Tag Archives: Harvard

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.

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[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” »

5 Amazing Feats Performed by “Meta-Genes”

[Image via the NIH Image Gallery. Photo by Alex Ritter, Jennifer Lippincott Schwartz, and Gillian Griffiths. Full video, complete with narration here.] 

Under the Radar: A series of listicles about biology concepts you definitely won’t find in newspaper headlines.

#1: Be a Navigation App for Immune Cells

Natural killer cells, or “NK cells” are the human body’s best defense against cancer.  While other types of immune cells often ignore tumor cells, natural killer cells specialize in finding and destroying human cells that look either infected or like cancer mutants. In leukemia patients,  a higher number of active natural killer cells ups the patient’s chances for survival, so much so that  researchers are experimenting with transfusing NK cells into patients.

Just one problem there: Active natural killer cells die without a strong support network.

Dormant NK cells can survive in the bloodstream for a long time, but once activated, natural killers have to make a b-line for cells carrying a marker called IL-15 or die,  but until a study in Monday’s edtion of PNAS , no one knew how natural killers knew to look for IL-15. The study, led by Vanderbilt immunologist Eric Sebzda and grad student Whitney Rabacal, traced NK cells’ IL-15 homing ability back to a biochemical with the horrendous name “Kruppel-like Factor 2” (KLF2).

KLF2, oddly enough, also exerts a strong navigational influence on the immune system’s T-cells and B-cells.  Even though all three types of cells fall under the “white blood cell” umbrella, the notion that one protein could control navigation in all three is pretty weird.  Crawling and navigating are complex tasks, requiring coordination between dozens of genes. “[NK cell migration] is totally different from how t-cells and b-cells circulate,” Sebzda said.

Additionally, taking away KLF2 has distinctive effects on each type of cell: KLF2-less t-cells vacate the central body and crawl out to lab mice’s fingers and toes, KLF2-less b-cells all congregate at the spleen (which creates some serious problems for those lab mice), and KLF2-less natural killers end up dying alone.

So KLF2 could be super-useful for improving cancer immunotherapy. But why is KLF2 so versatile in the first place?

The answer lies in KLF2’s ability to bind to a certain recurring DNA base pair sequence, one that presumably earmarks the genes needed in each immune system navigation system, and it’s far from the only protein with such abilities…

Continue reading “5 Amazing Feats Performed by “Meta-Genes”” »

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” »

Boston & Cambridge Biology Talks: June 2nd through June 8th

Every week, I compile a list of biology-related talks at the universities and museums around the Boston Metro Area.

A pdf of this week’s complete list can be found here. (PDF includes links to event details.)

This week I added a new section called “Out of Town But Intriguing” that includes talks at colleges outside of the immediate Boston Metro area like Brown, Brandeis, and Woods Hole.  The scope of that section is going to be limited to places that are either closely affiliated with the Boston universities and/or easily accessible via commuter rail, but not ALL of the science happens in Boston/Cambridge.

Anyway, here are some of this week’s highlights:

Most Intriguing Dissertation Defense Title: “Judging a Planet By Its Cover: Insights into the Lunar Crustal  Structure and Martian Climate History from Surface Features” @MIT on Tuesday, 2:00 pm

Best Pop Culture Pun: “Breaking Bad: How Aneuploidy Drives Cancer” @Harvard Medical on Thursday, 4:00 pm

Highest Buzzword Density in a Talk Title: “A Probiotic Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders?” @MIT on Wednesday, 6:00 pm

Mini-Conference  I’m Most Psyched for: 2014 Boston University Bioinformatics Student-Organized Symposium @BU Main Campus on Wednesday, 9:30 am – 5:45 pm Continue reading “Boston & Cambridge Biology Talks: June 2nd through June 8th” »

Boston & Cambridge Biology Talks: May 26th through June 1st

Every week, I compile a list of biology-related talks at the universities and museums around the Boston Metro Area.

A pdf of this week’s complete list can be found here. (PDF includes links to event details.)

There aren’t very many talks this week, because almost everybody is busy graduating and/or being on summer break, but this week’s highlights include:

Strangest Memorial Day Activity: Watching MIT students’ tiny robots compete at robot “sumo wrestling” @MIT Museum on Monday, 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Science Talk I’m Most Curious About:Cell Adhesion Molecules at the Synapse: Linking Synaptic Function and Diversity to Neuropsychiatric Disease” @BU Medical on Wednesday, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm

Non-Science Talk I’m Most Curious About:Post Arab Revolutions: What Social Media is Telling Us” @Harvard on Tuesday, 12:30 pm

New Favorite Science Phrase: “Seismic Interferometry” as in “Using Relative Traveltimes: SVD-enhanced seismic interferometry and microseismic location uncertainty” @MIT on Friday, 10:00 am

Continue reading “Boston & Cambridge Biology Talks: May 26th through June 1st” »