For Your Consideration – And They’re Off! Edition

Jim Keller

As I’ve said many times one can liken the Oscar race to a horserace with each studio betting on its thoroughbreds hoping to place in the end. The studio is the owner, public relations is the jockey, and the horse is the actor or film in the analogy. Here I’ve included my rankings as they stood on Oscar nominations eve—the number in parentheses indicates my placement following nominations. I chose eight nominees for Best Picture out of a possible ten. All other categories reflect five nominees. The picks that appear in black text within the table were my nominee picks, those in red represent actual nominees that I had not selected.

It’s worth mentioning that from the moment I saw Nocturnal Animals, I knew that Michael Shannon would get a nomination, as evidenced in last month’s column. But as the race headed toward the finish line, Aaron Taylor-Johnson started appearing on the precursor circuit with a win at the Golden Globes and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination, so I went with him.

With that, I give you my predictions as they currently stand:

Creating Unnecessary Addictions in our Kids

 

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Modified from Dr Case/ Kid Image CC

Guadalupe Astorga

When my younger brother was a child, he had a hard time following the teacher’s instructions at school. He was not intellectually incapable, but a restless and vivacious youngster. When the teachers found themselves unable to create any method to capture the interest and attention of this little creature, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist. The result was categorical—he was one of the unfortunate kids diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My mother had to choose between dealing with a lively child or having to medicate him with psychostimulants such as amphetamines. The risk behind these drugs is not only that they do not improve learning abilities or memory, but essentially that they cause strong addiction, psychosis, heart attacks, dysfunction of heart tissue, and even sudden death.

While brain disorders affect as many as one out of every five people, over-diagnosis boosts these numbers due to the lack of specific biological markers in the field, resulting in millions of people over-medicated with antipsychotics, psychostimulants, pain relievers, and tranquilizers.

Particularly alarming is the dramatic increase in antipsychotic prescriptions in children under eighteen, including infants between one and two years old. Stimulants like amphetamines are chronically prescribed to adults, children, and toddlers diagnosed with ADHD in order to improve their concentration capabilities. But, why obsess over a toddler’s concentration? Do they need to be under the effect of one of the most addictive and destructive drugs to receive love and adequate boundaries as they grow up?

For a kid that is constantly bombarded with excessive information, duties and activities, focusing is not trivial. When I was a child (and that now feels like a long time ago), children had tons of free time to play and socialize with other kids, to struggle with their homework, to develop their creativity by building new toys from old pieces of wood or cardboard, and to think about the failures and victories in their hitherto short lives. Nowadays, modern society has brought technology deeply into our intimate spaces, even those of children. Surrounded by tons of electronic devices, video games, and TV shows, kids no longer struggle to create their own entertainment, they are constantly bombarded with more information than they can assimilate, and they don’t have time to get bored. If we also consider that couples are having babies at older ages, often helped by fertility treatments, the scene looks very scary, with kids being a precious trophy that must be protected at any price. This is a well-known psychosocial phenomenon known as “helicopter parents”, middle class couples that behave in an over-protective way, hovering above their kids at every moment, making them insecure, anxious, highly dependent and depressed.

We should ask ourselves as a society, as a health care and educational community, whether this form of parenting is responsible for the high levels of anxiety, depression and attention deficits shown by our children. How can we justify giving psychostimulant medication, such as Adderall or Ritalin, to toddlers? These drugs will not increase their learning capabilities, nor their memory capacities. Isn’t this a case where the remedy is worse than the disease?

Before prescribing a stimulant drug to a toddler or a child, we must be aware of their psychosocial environment and ask ourselves whether chronic medication is going to make their lives better.

Renewable Energy

Yvette Chin

When Sheikhs invest in solar, you know a paradigm change has arrived. A slew of sun-drenched Middle Eastern states, prompted by the now-favorable economics of renewable energy, and a concomitant cloudy outlook for fossil fuels, are looking to transition their oil-heavy economies towards solar energy production. Closer to home, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo too has a vision—expedited in no small part by the exigencies of climate change, economics & energy security—to secure a clean, affordable and resilient post-oil future.

Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) commits NY state to a Clean Energy Standard (CES) with the goal of meeting at least 50% of the state’s energy use with renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy and reducing greenhouse gas emission levels from 1990 by 40% by 2030. This was prompted by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP), which mandates a less stringent 32% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

The pivot to renewables has many causes. First, cost is king and with renewables at least, cheaper is better. Advances in technology—cheaper, more efficient photovoltaic (PV) cells and wind turbines; souped up batteries to tide over times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing—have brought down costs and increased reliability so much that the sector is competitive (as low as under $0.04/kWh) versus fossil fuels. Upfront investment costs are lowered by tax credits and net metering rules, which allows the sale of unused energy back to utilities to recoup expenses. Tax credits in particular were essential to the adoption of renewables, although the necessity of subsidies is receding as the industry is able to stand on its own merit. In December 2015, a divided Congress rallied to extend the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar energy & the 2.3-cent/kWh Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy for five years (through 2020), among a slew of renewable subsidies, to ensure successful implementation of the CPP. On current form, the importance of such subsidies will diminish further as innovation continues to drive down costs and bring about mass adoption.
Second, climate change and environmental concerns lend an urgency to the transition to clean and low-carbon energy sources. Credit Hurricane Sandy for the harsh reminder that ocean levels are rising and reclaiming low-lying flood-prone land. The energy sector appears to be a zero-sum game with the rise of renewables occurring at the expense of the coal industry where a projected 50GW of capacity is expected to be lost by 2022 and, indeed, completely phased out in New York state. The upheavals of this energy revolution have being manifested in the rise of populist presidential candidate Donald Trump, fueled in part by the loss of jobs in America’s Rust Belt. Advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and ardent environmental activists are also playing a significant role in the adoption of low-carbon fuels. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign organized a community-based push for off-shore wind energy investment with a Clean Energy rally in lower Manhattan followed by personal testimonies from state-wide attendees to the Public Service Commission. These efforts paid off in the adoption of a 90MW offshore wind project, the largest in the country, in federally leased waters off Montauk, in a tie-up between the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and Deepwater Wind, a private company. Moreover, the CES envisions establishing New York state as a clean energy powerhouse to safeguard the economic future of the state’s workforce by ensuring its technical expertise in the renewable energy sector. Slated to be one of the largest solar panel factories in the world, a 27-acre $750m SolarCity battery facility financed and constructed by New York state is another example of the economic thrust of the REV. The high-efficiency solar panels manufactured in the gigafactory produce electricity at a cost of roughly $2.5/W and production is expected to hit full capacity in late 2017.

The REV is expected to lower energy bills through localized power generation and distribution, furnish a greater choice of energy providers to reduce dependence on a central utility, advance net-zero energy efficient smart homes that can be controlled remotely, boost employment in the hi-tech renewables sector and improve overall quality of life from the greening of the energy industry.

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

Part XXIII: Ralph M. Steinman, 2011 Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Joseph Luna

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Photo Courtesy of THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY

A macrophage is on the hunt. Crawling and sniffing its way across a petri dish, this “big eater” lunges forward, its rolling membranes like tank treads, toward a colony of bacteria. A pall descends on the prokaryotes, and soon a membrane washes over them like a toxic blanket. The engulfed bacteria, momentarily stunned, find themselves in the belly of the macrophage and attempt to regain their bearings. They never see the army of lysosomes marching toward them, with acid knives drawn and thirsty.

Zanvil Cohn looked up from his microscope and snapped a photo of the battle below. This phenomenon of cells eating cells, or phagocytosis, was well known immunological territory. But armed with time-lapse microscopy, Cohn could record how the macrophage moved and ate in startling detail; with James Hirsch, Cohn discovered that lysosomes swooped in to digest bacteria when engulfed. Cohn and Hirsch ran a joint lab at the then recently renamed Rockefeller University that was an epicenter of macrophage research in the 1960s. Housed in the Southern Laboratory (now known as Bronk) and under the guidance of the eminent René Dubos, Cohn and Hirsch made landmark discoveries on how these cells defended against microbes, using the latest techniques to finally begin answering questions as old as immunology itself.

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Ten minutes with…Leslie Vosshall

Fernando Bejarano

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Leslie Vosshall Photo by Fernando Bejarano

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what Leslie told us: Continue reading

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

Part XXII: Roderick MacKinnon, 2003 Prize in Chemistry

Joseph Luna

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Photo Courtesy of THE rockefeller university

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

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

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

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

Juliette Wipf

Credit: Die Schweizerische Volkspartei

Credit: Die Schweizerische Volkspartei

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

Free movement inside the Schengen area

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

Horizon 2020

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

The “Against Mass Immigration” initiative

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

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

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

Joseph Luna

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Photo Courtesy of THE rockefeller university

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

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

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

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

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NYU’s “Street Science” Aims to Bridge the Gap Between STEM Fields and the Younger Generation

Johannes Buheitel

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The New York Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) invited attendees of all ages to help build this huge geometric structure

“Cool” and “Awesome” are just two of many joyous exclamations I hear while I am trying to squeeze through the crowd of children, parents and other interested individuals filling up the NYU Kimmel Center to the brim. On Sunday, June 5, citizens from all boroughs came to Washington Square Park to engage in “Street Science,” a free educational experience, which concluded the World Science Festival hosted by NYU during the preceding week. The helpers and organizers were positively surprised by the huge interest in the event despite that it had to be relocated indoors due to an unfavorable weather forecast. At countless stations, helpers from NYU and other institutes inside and outside of the city demonstrated exciting experiments, interesting natural phenomena and brainteasing mathematical conundrums among other things designed to bridge the gap between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines/topics and the (mostly) young audience.

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Motivated helpers engaged kids in all sorts of experiments and projects

 

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The Bowdoin College RoboCup Team demonstrated how programming can make robots spring to life, communicate with each other and even cooperate to play soccer

Even though the excitement and the light-hearted nature of events like “Street Science” is sincere, the apparent need for such events does highlight current issues in STEM education in the United States. According to the 2012 report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which is rather fittingly titled “Engage to Excel,” the US is facing a shortage of up to one million STEM professionals by the end of 2018. The country has a history of relying on foreign professionals to satisfy those work-force demands. Increasing education and job opportunities in the foreign job markets pose serious threats for the domestic STEM job sector and, ultimately, the US economy. Therefore, in their report for President Obama, the experts from PCAST (whose roster reads like a Who’s Who of science and technology, and includes minds such as Eric Lander of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as Google’s Eric Schmidt) make it clear that in order to close one gap, one has to close another. Specifically, in order to produce enough STEM graduates, the younger generation of today (including K-12 and college students) must be engaged early and made aware of the wonders of science and technology, and the importance of STEM issues for our everyday lives. Public science education events like “Street Science” but also the rising number of afterschool STEM programs, are practical steps in the right direction, but it will require continuous effort from both the public and the private sectors to keep STEM careers looking “Cool” and “Awesome” in the eyes of the bright minds of tomorrow.

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This well-mannered tarantula helped attendees to overcome their fear of the unknown

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An array of blinking lights on strings illustrated how neutrinos travel through the detector at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the south pole

 

All Aboard the BioBus

Aileen Marshall

BioBus

Photo by Aileen Marshall/NATURAL SELECTIONS

What were your science laboratory classes like when you were in grade school or high school? Did you ever get a chance to use a fluorescence microscope? Or sequence DNA? I never did. What if you had never been exposed to much laboratory science during your school years, would you have gone into the field? Probably not. This is the idea behind the BioBus. It’s a 1974 public transit bus converted into a mobile lab, with research grade microscopes. The bus’s staff and volunteer scientists travel to schools in in New York City and all over the country, particularly to underprivileged areas. Using the microscopes, they give hands on laboratory lessons in areas such as development, ecology and evolution. This gives young students a chance to actually perform a science experiment, something they might not normally have a chance to do. It spurs their interest in science and hopefully will help to develop the scientists of the next generation.

The BioBus was started in 2008 by Ben Dubin-Thaler, after getting his Ph.D. in Biology from Columbia University. The bus is retrofitted to use both solar power and biofuel. With the seats gutted, the bus has six different research grade microscopes, all with monitors, so that all the students can share their views with others. There is a light, a fluorescent, three dissecting and even an electron microscope, which only has a footprint of about two by three feet. In addition, there are two “MiScopes”, a camera probe attached to the dissecting microscopes to let the students examine their own skin, eyes, or whatever material they have. BioBus staff scientist Robert Frawley, formally of Cornell, notes “kids really like woven things since you can see the thread very clearly.” The scientists who conduct the labs are mostly volunteer, some from Rockefeller University and the other Tri-Institutions. They use fruit flies, snails, mollusks, skin cells, pollen grains and an organism called daphnia. It’s a transparent, microscopic shrimp-like organism that naturally lives in ponds and waterways in the area. It’s good for teaching anatomy since their anatomy is similar to human and visible. Under a microscope, one can see a daphnia’s heart beating and food moving through their digestive tract. The children get a chance to identify whatever organism they are working on by its DNA. The students do the pipetting to isolate the DNA and run a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which replicates the DNA in order to make it visible on an electrophoretic gel. This gel is a method of separating the DNA bases into bands in order to determine the sequence. The scientist teacher will then show them a gel that has already been run. With an onboard computer, the students compare the DNA sequence they have derived with online databases to identify their organism. The lessons typically run about forty-five minutes.

Besides the metropolitan area, the bus has been as far west as Colorado and New Mexico. Sixty-five percent of their visits are to schools in low income neighborhoods. The students are mostly African-American, Hispanic and female; groups that are underrepresented in science professions. Statistics from the BioBus show that a dramatic improvement in the students attitude towards science. The bus serves over 30,000 children a year, from grade school through high school. They have been visited by Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Nobel prize winner Martin Chalfie. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008, for the discovery of green fluorescent protein, which is used as a marker for gene expression.

On a typical day, a scientist will meet the bus early in the morning at the first location they are visiting that day. They set up the microscopes and prepare the samples for the lessons. The first students can come on the bus at 8 a.m. Frawley relates “We have major points we want to address in our lessons, however teachers on the BioBus love to let students push the conversation with their questions and comments.” As they leave, the students get worksheets and stickers that say “Biobus Scientist.” The staff then has to clean up and set up for the next group. When the school day is done, they secure the microscopes and supplies and head back to the BioBase.

The BioBase is an extention of the Biobus opened in 2014.  It is a bricks and mortar lab housed in The Girls Club on the Lower East Side. There they have after school, weekend and summer programs, too.  A Regents class is offered in four one hour sessions. There is a small amphitheater for giving classes and presentations. The students will make posters from their work and present them. In the laboratory they have four dissecting scopes and two light microscopes, as well as two more MiScopes and a florescence microscope. There is some bench space, a sink, incubators, fish tanks, an under counter refrigerator, a table top centrifuge, and lab coats. In the fish tanks are organisms they collect from the East River, such as oysters and other crustaceans and many different microorganisms used in the lessons.

Most funding for the BioBus comes from private and corporate donors such as Regeneron, Lumenera and the Simmons Foundation. All of the microscopes are donated, which is equivalent to an amount in the six figures. There are plans to purchase a second bus. While there is a small staff, most of the scientists are volunteers. Rockefeller’s own Jeanne Garbarino has worked with them. For more information, go to www.biobus.org.

 

The price of mistakes in clinical trials

By Guadalupe Astorga

Last January 11, a human clinical trial in phase I caused brain death in one healthy volunteer, while five others were hospitalized. Unfortunately, this is not the only case where healthy volunteers have died or been severely affected.

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Structure of Bial’s BIA-10-2474 as described in their Clinical Study Protocol N° BIA-102474-101, and referred to as Compound A in US patent # 20130123493 A1

The molecule (BIA 10-2474) produced by the pharmaceutical company Bial, is an inhibitor of the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that catabolizes bioactive lipids, including the endocannabinoid anandamide. The drug was developed as a therapy for anxiety and motor disorders associated with Parkinson’s disease, as well as chronic pain in people with cancer and other conditions. Other pharmaceutical companies have previously performed clinical trials to test the analgesic effect of other FAAH inhibitors with no signs of toxicity. However, these studies ended in phase II due to lack of drug effectiveness. Remarkably, the affinity of the inhibitor tested by Pfizer was 14,000 times higher than that of BIA 10-2474. This implies that the specificity of BIA 10-2474 to inhibit the FAAH enzyme is very low. Moreover, the molecular structure of BIA 10-2474 includes a highly reactive imidazole aromatic ring that can bind to other brain enzymes, including 200 other hydrolases with similar structure and whose activity is far from being understood. The investigation, led by the French National Agency for Medicines and Health Products Safety (ANSM), has also shed light on a series of irregularities that occurred during the preclinical trials and were kept secret by Bial, as part of trade secrets. Conceivably the most serious among these is that according to the chemical structure of BIA 10-2474, it is most likely to be an irreversible inhibitor, rather than reversible as the company claims. This implies that even very small concentrations of the drug can irreversibly inhibit, not only the activity of the FAAH enzyme, but also the 200 other hydrolases present in the human brain. Considering this crucial information, it is inconceivable to understand how the trial design could comprise consecutive administrations of high doses of the inhibitor. This piece of evidence seems to be clearly related to the brain damage induced by the drug, as the severely injured volunteers were those who received only the highest doses of the drug. From sixteen groups of eight volunteers administered with increasing doses of BIA 10-2474, only five people were hospitalized after receiving repeated doses of 50 mg (almost the highest tested concentration). According to the ANSM report, this concentration is 10 to 40 times higher than that required to completely inhibit the FAAH enzyme. Indeed, extrapolation of the data taken in animals to humans, suggests that complete inhibition of FAAH is achieved with doses 20 to 80 times smaller than the maximal dose planned to be tested in humans (100mg). Furthermore, even after the first person was hospitalized, the other 5 still received one more dose the next day. The Report of the ANSM states that the mechanism of toxicity of BIA 10-2474 is clearly beyond FAAH inhibition and evidence of this subject needs to be presented by Bial Laboratory in future months.

Another critical piece of information that was kept secret by Bial is the number of animal deaths (including dogs and primates) during the preclinical trial. How could the drug be considered safe and approved to be tested in humans, if closely related animals died? Had the volunteers known this information, would they have taken the risk to test the drug?

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

Part XIX: Günter Blobel, 1999 Prize in Physiology or Medicine

By Joseph Luna

Let’s start with a fantastical scene: picture a band of Neolithic humans in a hot air balloon overlooking modern New York City. What would they see and experience? Lacking a vocabulary and a mental model of twenty-first century life, our ancient friends would be awestruck at seeing miniscule specks and strangely ordered structures, lines and squares, in green and gray. Perhaps the occasional yellow rectangle from which specks would enter and exit would catch their attention. Or they might ponder a box with flashing lights, speeding its way across a grid. It’s near impossible to imagine being in their shoes, but it’s easy to envision the excitement as they try to describe and make sense of what they saw.

Günter Blobel

Photo Courtesy of the Rockefeller University

This totally novel experience wasn’t far off from what early cell biologists encountered, as they used the electron microscope (EM) as a sort of hot-air balloon to discover the cities inside cells. By the mid-1960s, they had plotted the geography of all sorts of cellular worlds, had given names to energy-making blobs and recycling vesicles, and with the help of radioactive amino acid labeling, had a basic sense of where proteins were made and where they ended up. But big questions remained such as how did a protein know where it needed to go? For a discipline built on EM observations from high above, this was a challenging question to answer, but it captivated a young German post-doc enough to dream as if he landed his hot air balloon and walked among molecules, where the view was much clearer.

Günter Blobel arrived in George Palade’s laboratory in 1967, shortly after completing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He joined a dynamic group of researchers who had stumbled upon an odd observation concerning the protein factories of the cell, its ribosomes: proteins destined to remain inside the cell were often made from a pool of freely cytoplasmic ribosomes, whereas proteins meant to be exported from the cell quickly associated with ribosomes attached to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). How a new protein made this decision to stay in the cytoplasm or go to the ER was a mystery.

Within a few years, and overwhelmingly without much evidence, Blobel and a colleague (and Rockefeller University alum) named David Sabatini formulated what became known as “the signal hypothesis” that might explain how proteins got sorted to their proper locations. It represented a truly imaginative and startlingly precise leap, as if one could envision a five digit postal code and a stamp authentication system simply by watching mail trucks from space. Blobel and Sabatini proposed that ER destined proteins contained a special stretch of amino acids that acted like a signal that became apparent the moment the protein was being made at a ribosome. This signal sequence, located at the head of a protein, would be recognized by a factor (or factors) that would, in turn guide the synthesizing ribosome to the ER, where the protein in question could finish being born as it translocated across the ER membrane. Once properly sorted into the ER, the signal sequence was no longer needed and could be removed by an enzyme, even while the protein was still being made. Once finished, the protein could then go and do its job.

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The Lowline

By Aileen Marshall

lowline-light-collector-demo-960x639

Photo Courtesy of Dan Barasch via Kickstarter.com

Have you heard of the Lowline? No? Well maybe because it doesn’t fully exist yet. And no, it’s not under the Highline, although its name was inspired by it. It will be an underground park in an abandoned trolley terminal under Delancey Street. The park will use new solar technology to redirect sunlight underground to grow plants and light the park.

The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal opened in 1908 on Delancey Street.  Trolleys went back and forth to Brooklyn across the aforementioned bridge.  The station extends three blocks underground from Essex Street to Clinton Street, and has interesting architectural features, such as cobblestones and a 15-foot ceiling. It closed in 1948 and has been sitting empty ever since.

Then in 2009 architect James Ramsey, who used to work at NASA developing optics for satellites, heard about it.  He discussed it with his friend Daniel Barasch, a strategist for Google.  Ramsey thought he could use fiber optics to collect and redirect sunlight underground to make it into a park. They made a proposal to the city.

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Aileen Marshall/NATURAL SELECTIONS

Two feasibility studies were started in 2011. One was by HR&A Advisors, a real estate, economic and energy consulting firm. The other was from the engineering firm Arup. Both came up with positive findings, indicating that it would be helpful to the community. Since 2012 the Lowline organization has run a program called Young Designers. They offer educational programs to local schools and other groups, using the lab for lessons in science, technology, engineering and design.

By 2012, the pair had raised $150,000 on Kickstarter to build a laboratory exhibit of the solar technology that would be used in the Lowline. As of 2015, the Lowline organization has raised $155,000 to build the park. The exhibit lab uses what Ramsey calls “remote skylights,” the technology that would be used in the park. An above-ground parabolic disk collects sunlight, then a concentrator increases the light 30-fold and filters out the hotter rays. Protective tubes send light to a central distribution point via fiber optic cables, then to an aluminum canopy in the lab. That, in turn, reflects the light into the lab. This illuminates the lab and allows the plants to grow. Since it is reflected sunlight, it contains the full spectrum of sunlight, including the wavelengths needed for photosynthesis. Optic technology allows the outdoor disk to follow the sun during the day and maximize the amount of sunlight it collects. Mirror boxes would toggle the light between electric and sunlight to allow for variations, such as cloudy days.

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

Part XVIII: Robert Bruce Merrifield, 1984 Prize in Chemistry

By Joseph Luna

By the time Bruce Merrifield sat down to write in his lab notebook in May 1959, a scientific puzzle had been twirling in his head for quite some time. What he wrote next summarized a Nobel-worthy problem and offered a bold but totally unproven solution, all in three sentences. It turned out to be an impeccably succinct opening salvo, not just for a research career, but for an entire field.

“There is a need for a rapid, quantitative, automatic method for the synthesis of long chain peptides. A possible approach may be the use of chromatographic columns where the peptide is attached to the polymeric packing and added to by an activated amino acid, followed by removal of the protecting group and with repetition of the process until the desired peptide is built up. Finally the peptide must be removed from the supporting medium.”

To unpack this a bit: Merrifield spotted the need to take amino acid building blocks and string them together to form a peptide of his choosing (or if a really long peptide, a whole protein). His idea in essence was to use a solid support to get an amino acid to hold still, so that he could methodically link amino acids together sequentially. Finally, the immobilized chain of amino acids, the peptide, could be released and studied.

At a time when molecular biology was just getting off the ground, Merrifield’s understated first sentence belies a history of protein chemistry already more than half a century old, as well as his own frustration at making the small peptides he was interested in studying. After joining Wayne Wooley’s research group as a post-doc at Rockefeller in 1949, Merrifield applied his biochemistry training by isolating and characterizing “strepogenins” a catch-all term for small peptides that stimulated bacterial growth. The standard practice was to isolate these peptides from a biological source, but this approach almost always generated scholarly (aka vicious) pushback: it was very difficult to rule out contamination. If a compound could be crystalized as a means of isolating it to “purity”, most biochemist naysayers would generally be assuaged.

Chemists, however, were an entirely different breed of naysayer. They would only be convinced by chemical synthesis of a pure compound, characterized at each intermediate step as a measure of quality, and where, by definition, no biological contaminant could be introduced since no life form (other than the chemist’s hands) was required. For this reason, most biochemists weren’t really considered chemists: they merely isolated and characterized what they thought were active compounds, but they could very well be fooling themselves. Justus von Leibig’s famous chemical dictum “Tierchemie ist Schmierchemie” (Biochemistry is sloppy chemistry) stung hard for the better part of a century.

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Searching the Nobel Prize

By Susan Russo

There is a wealth of enjoyment in exploring Nobel Prize information online. There are videos, such as a documentary of the four 2012 Laureates’ discoveries in medical research; Mother Teresa’s and Elie Wiesel’s speeches after their awards of their Peace Prizes; and a 1994 interview with John Nash (prize in Economic Sciences), including his views of the movie A Beautiful Mind, based on his life and work. Another category, “Nobel Laureate Facts”, delivers statistics on the number of total prizes throughout the years, the number of women’s prizes “so far”, ages of the awardees, and the reasons that two awardees, Jean-Paul Sartre and Le Duc Tho, declined their prizes. Other current special features appear about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Malala Yousafzai, and Rabindranath Tagore. There is even a section called “Educational Games”, which includes “Save the Dog” about diabetes, “Bloodtyping”, “A Drooling Game” about conditioned learning, and “All about Laser.” In another link, the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute describes the process of nominations for the Peace Prize.

My favorite section, however, is listening to the Nobel podcasts, short interviews giving us the viewpoints of the awardees in their own words.  A recent interviewee was Rockefeller’s own Roderick MacKinnon. There are two separate interviews with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, 2013’s dual awardees in Medicine. May-Britt Moser talks about “pure joy” for herself, and “inequality in science”, while her husband Edvard speaks of the value of “partnership” and recalls “childhood memories.” Mario Molina, awardee in Chemistry in 1995, discusses “climate change” and the role of “human activity” and says, “The risks are unacceptable.”  In 2006, Roger Kornberg (Chemistry) admits that most of his “ideas are wrong.” John Mather, a NASA scientist (Physics, 2006) thinks that if there is water on Mars, there is likely to be life in some form. Elizabeth Blackburn (2009 Physiology or Medicine), whose discoveries show how telomeres transform in aging, says, “We just know so much and yet we know so little.” We hear from Randy Schekman, whose award in 2013 was in Physiology or Medicine, arguing for open access in scientific publications.  And George Smoot (Physics, 2015) lauds the fact that “science today is a truly global enterprise.”  Some Nobel Prize winners admit that they were surprised by their awards. One, John O’Keefe (2013, Physiology or Medicine), prefers being in the lab, saying, “I’m a bench scientist.” And Alice Munro, who won the prize in Literature in 2013, describes her reaction as, “Bewildering but very pleasant.” In all the podcasts I’ve heard, the awardees reflect an excitement in their work, and most display a spirited optimism for the future. All in all, “meeting” these people online is thought-provoking and inspirational, at least to this listener.

Growing vegetables in small spaces

By Guadalupe Astorga

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Top Left: Hydroponic research in Epcot Center, Orland/Antony Pranata,CC. Top Rigt: Hydroponics/Frank Fox, CC /Bottom panels: Our Windowfarms Project

One of today’s global issues concerns the supply of fresh food to people in cities. While the carbon footprint for transporting fruits and vegetables from the areas where they are produced, to the consumers’ tables can reach high levels for longer distances, local production and consumption have several advantages. A number of new initiatives make it possible to take advantage of urban spaces to grow fresh vegetables in your own city or apartment.

In cities where the space is dominated by concrete construction, urban agriculture has shed new light into public and private spaces, promoting community interactions and the development of organic alternatives to intensive crop farming.

Different projects have taken over rooftops and unused spaces in New York City, not only to grow fresh vegetables for distribution in the local community, but also to offer a sustainable model for urban agriculture in open spaces.

Other interesting alternatives involve hydroponic cultures, which offer a very efficient way to grow different types of organic plants with no need of big spaces. In recent years, several hydroponic techniques have exploded and evolved in a plethora of varieties developed by enthusiastic farmers who have openly shared their knowledge on the internet, making videos with detailed tutorials and instructions for beginners and experienced farmers. Hydroponics are not expensive or complicated, can be started at any time of the year, and you can control what you eat.

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Left panel: Hydrosock Version/Jim Flavin; Right panel: Hydroponics principle/iamozone, CC

In an example of these collaborative initiatives, also born in New York City, hydroponic vertical gardens are designed for our apartment windows, and people around the world have shared their experiences to create new innovative and esthetic designs. You will need a bit of creativity and enthusiasm to make this project in your apartment, but it is certainly worth it.

A more convenient and simpler alternative to get started wih hydroponics in your own apartment at minimal cost is the Hydrosock Version, proposed by Jim Flavin (Fig. 1, left panel). This handy design is the easiest version of hydroponics; it does not need an air pump to oxygenate the water, nor expensive or specialized materials. The roots get oxygen as the water level decreases in the reservoir. The principle is shown in Fig. 1 right panel.

I encourage you to make this simple hydroponic system at home for high yields of vegetable production and little cost. This is the proper time of the year to start if you want to harvest delicious vegetables for this summer.

You will just need:

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Louise Pearce – An Extraordinary Woman of Medicine

By Susan Russo

Photograph_of_Louise_Pearce_(1885-1959)

Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1913, the Rockefeller Institute appointed its first woman researcher, Louise Pearce, M.D., who worked as an assistant to Simon Flexner. Pearce was promoted to Associate Member in 1923, and continued in this position until 1951, when she became President of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. During her career, Pearce attained many firsts, including her 1915 election as the first woman member of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET); the second member wasn’t elected until 1929. Also, Pearce had affiliations with the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1921); the General Advisory Council of the American Social Hygiene Association (1925); the National Research Council (1931); and was elected Director of the Association of University Women in 1945. In 1921, Pearce was elected to membership in the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine, and received the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and in 1931 she was appointed Visiting Professor of Syphilology at Peiping Union Medical College in China.

Born in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1885, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended the Girls Collegiate School. She went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree in physiology and histology at Stanford University in 1907. Pearce continued her studies at Boston University, and was awarded her M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, specializing in pathology, in 1912.

While at Rockefeller, Pearce worked closely with Wade Hampton Brown, a pathologist, chemist Walter Jacobs, and immunologist Michael Hiedelberger. Their first endeavors, organized by Simon Flexner, were experiments in the treatment of syphilis, using arsenic derivatives made by Pearce and Brown in animal models. Their work was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1919. Soon after, the Rockefeller Institute sent Pearce to Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo, where she worked in a local hospital, and her laboratory to test the drug tryparsamide in human trials, saving many of the lives of syphilitic patients and patients with sleeping sickness, conditions which had previously caused almost certain fatalities. After returning to the Institute, Pearce and Brown added cancer experiments in animal models, discovering, in rabbits, the malignant epithelial tumor of the scrotum, named the Brown-Pearce Carcinoma.

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

Part XVII: Torsten Wiesel, 1981 Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

By Joseph Luna

In the late 1950’s, two scientists sat with a cat in a darkened room and flicked on a projector screen. For this particular movie night with kitty, the scientists showed a series of simple images to the cat, and between each one they waited for the cat to respond. Nearly all cat owners, myself included, have probably performed a variant of this basic experiment, whether with a treat or a feathery toy, to get hold of a cat’s finicky attention, or to divert it from a precarious vase or an exposed ankle. But the two scientists, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, first at Johns Hopkins and then at Harvard, were after something much deeper. They wanted the cat to tell them what it saw. And magically enough, they had surgically created a talking cat: an electrode was inserted into the visual cortex of the anesthetized cat’s head and set up to record from a tiny patch of the brain (rest assured the cat was fine after the experiment). By showing different images to this conked-out kitty, Hubel and Weisel aimed to find the specific stimulus that excited the area they were recording from, be it a picture of a stationary dot or a simple line moving across the screen. If they succeeded at finding the right stimulus, they would hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat of a neuron firing. In other words, a tiny and specific part of the cat’s brain would seem to be saying “yup, that’s a line right there.”

How we perceive the outside world has been a central human question for millennia, underwriting large swathes of philosophy, and later, psychology and neuroscience. In the first half of the 20th century, technological developments aimed at measuring the electrical activity of a stimulated neuron in the brain yielded a concrete path to explore how organisms perceive their surroundings. Of the five most obvious senses, studying vision seemed particularly attractive since the input was physically always the same: photons. And yet photons could be arranged in wildly complex patterns to signal, in the case of a cat, the difference between a mouse and a shampoo bottle. How did light get transformed when it hit the eye into something “recognizable”?

This was a motivating question for a generation of scientists in the Department of Physiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the middle of the 20th century. And one such scientist was a young faculty member named Stephen Kuffler, who, in 1948, recorded from single cells in the cat retina and found that these cells did not signal absolute levels of light to the brain, but rather they transmitted the contrast information between light and dark. Small spots of light could activate retinal neurons, whereas flooding the eye with light didn’t do so. This finding largely confirmed in a mammal what a fellow soon-to-be Hopkins faculty member (and subject of this series) H. Keffer Hartline had seen while measuring the eye of the horseshoe crab over a decade earlier. Like Hartline, Kuffler could conclude that the “raw data” from light was passed to the brain as a code that essentially said, “this part is dark and this part is light”, but what happened after the retina was a mystery.

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Neuroscience Night

By Aileen Marshall

March 14 through the 20 was National Brain Awareness Week. In honor of that, the Rockefeller University’s Science and Media Group sponsored an event called Neuroscience Night, run by the organization KnowScience. The event consisted of several talks by local scientists about their fascinating research on the brain. The topics ranged from the infant brain to the addicted brain.

Brain Awareness Week has been presented every March by the Dana Foundation for twenty years. The foundation is a non-profit that promotes neuroscience research by grants, publications and education; made up of more than 350 neuroscientists, including some Noble laureates. They publish the online journal Cerebrum. They also provide materials for organizations and groups to put on events for Brian Awareness week. Besides the Rockefeller University, many New York City institutes hosted seminars and exhibits, including Columbia University, Mount Sinai, New York University, and the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

Rockefeller’s Neuroscience Night was organized by KnowScience, which is a non-profit science advocacy and educational organization founded and headed by Rockefeller’s own Dr. Simona Giunta. They run events to improve the awareness and understanding of science among the public, particularly adults.

The first speaker at the Neuroscience Night was Rosemarie Perry, a postdoctoral research scientist from New York University. She spoke about the infant brain. It turns out that babies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They learn a lot in their first year. The infant brain is capable of learning several different languages. Like many animals, humans go through a stage when they need a caregiver to survive. She told us how the human’s infant brain is geared toward bonding with its caregiver, in order to get what it needs. In rats there is a sensitive period, the first nine days after birth, when bonding is established.  In humans, attachment starts in the womb, where the fetus learns the mother’s scent and voice. And this attachment is bi-directional, oxytocin is released during skin to skin contact, enforcing the bond of both caregiver and infant. The caregiver can even regulate the infant’s brain. In rats, the amygdala kicks in after ten days, which is responsible for fear. Perry’s experiments have shown that the mother’s presence can block the fear response in rat pups.

The next speaker was Bianca Jones-Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher from Columbia University. Her topic was Love and the Brain. She told us that there is a chemical reaction behind love, no matter if it’s romantic, familial, or platonic. It is also oxytocin that is released during eye contact with a loved one. Oxytocin effects the reward center of the brain. Experiments have shown that oxytocin is also released when one has eye contact with one’s dog. This hormone works in the left hearing center of the brain. Jones-Marlin’s experiments with mice have shown that mice will retrieve their pups back to the nest when they hear them cry. But a virgin female in the cage will not retrieve the pup.

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Reflections on the Updated Periodic Table

By Paul Jeng

Where does science live? For me these days, it’s in the fifteen open tabs lagging my browser as I switch from email to PubMed. It’s in hot coffee in the morning and red velvet seminar cookies in the afternoon. It’s spelled out in Calibri on slides or floating around inside the heads of people arm-curling a five-pound Chipotle burrito while crossing York Avenue. But back in grade school, for many of us, science lived as outlines on posters on the wall. Nine concentric rings represented the solar system, squiggly lines denoted the borders of countries, and a grid of colored squares equaled a comprehensive catalog of all known elements. These posters were big glossy boxes of truth, inked into permanence by mysterious sources of unbridled knowledge (are school posters peer-reviewed?). As ubiquitous classroom décor, they served as road signs for navigating an educational frame of mind: science this way, English Lit that way.

The king of school posters was, unquestionably, the periodic table. What chemistry classroom or laboratory is complete without one? Few other images can claim a more complete symbolic representation of scholarship: fastidious organization, cryptic nomenclature, and stacks upon stacks of numbers. Its silhouette is unmistakable, a double-tower fortress fringed by a lanthanide-actinide moat, imposing to outsiders yet comforting for those who’ve earned citizenship within its walls. To chemistry-allergic premeds it’s a cold instrument of torture, but to science historians the tabular arrangement is a lovingly-crafted mural of the building blocks of existence. Quietly, it’s one of the most popular posters in the world. You could have a 36×24 printout delivered tomorrow by Amazon for under two dollars, or buy a vintage 1960’s linen edition shipped from Berlin through Etsy for over a grand, and everywhere in between. If chemistry were a subway system, the periodic table would be the ubiquitous MTA map. If laboratory halls were the bedroom walls of teenage girls from 1999, the periodic table would most certainly be N’Sync.

It may be tempting to view the periodic table, essentially the heart of chemistry, as a hallowed monument of science, carved in stone. In reality, the table is as much a finished product today as it was to Mendeleev in 1869. When The Rockefeller University was founded in 1901, there were 84 known elements. When I was born, that number had grown to 109. The chronically outdated periodic tables hanging around us should be regarded with pride, a remarkable testament to the speed of scientific progress and the breadth of human achievement or, alternatively, a massive conspiracy from Big Poster to boost sales revenues.

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