Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Page 2 of 6

Genetic engineering made easier

Programing languages venture far away from the digital and find a new home in bacteria design.  MIT biological engineers developed Cello, a programming language capable of creating new functions to E. coli. Unlike other languages such as python or java, when this text-based language is compiled, instead of executing a command the program turns into a DNA sequence that can be inserted into cells.

Of the 60 designs made by Christopher Voigt and his team, 45 of them worked correctly the first time they were run. Compared to the years it would normally take to design, test and build one successful circuit, Voigt estimates that it would only take around one week to design 60 of them using Cello. Voigt’s team plans to expand the language to include other strains of bacteria thus allowing users to write one program that can be compiled for different organisms. 

This new language would bring in a new age of genetic engineering. A web-based interface requiring no extensive knowledge of genetics, Cello could allow a high school student to manufacture their own design for a science fair. 



Reflections from working in a fly lab

Model organisms are crucial for the progress of scientific research- whether it’s basic science or translational biomedical research.  I entered graduate school convinced that if I couldn’t study humans, then I’ll do mammalian research (i.e., rats or mice) because they are “more important” and potentially more informative than invertebrates like the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.  Because of this, I centered three of my four first-year lab rotations solely on their mammalian organisms, and then considered if the research topics were of interest.  I reasoned that if I wanted to study neuroscience, then how informative and translational can a fly brain be?  From my introductory to biology courses, it was clear why “lower” organisms (e.g., the fly or even nematode) were incredibly useful for gene expression and regulation, but that was it… right?  The neuron types and circuit are not paralleled; so again, what could possibly be interesting to a budding neuroscientist in fly labs? It wasn’t until that fourth lab rotation (which turned out to be my eventual thesis lab) that I realized how wrong I was. Yes, the specific neuron types and their respective connections are different, but that they are more similar than distinct.  I hadn’t realized that less complex systems are also awesome in addressing larger concepts like the balance of excitation and inhibition, as well as microscopic details like the specific mechanism of neural transmission.  Thus, prioritize your research interests first, then address how that’ll be accomplished with your organism as a mere tool.

Are bacteria the new heroes?

Bacteria have recently wiggled their way into health and nutrition. Normally perceived as hallmarks of illness, people have started to look for ways to introduce them into the human body through everyday products such as yogurt. Researchers from University College Cork followed 22 men for 4 weeks looking at the effects of a pill packed with bacteria that was ingested daily. When interviewed, these men reported that their stress levels decreased and that they had improved memory.

Bacteria may do more than just synthesize needed nutrients; they may also impact our minds. In a different study conducted by researchers from the University of Missouri, mice were treated with microbes from people with a history of depression; these mice eventually developed symptoms of the illness. Although this research is preliminary, these results suggest that the right microbes when consumed can help produce chemicals responsible for happiness.

The drawback of both of these studies is the lack of a control. Even though gut microbiome research seems promising, if there is no normalization factor, then the results of the study can only be taken with a grain of salt.


A Video Game Serving As A Digital Lab

Typically running an experiment with 216 variables is ridiculous, but not when you’re a scientist with 67 million subjects and 27 million more every day. League of Legends, an online video game super giant, is notorious for its toxic environment. The game’s company, Riot has been very transparent with their research and even assist other researchers by offering their large fan base as subjects for other tests such as teamwork. A sample size of the million’s magnitude would normally be impossible for a scientist to obtain, but with Riot’s assistance a new avenue for widespread science to be performed as opened. Neuroscience PhD graduate and gamer Jeffrey Lin was hired by Riot, to find how to curb the foul mouthing and anger.

A large scale scan of chat logs from games found that 1% of players were consistently toxic, but the other 99% were simply frustrated people who were lashing out.
So the team tried to prevent the toxicity before it happened through priming, presenting images or texts to influence behavior toward a desired outcome. This is where the 216 variables come in: 24 in-game tips presented in three colors at different points in the game.

From Nature “Can a video game company tame toxic behaviour?”

They found negative messages warning “Teammates perform worse if you harass them after a mistake” when posted before a match in red reduced offensive language by 11%, but the same message in white text was only made a 1.3% decrease. Positive reinforcement shown before a match such as “Players who cooperate with their teammates win 31% more games” showed a less significant change with blue text decreasing offensive language by 6.2%.

After sifting through the 216 different combinations, Lin found that a cautionary tip combined with the color red that people often associate with warnings and a positive tip colored blue, a whimsical and creative color, shown before a match effectively deter negative behavior.

Despite the priming, a toxic environment persists in League of Legends. The problem may stem from the internet’s anonymous, non-consequential culture, or even the game’s inherent sexist character portrayal.

Nevertheless, Lin’s efforts are the first steps to mass refining a community and with such a large sample size, he’ll likely find out how faster than any psychologist or scientist could.



5 facts I learned about bananas today:

  1. It is the most widely consumed fruit in America, taking the reign away from apples decades ago.
  2. You can buy them for 79 cents per lb or less. When compared to the price decades ago, even with inflation, the price of bananas is much cheaper now than it used to be.
  3. Supermarkets wont raise the price of bananas even if they lose profit off the fruit. The price of bananas is a major draw for consumers when choosing which supermarket to shop in. If prices of bananas are raised, then they may lose business.
  4. The type of banana consumed today is called the Cavendish banana. In the 1880s and 90s when the fruit was first imported, it was the Gros Michel banana that was grown. The Panama disease, a parasitic fungus, wiped out this species back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Bananas were also the first fruit to be shipped over the ocean.
  5. The reason why every single banana looks and tastes almost identical – banana plants reproduce asexually. In order to plant a new banana plant, a farmer removes part of the existing plant, called a ‘sucker’, and plants it in the ground. It grows into a genetically identical plant so every banana plant acts in the same predictable manner – same rate, same abundance, and same ripening time.


The Water Crisis: Beyond Flint

As the panic of the Flint water crisis within the media subsides, other communities are starting to come forward to expose their own water crises. As a country, we are starting to understand that this was not an isolated incident. The products and chemicals that we wash down our drains don’t just disappear, and their accumulation is starting to catch up with us.


According to NPR reporter Hansi Lo Wang, communities in the Northeast are experiencing elevated levels of a suspected carcinogen, perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used to make Teflon pans, in their tap water. The problem with water contamination is that it impacts every aspect of life. If the water is unsafe, then so is the soil, and people can’t grow food, and the impact just expands and expands. The Pentagon is currently testing the water at 664 military sites that they believe could be contaminated with other harsh chemicals. This is an issue that impacts most communities, whether we know it at the moment or not.


On the bright side, nature has a solution. According to the Ecological Society of America, wetlands can remove 20 to 60% of metals in contaminated water. Riparian zones, or the forest growth at the edges of rivers can absorb excess nutrients and pollutants. Microorganisms can be used to break down metals or harmful chemical contaminants in water. According to NPR reporter Scott Simon, even cacti have the natural ability to filter water.



The War on Drugs in Sports Continues

On March 21, 2016 yet another professional athlete was caught using drugs. Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova was suspended for usage of the banned drug meldonium, or called mildronate. This drug is not approved by the FDA but is used for heart tissue protection and regulates one’s metabolism. This drug is normally used by the elderly and prescribed for  no more then a couple weeks at a time. Meldonium gives athletes an advantage because it endurances performance by improving rehabilitation after exercise and can protect against stress. This allows athletes to not struggle as greatly after an injury or a match. Sharapova started taking this drug in 2006 due to her “immune deficiency, abnormal EKG results, diabetes indicators, low magnesium and asthenia.” She claims to get the flu very frequently and meldonium was the only way to continue her career. Ivar Kalvins, the inventor of the drug, states, “most athletes should be on this drug…it protects the heart.” Before the drug was banned, in The European Games 66 out of 762 athletes used this drug. Sharapova failed a drug test in January and hid the results until March when the truth came out.



Five Years After the Accident: Fukushima’s Reality Today

On March 11, 2011, a terrible tsunami destroyed the Fukushima power plant in Japan, causing radiation spewed in large dimensions. Although the Japanese government immediately decided to shut down all the reactors and started preventing future environmental damage and investigated into the exposure, according to the article by Madhusree Mukerjee, which is published on Scientific American website  on March 8, 2016, “major questions still loom today” and “the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), is reluctant to share information.”

Despite the efforts that the government and other related organizations have put into the series of problems, they certainly did not do a great job of protecting the citizens and environment, more importantly, the authorities are not open for detailed information at all. After five years, they tried to persuade people to believe that everything has passed already.

According to Mukerjee, this February Tepco finally admitted that “it had waited for two months after the accident before announcing the meltdowns—which possibly delayed evacuations and endangered lives” due to the widespread suspicions and public pressure. Though Tepco has put great efforts into cleaning up, it still has “‘no idea where and how much fuel debris is in the reactor now,’ says nuclear engineer Tadahiro Katsuta of Meiji University.”

Meanwhile, the collected contaminated water also brings a huge problem: how to isolate all the radioactive substances from it? While most of the substances have been removed after “painstakingly cleaning”, tritium concentration remains at high level as it is extremely hard to separate.

Since the accident, many Japanese citizens have gathered to protest against the further use of nuclear power. However both the Japanese government and Tepco did not react to the protests well as they restart several reactors again and keep trying to hind information from the general public. For people who has lived in the evacuated area around Fukushima power plant, the lack of responses is absolutely a much greater pain. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2015, 3200 deaths have resulted from the accidents, ailments and trauma due to the evacuation. In the mean time, “Exile may be permanent, however, for tens of thousands of people from the most contaminated areas.” Conversely, radiation epidemiologist Yoshisada Shibata of Nagasaki University opposed the statistical result above and “dismisses as ‘nonsense’ the claim that the disaster is responsible for those cases” as he thinks that it is too fast since the cancers could not grow to such large size just after the exposure. Also, as another piece of evidence to reject the claim, Shibata compares the situation with that in Chernobyl and points out that “no Fukushima children who were infants at the time of the disaster have tumors.”

On the other hand, the water body and marine ecosystem are facing huge contamination problems caused by the leak. Although the clean-up works have showed their positive effects, the radioactive contamination is going to “stay put near Japan,” according to marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

To view the results (problems) of Fukushima accidents from a brand new angle, the future of scientific research comes into play. An article published online in Nature on March 2, 2016 provides a valuable insights into the problem. As a well-known resource-poor country, Japan absolutely needs nuclear power’s support in order to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Since the accident in 2011, the article points put many of those decisions  on evacuation, clean-up and so on were made at “the science–policy interface.” and “scientists, especially those involved in giving policy advice, lost credibility and the trust of the public” due to all the concealment described in previous paragraphs and continuous arguments raised by people with opposite interests. The article states that the tragedy happened in 2011 has revealed a “fundamental problem” presents in Japanese scientific research field that the connections ” between disciplines and between Japan’s scholars and those working in other countries” are weak.

The article introduces two possible solutions to improve the interdisciplinary research in Japan after briefly describing two case studies: either “globalize the review process” or “globalize research.”

Overall, although two articles have taken completely different aspects of the Fukushima power plant, both admitted near the end of its work that problems “abound” even after five years of the disasters.


How to Engage the Disengaged Pt. 1

In general, people appreciate science, but they’re mostly attracted to the glossy and shiny parts of science. Take this Cyanide and Happiness comic for example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 2.08.14 PM

That isn’t to say that these little grey shirted dudes across the world are at fault or to be judged (we all are little grey shirted dudes ourselves at some point), but it is something to think about how the scope of “science” is  understood and perceived differently within the general public.

In many instances, science intimidates people. There is a fear, a distance, and an uncertainty about it.  After all, most adults never have another incentive to study or understand science  after high school, and many people write themselves off as not fit to learn or even take an interest in science based off of bad early experiences.  However, with a better cultural understanding of what science is and how it works works, people stand better chances of being able to accurately interpret and approach the information that gets thrown at them on a daily basis.

It’s an issue that scientists and educators are actively trying to tackle, and of course, a primary ambition of science journalism. Only recently have I realized that there is a vibrant community dedicated to initiating and understanding this sort of communication. Actually, “Science Public Engagement” is a HUGE thing. There exist professional agencies that function purely to aid scientists in communication, radio shows (a local Boston one) that intertwine science and comedy, and citizen science projects with an initiative to get regular people involved as contributors to real science research. There was even a national conference last month dedicated to the theme of  Global Science Engagement and science policy (which by the way is coming to Boston next year). A ton of scientists, journalists, and educators are out there collaborating on innovative ways in which non professional citizens can engage into a deeper understanding of science.

Here I summarize some key points from Martin Storksdieck, the Director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University. He spoke briefly during a symposium at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February:

“Science can actually turn people off,” says Martin. The school system is an individual’s first exposure to science, but what ends up happening there are educators simply “throwing out information and hoping that it sticks.”  Instead, we need to take people into an experience. “Combine elements built on what best engage people,” says Martin, “combine your agenda with their agenda.” People become disengaged because no personal meaning is established in their science learning or there is no fear present to drive them. Because of that poor foundation, we need people, from young students to adults to “re-self select themselves into science” and we need to let them rediscover a chance to “own what they learn.”

So we need to think, as scientists and educators, how do we make science not threating, accessible, and meaningful? To get people involved in science, we need to give them the experience of being a part of the science themselves and to show them that it is an important part of their lives.

Is Alcohol Really That Bad?

Alcohol has helped to shape American culture and will continue to do so. Often in America, people use alcohol as a social lubricant or a way to wind down at the end of the day. Many studies have found that moderate drinking can offer substantial health benefits across all ages. The American Heart Association published a study called “Wine and Your Heart” showing an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attacks, ischemic stroke, and death all from cardiovascular causes. However, the key word is moderate!

Recently, there has been a considerab­le increase in binge drinking, with as many as 32% of Americans reporting occasional bingeing. Binge drinking is defined as episodic excessive drinking. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks, or when women consume four or more drinks in about two hours. Binge drinking has been related to serious pathological effects in different organ systems. In the cardiovascular system, binge drinking has been linked to higher levels of cerebral bleeds, death from coronary artery disease, and strokes. In the gastrointestinal system, pancreatic cancer was found to be more common in binger drinkers than compared to nondrinkers. Furthermore, binge drinking goes beyond organ damage. Binge drinking is correlated most highly with violent injuries. Suicide rates among binge drinkers is six times that of moderate alcohol consumers.

Binge drinking has been shown to have serious effects on the human body. Although alcohol has certain benefits to health when people drink and meet the definition of moderate, there are still no public health guidelines that encourage people to start drinking.

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