Category Archives: Brown Bag Lunch Recaps

Mind the (Canopy) Gap: Recap of a Talk by Dr. Julia Burton

[Photo by Aaron Carlson via CC 2.0] 

The Talk:

Can silvicultural practices be leveraged to maintain diversity in understory plant communities?

In Plain English:

How does cutting down trees affect plant life on the ground?

The Speaker:

Julia Burton of Utah State University

The Sponsor:

USU College of Natural Resources

What It Covered:

Julia Burton studies one of the more neglected niches in forest ecology–the understory. Many conservation researchers and most media reports focus on the “charismatic megafauna”–trees and large mammals, but vines, shrubs, and other plants that live at ankle-level make up a large share of biomass and biodiversity.

North American forest understory plants are often dismissed as weeds or kinda boring plants, but they could play a key role in achieving the goals of silviculture, or forestry.  Burton pointed out that people in forest management are asked to achieve a lot more goals than their counterparts in the past. Not only are forest managers asked to maintain biodiversity, growth, biomass, but they’re also expected to sustain timber production, water resources, ecosystem health, and carbon sequestration ability. 

To do that, we need to understand our forests’ dynamics really well, Burton argued. Her work has focused on the upper MidWest and Northwest, the North American forest with the largest potential for storing carbon against climate change.

Continue reading “Mind the (Canopy) Gap: Recap of a Talk by Dr. Julia Burton” »

Why DNA is like a phone cable (Recap of a Talk by Prof. Jacqueline Barton)

[Computer rendering of DNA. Via Caroline Davis2010 on Flickr & CC 2.0] 

The Talk:

“DNA-mediated Signaling with Metalloproteins”

In Plain English:

DNA can conduct electricity–like metal wire–and that helps the cell life

The Speaker:

Jacqueline Barton of Caltech

The Sponsor:

MIT Inorganic Chemistry (invited by the grad students)

What It Covered:

When Jacqueline Barton’s lab began publishing papers claiming that DNA can conduct electricity, many of her colleagues didn’t believe them. But in experiment after experiment, they kept finding that they could send small amounts of electricity–much lower than the amount that flows through your charger cord–from an electrode on one end of a DNA strand through to the other.

The exceptions were stretches of DNA with “missense mutations“, hiccups in the genetic code that violated the rule of “G” aligns with “C” and “A” aligns with “T”.

A,T, G, and C are biologists’ shorthand for four small molecular structures– adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine– that repeat over and over again along DNA’s backbone. It just so happens that a G-C pair takes up exactly the same amount of space and adds exactly the same amount of twist as an A-T pair.  Anything else–a misplaced guanine, a broken cytosine, or a chemical tag on thymine– throws the DNA’s twist out of whack. And apparently,  the missense mutations also blocked electrical currents’ flow through a tiny gap in the center of the DNA.  Mismatched base pairs or base pairs that were even slightly damaged blocked the electrons’ path. Continue reading “Why DNA is like a phone cable (Recap of a Talk by Prof. Jacqueline Barton)” »

Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity

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[Above: Rendering of DNA–aka “what most people think about when they hear ‘molecular identity'”–via ynse on Flickr & Creative Commons. 

Below: What scientists actually look at when they’re trying to sort out molecular identities. By Micah Baldwin via Flickr & Creative Commons]

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Two posts and two weeks later, I’ve only covered a fraction of the ideas presented at “The Molecularization of Identity” conference. Molecular identities factor into so many aspects of our lives that disentangling and summarizing them is pratically impossible. 

But maybe summary shouldn’t be the goal. 

After all, succinct summaries tend to create expectations--either for futures that promise to cure all our ills and end all suffering or for apocalyptic technology that robs us of our humanity.  However, reality is always a mixed bag. Science isn’t separate from the rest of society, and most corners of society have already been shaped by science. 

Maybe we’d be better off if we admitted that the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and cultural worlds are all entangled. 

The Blurred Boundaries of Bhopal

Three decades have passed since a pesticide-manufacturing Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaked 30 tons of a deadly gas called methyl isocyanate into the surrounding countryside. Over two thousand people died immediately, but the effects of the pesticide lingered and continued to kill.  Several thousands more died in the first two weeks after the leak, and many more were left disabled.

Continue reading “Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity” »

Hybrid Problems: Chimerism, Synthetic Life, and Mixed Heritage

[A hybrid orchid. Photo by Mark Freeth.] 

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 2]

Genomes of indigenous people, which often include genes found nowhere else in the world, can be powerful symbols for nations that want to showcase their uniqueness. 

But when the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica  (INMEGEN)  set out to find examples of Mexico’s indigenous genome, they ran into problems. Namely, that pretty much every population in Mexico, no matter how remote, includes people of mixed ethnic ancestry.

INMEGEN’s attempts to reconstruct an indigenous identity were the focus of not one, but two talks at Harvard STS’s “Molecularization of Identity Conference“, one by Vivette García Deister–who teaches in the Science & Technology Studies department at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México– and one by Ernesto Schwartz Marin of Durham University.  Since that conference was chock-full of important studies on the social dynamics around science, I’m writing a 3-part recap, of which this post is part 2. (See Part 1 here).

García Deister began her presentation by introducing the concept of Mestizaje, a blend of Native American, Spanish/European, and African heritage that characterizes Latin American countries. The majority of Mexicans are of Mestizo–or “mixed” descent–so naturally, the Mexican government wanted to know the ratios of  “Amerindian”, “European”, and “African” genes in their country’s population.

To do that, they had to try to establish a baseline “Indigenous” genome to compare to their representative “Mestizo” genome. García Deister calls these hypothetical representative genomes “Genetic Avatars”. 

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[Interestingly, the “avatars” in the uber-successful movie Avatar are literally synthetic genetic hybrids, with human DNA spliced into Na’vi genome. Image by Michael Kordahl.]

Colonist outsiders love to look for “Genetic Avatars” because it gives them a way to quantify and tell stories about Latin American hybridity, or MestizajeGarcía Deister argued.  Scientists and policy makers  justify it by arguing that it’s important to know their country’s history and vital to look for genetic clues to various diseases.

But does any of that make the Mexican Genome Project any less of a colonial enterprise? Not really…

Continue reading “Hybrid Problems: Chimerism, Synthetic Life, and Mixed Heritage” »

“Perceive. Identify. Regulate.” How to be Racist with 21st Century Science

[Image via Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary & Creative Commons]

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 1]

The diagram of racism was shockingly simple: four highlighted brain regions with black arrows between them, forming an almost-isosceles triangle.

racism_brain_diagram

[Diagram by Elizabeth Phelps’ group at NYU via The Brain Bank blog]

Perception. Identification. Regulation. 

Those are the three steps in the cognition of racism, according to a handful of neuroscientists.

The diagram’s presenters weren’t the neuroscientists themselves, but a pair of sociologists who study neuroscientistsOliver Rollins of Penn and Torsten Heinemann of University of Hamburg.  The neuroscientists who try to spot neural patterns of racism in fMRI argue that  before a racist action occurs, several things happen in a person’s brain: First, they have to see or hear the other person, which triggers a response in the amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to people becoming jumpy and/or aggressive. Next, the signal moves to the anterior cingulate cortex, which identifies the other person as a threat or a non-threat. Finally, the signal moves to the prefrontal cortex, which makes a conscious decision: “Do I hurt or try to escape from this person?” 

The neuroscientists who study racism tend to be optimistic about the possibility of changing racist individuals’ cognition patterns via social interaction or even through medication, Rollins and Heinemann explained. However,  though the neuroscientists’ approach is commendable, it doesn’t address systemic racism. 

“If there’s a racist ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘ policy in place that allows you to stop any black men, it may not matter whether the individual cop has a racial bias,” Rollins said.

Continue reading ““Perceive. Identify. Regulate.” How to be Racist with 21st Century Science” »

Oceans in the Anthropocene: Forever changed but still awesome [Recap of talk ft. Jeremy Jackson]

The Talk:

Uncharted Waters: Novel Ecosystems in the Marine Environment (part of the Ecological Systems in the Anthropocene series)

In Plain English:
Humans have messed up the ocean, so Harvard asks marine biologists, “What are you excited about?!”

The Speaker(s):
Mary O’Connor of University of British Columbia, Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute for Oceanography, Trevor Branch of University of Washington. & John Pandolfi of the University of Queensland Australia

The Sponsor:

Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE)

What it covered:

“Biologist work on systems dominated by the footprint of man,” Elizabeth Wolkovich, Harvard biology prof and the series organizer, declared in her opening remarks. Most biologists (and a fair number of geologists) will tell you that we are living in a new epoch, a period of time where the Earth’s biogeochemistry becomes so different from the last few million years that geologists have to declare it its own thing.

This particular new epoch is an outlier, because we started it. It’s called the Anthropocene. Wolkovich pointed out that if you look back at Victorian-era papers and essays on natural history (because obviously you’re Stephen J. Gould), you’ll see scientists talking about Nature, with a capital “N”, pristine and untouched by human boot-clomping.

Scientists don’t do that anymore.

Continue reading “Oceans in the Anthropocene: Forever changed but still awesome [Recap of talk ft. Jeremy Jackson]” »

The Unfinished Recap: Why I Didn’t Post About Jason Lieb’s Science

A year and a half ago, during the height of my brown-bag lunch crashing & recapping phase, I caught a talk by a young, charismatic Princeton researcher named Jason Lieb.

His talk was awesome. He made gene regulation, a topic that very few people can discuss for an hour without lapsing into what sounds like a bastardized dialect of a long extinct language, sound like a thrilling new spectator sport.

I was thrilled. So many bits and pieces that I had picked up over the course of sitting in on genetics lectures had suddenly fallen into context when I heard his talk. I knew right away that I wanted to recap his talk for the blog. I was busy that month, so I ended up writing my draft of the recap in bits and pieces over the course of a couple of weeks.

Then I finally got to the point where I was ready to add links.

I googled Jason Lieb.

Google’s auto-fill turned up the usual terms you’d expect: “Jason Lieb Princeton”, “Jason Lieb Molecular Biology”, and then…

“Jason Lieb resignation”

“Jason Lieb sexual harrassment”

Umm….what?
I didn’t have any trouble believing that a young, kinda bro-y, Ivy League primary investigator would be capable of sexual harassment, but Lieb was one of the best molecular biology speakers I had ever seen. (And that remains true today).

Why him? Why couldn’t it be someone whose ideas were boring? Someone whose delivery was stilted? Someone who struggled to articulate biology concepts clearly?

Why did someone with so much potential to be an excellent molecular biologist and biology teacher have to be a sexual harasser?   Continue reading “The Unfinished Recap: Why I Didn’t Post About Jason Lieb’s Science” »

Gaia Theory, “Irresponsible Heroes”, & Why We’re Like Cyanobacteria- Recap of talk by Dr. Andrew Knoll & Dr. David Grinspoon

The Talk:

“Planetary Changes from Deep Time to the 4th Kind”

In Plain English:

Life doesn’t just adapt to geochemical features; it transforms them simply by…living.

The Speaker:

Andrew Knoll of Harvard and David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute

The Sponsor:

Planet and Life Series, sponsored by MIT Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences dept. (EAPS)

What it covered:

Climate shapes life. This is a fact. But when you get right down to it, life is not a fragile, softly-treading phenomenon; every living cell is an interlocking network of chemical reactions. Nutrients and resources are taken in; other chemicals get spewed out.

It would be rather amazing if all those living organisms didn’t have some effect on the non-living environment. But what kinds of impacts? And how can we, as humans with advanced technology, understand and predict the effects our actions will have on the environment?

These are the questions being addressed by The Planets and Life Series at MIT, and the kick-off event, held back in September (unfortunately, I do not get paid to write this blog) was a doozy. Continue reading “Gaia Theory, “Irresponsible Heroes”, & Why We’re Like Cyanobacteria- Recap of talk by Dr. Andrew Knoll & Dr. David Grinspoon” »

How do you translate neuroscience into education?

The Talk:

Storming the Ivory Tower: Why autism interventions don’t work as they should in the community and what to do about it

In Plain English:

Autism treatments & management techniques that succeed in neuroscience labs often fail in public schools. (And we really, really need to figure out why…)

The Speaker:

David Mandell of University of Pennsylvania

The Sponsor:

Simons Center for the Social Brain Colloquium

What it covered:

Even though there are thousands of neuroscientists working on developing management and treatment options for autism, very few of those techniques make it into real-world homes and classrooms. Despite the growing public concern about autism, there aren’t very many people focusing on translating data into things teachers can do to help their autistic students learn.

(The issue here is that the type of training you need to be able to interpret an fMRI and the type of training you need to be able to understand the social dynamics in how public school teachers interact with their students are two very, very different types of training. And since most graduate programs assume that you’re going to be spending 60-80 hours per week working on stuff related to your degree, hardly anyone has time to pursue graduate level work in both of those areas, much less decipher the intersections and implications of the two….But that makes the handful of people who do work on translating neuroscience into implementable best practices all the more valuable.)

David Mandell is one of those people. His background is in public health, so his research focuses more on the social and infrastructural issues around autistic people’s education and treatment than what’s going on in their brains. He covered a huge amount of ground in a relatively short talk, but the takehome message was the point he led with: Translational research, or research that focuses on how to implement lab scientists’ ideas in real-world clinical settings,  is “the biggest gap in the autism research portfolio” and that we need to do better.

Hospitalization, special ed, and behavioral interventions are all expensive. And the costs don’t disappear once the autistic kids become adults. “We think about autism as a childhood disorder, but the life expectancy for folks with autism is not that different than the general population,” Mandell pointed out. “They spend most of their lives as adults.”

Continue reading “How do you translate neuroscience into education?” »

Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea

This past Saturday, I got to listen in on an all-star panel sponsored by the Future of Life Institute on the potential risks and benefits of technologies like artificial intelligence, personal genetics, and automated factories.

We heard from George Church, one of the world’s best-known synthetic biologists, on the future of bioengineering; Ting Wu, director of the Personal Genetics Education Project, on how to convince laypeople to learn about genetics; Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business on how automated factories will impact developing countries’ economies; Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek on the difficulties we’ll face ensuring that robots won’t decide to harm us; and Jaan Tallinn of Skype on the ethics of creating sentient AIs. Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H* and The Flame Challenge was the moderator.

The conclusion: There are definitely both benefits and risks to all of these technologies, and people need to continue discussing these issues because they cannot be resolved in a single two-hour panel discussion. Not even an MIT panel discussion. Continue reading “Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea” »