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg for Dr. Dre. A host of behind-the-scenes music industry executives and business managers as well as friends and family also weigh in on the parts they played in this incredible musical odyssey. It is striking that all of the famous Rock ‘N’ Roll and pop personalities come across as genuine and emotional in describing how Iovine has one relentless, driving mission in his intersection with them: to find a way for them to best realize their artistic vision and get their work out to as many people as possible so that their audiences think about their work and enjoy it. The number of artists Iovine discovered and directed to success is astounding.

I am less familiar with the work of Dr. Dre and know much of his history from news stories here and there, from such films as Straight Outta Compton. Compton is a undeniably a great movie, but Dr. Dre’s story, as told in The Defiant Ones, actually inspired me as a composer and musician and in my modest efforts in music recording. Dr. Dre is a perfectionist in the recording studio, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and the artists he works with. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for rap or hip-hop, but on occasion I do see the art and beauty of it, especially in terms of its production values. There is an early film montage of Dr. Dre, pre-fame, masterfully DJing in his native Compton area, where he plays the classic girl group song “Mr. Postman.” I never liked or appreciated that sound before, but he does it not only to perfection, but with obvious respect for the original recording. It was that very show that launched Dr. Dre’s start in the business, since the club owner booked him for future gigs.

In Plutarch’s Lives, there are examples of famous Romans and Greeks who either fell as victims of their character flaws or triumphed over them. Straight Outta Compton glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of violence with women, but it is depicted in The Defiant Ones. It was interesting to see Dee Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, interviewed as an authority on the rap history timeline and then revealed to be one of the women who were assaulted by Dr. Dre in the past. Although Dr. Dre apologized at length for his past horrific actions, having realized it was something terrible that he had done and that he will always have to live with, viewers will certainly take note of his past pattern of inexcusable and downright awful, violent behavior. Iovine also struggled with how he handled the escalation of violence between East and West Coast rap recording artists, many of whom were tied to him and Dr. Dre. At its worst, the violence actually descended into murder. There are incredible interviews at this point in the series with Sean Combs and Snoop Dogg that are emotional and chilling, and the story of Tupac Shakur’s demise is recounted in depth.

One of the great anecdotes in the series describes the origin of the wildly popular Beats by Dre. After his divorce, Iovine felt lost and was floundering as he wandered on a beach one afternoon when Dr. Dre saw him from his balcony and waved for him to come up for a chat. Dr. Dre explained to Iovine that he was getting approached for endorsements but didn’t want to cheaply put his name on sneakers, etc. Iovine brilliantly suggests designing headphones with high-quality sound, an idea that would be right up Dr. Dre’s alley. They went on to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and after carefully crafting and tastefully marketing their product, which was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. In May 2013, they donated a $70 million endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

Throughout their extensive interviews in the show, Dr. Dre and Iovine never come across in with them in the show as pretentious or egotistically struck by their own success or stardom; Iovine has great comedic timing. I’ve always found Dr. Dre to be a brooding, soulful presence and though he has a lot of screen time in this series, he retains an air of mystery, professionalism, and magic. There is a fantastic shot of him in part four of the series where he hovers like a Zen master over a huge recording studio console.

The Defiant Ones inspires one to stay true to oneself and to one’s vision of life, whether it be as an artist or just in retaining a set of uncompromising positive values and to remain steadfast when these values are challenged.

Life on a Roll


The Old City of Quebec

Qiong Wang

Quebec is an authentic city of rich history, vibrant art, and French culture. It was my first visit to this old city, and I was pleasantly impressed. Quebec means “the narrowing of the river” and in this case it refers to the Saint Lawrence River. Its geographic heritage endows the city with its strategic significance in wars and economy.

The entire old city is a UNESCO heritage listed site. The only fortified city wall in North America is preserved in Quebec.

Apart from French being spoken and written everywhere, the characteristic that struck me most is the rich art element infused in every detail of the city: from the landmark Le Chateau Frontenac to a vast painting on the side of a building, from restaurants to galleries, and from sculptures to street signs.

It Could Happen Here


Miguel Crespo

The-Handmaids Tale. Key Art Hulu

In late 2016, the streaming service Hulu produced a series of ten episodes based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The first three episodes dropped on April 26, 2017 and scored the biggest debut in Hulu history. In May this year, the show was renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. There have been numerous adaptations since the book was published: theater, opera, ballet, film, and radio. A graphic novel release is also scheduled by the end of the year. Given the recent interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, now is the perfect time to revisit the 1985 dystopian novel.

The story takes place in Gilead, a society organized by power-hungry leaders, according to a not-so-extremist interpretation of a biblical account. The story that was originally used as a reference was that of Jacob, who had two wives and two handmaids. In an era of declining births due to chemical pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, a new order is established where certain women are used as “handmaids”. Deprived of all of their rights, handmaids are considered objects destined to serve as child bearers for affluent families. The story is narrated in the first person by a handmaid named Offred. Interspersed within flashbacks, she provides an account of her previous life. Together with her husband and daughter, she had tried to flee to Canada, only to be abducted, brought back, and re-educated in the new values. An entire indoctrination system is revealed to the reader: the Republic of Gilead. This new society is stratified such that everybody has a well-defined position and function. As a patriarchal system, power is held by older men called commanders. They are married to wives but have the privilege of owning a handmaid for reproductive purposes. In this oppressive atmosphere, strict rules on language, daily activities, and ultimately thought are reinforced by a secret service known as The Eyes of God. One night, Offred defies the system and becomes involved in illicit activities that bring an element of risk to her life.

Offred’s story falls into the tradition of dystopian novels like Brave New World or 1984. As such, the author creates a unique language in which terms for the new social classes abound. The word “sterile” is banned, and women who fail to abide by the strict social rules are considered “unwomen” and sent to shovel toxic waste in the colonies. Throughout the story, the author also plays with the mock Latin aphorism nolite te bastardes carborundorum in a recurrent and intriguing fashion; readers have a chance to team up with Offred to try to unravel its meaning. The Handmaid’s Tale remains hard to classify. Deemed a futuristic fable, political satire, or even science fiction, Atwood prefers to consider her novel speculative fiction. In her own words, “science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” When crafting the story, Atwood purposely avoided including anything in the book that had not happened.

Like Offred and her family, Americans fleeing their own land for the neighbor to the north has become a common theme in history. During the Vietnam War, thousands of draft-age men fled to Canada. Before the Civil War, many slaves reached southern Ontario through the underground railway. Even earlier, New England Puritans left for a toilsome life in Nova Scotia. They wanted to create a theocratic utopia in America, and yearned for a city on a hill that would never be realized. The Gilead society seems remote to us, but oozes historical realism, and similarities in recent history are countless: American polygamy, slavery, baby stealing, group executions in the Argentinian dictatorship, and even book burnings, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the same way in which Bolsheviks expelled Mensheviks, the Gileadian Christians persecute Catholics and Baptists, or so are we told by the news. In Gilead, government-issued news are never reliable, just as was the case in Orwell’s 1984.

The-Handmaids Tale. Key Art Hulu

Atwood wrote the novel in 1984 in West Berlin and Alabama. At this time, the USSR governed with an iron fist, severely limiting personal freedoms not only at home, but also in their eastern European satellite states. During these years, in countries such  as East Germany, Poland or Czechoslovakia, silence was imposed among the people who lived in fear of being spied on. Within the same region, under the Romanian dictatorship of President Ceausescu, who wanted to increase his country’s population, birth control and abortion were banned after 1966. Atwood had also travelled to Iran and Afghanistan, where theocratic governments were at play and women’s rights still had some room for improvement.

The Handmaid’s Tale also reveals the importance of environmental issues and their detrimental consequences for society. It is hard to read it without remembering recent nuclear plant incidents. The depiction of Gilead’s environmental situation might sound implausible, but it does not seem so far-fetched when compared with places like China, where pollution and toxic waste have reached levels that are incompatible with human health.

These striking parallels to our current society are disturbing, and have become more palpable since the last Presidential election in the U.S. The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes how little it took for Americans to change their minds about things. It is Offred, in her inner soliloquy, who reflects on the fact that “next generations of women will not complain because they will not know better.”

In Gilead, minorities are targeted by the new regime and there is no room for dissent. In the eyes of the Gileadian society, the traumatic events that led to this new order are blamed on Islamic extremists. Nowadays, hate for certain groups seems to be on the rise, as are far-right movements with overwhelming impunity. For many, freedoms, rights and long established orders are endangered. As simplified language and prohibition of books are a constant in The Handmaid’s Tale, comparisons with emerging trends of communication via Twitter become unavoidable.

The story is rich with irony and complacency. Atwood takes this opportunity to courageously remind us that when repression replaces order, people are ready to trade their personal freedom for what they perceive of as security. Offred is a victim, a tease, and a witness. In an act of hope, she keeps a diary that she hides for future generations. Its timeliness remains unambiguous and tantalizing, as we hear her voice speaking to us. Perhaps we are at a crucial moment in our history. Perhaps we need The Handmaid’s Tale now more than ever.

When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall—Weekend Getaways for an Indian Summer


Owen Clark

 “Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?” It’s tough to argue with that sentiment, especially when it’s delivered by way of Billie Holiday’s epochal, melancholic timbre. If there’s ever a time when New York transcends its already esteemed, almost mythical status, it’s the fall. The leaves are turning and change is in the air. The haze of summer’s adventures slowly kindle into nostalgia, and exciting holidays are on the horizon. Perhaps most importantly, the weather is finally palatable—sandwiched in between summer’s oppressive sauna-like, trash pile-cooking heat; and winter’s face-stinging, filthy snow bank-accumulating cold—is about a month of near perfect temperatures. But, if like me you’ve delayed your summer travels to avoid the price gouging and hordes of school kids, your wanderlust (yes I said it) is probably imminently approaching critical levels, and you’re in need of a weekend getaway. Luckily for us there’s a whole host of options for a September sojourn. So here’s a quick run-down of some top picks I’ve amassed while dreaming my way through Google Maps.

The Catskills

Given its excellent proximity-to-beauty ratio, this should be a mainstay for every resident of the Big Apple. I’m planning to visit in October so hopefully this won’t inspire too many people, overrunning the trails with Tri-I scientists. At a mere two hours drive from the city, the Catskill Mountains boast some of New York State’s most magnificent scenery, which comes all the more alive during the fall foliage season. Hiking forms the bread and butter of any trip to the region, with trails like Slide Mountain and Indian Head providing jaw-dropping views to those willing to put in the miles. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, Hunter Mountain is home to North America’s longest, fastest zipline, which can even be traversed under cover of starlight, on the Night Zip Tour. As far as accommodation goes, the Catskills are home to several quaint Bed and Breakfasts that start as low as $105 a night—at the slightly eerily named Twilight Lodge—ranging to $225 at the more upscale, regal sounding Clark House (get it?). For those wanting to truly get back to nature, New York State has kindly provided several campsites, such as North-South Lake and Devil’s Tombstone, generally running in the region of $15-25 per night. For something in the middle, try an AirBnB such as this one, conveniently located above an upscale pizza joint.

The Catskills Indian Head Mountain provides a scenic vista.

The Catskills Indian Head Mountain provides a scenic vista.


Mystic, Connecticut

Very slightly further afield (just under three hours drive, or five hours on the train) is the idyllic seaside village of Mystic. Yes that’s right, the Mystic of Mystic Pizza fame. The restaurant really exists, although the movie wasn’t actually shot there. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive stature (the village’s population sits at just over 4,000 people), there are plenty of adventures to be had here, primarily nautical in nature. Mystic is home to the largest maritime museum in New England—the famed Mystic Seaport—where landlubbers can try out their sea legs on historic colonial era vessels, the most notable of which is the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world. The Mystic Aquarium forms another unique attraction, home to the North East’s sole population of Beluga whales! Once you’ve got your Beluga selfie you can head to downtown Mystic, where you can soak up the atmosphere of a bygone era, gazing at colonial buildings while enjoying a bite of locally sourced seafood. Cap off a perfect trip with a sunset river cruise, and be sure to head back next summer for the outdoor concert series.

Portland, Maine

When I think of autumn, I think of New England, and nothing screams New England quite like the great state of Maine. With its quintessential lighthouses towering over jagged rocks, keeping watch over the expansive, deep blue Atlantic—the East Coast’s northern most state represents a picture-perfect paradise. Although it might seem a bridge too far for a weekend trip, Maine’s most populous city of Portland is only a five and a half hours drive from New York, and just over an hour’s flight (you can snatch a September round-trip for under 200 bucks). There’s a whole host of things to do in this vibrant, seaside town, including art galleries and museums; brewery tours exploring the thriving local beer scene; and of course sampling the local delicacies of lobster and chowder, which the state is famous for. Once you’ve soaked up the vibrant atmosphere of the city itself, you’d be remiss not to visit the scenic spots of the surrounding area, such as Crescent Beach State Park, and nearby Two Lights State Park—featuring that classic lighthouse/rocks combo that will get those precious Instagram likes rolling in. If that’s not enough to satiate you, consider extending your trip to visit the stunning Acadia National Park (three hours drive from Portland), where you’ll feel truly removed from the hustle and bustle of New York—waking up to the fragrance of pine trees and the salty sea air, at the rustic Acadia Cottages.

A picture-postcard—Two Lights State Park sits just 25 minutes from bustling Portland, Maine.

A picture-postcard—Two Lights State Park sits just 25 minutes from bustling Portland, Maine.


Cape Cod

Last on the list is another classic New England destination, Massachusetts’s own Cape Cod. Again, although it seems pretty far away, at just under five hours drive, it’s easily doable for a long weekend. If driving isn’t your game, you can ride to Boston on the cheap with Megabus, then beat the traffic with a 90-minute ferry trip. Best known for its scenic grassy beaches, there’s a lot to explore on the Cape—ranging from the more highbrow glass-blowing museum in Sandwich, to the raucous debauchery of Provincetown. Whale watching is a must, with the local waters being home to a sizable population of Humpback, Finback, Minke and Pilot whales, as well as dolphins, seals, and course the Great White sharks made notorious in Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws (though your chances of seeing one are slim to none). As far as accommodation goes, the Cape has several charming bed and breakfasts to choose from, although their rates dramatically spike during the high season. Spots fill up quickly, but if you can brace the cooler nights I highly recommend camping at Nickerson State Park. My childhood bedroom is filled with photo album after photo album of all the snakes and turtles I used to catch on the park’s numerous lakes when visiting with my family as a young boy.

Storm King Art Center

Sculptures sit amongst a vibrant palette of autumn leaves at the Storm King Art Center.


So there you have it. Though this land is vast, there’s much to see just a stone’s throw from New York City. If you find yourself wondering where the time goes and you’re running out of free weekends, or simply low on cash flow (the lowly scientist’s default state), then don’t worry, there’s still plenty of options for day trips closer to home. Bear Mountain is usually at the top of the list for New Yorkers in search of that elusive thing called nature, but just slightly further afield is the ever impressive Storm King Art Center, where abstract sculptures come to life amongst the painted hues of the surrounding fall foliage—viewers of the Netflix show Master of None will recognize the park from season 2, episode 9. Equidistant from New York, but this time heading east up the I-495, Long Island’s Caumsett State Park provides a scenic setting for hiking, cycling, and gazing upon the tranquil Long Island Sound—with several miles of bridle paths leading to secluded beaches, forests, and the historic Henry Lloyd Manor house, built in 1711. Wherever the season takes you, make sure to time it right, bring your camera, and above all, enjoy the autumn breeze.


A Lab Grows in Brooklyn


Aileen Marshall

Most of us here at Rockefeller and the Tri-Institutions community, who work in science in one form or another, do so because we love science. Sometimes we are curious about other aspects of science outside of the specific area in which we work. Sometimes we want to talk to friends about exciting areas of research, but it can be hard to explain it to them. Or we may have ideas for an experiment or project, but don’t necessarily have the means in our own labs to carry them out. All of these desires can be fulfilled in a community biolab.

What exactly is a community biolab? There doesn’t seem to be an official definition, but it is a growing trend. There are at least a dozen such organizations in the United States, and interest seems to be growing. In broad terms, community biolabs are non-profit organizations that provide lab space, equipment, supplies and training to anyone curious about any aspect of biology. They try to support citizen science and science literacy through this access, and have classes and other types of events geared toward the public.  While they do take donations of all kinds, they survive through membership and class fees, so they are dependent on a critical mass of members to survive. As a way to obtain equipment, a community lab in California called LA Biohackers found some old thermal cyclers and a DNA sequencer in the dumpster of University of California, Santa Cruz.

There is a community biolab right in New York, in Brooklyn, called Genspace. It was founded by life scientists who wanted to improve the public’s science literacy and support citizen science. They do this through classes, talks and events for the public, and as incubator space for startups, or those who are just curious.

Ellen Jorgensen was a scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry when she came up with the idea for Genspace. She was working at a biotechnology company when she saw an article about DIY spaces. At that point, most of these types of organizations were geared toward the computer and electronics industry, but there was growing interest in biolabs. She started lurking on the Google Group mentioned in the article and saw that there was a lot of interest in such a lab in the city, but not much actually happening. In 2009, she sent a message to the group proposing to meet at a coffee shop near the Beacon Theater. Four other people showed up: reporter Daniel Grushkin, artist Nurit Bar Shar, and two Columbia college students.  The students were there because they were interested in the iGem competition, but there was no support available from the school. iGem is a synthetic biology competition where participants are given components such as promoters, terminators, reporter elements, and plasmids, and challenged to create a new system within a cell. Bar Shar had learned how to grow cell cultures in fractal patterns and was interested in continuing that work. They started meeting in the Grushkin’s living room, where they would lay a plastic sheet on the kitchen table and Jorgensen would provide equipment, such as a gel apparatus from her job. In this makeshift lab, Jorgensen says she was impressed with the reactions of others and began to “appreciate the privilege to work with the tools of science.” However, working in the apartment, they realized that they couldn’t store any of their work or forge any long-term projects. Then they heard about the Metropolitan Exchange Building at 33 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The building’s owner was very passionate about using the space for promoting science. The building also housed an architecture firm, Terraform One, that was playing with the idea of constructing buildings from living materials. This concept failed to eventuate, so the architecture firm gave the space to Genspace in 2010, even building a biosafety level 1 lab enclosure for them. At this point Genspace became a non-profit, starting the lab with equipment donated from Jorgensen’s old company.

BioRockets Interns

BioRockets Interns

Genspace offers several different types of events. There was the art exhibit, Stranger Visions, where an artist took chewed gum, cigarette butts, and hairs found on the streets of the city, used them to sequence the DNA of these individuals, and from that created busts based on how these people might look. It was meant to be a statement on biological surveillance and how genetics determine how we look. The artist did all this work at Genspace. There are adult classes, such as how to make paper and textiles from bacteria, how to make paint from glowing microbes, and also the occasional book signing. In the past, they have offered classes in basic molecular biology techniques and one on the new gene editing method, CRISPR, which has recently received a lot of press.  There will be a lecture by Chris Mason of Cornell University on designing genomes. The BioRocket Internship is an after school and summer program for New York City public high school students, giving them a chance to obtain lab experience.

Membership costs $100 a month to have access to the lab, and is open to anyone, following an initial safety class. It can be used as a space for scientists to do their own thing. For example, a company called Opentron actually started at Genspace, by a group from New York University that found pipetting repetitive—as bench scientists can attest to. They developed an automated pipettor with intricate software that costs less than $5,000, and formed a company that is now comprised of about twenty employees in the U.S. and China. Membership at Genspace is also “good for proof of concept work,” Jorgensen notes. Genspace has been hosting iGem teams over the years as well.

Recently, Genspace has given rise to an even more wonderful organization, Biotech Without Borders. While Genspace continues to focus on the intersection between science and art, Biotech Without Borders focuses more on opportunities for hands-on science. The mission of Biotech Without Borders is to help improve the public’s understanding of biology and DNA technology as a way to encourage democratizing science, provide space for a curious public, and maybe to eventually help bring biotechnology to developing countries. There are periodic lectures and classes on such topics as biotechnology, synthetic biology, and techniques, that are very reasonably priced. They have a recurring free event called PCR and Pizza, where one can bring some organic material that they were curious about, and have it sequenced, or you can sequence a piece of your own DNA, or just engage in conversation about science. There are plans to start a program called Hack the Helix. Intended for city public high school teachers, the program will provide an affordable opportunity to learn biotechniques to present to their classes. There will also be a program for high school students.  Biotech Without Borders plans to collaborate with Know Science on some events.

For information on specific events at Genspace, go to To learn more about what Biotech Without Borders, go to

Opening European Borders


Francesca Cavallo


For decades, Europe has been a dream destination for many immigrants in search of a better life. As a symbol of democracy, stability and opportunity, the old continent attracts more and more people every year. But an escalating migration crisis is testing the European Union’s (EU) commitment to human rights and open borders. The current geopolitical situation in several regions bordering Europe has been boosting the immigration stream, leading to new debates concerning immigration policy and regulations as well as to an intensification of nationalist and right-wing movements in many European countries. Before delving deeper into the consequences of this massive immigration, let’s analyze the roots and the reasons of this immigration wave that is afflicting the EU.

Europe’s history has been immensely shaped by migration. For centuries, merchants, craftsmen, and intellectuals crossed the continent to practice their trades or start new lives. Millions migrated from Europe, first to the colonies and later to the Americas. At the same time, Europe also has a long history of forced migration: from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the population shifts in southeast Europe caused by the many wars between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Large-scale immigration into western Europe has been more recent. From 1960 to 1973, the number of foreign workers in western Europe doubled from 3% to 6% of the workforce. It was the highest in places like the UK and France, with relatively open access for citizens of their former colonies. In Germany, too, the number of foreigners (nearly half of them Turks) rose by 4 million between 1960 and 1985, although they seldom became citizens. But primary immigration into Europe—driven by labor needs—all but ended with the oil crisis of 1973. Since the late 1980s, the number of people applying for asylum has increased sharply. In 1984, there were only 104,000 applications in western Europe. This figure grew to 692,000 in 1992 and then declined again during the 1990s.

Thus, asylum has become one of the principal means of immigration into the EU. The end of the Cold War caused a number of small wars and ethnic conflicts around the world. In this type of warfare, the combatants—regular troops complemented by paramilitaries—often target civilian populations. Many people that applied for asylum were from Bosnia in the early 1990s and Kosovo in the late 1990s. Also, with the end of communist rule, many eastern Europeans believed that their aspirations for a better life could only be served in the west.Therefore, it’s not surprising that many tried to emigrate westward. The problem is that tens of thousands have tried to use the asylum process to do so, which has led to backlash in some countries against all types of immigrants. Even Ireland, whose modern history is one of mass emigration, saw asylum applications leap from 39 in 1992 to more than 4,600 in 1998. Some countries have experienced much larger increases than others. Germany has consistently received more refugees than other EU countries—more than 60% of all those who applied for asylum in western Europe in 1992. During the last decade, Austria, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland have received high numbers of refugees per head of their populations, whereas some of the larger states, especially France, Italy and Spain, have received relatively fewer. Britain is in the middle of the field.

Today, Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of immigrants and refugees in its history. To understand the situation the EU is facing today, it is essential to clarify the reality that Europeans had to endure during most of 2015. What made the situation in 2015 evolve differently from the past was the scale of the new immigration wave that appeared during the spring, added to the political motivation of immigrants who were mainly escaping civil conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Composed mostly of refugees moving out of Syria and Iraq under the pressure of endless fighting in these two countries, this influx of immigrants introduced numbers never seen in recent years, with 800,000 people stepping onto European territory in less than eight months, or 6,000 per day. By the end of 2015 a new route was paved through Turkey, Greece, and the Western Balkan countries toward EU nations, starting with Hungary, Austria, and Germany and then spreading to many more countries. The sudden surge of immigration in the EU took the European institutions by surprise. Close monitoring of the Syrian crisis from 2011 on revealed that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) stemming from the Syrian conflict at the start of 2015 amounted to nearly half of the Syrian population (approximately 4 million refugees and almost 8 million IDPs).

For the first few months of 2015, this level of immigration pressure the EU had to confront was rather traditional. Europeans were profoundly confused about how to respond to these new challenges. In the age of imperialism, Europe justified settling foreign lands with the confident belief that they were bringing the benefits of civilization to more backward parts of the world. But post-imperial, post-Holocaust Europe is much more wary of asserting the superiority of its culture. The big question in the coming decades is how Europe

For the first time, the EU had to find a collective response to this crisis because of its scale, intensity, and the involvement of many countries along the route followed by the immigrants. Europe’s response was essentially shaped by a sense of urgency. It was a short-term fix that allowed the EU to regain control of its external borders. An agreement with Turkey set up practical arrangements that contributed to calming the situation on the ground and updating processes for asylum applications and returns. However, deep-seated political divisions in the Union on the immigration issue remain. In particular, not all member states are ready to accept a fair share of the immigration burden, thereby undermining the principle of unity, and risking fragmentation and freedom of movement.

Detailed decisions presented in the European Council conclusions of February 18, March 7, and March 18, 2016, focused on three main issues. First, the EU gave clear support, including financial resources and expertise, to the frontline states, in particular Greece, to help deliver humanitarian assistance to the refugees and facilitate the different stages of the administrative processes required by the EU for border control and asylum requests. This action consisted of first setting up reception centers (“hot spots”) for the purpose of rapidly examining newly arrived immigrants, and selecting between those whose asylum requests could be processed and those who could go no further, and then establishing transit centers for possible candidates for asylum, or other types of international protection. Second, the EU rapidly established a new body of EU border and coast guard forces through relevant legislation. Third, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey that provided both sides with a clear understanding of their mutual obligations and rights with regard to the influx of refugees and immigrants moving into Europe, out of Turkey. Provisions were adopted both on the current immigrants, with the return to Turkey of irregular immigrants who had already landed in Greece, and on future inflow, with the possible resettlement in Europe of regular immigrants on the condition that their asylum applications be processed through procedures in Turkey. These procedures assisted Turkish authorities in stemming smuggling and trafficking channels. Moreover, significant improvements to Syrian refugees’ daily lives could be seen in Turkey, where they had access to the labor market, and education for refugee children in local schools. Meanwhile, EU leaders agreed to substantial compensation for Turkey’s efforts by allocating a €6 billion ($6.6 billion) financial package for 2016 and 2017, accelerated visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to Schengen countries, and the relaunch of Turkey’s stalled EU accession negotiations. Last but not least, from the Turkish point of view, the EU formally reinvigorated its strategic partnership with Ankara with a commitment to convene a yearly summit between the leaders of the two sides. What the EU urgently needs now is a more long-term plan based on a combination of genuine solidarity and creative flexibility. Solidarity is needed, immigration is not fatalistic; it can be controlled and can open the door to benefits for all. For this to happen, Europeans need to change their current thinking and consider immigration as an opportunity. They must agree to discuss the issue among themselves, promote dialogue with their external partners, and leave aside the temptations of intolerance and isolation. Flexibility is necessary as any decision on immigration must take into consideration the specific problems of every member state and, more substantially, facilitate the need for a progressive rollout of any integration approach.

Culture Corner


Ubiquitous Art

Bernie Langs

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Ah, yes, the famous malaise of the pseudo-mad Danish Prince, the speech of Hamlet to his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the depressive bent that has overtaken his disposition, even while recognizing that the magnificent wonders of the world cascade before his very eyes. I believe that many of us also communicate a similar despair through email, text, Facebook, or in conversation with our friends, of our inner conflicts about the depressing state of politics in our troubled nation. Personally, I lay no claim to the insights of a Hamlet, yet, as I’ve hit my 60th year of life on this planet, I find it hard at times to muster the strength to care and gather excitement for professional sports and for what currently passes as art and entertainment. And I’ve long given up hope for the salvaging of the higher ideals of America’s revolutionary concepts of democracy and government. Yet I know in my heart that there are many times when my dreary, lazy pessimism can be shoved aside and temporarily forgotten, such as when at an art exhibition I’ve dragged myself to exhilarate my soul, or the moment an orchestral or guitar passage at a concert rises to heavenly heights granting momentary freedom of mind. Unfortunately, like the feeling I get after consuming a bag of Doritos, I sink back into unsatisfied appetite, and the opiate high of stimulated intellect crashes down, mired in the dreary muck and Dickensian soot of the times in which we live. I always knew the world would change in my lifetime, but I could never have imagined or anticipated a place of constant stimulation mixed with the underlying hum of continual disappointment.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikipedia).

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, pinpoints the source of so much of what bothers me now in the arts. Benjamin was the first to recognize a deadly and serious danger that the art world would confront going forward. He realized that the ease of reproducing great works of art would cast a shadow over the unique qualities of the actual images and first-hand experiences. If the Mona Lisa, for example becomes available as a cheap postcard churned out by the hundreds of thousands and in art history textbooks again and again, over and over, the mind of the beholder loses the ability to conceive of what made the actual physical painting a masterpiece in the first place. This uncomfortable understanding stretches out widely in the arts, rippling forever outwards like the waves set in motion by a sudden disturbance on the surface at the center of a placid lake.

Of course, art should be sustenance for all and available to everyone; that is something I’ve never doubted for a moment. But what art philosophers such as Walter Benjamin realized was that by cheapening the “primary” object of art, people who never visit the original work or take the time to experience true art amid this barrage of valueless clutter will never experience its “aura” or have what art historian Kenneth Clark terms as a “moment of vision.” The essence of the spiritual power and the feat of the technical creation is diluted, or worse, completely lost, replaced by a tawdry mechanized imitation.

In music, for example, it appears that we’ve created a world of the most casual of listeners. Songs are available at any time and in any place. You can halt a Beethoven symphony on a hand-held device in the middle of a violinist’s most passionate stroke of the bow. Few people take the time to ponder a classical piece as an entirety, to struggle with its complex structuring and discover its meaning as a totality, as a bold statement of a nuanced idea. Pop music is ubiquitous, piped in at shopping malls, in pharmacies, even in restaurant restrooms. Has anyone ever been in a Target store or a CVS pharmacy and paused to say, “Wow, I love this song, let me stop and listen?” Pop music has long been the loving cash cow of an aggressive music industry, and it is the songs that are thus devalued as mere commodities. We’ve now reached the point where the capitalist-generated brand of music as a “product” latches on like a deadly virus to the artistic expression of the song, and unbelievably, the artists themselves are transformed and morphed into becoming the physical “face” of a commodity such as soda, a bank, or snack food. In my mind this is a horrific dehumanizing concept that the ghosts of economic opposites Karl Marx and Adam Smith must both be choking on.

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi (photo: Forbes).

When I studied art history on my own, for many years I took in Raphael’s High Renaissance depictions of Saints and Madonnas, through photos in books. For years I viewed them with disdain, seeing them as sugary and overly sweet and not close in conception to the works or genius of his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Leonard da Vinci. But standing in front of the very same paintings at the National Gallery in London or the National Gallery of Art in Washington I experienced jaw-dropping, intense moments of revelation. No photo in a book, no postcard or computer image can capture the textures of skin and clothing in Raphael’s paintings. The artist’s depiction of ethereal time and space, religious realms juxtaposed with temporal dimensions, and the souls and complex emotions within the depicted individuals are best experienced in situ. There are mind-blowing, often indescribable details and nuances that can never be captured in widely dispersed and carelessly conceived reproductions.

There’s a funny story that when Dustin Hoffman was making the 1976 movie Marathon Man, there was a scene where he’s fleeing some would-be killers, and to prepare for the filming of that moment he was standing alone on the film’s set doing all kinds of physical and mental calisthenics to prepare for the action. As he was going through all of this, his older, legendary co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, walked up to him and said, “Why don’t you just try acting?” I felt quite the same last year when I went to see the overwhelming, powerful paintings by Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum. I couldn’t see much of them because people were blocking the masterpieces taking photos with cell phones and large iPads. What I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just try looking?” The primary source itself had become for many visitors just a living postcard, a photo op with a piece of famous canvas. The power of Van Gogh was lost to them in their snapping haste, as if the vital paintings were nothing more than soda cans in the flesh bearing the face of their favorite stars. Yes, the soul of genius reduced to the muzak equivalent of a special effects Starry Night.

Quotable Quote



Margaret Chase Smith

My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, and that honor is to be earned but not bought.

(Margaret Chase Smith, U.S. Congress Representative and Republican Senator, 1897-1995)

Life on a Roll.

A Day in the Gulf of Kotor, Montenegro

Elodie Pauwels

I have recently spent a few days in Dubrovnik, Croatia. One of the highlights of my trip was a one-day trip to Montenegro, since it was not planned and I therefore had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even realize the currency is Euro (I’ll let you Google this!).

I was given the full .tour of the Gulf of Kotor. Imagine a landscape of fjords and mountains, with Mediterranean vegetation and clear blue water. Pretty nice, isn’t it? Like most cities in the area, the old city of Kotor (a UNESCO world heritage site) is surrounded by fortifications and walls. If you’re fit enough, you can climb 1500-plus steps up to St. John fortress, built by Emperor Justinian in 535.




I also discovered Perast, a tiny village on the Gulf, and its two small islets, Our Lady of the Rocks (the only artificially-built island in the Adriatic sea, shown here), and St. George.





Eclipse: Protect Your Eyes for The Big One

Miguel Crespo

Summer is here and again sun, humidity, and mosquitos will relentlessly plague our days. But the firmament reserves something unique for us: a celestial spectacle we do not get to witness every day. On Monday August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cast its shadow across America. For those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, a once in a lifetime experience will take place in the form of a couple of priceless minutes when the sky will switch colors like the canvas of a mad artist.

But what is a total solar eclipse anyway? A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon stands between the Sun and the Earth, briefly obscuring a patch of land where night and day become indistinguishable for a few moments.

The ancient Chinese legend has it that solar eclipses occurred when a legendary celestial dragon devoured the Sun. In Vietnam, a frog eats the Sun, while people of the Kwakiutl tribe on the western coast of Canada are convinced that the mouth of heaven consumes the Sun. Myths and legends of the ancient world always had something romantic to them. As a child, I loved to believe them until one day I was pointed to a scientific source, only to learn from Stevie Wonder that “…when you believe in things that you don’t understand then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way.” Modern science has elucidated mythical representations of natural phenomena—the Hubble telescope taught us that red light comes from farther away than we thought, and yes, the Earth does revolve around the Sun. Times of darkness and ignorance are long gone for humanity. Or are they? A quick YouTube search is enough to come across countless videos proclaiming the wackiest ad hoc interpretations of this summer’s forthcoming eclipse. Fulfillments of biblical prophecies always come in handy, and contrary to the general opinion, never get old. However, Numerology is my all-time favorite. Desperate subtracting and adding in search of the just too probable coincidence, ideal for the construction of the pyramids by Martians but may also be invoked in case of an eclipse. Together with a few Web sites of the same genre, this serves as a reminder that, as Sam Harris said, “Civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous.”

The majestic gift from Helios is as beautiful as it is ephemeral. Only two to five minutes in the path of totality guarantee the full-blown eclipse experience. The path of totality is a 70-mile-wide stretch of land that will diagonally run from Oregon, all the way down to South Carolina. In search of a reverse path of enlightenment, thousands of enthusiasts will travel to those areas, carefully mapped by NASA, where Selene and Helios will unite in the short-lived affair that the Ancient Greeks anticipated so many centuries ago. Hotel owners and tour organizers alike have also taken note of the event, offering the best rates to enjoy the unforgettable experience together with music festivals, river cruises or even a trip on horseback.

Anticipation has been building during the last few months. Currently, myriad Web sites offer relevant information, including the best spots to view the eclipse, the weather forecast, timing, eclipse simulations, and the exact dates of past and future eclipses. As a matter of curiosity, the longest eclipse will last seven minutes and twelve seconds, and will happen on June 25, 2522 for those who are still around. The best maps can be found on the NASA site, while offers everything you always wanted to know about eclipses but were afraid to ask.

Some might wonder if those meager two minutes of glory are worth the travel, the wait and the expense. Well, here is what we can expect from a total solar eclipse. If you are within the path of totality, the so-called Contact 1 marks the beginning of the show. The Moon disk seems to tangentially come in contact with the Sun, biting a tiny little piece of its periphery. As it progresses further into the Moon, the Sun starts looking more and more like a crescent, the tables turn and it becomes “a little moon” for a moment. This image is priceless, though just as harmful as looking at the Sun at any other time: only special eclipse filters or glasses can be used to safely enjoy this moment. The good news is they are inexpensive and easy to find, remember: Google is your friend. As the Moon incessantly munches on the defenseless Sun, eclipse watchers will notice its shadow looming closer and closer. There is no way back; only a silver ring will be visible when the two celestial bodies finally join in this improbable turn of events. But there is more: from that point on the atmosphere becomes eerie, the air acquires a rare quality, the sky darkens, and birds start to chirp in bewilderment. As the temperature drops in the improvised night, the miracle finally occurs and the entire Sun is hidden behind the almighty Moon. Only then can one look at the Sun without protection, and only in these circumstances will one be able to see the Sun corona. An aura of plasma extends into the sky surrounding the Sun, like a pearly white crown emitting ever-changing rays. The glow of a multitude of mutating colors in a shimmering cotton candy around an impossibly black hole. No photo, no National Geographic documentary would do justice to the uniqueness and the magic of witnessing a total solar eclipse.

ANTOINE CARON “Astronomers Studying an Eclipse”

Boxing in 2017: A Resurgence for the Sweet Science?

Owen Clark

GGG and Canelo exchange a cold stare ahead of their September showdown.

In my prior musings, I’ve alluded to the cliché of “__ is dead.” I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the notion that the sport of boxing is the undisputed pound-for-pound champion of this futile declaration. According to many, if not most, boxing has been dead for essentially my entire lifetime. If I’m being deadly honest, there’s a fair amount of truth to this assertion, certainly when compared to the glory days of the 1940s to the 1960s when boxing was one of, if not the most popular sports in the USA—my aunt (whose contempt for violence makes her a reasonably unbiased source) often mentions how in the 1950s Bronx of her childhood, everyone would watch the fights come Saturdays. We’re certainly a long way from the times when boxers like Muhammad Ali, and even the Mike Tyson of my early childhood were arguably the most famous athletes on the planet. However, for fans of the sweet science, there’s a certain whiff of excitement in the air at the host of marquee matchups that 2017 has had/continues to have, garnering near-feverish excitement at the possibility of the ultimate comeback story for this historic sport.

Through my many failed attempts to get friends and family interested in the sport, I’ve come to accept that most see it as one of the two B’s—barbaric or boring. I can certainly understand both of these positions. I actually classify myself as a seemingly paradoxical anti-violence boxing fan. I’m the furthest thing from the stereotypical “casual” that tunes in to see an all-out hands-at-the-waist slugfest, complete with gushing blood and mangled faces. I’m more of a highly skilled, ultra-slick, defensive tactician kind of guy—simply out to appreciate the mastery of a boxer like Floyd Mayweather Jr. taking the “hit and don’t get hit” ethos to matrix-like levels. I definitely feel a sense of guilt when fighters suffer serious injuries; and seeing an ageing Roy Jones Jr.—one of the greatest boxers of all time—getting knocked out by guys that couldn’t tie his shoes twenty years ago—makes me well up every time I think about it. But perhaps that capacity for tragedy is one of the many facets that makes boxing so captivating.

Heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua lands a thunderous body shot on fellow 6′ 6” behemoth Wladimir Klitschko.

As for boredom, I’d say as with all sports, but actually boxing in particular, it becomes far more interesting once you know a little about the boxers and understand their styles, personalities, rivalries, and legacies. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing more tedious than watching out-of-shape heavyweights bumble through a 12 round clinch-fest, and bouts frequently fail to live up to expectation. However, it’s no accident that so many films have been made about boxing (eclipsing any other sport by this metric) from historic classics like Rocky to modern-day masterpieces like The Fighter, both of which won multiple Oscars. It’s also no accident that legendary writers like Ernest Hemingway waxed lyrical about the sheer exhilaration of boxing, while artists like George Bellows chose the sport as their subject matter. It’s undeniable that there’s a certain poetry and beauty to the sweet science—that gladiatorial aspect of two pugilists stepping into the squared-circle, after potentially years of rivalry, and expectations concerning the matchup of contrasting styles—and the fact that it all goes out the window once that bell rings. There’s also an element of the complete unknown that is fairly unique to boxing, in that no matter what happens during the course of the bout, it can all end with one punch—one of the main aspects that keeps fans on the edges of their seats. Lastly of course, it’s an underdog’s sport. As legendary Middleweight champion “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler put it, “…it’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 a.m. when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas.” Boxing is unquestionably the sport of the poor; the list of boxers that have risen from the depths of poverty, crime, and deprivation to become world champions is too long to count. As the saying goes “You don’t choose boxing, boxing chooses you,” and for many boxing still offers the potential for fame, glory, and riches for those otherwise short of hope.

OK, so I can tell at this point that I’ve probably hooked you in as a bona fide boxing fan, so the next obvious progression is to list a whole host of complaints about the current state of boxing, because as boxing fans that’s mostly what we do. I can give a pretty good rundown, but if you prefer to hear the struggles of the industry by having them yelled at you by an angry Brooklyn native, I’d suggest you checkout promoter Lou DiBella voicing his many complaints on sports writer Chris Mannix’s excellent podcast.

Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon boxing venue sits in disrepair, a foreboding metaphor for the state of boxing

First of all, the obvious elephant in the room, the landscape of the boxing viewer seems at times as if it’s almost designed to be impossible to navigate. The majority of fights are either on HBO or Showtime, both premium cable channels that represent a significant cost to the average viewer. Then, to add insult to injury, all of the top fights (and these days plenty of the lower caliber fights), are on pay-per-view (PPV), which in the U.S. at least carries the frankly astounding price tag of $75-100 per fight. As Lou says, “The entire business model is irrational. You don’t have the World Cup on PPV!” It’s pretty tough to see a path to entry for new fans with the current premium channel/PPV-heavy format, and until boxing is taken into the twenty-first century, it may remain as a niche sport propped up by its most loyal and devoted fan base. Even if you’re OK with ponying up that kind of money to watch a fight, the undercards of PPV fights (i.e. the bouts preceding the main event) are often woefully poor matchups, with the main event not coming on until midnight or so. I’ve heard plenty of tales of fans throwing boxing parties to get their friends on board, only to have people fall asleep by the time the main event comes on. It’s a dire state of affairs in many ways.

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Challenging Conventions in Rei Kawakubo’s Art of the In Between

Dakota Blackman

DAKOTA BLACKMAN | Natural Selections

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a classic tourist destination in New York, overflowing with a sweeping collection of art that traverses time periods and cultures. Among the classics, which include the Greco-Roman sculpture hall, or a collection of European paintings from Rembrandt to Gauguin, is a more modern draw: the Costume Center.

Founded in 1946 with the help of funds from the fashion industry, and reopened in 2014 as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, it focuses on the intersection between fashion and art in both the present day and the past. The Center consists of a range of works throughout the museum, from nineteenth century dresses and trousers to the museum’s comprehensive collection of medieval armor. More well-known efforts of the Center include dedicated gallery spaces for thematic exhibits such as Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty in 2011, and an exploration of the punk movement in PUNK: Chaos to Couture in 2013. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who cut the ceremonial ribbon at the 2014 reopening, describes the Costume Center as a place “…for anyone who cares about fashion and how it impacts our culture and history.”

Along the lines of the former First Lady’s words, the work of Rei Kawakubo, the designer behind the clothing label Comme des Garçon, is currently on display in a thematic exhibit at the Costume Center. Among works of art that are defined by the very notion of convention, Kawakubo’s Art of the In Between is presented as an exhibit that pushes against the conventions of classic art, of culture, and of fashion itself.

DAKOTA BLACKMAN | Natural Selections

Kawakubo’s commentary on, and pushback against, the norms of fashion has long been a hallmark of her company’s work, and it is exemplified in both the layout and garments on display in Art of the In Between. The architecture of the gallery, which was designed by Kawakubo herself, isn’t simply dress forms on display behind panes of glass; the exhibit has museum-goers weave through a maze of snow white architectural anomalies—domes, pods, hollowed cylinders with small methodically placed cutouts—to catch a glimpse of the garments inside.

The bright white architecture provides a stark contrast to the vibrantly colored and uniquely shaped garments, which undoubtedly fulfill the goal of the Costume Center by turning a commentary on culture and fashion into art. The exhibit is divided into ten parts, all of which present two sides of a defined binary within which the garments exist: Clothes/Not Clothes, Design/Not Design—and, perhaps most notably, Fashion/Anti-fashion—to name a few. The titles of individual exhibit sections help to align the viewer with the question posed by Kawakubo and how her garments seek to answer it.

Kawakubo isn’t afraid to tackle big issues, and in the exhibit, she explores class, time, age, gender, and even the human form. High/Low, for example, juxtaposes the styles of bikers and prima ballerinas: the dress forms donned in skewed black tutus under meticulously cut leather jackets. This section questions class, placing the garments in the intersection between the high, or elite, and the low. In another section, titled Object/Subject, Kawakubo’s “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” collection from the 1970s is on display. Kawakubo wraps ginghams and pastel pinks and blues around dress forms augmented with intentional but unnatural masses distributed throughout their forms, producing pseudo-dresses. These lumps and bumps, as the collection has been deemed by critics, are reminiscent of those formed by a child stuffing a pillow in their shirt to grow a pretend belly. The garments encapsulate the heart of the exhibit, creating a completely new human form and challenging viewers to reorient their view of what a standard, conventionally fashionable garment can and should do. In an interview with Vogue at the time of the collection’s release, Kawakubo said, “It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”

True to her word nearly fifty years later, Kawakubo has continued to take risks. The garments in Art of the In Between are not particularly beautiful, at least not by conventional standards, but it is clear that beauty is not Kawakubo’s goal. She rips fabric, forms “lumps and bumps,” and even mixes plaids (a fashion no-no). But there is a new kind of beauty within her garments, and within Art of the In Between as a cohesive unit. They play with norms in a way that is both mischievous and thought-provoking, and—most importantly—refreshingly accessible to those casually interested in fashion, in art, or both. Art of the In Between will be on display at the Met through September 4.

DAKOTA BLACKMAN | Natural Selections

This month Natural Selections interviews Jazz Weisman of the Scientific Computing Users Group

Juliette Wipf

Picture: Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems, talking about the most commonly used computing tools at the inaugural meeting of the SciComp group.

On April 12, Scientific Computing Users Group (SciComp) of The Rockefeller University’s (RU) held its inaugural meeting in CRC 406. The founders of the group, Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems (HPC), and first year graduate student Jazz Weisman, led the meeting. I caught up with Jazz Weisman about this new group on our campus.

NS: How did you and Jason come up with the idea to start the SciComp group?

I attended Jason’s Quantitative Understanding in Biology course at Cornell University and wanted to learn more. When I asked him about opportunities he said that starting a group is always a good, as well as a feasible idea. In fact, he had thought about starting something for a while as well. I actually recommend Jason’s lecture, or a similar intro level data analysis class, to everybody. A lot is already going on in that area, and we tried to create something in this pool. The future is definitely more computed, and we have to start somewhere.

NS: What do you think is the biggest plus of the SciComp group?

Painful and repetitive work should be reduced as much as possible. So many things can be done a lot easier with the help of computing, which will make repetitive tasks in science a lot less painful. But there are a lot of side benefits to our group. People get to know Jason as a representative of the IT department, which will make communication between the scientists in the lab and IT easier. People tend to be a bit shy about their computer skills, and we hope to make the IT department more accessible. Finally, we want to get interested people together. Labs can sometimes be a bit insulated; however, their computational interests would be similar.

NS: Researchers (myself included) can sometimes be a bit scared of using new programs, even though we use computer programs daily. Why do you think that is?

I think most are afraid of messing up their data. We also don’t want the design of our results to change, since we have long chains of experiments, sometimes generated over years, and a change in the output can sometimes make it hard to represent data neatly. But, as I said, most of our experiments come in long chains. Programming languages, such as R, Python or MATLAB, can simplify such tasks, and are actually a lot faster and easier to use than, for example, Microsoft Excel. Most importantly however, they make things repeatable, which is always better. If we use code to perform a string of tasks, this code can be given to a new student for example, and everybody can be sure the desired analysis was executed exactly the same way as usual. The student, on the other hand, can also study the string of code in peace and quiet, which will make understanding of the method easier for the new student as well.

NS: What can people expect from those meetings? Are there exercises that you do on computers together, or is it more of a discussion round?

Our group meetings usually start with a short talk of approximately 15-25 minutes on a chosen topic. For example, in our second meeting on May 18, we chose to talk about the data visualization tool ggplot2. After the presentation, we hope to get an open discussion going where everybody can ask questions. You can bring your laptop because it can help showing others the actual problem you are experiencing. It is not necessary that you attend the whole meeting; you can also just come for one part of it. We want our meeting to be an open thing. Also, we understand that everybody is busy and that you might have limited time for stuff.

NS: Who can attend the SciComp meetings? What skill level is expected from participants?

Absolutely everybody can attend our meetings and no previous experience is required. If you want to learn more on the discussed topic, please come. We expect nothing and are simply happy you are interested. If we talk about an R-based tool like ggplot2, for example, it will all make a bit more sense to you if you know some of the programming language R already. But it is not expected at all. We want the group to be widely accessible. Everybody who wants to should come!

NS: What do you expect from the participants (ask questions, prepare, etc.)?

People shouldn’t be afraid to get a discussion going. We are happy to answer the most basic questions! This is exactly why we thought the group environment would be nice, just to make everything more laid-back and relaxed. Ultimately we hope to also see group members helping each other out, with me or Jason only assisting when needed.

NS: What topics will be discussed in the meetings?

People can actually vote on which topic will be discussed. In this Google group, people should add their requested topics. If you and your colleagues want to learn about a specific program your lab is using, you should individually log onto the Google group and vote, so we can see how big the demand is. With this approach, reruns of hot topics are also possible if needed; just reenter the topic into the Google group. We hope to soon talk about DNA or RNA sequencing, which I definitely think is the topic most people are interested in at the moment. In addition, we will use the Google group for general updates as well as a place for people to ask questions.

NS: In your inaugural meeting, you talked about the most successful tools currently available to get a feel for the needs and interests of the attendees. In the last meeting you discussed the R plotting tool ggplot2, which makes all kinds of beautiful plots and graphs. When will the next SciComp meeting take place and what topic will be discussed?

We’ve decided to have the next meeting on August 3 in CRC 506 from 5:30 – 6:30. We will discuss Dynamic documents in R, presented by Thomas Carroll, head of the new bioinformatics resource center​. Finally, if anyone is interested in becoming a co-organizer they should contact me via email at I think that one or two more people to plan and put the word out could be a good thing for the SciComp group.

Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems, talking about the most commonly used computing tools at the inaugural meeting of the SciComp group.


Culture Corner


Who Killed Rock and Roll?

Bernie Langs

Bob Dylan with President Obama after playing at the “In Performance at The White House: A Celebration of Music from The Civil Rights Movement” concert, February 9, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for…
“Not I,” says the referee
Don’t point your finger at me
….It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all…”

Who killed Davey Moore…
“Not us,” says the angry crowd…”
“Not me,” says his manager…”
“Not me,” says the gambling man…”
“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist….
“It was destiny, it was God’s will.”

Who killed Davey Moore

Why and what’s the reason for?

(Excerpts from Who Killed Davey Moore? by Bob Dylan)

Who killed rock and roll?

Why and what’s the reason for?

Not us, says the popular radio stations. We have charts and graphs and demographic studies proving what the people want to hear. So what if the classic rock stations play the same exact songs for years after years, grinding them into the ground and reducing the so-called precious recording artist’s output to a handful of songs? They should be grateful for the exposure if not the royalty checks. It doesn’t matter at all that what was once rare and precious is as free as oil spreading across a pristine bay. We have to maintain our advertising revenue. No shame in that, for after all, any good rock star will tell you a buck is a buck. “Hotel California” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” until your ears bleed? Get a real problem. It wasn’t us who made rock fall, no you can’t blame us at all.

Who killed rock and roll?

“Not us,” says MTV, we just made songs visual for all to see. Okay, maybe we had a few years of blatant racism until we saw the dollar signs in Michael Jackson’s eyes, and perhaps there are hundreds— okay, thousands—oh, okay, tens of thousands of videos demeaning women, reducing them to sexual objects for the pleasure of idiotic bad boys. Okay, the whole thing is one Marxist, drooling commodity fetish. But we spiffed up the genre with dancers! Scantily clad dancers, sure. And now we have really good looking artists, posers, and fashion leaders. If anything we expanded rock’s reach. We don’t even know what auto-tune is! They all lip-sync anyway! Live videos? Live is dead, man, get with it. It wasn’t us who made rock fall, no you can’t blame us at all.

Who killed rock and roll?

Not us, say the popular magazines. Sure, we loved to cover all the tragic rock stars’ meteoric falls into drug and alcohol abuse and their paranoid ravings and simplistic political posturing, but we also have our tearful in-depth profiles of their rebirths, their recoveries and all the life lessons learned. And now they’re making the very best music of their lives (of course not, but, hey, what do our readers know – just what momma would call “a little white lie” as Forrest Gump says). Really, doesn’t everybody want to know about the songs written about breakups between our stars, more craft in the guessing than in the actual music composition? As a guitarist yourself, you know you can strum from C to G all afternoon and get at least ten songs out of it! If you think of it that way, that’s real talent. And as our reporters are let into the artist’s inner sanctum, our readers just love to hear how we ate sushi with them and went to the studio and someone thought they saw Bono crossing the street. That’s news, my friend! Let us tell you a trade secret: There ain’t no art there in the first place, so why ask about it? Besides, we make drugs and drinking and promiscuity keep up the image of sex and drugs and rock and roll. You say that was always just a cheap slogan and never had meaning for the real music? That’s why you are writing for an online newsletter and not Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone. It wasn’t us who made rock fall, no you can’t blame us at all.

Who killed rock and roll?

Not us, say the music stars, even Elvis didn’t really play guitar. Sure you think that David Bowie’s music predicted the emotionally dead, empty-thought, technological charred ruin of an ISIS Internet state, and that Led Zeppelin’s journey through Kashmir is as mystical as a real life Aladdin carpet ride, and that The Beatles grew in leaps and bounds as composers the likes of which we haven’t seen since Wolfgang Amadeus. Be happy you had that and don’t blame us for not measuring up to those standards! It’s a job, for crying out loud. It’s community, the swaying sing along at the end of the show proving we are all one, we are together, we all love, until we get to our cars to go home—and if that guy doesn’t get the hell out of my way…Didn’t Elmo sing “Every day can’t be Christmas”? Well, every concert can’t be Woodstock. And you try to write a hit, my man, there are only so many notes on a guitar and a piano, they’ve all been taken, my friend. A wise man once said that there are only three or four plot lines in literature. Well, we’re just repeating the same old guitar and piano lines, but look at the polish of it! Our producers have more power in their consoles than the rockets that went to the moon! If you’re looking for art, try twisting a volume control these days—not so easy! And this constant criticism of our parties and of stars gazing at stars—seems a bit like sour grapes, Mister Home Recording hermit. It isn’t us who makes rock fall, you can’t blame us at all.

Who killed rock and roll?

Not us says Dylan, Springsteen, the Stones, Paul, Ringo and Led Zeppelin, we’ve kept our integrity. And this is something of which I completely agree.

Who killed rock and roll? Why and what’s the reason for?
Laid low in a cloud of mist
“It was destiny, it was God’s will.”