Who is Anthony Fauci?

Aileen Marshall

“Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., was appointed Director of NIAID in 1984. He oversees an extensive research portfolio of basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat established infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis and malaria as well as emerging diseases such as Ebola and Zika.” Caption and photo credit: NIAID

We have all seen Dr. Anthony Fauci, currently the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), on television providing facts about the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months. It was a long road to this critical position, but Fauci’s path may be somewhat familiar to many people here in the Tri-Institutional community.

Dr. Fauci is a native New Yorker. He was born in December of 1940, and grew up in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. His father was a pharmacist with his own store on 13th Avenue near 83rd Street. As a boy, Fauci worked in the pharmacy, ringing up customers and delivering prescriptions, and lived upstairs with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Fauci attended Regis High School on East 84th Street in Manhattan. Athletic from an early age, Fauci was captain of the basketball team, even though he was not particularly tall. He later attended College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and earned a degree in Classics with a pre-med concentration. Fauci went on to Cornell University Medical College, where he graduated first in his class. He completed his internship and residency right here at New York Hospital-Cornell.

In 1968, Fauci joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation, where he became a specialist in infectious diseases. Fauci mostly treated patients with autoimmune disorders and observed that many cancer drugs lowered a patient’s autoimmune response. He devised a protocol to give autoimmune patients very low doses of the cancer drugs, which lowered their autoimmune response to a point that prevented them from getting symptoms. This protocol is now a standard treatment for a category of diseases called vasculitis, which cause inflammation of blood vessels.

Fauci also performed basic research in the NIH Laboratory of Immunoregulation. In 1980 he became head of that lab and examined how immunosuppressive drugs change the human immune response. He also studied how HIV infects the body, particularly how the virus suppresses the immune system. In 1984, Fauci accepted the position of Director of the NIAID, under the condition that he be allowed to keep his research lab. He has served in both positions ever since. From 1983 to 1986, Deborah Birx, the United States Global AIDS Coordinator and Fauci’s recent counterpart in COVID-19 press conferences, completed two fellowships in clinical immunology in the areas of allergies and diagnostics in Fauci’s lab.

Fauci has published over 1,300 papers, is the 41st most cited researcher on Google Scholar, and ranks 4th in immunology on Web of Science. He has received many awards, including the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Mary Woodward Lasker Award for Public Service, the National Medal of Science, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Fauci came under much criticism from AIDS activists who claimed he was withholding experimental treatments from patients. Fauci invited his most vocal critic, Larry Kramer, to his office to learn what the AIDS community needed and to build a relationship with them. He wound up becoming a leading activist himself, creating protocols for patients to receive drugs still in trials and pushing Congress for funding for AIDS research. In the end, Fauci received public praise from Kramer. Under George W. Bush, Fauci helped develop the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS (PEPFAR), which facilitated alleviating the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

After the September 11th attacks, Fauci established an NIH lab to study potential biological agents terrorists might use. He was the government lead, working with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), during the anthrax scares, the West Nile, Zika, and Ebola virus outbreaks, the 2002 SARS epidemic, and the swine flu pandemic. In January of 2020, he recognized that COVID-19 would be a global threat and started an NIH research team to develop a vaccine.

On January 29, 2020, a White House Coronavirus Task Force was formed, with Fauci being among the initial members. He appeared regularly during the frequent press briefings that were held during the first couple of months of the pandemic. He quickly gained a reputation for speaking to the public calmly but factually, and often delivered updates on new scientific understandings of the disease. He is often heard asking for compliance with regulations and recommendations to slow the spread of the virus, including to stay home whenever possible, to social distance and wear masks, and to wash your hands frequently. On July 31, he testified before Congress saying he was ““cautiously optimistic” a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready by the end of the year.

Fauci often tactfully fact-checks statements from politicians about the virus. Some have accused him of changing his mind about the virus and of destroying the economy. It’s been noted that Fauci did not appear at the later task force press conferences and reported that he is not invited to task force meetings. At one point the current president seemed to offer support for his firing. The head of NIH, Francis Collins, has said firing Fauci “would be unimaginable.” Fauci has received death threats against him and his family, and had to get a Secret Service detail. Asked if he would resign due to the politics he said “No. I think the problem is too important for me to get into those kinds of thoughts and discussions. I just want to do my job.”

Even though he is known for having sixteen hour work days, Fauci stays athletic, running seven miles during his lunch hour for almost his entire career. Recently, due to his extra responsibilities during the pandemic, he has cut the run down to three and a half miles. An avid Washington Nationals fan, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at their home opener on July 23. Now he often appears wearing a face mask with the team’s logo.

Fauci has had a long and distinguished career in the areas of basic research, medicine, and developing government healthcare policies. Although he will turn eighty this December, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Murder Hornets, What’s in a Name?

Aileen Marshall

With so many more significant stories in the news recently, you may have only vaguely noticed stories about murder hornets. Is this yet another thing we should worry about? It turns out, not as much as the name would imply. While they might look very frightening, they aren’t going around killing people. However, they may be a problem for our already threatened bee population. 

The insects referred to as murder hornets in the media are officially called Asian giant hornets, or Vespa mandarinia. They are found all over Asia and far eastern Russia, but most commonly in Japan, where they are called giant sparrow bees. In 2008 the name murder hornet appeared in some Japanese news stories. That name was picked up by a New York Times article and has spread ever since. 

The name probably evolved because of their formidable appearance. They can be up to two inches long with a wingspan of up to three inches and a stinger a quarter of an inch long. The thorax is dark brown and the abdomen has contrasting stripes of dark brown to black alternating with yellow to orange bands. The queens are larger than the males, also known as drones or workers. The males do not have a stinger. They can be distinguished from the common hornets found in the United States, Vespa crabro, not only by their size, and also by their different color patterns. A dark brown anterior abdomen and a yellow posterior abdomen with dark brown spots is found on our native hornets.

In September of 2019, a nest of Asian giant hornets was found on Vancouver Island, Canada. That December, there were four confirmed sightings in the state of Washington, with one dead specimen found. The nest in Vancouver was immediately destroyed by the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture. There were two more sightings, one each in Vancouver and Washington as of May 29. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is telling Washington residents to report any sightings. DNA tests showed that the nest in Vancouver and the hornet in Washington came from two different colonies.

While the sting from an Asian giant hornet can be very painful, it is very rarely fatal. Only about forty people a year die from these hornet stings in all of Asia, always from multiple stings. In contrast, sixty to eighty people die from bee stings in this country alone. These hornets are not aggressive and only sting if their nest is threatened. What makes their sting so painful is that a peptide in the venom, mastoparan, stimulates the enzyme phospholipase, which degrades tissue. It also contains mandaratoxin, a neurotoxin. It takes a high volume for this venom to be fatal. It has a lethal dose measurement (LD50) of 4 mg/kg, while the venom of our southern yellowjacket has an LD50 of 3.5 mg/kg. In Asia, people who have died had an average of fifty-nine stings, while most have survived with an average twenty-eight stings. 

These hornets have a life cycle similar to other hornet species. Over the winter, queens hibernate and all the male hornets in the nest die. In the spring, fertilized queens will leave the old nest and start looking for a new spot to build. Asian giant hornets almost always build their nest underground, often in abandoned rodent tunnels. They also like to nest under tree roots, or in the bottom of a hollow of a dead tree. In contrast, our native hornets build their nests well above ground, in tree branches or under roof eaves. After the queen establishes a spot, unfertilized females build the cells in the nest and raise the workers. Then the workers go out and get tree sap to feed to the queens. There is a hierarchy among queens and the alpha queens get fed first. Around July, the unfertilized females stop leaving the nest and die, and the workers continue to go out and get food. By August the nest is usually at its peak of about one hundred workers. 

Asian giant hornet. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From August through October, the workers switch to hunting other insects for food, as a source of protein: bees, other hornets, and mantises. A worker will find a beehive and release a pheromone to attract other workers. Japanese bees have evolved a defense mechanism. They will let the hornet in, then many bees will surround it, beating their wings. This generates heat and CO2, which suffocates the hornet. European honeybees that have been introduced into Japan do not have this defense. A single bee will attack the hornet outside the hive, but because of the difference in size, it does not have a chance. The Asian giant hornet will take apart the bee, only carrying its protein-rich thorax back to its nest. If more than one hornet attacks a hive, they go into what is called a slaughter phase. They will keep killing the bees instead of returning to their nest, until all the bees are dead. Then they enter the occupation phase, where they go inside the hive and prey on the larvae. They can kill a whole hive in one to two days. It is not known how bees in this country would react since they have not encountered Asian giant hornets before.

In the fall the fertilized queens produce both male and female larvae and care for them. From October to November males and new queens leave the nest and mate. This is their most active time. Their colors get more intense and queens grow an average of twenty percent larger. Workers then change their food source from proteins to carbohydrates. 

There are two main ways to get rid of these hornets. One way is to burn or apply pesticide to the nests at night when they are asleep. The other way is to set bait traps. These traps have a sweet solution to attract the hornets, but the hornets can’t exit the trap. These are often used by beekeepers to help prevent loss of their colonies. 

There is no need for people to worry about being attacked and killed by these insects. The USDA is vigilant about not letting them become a new invasive species. However if they do take hold in North America, they could be a threat to our bee population, which is already threatened by nicotinamides and colony collapse disorder.

Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica) form a “bee ball” in which two hornets (Vespa simillima xanthoptera) are engulfed and heated. Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture, Honshu Island, Japan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What It’s Like to Get a COVID-19 Antibody Test in NYC

Anna Amelianchik

Antibody testing for COVID-19 is now widely available in New York City. Unlike the polymerase chain reaction test used to detect coronavirus from the infamous nasal and throat swab, the antibody test does not determine whether you currently have the disease. Instead, it can detect antibodies against COVID-19 present in blood and determine whether you had COVID-19 in the past. The body produces antibodies to facilitate the destruction of invading pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, by immune cells. Antibody tests are designed to detect two specific types of antibodies, IgG and/or IgM. Patients with COVID-19 develop IgM antibodies shortly after the virus attacks. IgM antibodies are then replaced with IgG antibodies which become detectable in the blood of COVID-19 patients approximately ten days after they become symptomatic. While all patients recovering from COVID-19 develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, scientists and health authorities are debating whether the presence of antibodies protects people from reinfection. In addition, antibody levels may wane over time effectively erasing any acquired immunity. For instance, a 2006 study showed that antibodies against SARS-CoV, a coronavirus closely related to the virus that ravaged the world in the past months, lasted for several months to two years, although all study participants had low antibody levels after about fifteen months. While the longitudinal profile of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 is still unclear, a predictive modeling study showed that, in the absence of recurrent vaccination, short-term immunity (~ten months) against SARS-CoV-2 would lead to annual outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, while long-term immunity (~two years) would cause biennial outbreaks. However, it is critically important to conduct antibody tests to better understand the impact of the novel coronavirus on communities that are heavily affected by it. 

Over a two-week period in May, the NYC Department of Health conducted a citywide antibody survey and tested approximately 70,000 NYC residents for the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Launched in partnership with BioReference Laboratories, the study was designed to help health authorities better understand the spread of COVID-19, how the body responds to the virus that causes it, how often the virus causes an infection with symptoms, the frequency of specific symptoms, and risk factors for this disease. “For New York, a city that has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of information will be of great value in helping healthcare professionals to analyze the presence and progression of the disease in order to identify at risk populations for possible early intervention,” said Jon R. Cohen, M.D., the Executive Chairman of BioReference Laboratories, in a press release posted on the BioReference website on May 7. The antibody test was offered to NYC residents for free with testing sites available in all five boroughs. Several members of our editorial board participated in this antibody survey at the testing site closest to The Rockefeller University campus in Long Island City, Queens. Located inside a repurposed warehouse, the testing site prioritized the safety of study participants with temperature scans at the entrance and free personal protective equipment (PPE). Several blood draw stations were spaced out to allow for a distance of at least six feet between them. Colorful tape on the floor indicated the direction of foot traffic and prevented crowding. The nurses, in full PPE, drew blood through vein puncture and collected one tube of blood per participant. For those who filled out the screening survey online, the entire process could take less than ten minutes. To determine the presence of antibodies in blood samples, BioReference used the Roche Elecsys test with 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The results of the test were available online on the BioReference portal 24-48 hours after the test was administered. As of this writing, the NYC Department of Health paused the recruitment of new participants for this survey. However, you can still access antibody testing in NYC, often with $0 co-pay for those with private health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare. Some testing sites might also provide free antibody tests for those without health insurance. For example, Mount Sinai is looking for volunteers to donate convalescent plasma used to treat patients with COVID-19. They are screening the members of the public who have previously had the symptoms of COVID-19 and waiving fees for antibody tests. To participate, fill out this survey. For the full list of testing sites available near you, visit the New York State Department of Health website.

What Happened in 1918?

Aileen Marshall

Not many of us around the Tri-Institutional community have experienced a pandemic situation like COVID-19. News pundits and politicians are saying this is “unprecedented.” But is it? The word “pandemic” reminded me of references to the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. Though that event was caused by an influenza virus, from a different family than the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, there are similarities between that outbreak and the current one. Perhaps we can learn lessons from the pandemic that happened almost 100 years ago. 

The influenza pandemic started in the spring of 1918 and lasted until the spring of 1919 during World War I. The Allied countries didn’t want people to panic or to distract from the war effort, so they censored reports of the new virulent flu. Spain was neutral, so most reports of the flu came from their newspapers; thus, it became known as the Spanish flu. However, the actual origin of the flu is still unclear.

There are three current hypotheses as to where the 1918 influenza virus started: Kansas, France, or China. A flu-like illness started appearing in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas in late 1917. It was first reported on March 11th, 1918. At that point more than 100 soldiers had gotten sick and it was spreading quickly. Troops from this camp were shipped to Europe shortly after. Some say that this was not the origin because there was a deadlier flu in New York City at the same time. A 2018 review of the origins of the 1918 pandemic suggests that viral haemagglutinin proteins found in the samples from Kansas were older than those of the 1918 flu. Some think the virus first showed up in Étaples, France in late 1917 where there was an English military camp that was overcrowded with hundreds of thousands of soldiers passing through every day. Pigs and poultry were also kept at the camp, animals suspected of being carriers of the flu strain. And some think this flu started in China, although it’s hard to tell given that records from the country at the time are very sparse. There was a mild flu there at the time, and tens of thousands of Chinese workers toiled behind the French and English lines of the war. A 2018 study by evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey showed that there was no evidence of this flu along the routes the Chinese migrants traveled to Europe, suggesting that China might not have been the origin. This first wave lasted through the spring of 1918. 

The second wave started in August of that year and was deadlier than the first. New flu cases started appearing in France, Sierra Leone, and the United States. This time, predominantly young adults were affected. At Army and Navy training camps outside of Boston, almost half of the soldiers died. Worsening the spread, sick soldiers were often sent on crowded trains to crowded hospitals. In September of 1918, New York City started mandating that flu diagnoses be reported and requiring sick patients to be isolated at home. Many cities closed theaters, schools, churches, and bars and banned public gatherings. Philadelphia, however, decided to go ahead with a war bonds parade. Within days of the parade, tens of thousands were sick, and within ten days, over 1,000 people died. October of 1918 was the deadliest month of the pandemic. The United States recorded 195,000 deaths from the flu. Regulations banning spitting in public were passed. In November, news articles about the disease started appearing more frequently as the virus moved from France to Spain. Quarantine signs were put on the homes of people diagnosed with the flu. Yet this same month, people gathered in large numbers to celebrate Armistice Day. As the second wave ended in December, public health campaigns appeared instructing people to put their tissues in the garbage after sneezing into them. Officials asked businesses to stagger their opening and closing times and for people to walk to work to limit crowding on mass transit. The death rate overwhelmed morgues and bodies piled up. 

Three pandemic waves: weekly combined influenza and pneumonia mortality, United Kingdom, 1918–1919 (figure courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A third, but smaller wave began in February of 1919. In New York City, only about 700 diagnoses and sixty-seven flu deaths were recorded. During this wave, city hospitals around the country set up studies of treatments for influenza. Efforts were made to implement more nursing school programs to address the nursing shortage created by the pandemic. It is now recognized that this shortage was partially due to a societal reluctance to hire African-American nurses. Near the end of the pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson collapsed during the Versailles Peace Conference in April of 1919; it is thought that he also contracted the flu. 

Thanks to studies over the last few decades, we now know that the 1918 influenza virus was an H1N1 strain, the same type that caused the swine flu epidemic in 2009. Our knowledge of the strain comes from preserved bodies in the permafrost in Alaska, where the pandemic had been particularly lethal to Native Americans, wiping out entire Inuit villages. In 2008, scientists were able to exhume one of the bodies and obtain tissue samples containing the virus. Because of the extreme cold, the viral particles were relatively well-preserved, and they were able to sequence its genome. A study by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the United States Department of Agriculture, and Mount Sinai Medical School determined that a set of three genes enabled the virus to weaken bronchial tubes, which allowed for secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia. 

It is now thought that the 1918 flu virus spread so easily throughout the world due to several factors, including military troop movements. Many military installations were overcrowded, and more soldiers died from the flu than in battle. Malnutrition and poor hygiene were more common than today. Interestingly, the flu particularly struck people under age 65, which accounted for almost 90% of the fatalities. This was because influenza caused what is called a “cytokine storm,” an overreaction of the immune system, so young adults with stronger immune systems had stronger overreactions. Furthermore, the disease was not well-diagnosed, as it often caused bleeding in mucus membranes, a symptom not usually characteristic of the flu. There were no antiviral drugs available at the time. It is estimated that about 500 million individuals around the world were infected during the course of the pandemic, or about 25% of the world population. In the U.S., about 28% of the population, almost twenty-nine million, became infected. 

Global fatality estimates run from seventeen million to 100 million, or from 1% to 5% of the world. Estimated deaths for the U.S. run from 500,000 to 675,000, or around 0.5 % of the country’s population. Doctors would prescribe 8-30 grams of aspirin, which we now know is toxic. In fact, many deaths were due to aspirin poisoning. There was a high fatality rate among pregnant women. Studies have shown that children born to infected women had lower education levels and socioeconomic status than the general population. 

Research has shown that cities like Saint Louis, which had early and sustained practices of social distancing and quarantining the sick, were effective in reducing the spread and had very low fatalities. Saint Louis is often compared to the aforementioned situation in Philadelphia that had little intervention and high numbers of deaths. While these effective practices are similar to the situation with COVID-19 today, a significant difference is that influenza was infectious only during onset of symptoms, not like the asymptomatic transmission that is thought to be possible with this current coronavirus. While there are many parallels between the 1918 flu and COVID-19 pandemics, as of this writing, the global number of deaths from SARS-CoV-2 is 128,000 with 26,000 in the U.S., representing about 0.002% of the current population, five hundred times lower than during the flu pandemic a hundred years ago. Nutrition, hygiene, medicine, and communication have significantly improved during the last century. Remember to wash your hands several times a day, avoid touching your face, and distance yourself from crowds so that hopefully this current pandemic will become part of the history books soon.

Face masks made of gauze were widely used but offered little real protection. Nonetheless, these Red Cross workers in Boston assembled masks. “It is our duty to keep people from fear,” said Chicago’s health commissioner. “Worry kills more people than the epidemic.”
(image courtesy of National Archives)

Denaturing the Mind for Discovery – Remembering Kary Mullis through the Voice of Italo Calvino

Sarah Baker

Photo courtesy of the Foundation Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Nobel laureate Kary Mullis passed away on August 7, 2019 at the age of 74. Although a controversial scientific figure due to his climate change denial, rejection of the fact that HIV causes AIDS, strong belief in astrology, and open use of hallucinogenic drugs, it is impossible to deny the importance of his contribution to biology: the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. I wrote this piece for Stephen Hall’s Advanced Science Communication course a couple of years ago that asked students to imitate a famous author’s distinct writing style to narrate a well-known scientific discovery. Intrigued by the idea that Mullis thought up PCR while under the influence of LSD, I tried to inhabit Mullis’ mind during this time. The style of the Italian post-modern fiction writer Italo Calvino, with its overly elaborate and somewhat mystical style, seemed to be a perfect fit for the story of the invention of PCR. The following is a fictionalization of Mullis’ insight.

Photo Courtesy of nobelprize.org

Well this is the story I will tell you and this is how I remember it. There I was, driving up and down the winding road, my beautiful Jennifer sleeping beside me, and I was in love with each turn as I headed towards my cabin. And by love I do not mean romantic love in the truest sense. It was the kind of love that comes from the full joy of being in the moment, hands gripped on the wheel. If I am being perfectly honest, I was not completely sober, but I am pleased to say that I felt as if I was in complete control of that vehicle. Or to represent the situation more truly, the LSD in my system could’ve been gone at that point. But, you know, in reality it was always there. You must understand that this was the type of road where everything looked the same, even if you had made the drive along the two-lane highway dozens of times before, as I had.

I remember it well how each redwood would try to pass by in a blur, but I would not let them do that to me. What I would really try to do was to shift one into focus, and then the next. I did this to try to understand their beauty, as you must admit that you have tried to do before too. Maybe I was driving too fast, but to be honest about it, I did not care. There was no point in worrying about it. I had to stay focused on each second to comprehend that road. I looked over and she was awake, asking me how much further, but I did not know. If I think about it, you know, it felt like only a few seconds since we were in Cloverdale. But then I saw the mile marker coming into view, and I realized that we passed Cloverdale 50 miles ago. The rolling hills had swallowed me, or rather I had the feeling that I was coming out of a deep abyss. But then, as sharply as the feeling of falling deeper and deeper, I had this feeling of serenity because I came out anew on the other side. When I try to describe it more accurately, it felt as if I was controlling my own body as I travelled as a roller coaster through the trees. There was this pulsing feeling as my brain was ebbing and flowing with the car, expanding and contracting with my thoughts.

Now really up until now I have been setting up the space in which I was existing in this moment. But to help you understand better, let’s go to the real beginning. Throughout the upward and downward tree-filled monotonous drive, my mind shifted to my work, as it tended to do. I made it so that DNA was passing by in my mind. And as I usually did, I boiled it in the heat of my mind, denaturing A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s. As my concentration cooled, the DNA retook its shape. I could do this over and over and it pleased me to watch this process to pass the time. This is not something I ever really wondered about, but it was just something that I did. So what I am speaking of is that my mind can see itself, as I am sure you have felt before. To be more precise about it, this is something that I had probably done thousands of times and I would play this process on repeat. First of all, I added heat to separate the helix. Then I watched closely as the strands came apart. Then I added my oligotide and the polymerase cut as it had been designed by nature to do.

But to make this point clear, up until now, it was always the same in my mind. So to follow my story, you must understand that as I was rocked by the rolling of the road, I suddenly thought of adding another oligotide. I let this oligotide slip into the slate of my mind and now there were two oligotides on the surface right in front of me, dangling right before my windshield. Then, as I had thought of countless times before, polymerase entered and polymerase copied. Now, if you are imagining it like I am, there were two DNA strands. But here is where this played again in my concentrated mind. All I had to do was denature and then cool once more, over and over again. If you see it with me, four DNA strands will be lying before you. Now you do it again. You see eight strands, and then sixteen, and on and on it goes. If you follow me now, you know that I extended this process to the limits of my mind, until my mind was full of DNA. Then there were too many DNA strands and they were leaking out. I was becoming aware that as I lost count, I had stumbled upon a significant discovery.

Coming back to the reality before me, I wondered how I had arrived at the cabin. This wonder hit me with fury as I was daunted by the realization of the redwoods towering over me again. Here I must explain that even with the awareness that I was more tired than ever before, and maybe less conscious, I had never felt more alive. The need for a pen overwhelmed me and I had to draw outside my mind to see what my mind saw. Where was that bottle of Cabernet that I brought with me? I poured out a glass and drew out the DNA as it amplified. This was undoubtedly a computer propagating numbers faster than I could think them. I was replicating, over, over, over—and it is difficult to describe in precise terms whether I was awake or asleep. I was totally lost and the wine had my consciousness in and out. But as I daydreamed and night-dreamed, what I saw clearly in my mind was a chain reaction. I was taken over by the thought that others had surely done this chain reaction? But then I knew this was not the case or I would have heard about it. It is difficult to say when I suddenly realized that Jennifer was out taking in the sun by the pond. Was it morning?

Biologists Call for Open Science, but Competition Creates Challenges

Audrey Goldfarb

Transparent and thorough communication of data has the potential to streamline major scientific advances. For Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam, open science practices like these would have transformed her Ph.D. thesis. “While I was at Rockefeller, I was scooped five times,” she said.

As a student in Nina Papavasiliou’s lab, Zaringhalam aimed to develop a method to map the RNA modification pseudouridine throughout the transcriptome. However, she was stopped cold by the simultaneous publication of several similar methods.  Had her field been more communicative and forthright about work in progress, she could have redirected her time and energy to other pursuits.

Zaringhalam pivoted her focus to a comparative analysis on these techniques and encountered another frustrating development: the methods were difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce.

Due to the problems she encountered in her field, Zaringhalam developed passions for both transparent science communication and ways to improve reproducibility. She published her Methods paper “Pseudouridylation meets next-generation sequencing” in September 2016 and graduated the following spring with an offer in hand to become an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science policy fellowship.

Though many biologists may support the concept of open science, including open access publishing, many are also apprehensive. This contradiction is a product of our academic culture, which tends to assess the worth of data by the journal it is published in, rather than evaluating robustness on a case-by-case basis. In an increasingly competitive field, publishing in Cell, Nature, and Science has become the expectation at elite institutions. Scientists at all career stages want to change these policies and practices, but fighting the system is risky for trainees and untenured professors. Established heads of lab and scientists working in science communication and policy, however, can leverage their influence and security to promote a move towards open science.

As an AAAS Fellow, Zaringhalam specialized in open science and data science policy in biomedical research. “Policy is really exciting for me because I can keep learning, which is the reason why I, and a lot of people, wanted to become scientists,” she said. “I see how that learning applies to how research is ultimately done, in academia and beyond.”

A big part of Zaringhalam’s work focuses on reproducibility and equipping scientists with tools to generate reproducible research. Using electronic laboratory notebooks like Jupyter and version-control software like GitHub, for example, facilitates easy access to data and pipelines necessary to reproduce and repurpose data.

Zaringhalam recently led a workshop in which scientists were asked to reproduce data from several papers, which proved difficult. The group then discussed ideas such as introducing reproducibility as a criterion in the peer review process. “We had some nice discussions and ideas coming out about what needs to change within our culture to create a research environment that’s more collaborative rather than competitive,” Zaringhalam said.

Zaringhalam recently transitioned into a new role as a Data Science and Open Science Specialist at the National Library of Medicine, where she will continue to tackle the reproducibility problem. “This is the first time I’ve had a job that wasn’t a fellowship,” Zaringhalam said. “I will have a lot more opportunity to be thinking long-term about what kind of presence and impact I can have.”

Scientists tend to focus their efforts on communicating positive, exciting results because it is difficult to publish negative results in high-impact journals. Zaringhalam argues that this culture impedes progress. “The publishing space is very competitive, and people don’t necessarily want to read about the things that didn’t go right even though there’s a lot of value in that,” she said.

“We do have this responsibility to show what we’ve done, whether it’s positive, negative, or non-confirmatory,” Zaringhalam said. Cleaning up the data to make it sharable and reusable allows it to be repurposed. Moreover, if an experiment does not work, that is good for the next person to know. “There’s some work to be done to think about how we can change that culture and how we can see negative and non-confirmatory results as being useful,” Zaringhalam said.

Recent developments to ameliorate these issues include open access journals and pre-prints, which allow researchers to publish primary research manuscripts without being subjected to an extensive review process that favors high-impact results.

“You have to have these results published where researchers are already looking if you want them to encounter them,” Zaringhalam said. BioRxiv, a pre-print server, has become increasingly popular, with over 1 million papers downloaded as pre-prints every month, many to later be published in peer-reviewed journals. ASAPbio, headed by biochemist Dr. Jessica K. Polka, is another organization that encourages pre-prints in biology and calls for the publication of peer review to make the publication process more transparent and accountable.

Dr. Harold Varmus, co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on retroviral oncogenes, has been influential in shaping science policy and promoting open science. He has served as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and President and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and currently heads a lab as the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell. Varmus co-founded  Public Library of Science (PLoS), and headed several successful efforts to make papers publicly available. “Science should be shared,” he said.

Varmus, Zaringhalam, and many others share the belief that the pressure to publish in prestigious journals undermines the accessibility of science. “In the biomedical world, we are not very open,” Varmus said. “We all work hard, but our values have been distorted.”

Still, a rigorous peer review process is important. “If you believe that peer review does something, you can’t be satisfied by only the preprint form,” Varmus said. “Work needs to be subjected to stiff statistical analysis and validation that people have been lax about.” The goal is to judge data more on its robustness and reproducibility, and less on bold and flashy claims.

Although most scientists may agree with this in principle, trainees and untenured investigators hesitate to sacrifice prestige and potential career advancement. Refraining from the opportunity to publish in elite journals might not result in an impact big enough to be worth the risk. It may be that real change needs to come from people with career and financial security. “The government and other funders have the real power here,” Varmus said.

For trainees and junior faculty, Zaringhalam recommends using electronic laboratory notebooks to record protocols; she also emphasizes the importance of designing clear presentations. These practices gear lab culture towards reproducibility and collaboration. “Even if it’s on a small scale, it still matters,” she said. “Science is something that fundamentally builds on itself.”

Getting a Head

 

Miguel Crespo

If you thought Dr. Frankenstein was just a figment of Mary Shelley’s imagination, history is about to turn against you. If you believed connecting heads to different bodies was just a gimmick of old-school science fiction comics, here is a slap in the face from destiny. After successfully transplanting hands and even faces, neurosurgeons are now trying to live up to the ultimate challenge of transplanting a head. Yes, you read correctly, this is not a typo.

Dr. Sergio Cavanero in Italy and Dr. Xiaoping Ren in China have already been trying to get around the legal and ethical hurdles that concern such a procedure, and they claim they can make it with more than a 90% chance of success. Detractors call him bombastic, but Dr. Cavanero pays no heed to critics. Most likely, the surgery will have to take place in China because no other country seems willing to permit it yet. Dr. Canavero is known to make unfounded claims and promote his work largely through the media. However, he is an accomplished surgeon with a solvent publication record in top-notch journals.

Dr. Sergio Canavero, who plans to carry out the world’s first human head transplant in December this year.

A similar procedure has already been carried out in mice by Dr. Ren where the spinal cord was sectioned with a diamond blade and the nerves glued back. The miracle was made possible by a chemical known as PEG, poly ethylene glycol by its full name. This amber fluid can break open the lipid membrane, which lines the neurons and fuse together two different cells, thereby allowing them to function as a single hybrid cell.

History is punctuated with attempts of head transplants in dogs and monkeys. The first “two-headed” dog came into being in St. Louis Missouri back in 1908. The bicephalic beast was again generated in the Soviet Union, and lived for 23 days.  In the 1970s, a surgeon named Robert White transplanted the heads of several rhesus monkeys onto others’ bodies. And in January this year, Dr. Ren was able to duplicate the feat. Unfortunately, these animals couldn’t do much more than blink, breathe, and follow objects with their eyes.

The first human to volunteer was 31 year old Russian, Valerey Spiridov. Paralyzed from the neck down, he can barely eat, type, or move the joystick that sets his chair in motion. He suffers from a rare muscle wasting disease. In spite of the surgeons’ optimism, concerns of all kinds have been raised. In the first place, the procedure entails the concert of 80 surgeons working together on the order of days. The limiting step in the process is keeping the brain cold after the head has been removed in order for it to be transplanted onto the donor’s body. The brain suffers irreversible damage within minutes of losing blood flow; cooling the brain can delay damage for up to one hour.

In this procedure, only one hour is available by injecting a liquid into the head blood vessels and recirculating it throughout. Once the surgeons get that down, then comes the rest of the procedure joining of the arteries, veins, muscles, and, ultimately, the skin. Such a procedure requires a great deal of choreography and its cost is estimated at $10-100 million, depending on where it takes place.

Is it worth it? Well, Spiridov himself initially said that he was not signing up for an expensive euthanasia and would not go through the operation unless success is guaranteed. But as the date approached, he announced he will not undergo the surgery.

However controversial, if successful, this procedure would bring hope to those who become immobilized from spinal lesions. But this raises more questions than answers: if according to Drs. Ren and Canavero this technology is available, why not apply it to remedy spinal lesions?

Many scientists and ethicists have slammed the project, accusing the surgeons involved of promoting junk science and raising false hopes. However shaky, others find scientific foundation in the project.

What we know so far is that hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs, uteruses, voice boxes, tongues, penises, hands, and faces can be transplanted. So there’s good reason to think that the next logical step would be the head. However, in this case immunological rejection becomes more of an issue than in the previous instances. And who is rejecting who anyway? Is it the body donor who receives a head transplant? Or is it the head donor who receives a new body from a neurologically dead donor?

Yet another way to look at it, what would happen if an older head was transplanted onto a younger body? Would we be at the gates of life extension technology? Another aspect to take into consideration would be personality. It is known that hormones produced by the body have an effect on the brain. Would this result in a body changing the person’s mood, a head commanding a new body, or a mixture of both? And if so, would the head donor be inheriting the ways of a dead person or imposing his on a corpse?

There’s no previous evidence to back up claims in any direction, and, unfortunately, there is only one way to know.

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 www.genspace.org. To learn more about what Biotech Without Borders, go to www.biotechwithoutborders.org.

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 www.eclipse2017.nasa.gov, while www.eclipse2017.org 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”

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 jweisman@rockefeller.edu. 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.

 

Who Will Lead WHO?

Aileen Marshall

Most of us here at The Rockefeller University, and the Tri-Institutions, do basic research: figuring out the molecular mechanisms of various life forms. Many of us also do translational research: taking that basic research and applying it towards a product. However, we all do our work for the betterment of the human race, to paraphrase Rockefeller’s motto. We are all concerned in some way, of different aspects of human health. Most of us have probably dealt with some data from the World Health Organization (WHO) at some point in our careers. How many of you know that WHO is currently in the process of electing a new head, the title of Director-General? How much of an impact this will have on our work remains to be seen, but WHO’s work effects many people around the world in some way.

In 1945, Chinese United Nations (UN) delegate, Dr. Sze, proposed the creation of an international health agency under the UN to focus on public health. WHO was finally ratified on April 7, 1948. It was the first specialized UN agency to which every member pledged. In its early years, WHO ran programs to give mass vaccinations for tuberculosis and started a malaria and small pox eradication programs. They started an epidemiological information service that has become a standard today. In 1977, they released their first list of essential medicines: a list of drugs that WHO believes all countries around the world should have on hand. This can be very helpful to healthcare workers and advocates around the world in order to petition their governments for funding for these medications. In 1979, WHO reported that small pox had been eradicated, and with that, it became the first disease to be eliminated by human intervention. In 1986, WHO started its global program on the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS around the world.

WHO is currently focused on many areas, primarily communicable diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, malaria, and tuberculosis. It also has programs promoting reproductive and occupational health, nutrition, healthy aging, and substance abuse prevention. WHO encourages countries to develop reporting methods, promotes cooperation between scientific and medical groups, and help governments develop research agendas. Today, it is known as the organization that puts health statistics from around the world in a unified system.

Besides these accomplishments, WHO has also endured controversy and criticism. It reproached the Vatican’s ban on condoms as being dangerous considering the AIDS pandemic, and it has been criticized for its classification of red meat and cell phone signals as possible carcinogens. In recent years, they have had negative media attention for a slow response to the Ebola crisis. Some say their focus is too wide and that the organization engenders too much bureaucratic red tape and internal politics. There have been calls for more accountability and transparency within WHO. There has also been a lack of funding for many of their efforts.

Located in Geneva, Switzerland, today WHO has 194 member states, and offices in Congo, Egypt, Denmark, India, the Philippines, and the United States. It is financed by contributions from member states, the largest contributor being the United States. WHO’s policy making branch is the World Health Assembly, which member states appoint delegates to. The delegates meet annually, usually in May, to vote on matters of policy and budget, and they elect a new Director-General every five years. The next election will have taken place by the time of this publication (at the end of May). The current Director-General is Margaret Chan, a physician from Hong Kong. Currently there are three candidates for the new head: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, from Ethiopia, Sania Nishtar from Pakistan, and David Nabarro of the United Kingdom. Whomever is elected will take office on July 1, 2017.

DR. TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS ALL PHOTOS FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Tedros Ghebreyesus, 52, was born in Eritrea, and received a Bachelor’s in Biology from the University of Asmara in Ethiopia. He has a Master’s of Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a Ph.D. in Community Health from the University of Nottingham. He is the only non-medical doctor of the three candidates. Ghebreyesus’ first job out of college was as a junior public health expert for the Ministry of Health of Ethiopia where he worked on methods of malaria prevention. Then Ghebreyesus worked as the head of a Regional Health Bureau. He is recognized for a 20% reduction in AIDS and 70% reduction in malaria cases in that region during his tenure. In 2005, he was appointed Minister of Health. As Minister, he hired over 30,000 health extension workers throughout the country, increased hospital staffing and connected hospitals to the internet. He initiated a program that distributed 20 million insecticide-treated nets throughout Ethiopia. During his time as Minister of Health, deaths from malaria decreased by 50%, new AIDS infections by about 90%, and infant mortality by almost 30%. In 2012, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs where he encouraged Ethiopia to adhere to WHO guidelines during the Ebola epidemic. He is known for having published many papers on malaria. As a candidate for Director-General, Gheebreyesus has stated that he supports strengthening health care systems and universal health care coverage.

SANIA NISHTAR

Sania Nishtar, 54, was born in Peshawar, and received her medical degree in cardiology from Khyber Medical College in Pakistan. She earned a Ph.D. in Medicine from King’s College London. After medical school, she worked as a cardiologist at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. In 1999, she founded Heartfile, a health policy think tank based in Islamabad, focused on ways to improve Pakistan’s health care system. She has served as an advisor to WHO on many occasions, most prominently co-chairing the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. Nishtar wrote Choked Pipes: Reforming Pakistan’s Mixed Health Systems, a book that was published in 2010. In 2013, she was a Federal Minister in the Government of Pakistan, overseeing the Ministries of Science and Technology, Education and Training, and Information Technology and Telecom. In this role she helped establish a Ministry of Health. Nishtar is a member of the Lancet and Rockefeller Foundation Commission on Planetary Health and the Working Group on Private Sector Health Systems established by Results for Development and the Rockefeller Foundation, among many other boards.

DAVID NABARRO

David Nabarrro, 68, is from the United Kingdom and obtained his medical degree from the University of Oxford. In his early years, he was a Medical Officer for Save the Children in Iraq and a District Child Health Officer in Nepal. Later, he became South Asia Regional Manager for Save the Children. Nabarro joined WHO in 1999, first as a project manager for Roll Back Malaria, a partnership among countries to coordinate efforts against malaria. Next, he helped start their Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. In 2003, he moved to WHO’s Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments division. He was the UN Special Envoy on Ebola in 2014. In 2015, he was Chair of an advisory group on WHO’s responses to outbreaks and emergencies. Now he is special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on sustainable development and climate change, and leading the UN’s response to the Cholera outbreak in Haiti. Nabarro has said that if he is elected WHO Director-General, his four goals would be: sustainable development goals, responses to outbreaks and emergencies, building relations with member states, and people-centered health policies.

By the time this issue comes out, it may be publicly known which of these candidates will be the next Director-General of WHO. Whichever one of the three candidates is elected Director-General, let’s hope WHO keeps up their high standards of statistic reporting and encouraging collaboration between scientific groups.

Alt-Foods

Yvette Chin

Rebooting the traditional food production model to improve climate and environment is driving innovative entrepreneurs to pursue a vegan path. The resulting alt-foods are, unlike alt-facts, solidly grounded in science, as the personnel list at these companies—data scientists, bioinformaticians, chemists, biologists, nutritionists and chefs—attests. While we already have soy-based meat alternatives, such as tofurky and veggie duck, the challenge lies in faithfully replicating, and even exceeding, the appearance and taste of animal-derived food products using solely plant-derived substitutes.

The most prominent/poster child of these is the Impossible Burger created by Impossible Foods – a one hundred percent vegan burger made with potatoes, beets, coconut oil, and most importantly, a plant version of heme protein—a distinctive component of animal muscles, which gives meat its distinctive taste. The founder of Impossible Foods is aware of the high threshold he has to overcome to win over die-hard meat-lovers. But undaunted, that is his goal—to not simply improve food options for vegans and vegetarians but to convert red in tooth and claw carnivores. So far, the feedback is encouraging with comparisons to turkey burgers.

The Impossible Burger isn’t alone—Beyond Meat, another startup, has a handful of pea- or soy-based “meat” offerings, including the Beyond Burger, Beyond Chicken Strips, and Beyond Beef Crumble that can be cooked just like the meat items they aim to replace. For those of you who failed to celebrate National Hamburger month (May) this is your chance to make amends. The Impossible Burger is served at several establishments countrywide, including BareBurger & Saxon+Parole here in NY. The Beyond Burger is available in grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market.

The stronger green credentials of Impossible Foods’ and Beyond Meat’s approaches are to be appreciated when compared with the efforts of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based biotech company that aims to grow meat and leather in the lab using cultured cells from livestock. While noteworthy and arguably a more difficult undertaking to grow meat from scratch, the trouble with cultured mammalian cells is the requisite fetal bovine serum—a vital elixir for their sustained growth & nourishment—derived from unborn calves’ blood which doesn’t exactly circumvent the environmentally wasteful and greenhouse gas-emitting livestock industry.

Evidently, eggs from cage-free and pastured chickens weren’t sufficiently humane for the founders of Hampton Creek—they decided to get rid of eggs altogether, substituting them with a yellow pea protein as the emulsifier in their vegan Just Mayo. The company has other vegan offerings (salad dressing, cookie dough) and a mission to mine the cornucopia of thousands of plants to create cheaper, healthier and more stable foods than those that are animal-derived.

Living in NY, we are quite spoiled for dietary choice. Even so, one can imagine there can be moments when nothing appeals to the taste buds and yet life must be sustained. At such times, one can reach for Soylent—a completely animal-free food that provides a nutritionally complete meal from soy, algae and other plant-derived components in several easy to consume formats: bottled drink, powder, bar, and best of all, coffiest—breakfast + coffee in one drink. It seems like it was designed with busy New Yorkers in mind—no cutlery or flapping containers to deal with, just chug or chomp and go! For those of us who are neither culinarily gifted nor inclined, Soylent can replace hours of schlepping groceries, prepping ingredients and slaving over a stove before finally indulging in a meal. To some ardent foodies however, Soylent seems abhorrent (not least owing to the sci-fi reference) and only to be resorted to in a food desert.

Our industrial food system provides bountiful affordable nutrition and so the pressure to embrace these innovations is not yet urgent. Do we have this luxury? The human population is set to climb from 7 billion to just under 10 billion by 2050. The climate change debate is raging but the disappearing summer Arctic ice signifies a stark reality. However, a noble impetus to save the earth cannot force adoption of the healthier and sustainable foods 2.0. Ultimately, their success will be determined by the most important factor—taste.

Quotable Quote

 

“Why are we suddenly a nation and a people who strive for security above all else? In fact, security is essentially elusive, impossible. We all die. We all get sick. We all get old. People leave us. People surprise us. People change us. Nothing is secure. And this is the good news. But only if you are not seeking security as the point of your life. Here’s what happens when security becomes the center of your life. You can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course. You cling desperately to your identity… Real security cannot be bought or arranged or accomplished with bombs. It is deeper. It is a process. It is the acute awareness that we are all utterly interdependent and that one action by one being in one town has consequences everywhere. Real security is the ability to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity—indeed hungering for these things.”

(Eve Ensler, 1953 – )

Autism Awareness

Guadalupe Astorga

April is National Autism Awareness Month. April 2 is a day meant to create consciousness, tolerance and acceptance of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A better inclusion in society is essential to increase their quality of life and expectations.

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a vast range of behaviors, genetic mutations and neurophysiological conditions. For this reason, it is difficult to find common traits that unanimously describe people with ASD.

It is well known that those with autism have a different perception of the world. They have a strong sensitivity to sensorial stimulus, such as light and sound, that is mild for most people. As these stimuli can be extremely disturbing for people with ASD, they may consequently avoid them with behaviors that appear incomprehensible from the outside. However, it is a natural reflex in all living beings to elude harmful stimuli, it is probably one of the adaptive behaviors that enabled us to survive on earth. How different would these behaviors appear if we were all aware of the reason behind them? Were that the case, we would probably support them instead of meeting them with a frightened expression. It is therefore crucial to generate awareness in society about the sensorial hypersensitivity of people with autism in order to integrate and accept them, instead of excluding them due to ignorance.

There are also notable differences in people with ASD in their ability to localize their attention on single tasks. While it is generally challenging to captivate their attention with things they don’t find interesting, once something has caught their attention they can spend long periods of time focusing on such activities. A great example of this is the number of outstanding artists and musicians with ASD. An open question for scientists and physicians is whether this ability to focus on one thing at a time is also related to their social withdrawal. Understanding the brain circuits required to localize attention as well as those required to establish social interactions and empathy with other people is certainly essential to developing therapies to integrate people with ASD into society. However, understanding and societal acceptance is also crucial to reduce their social withdrawal.

A rather worrisome subject concerns the general panic originated almost twenty years ago about a possible relation between autism and vaccines, in particular the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This controversy was originated by a biomedical research article that intended to show that this vaccine caused several behavioral and physiological disorders, including autism. However, strong irregularities during data collection and analysis were found in this work, and it had to be retracted by the authors after no other group could reproduce the results. Extensive research in the past fifteen years demonstrated that there is no evidence for a relationship between vaccines (including ingredients present in them) and autism. Unfortunately, the unfounded belief that vaccines can cause autism continued to grow and spread around the world causing a large number of parents to stop vaccinating their children. This leaves both children and adults vulnerable to severe complications including pneumonia, encephalitis, blindness, diarrhea, ear infections, paralysis, and death.

As vaccine-preventable diseases are nowadays rarely found in several countries, one may think that they have already been eradicated. However, the infectious agents that cause them are still present in some parts of the world and can easily spread and infect anyone who is not immunized. This has already lead to significant measles outbreaks in unvaccinated populations in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom as well as the United States. This could have easily been prevented by vaccination. We cannot go backwards in history and waste years of medical and scientific advances. The risk of not taking vaccines far surpasses that of taking them. It depends on us to make responsible and informed decisions about vaccination in order to protect ourselves as well as those around us.

Iamge Courtesy of Autism Society of America

An Italian Easter

La Colomba (the Dove) is the traditional Easter cake in Italy. iStock by GETTY IMAGES

Francesca Cavallo

Easter brings to mind egg hunts, chocolate, jelly beans, and the Easter bunny.

In Christianity, Easter is the holiest and oldest of all traditions, and it’s related to the even more ancient Jewish festival of Passover, which is described in the Old Testament. Both holidays are often celebrated at the same time of year, in the same week. Passover takes place over one week in remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. For Christians, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion.

Many things about Easter are neither Jewish nor Christian in origin. For example, the English name “Easter” and the German name “Ostern” are both derived from old Germanic roots. Also, the traditions of having an Easter eve bonfire or burning Easter wheels come from Germanic and Celtic heliolatry, or sun worship. Even the popular colorful Easter egg has its origins in another pagan belief: it was considered a symbol of fertility in Egypt.

Today, eggs are synonymous with Easter in many countries, including Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. At the end of Lent, hard-boiled eggs are colored, Easter trees or bouquets are decorated with little wooden figurines and hollowed-out painted eggs, and people buy or bake special sweet Easter breads, often bursting with raisins.

But how is Easter viewed and celebrated in Italy? There is an Italian proverb which says: ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you wish), which illustrates the fact that Pasqua (Easter) is considered a less intimate festival than Christmas. You probably won’t see the Easter bunny if you’re in Italy for Easter, but you will find some interesting Italian Easter celebrations. Like all holidays in Italy, Easter has its share of rituals and traditions. The Monday following Easter, la Pasquetta is also a public holiday throughout Italy. While the days before Easter in Italy include solemn processions and masses, Easter is a joyous celebration.

Easter mass is held in every church in Italy, and the biggest and most popular Mass is held by the Pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica. On Good Friday, the Pope celebrates the Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross in Rome near the Colosseum. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives a blessing. Solemn religious processions are held in many towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on Easter Sunday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin and Jesus that play a big part in the processions. The statues may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square. Parade participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes. Olive branches are often used instead of, or along with, palm fronds in the processions and to decorate churches.

Since Easter is the end of the Lenten season, food plays a big part in the celebrations. Normally we spend Domenica di Pasqua (Easter Sunday) with the family, engaged in the traditional act of stuffing ourselves with food, such as roasted lamb or kid, hard boiled eggs, which have been taken to church to be blessed at the end of the Mass, and of course chocolate eggs. The traditional Easter cake is la Colomba (the Dove), a cake similar in flavor and consistency to the Christmas cake Panettone, but baked in the form of a stylized dove.

It’s studded with candied orange peel, then topped with almonds and a sprinkling of sugar to form a crisp, nutty crust.

Numerous myths surround the Colomba cake. According to one particularly dramatic story, the city of Milan was defending itself against invaders on Easter in 1176. Just when the Milanese seemed destined to lose the battle, three doves flew over the city. Soon after, the battle shifted and the invaders were vanquished. Legend holds that after the victory, the Milanese celebrated by eating cakes shaped like their savior doves.

Although Italians do not decorate hard–boiled eggs nor have chocolate bunnies, nor pastel marshmallow chicks, the biggest Easter displays in bars, pastry shops, supermarkets, and especially at chocolatiers are brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua (chocolate Easter eggs) in sizes that range from 10 grams (1/3 ounce) to 8 kilos (nearly 18 pounds).

Most of them are made of milk chocolate in a mid-range, 10-ounce size by industrial chocolate makers.

All eggs contain a surprise. The very best eggs are handmade by artisans of chocolate, who offer the service of inserting a surprise supplied by the purchaser. Car keys, engagement rings, and watches are some of the high–end gifts that have been tucked into Italian chocolate eggs in Italy.

Another traditional Easter dessert that’s popular in Naples and southern Italy is pastiera, a ricotta and whole grain pie with a mouthwatering aroma so distinctive that any blindfolded Neapolitan could instantly identify it. Pastiera is considered by many to be one of Italy’s most important desserts. It is prepared in special pans, whose edges angle slightly outward. The pie is often given away as a gift and always in the pan it was baked in because of its fragile pastry. The pie needs to rest for two days for the flavors to meld, so it’s traditionally finished on Good Friday so that it will be ready for Easter. Pastiera has become so popular that it is now available year-round in Naples.

The day following Domenica di Pasqua is Lunedi’ di Pasqua (Easter Monday), better known as Pasquetta (Little Easter) or LunedidellAngelo (Monday of the Angel). The name Lunedi’ dellAngelo refers to the Gospel story in which the women who went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body the day after Easter were told by an angel that Jesus had been resurrected. This day is probably the most popular part of the festivities for Italians, and it’s traditional to celebrate Pasquetta with a “gita fuori porta“ (a trip outside the city gates), usually for a picnic with friends. One interpretation of this tradition comes, once again, from a Gospel story which recounts that on the day of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disciples who were travelling to Emmaus a few kilometers outside the city gates of Jerusalem. The gita fuori porta tradition could be seen as a kind of “re-enactment“ of this story, although like many traditions most people are not really aware of its origins. A way to spend the gita fuori porta is a visit to a small historical town. Many of these towns will hold an event, such as an antique market, and will be packed with tourists. Whatever is done for Pasquetta, the deciding factor is, of course, the weather: everybody always hopes for a beautiful sunny warm day.

I wish to everybody a peaceful and happy Easter. Buona Pasqua a tutti!

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

 

kid-image

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

steinman_postcard

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

vosshall

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