Tag Archives: science & politics

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

1531699476_5a78d789e8_o

[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]

3080247531_561d88e2e7_o

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”. 

4369655755_bd7596d9a7_o

[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” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about why many pieces about the need for investigative science journalism don’t acknowledge the factors behind its scarcity.  Conversations about investigations in science journalism often seem to assume that reporters don’t see critiquing science as important, but journalists’ individual interests don’t set the tone for journalistic coverage  all by themselves. In journalism, economics and politics shape our work. It’s basically impossible to disentangle why an article was written the way it was from simply reading the article.

Discussing the economics and politics that shape editorial decisions is a crucial part of addressing the relative absence of investigative science journalism, because for many reporters, quick hits– daily news stories, magazine blurbs, and blog posts– are our bread-and-butter (…when we get any bread at all…). Most casual readers encounter science via casual quick takes more often than they encounter it through investigative and/or longform articles.

There are definitely books and workshops out there to teach journalists how to chase down leads and verify what sources say, but at the end of the day, every investigative reporter I’ve met says that a lot of investigation is just spending a lot of time going through interviews and documents, looking for patterns. It’s very, very hard to justify putting in Spotlight-esque hours without a steady salary.

Unfortunately, the economic realities do not prevent verification issues from rearing their heads in short news stories…

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1

[^^”How do you know?”: The question that science journalists must not forget to ask.]

One night about a month ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party, knocking back tequila and rum with assorted MIT-affiliated twentysomethings. Somehow I ended up talking about tardigrades with a post-doc from an  uber-spiffy genetics institute.

15994168283_0b887a34c3_o

[This is what a tardigrade looks like. Photo via Peter Von Bagh]

Tardigrades are a clan of microscopic but thoroughly adorable invertebrates, that recently found themselves at the center of a huge genomics controversy.  The tardigrade genome “kerfluffle” also happened to be one of the stories I wrote about for MIT Science Writing class.

So when the post-doc told tipsy me something to the effect of: “The guy whose tardigrade genome paper got criticized actually came to our institute and gave a talk. We found out later that some of his slides had been plagiarized from a third tardigrade genome group in Japan!” I was pretty appalled.

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1” »

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?” »

Open Letter to the Editors of the Asteroid Belt Almanac

Every now and then. I have one of those days where I just have to go to the bookstore. It’s not because my surroundings are devoid of reading material; my room, the libraries I sit in while I write, the uncomfortable chairs outside of scientists’ offices where I wait to interview my sources, the cafes where I meet with editors and fellow science writers to talk shop, are all alive with books and magazines.

But sometimes a writer just needs to go buy a freakin’ magazine (or seventeen), Just to get a feel for the different types of articles that make it into print. How long are they? What are they about? How much time do those stories spend profiling the scientists versus explaining the mechanisms of the science?

So every six or seven months, I just go through and buy issues of whichever magazines are appealing to me that day (and then feel wracked with guilt because I can’t actually afford magazine subscriptions).

Today I stumbled acrossThe Asteroid Belt Almanac. I hadn’t seen it before; it was with the literary anthologies that no one but creative writing professors ever buy. But I wanted to know more about this little publication that touted “a collection of snapshots and stories exploring the intersection of science and art.” Continue reading “Open Letter to the Editors of the Asteroid Belt Almanac” »

7 Reasons Why an Autism Advocacy Organization Would Oppose the Combating Autism Act

BREAKING NEWS: The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) just issued an official statement in opposition to the renewal of the Combating Autism Act.

If any of you are wondering, “Why would an autistic advocacy organization oppose a bill that allocates funds toward autism research?” here’s a quick breakdown of the most frequently-cited reasons (in no particular order).

#1: The name “Combating Autism” is in and of itself offensive. Think about how people would react if an appropriations bill for PTSD research was called “Combating PTSD”. It would never fly, and it’s not okay to equate “autism” to an “enemy combatant that needs to be killed/neutralized”. Ever.

#2: Many autistic people see their autism as an integral part of their identity. It’s kind of similar to the way most of us identify as being an extrovert or an introvert, but more fraught. This does NOT mean that all people who use the #StopCombatingMe hashtag are completely against medication, but they are against framing autism as something that is inherently destructive and needs to be “cured”, “combated”, and/or “eliminated”.

#3: The media, politicians, lobbyists, and many parental advocates have a bizarre fixation on trying to “save” autistic children and prevent future cases of autism, while ignoring the insanely high rates of unemployment and homelessness among autistic adults. It is as if autistic adults are invisible, but everyone wants to stop white, upper/middle-class children from “falling prey to autism” at all costs.

Continue reading “7 Reasons Why an Autism Advocacy Organization Would Oppose the Combating Autism Act” »

Why a science journalist is like a seed crystal (and other thoughts)

When I think about what it means to be a science journalist, I think about chocolate.

I’m not kidding.

One night when I went to a talk about the science of food, and one of the presenters, a Harvard professor/master chef, started telling us about the difference between good and bad chocolate. “If you take a bar of good chocolate, like Ghiradelli, and break it in half, you hear a snap.”

“But if you take a bar of cheap chocolate, it’ll break, but you won’t heat the snap. And it may not break cleanly.” Continue reading “Why a science journalist is like a seed crystal (and other thoughts)” »

Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin

The Talk:

People’s Science: Bodies & Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier

In Plain English:

Sociologist investigates the tensions between the stem cell research community and racial minorities and/or low-income communities

The Speaker:

Ruha Benjamin of Boston University

The Sponsor:

BU Discoveries Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist who studies scientists and the way they interact with marginalized communities, opened her talk with a story about a bench.

Not a lab bench. A park bench. In Berkeley.

It was a nice day, and she had a few minutes to spare after giving a talk at UC-Berkeley, so she decided to try and take a nap on the park bench. She found that she couldn’t. “Tell me why,” she said, clicking to a slide with a picture of a metal park bench with three sets of arm-rest-style dividers.

“…It has bars on it?” one audience member said tentatively.

“Right. But why do you think those bars are there?” Continue reading “Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin” »