Tag Archives: MIT

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)” »

Why I Dropped Out of My Science Writing Grad Program

“Should I go to science journalism grad school?”

I’ve been asking myself that question since my junior year of undergrad, and I asked myself  every day I spent MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.

In fact, I’m still asking myself that question.

Hi. My name is Diana Crow, and I’m a science writing grad school dropout.  I have the option to re-apply to finish my degree in another year, and even though I really want to do that, I’m also don’t want to risk a repeat of what happened this fall, so yeah…MIT is great!

That’s what I’ve been telling people this month. It’s true, but it leaves a lot unsaid.

Deciding on whether to go to grad school– and if so, which grad school?– is hard. I think it’s doubly hard when you’re trying to decide whether to take on a program in a field where a master’s isn’t technically a job requirement.

So back in December, when I was still on the fence about dropping out, I started writing this blog post to (hopefully) help other people who are deciding where and whether to go to grad school.

(It’s gonna be a little bit long and disjointed, so feel free to skip over parts or read them out of order, if that suits you.)

So….should I have gone to science writing grad school?

Continue reading “Why I Dropped Out of My Science Writing Grad Program” »

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?” »

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” »

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” »

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” »

Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”

The Talk:

Killing a Midwest Generation

In Plain English:

How a Chicago non-profit from a low-income neighborhood got an asthma-inducing coal plant shut down

The Speaker:

Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

The Sponsor:

Fossil Free MIT

What it covered:

When Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) took the podium at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and Management, she didn’t fawn; she was direct: “We never stop our community members from asking questions during our presentations,” she said. “And this isn’t that different.”

Bold move from someone who was just introduced to an MIT audience as “a community college graduate” and “an example of how you don’t need a degree to make a difference.” Wasserman is a community organizer with LVEJO, a community-based organization out of Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Continue reading “Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”” »

BICEP2 & Gravitational Waves 101: Recap of Panel Discussion ft. Alan Guth, John Kovac, Scott Hughes, & Max Tegmark

The Talk:

The BICEP2 Results and What They Mean: The First Observation of Gravitational Waves from the Early Universe

In Plain English:

The guys who came up with gravitational wave theory explain the gravitational wave story that’s been blowing up everybody’s Facebook feed in terms undergrads can understand

The Speakers:

Alan Guth of MIT (the guy who came up with repulsive gravity theory), Scott Hughes of MIT, Max Tegmark of MIT, and John Kovac of Harvard (the Primary Investigator on the telescope in question)

The Sponsor:

MIT Physics Department

What it covered:

When the BICEP2 team announced that they had found b-mode-style (aka “swirly pattern”) gravitational waves that confirmed inflation model of universe-formation, the internet exploded. The video feed for the press conference crashed. When the team posted their paper on arXiv, the it got 3.5 million hits in the first 11 hours.

That’s for the formal academic research write-up (and the average academic research write-up is lucky if 35 people read it all the way through). In the first 11 hours. Continue reading “BICEP2 & Gravitational Waves 101: Recap of Panel Discussion ft. Alan Guth, John Kovac, Scott Hughes, & Max Tegmark” »

Stem Cell Science Double Feature: Reprogramming Cardiac Fibroblasts – Recap of talk by Dr. Deepak Srivastava

The Talk:

Cardiac Reprogramming: From Developmental Biology to Regeneration

In Plain English:

How to turn the heart-dwelling cells that build connective tissues into replacements for damaged heart muscle cells

The Speaker:

Dr. Deepak Srivastava, MD of UC-SF‘s Gladstone Institutes

The Sponsor:

MIT Biology Colloquium

What it covered:

Dr. Deepak Srivastava is a cardiologist who experiments with using stem cells to create replacement cells for damaged heart muscle tissue. However, while most labs try to grow replacements in petri dishes, Dr. Srivastava’s lab is working on finding a way to transform the cells that build scar tissue in the heart (the cardiac fibroblasts) into fully functional heart muscle cells.

A typical fibroblast’s job is to secrete collagen and other chemicals that help the cells in muscle and skeletal tissues stick together. If they weren’t there, your muscle cells might slide around or come apart whenever you moved. Luckily, muscle cells like to form stringy structures called sarcomeres that can contract and release. When you’re flexing your muscles, you’re actually contracting the sarcomeres and that contractile force is what causes your arm to tense up. Without the fibroblasts, the muscle cells would have a hard time aligning themselves correctly (and if one cell is even slightly out of line with its neighbor cells, the rogue cell can throw everything off), so they’re a pretty important cell group. Continue reading “Stem Cell Science Double Feature: Reprogramming Cardiac Fibroblasts – Recap of talk by Dr. Deepak Srivastava” »