#microbiome: unraveling truth from hype

by Ella Epstein Almost every day, new research emerges on how the microbiome* will help us address obesity, protect us from disease, or shape our behavior. Recent research ties the microbial communities inside us to everything from digestive disorders to autism. Scientists are looking to harness and manipulate the microbiome to treat diabetes, malnutrition, obesity, asthma, colon cancer, and more. If that sounds like an ambitious goal, it is--scientists have not yet developed any FDA-approved drugs that alter the microbiome. Last month, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced their National Microbiome Initiative, investing over $121 million to “to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.” As with any sweeping initiative (see the 2013 BRAIN Initiative designed to advance technologies for neuroscience research), hype and truth can often become dangerously intertwined, breeding misconceptions about science that can do serious damage to people’s health. Some people, feeling like they've exhausted the possibilities of modern science, try to hack their microbiome to improve their health. In fact, as we learn more and more about the ecosystem inside us, the number of ways to “cleanse,” “detox,” and “restore” balance in our bodies grows and grows. Take the booming,

Theranos: the fall of a paper billionaire and the value of transparency & collaboration in science

by Steven Lewis As someone with type 1 diabetes, I prick my fingers several times a day to test my blood sugar. When I heard about Theranos and how it could completely revolutionize laboratory blood testing, I was beyond excited. I was not alone. When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003, it seemed like she was “poised to change health care.” “You'd have to look really hard not to see Steve Jobs in Elizabeth Holmes,” Kimberly Weisul reported for Inc.com in October 2015. Like the turtlenecked icon Jobs, Holmes dropped out of college and seemed destined to radically disrupt an industry before she was 40. Last year, she topped the FORBES list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women with a net worth of $4.5 billion. But on June 1st, Forbes revised its estimate and announced Holmes’ net worth to be zero. Absolutely nothing. On June 12th, Walgreens ended its relationship with Theranos amidst allegations that the company’s technology did not work and that their tests had been run on the machines of competitors. Losing Walgreens was a "crippling blow for Theranos," causing Theranos to close 40 of 45 Theranos Wellness Centers, a critical source of revenue for the company. Despite my hope, I was not shocked.

Spotlight on Kadiatou Dao: tackling biological nonproliferation in Mali

by Maryam Zaringhalam   CRDF Global Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow Kadiatou Dao shares her journey to becoming a leader in biological nonproliferation in Mali and why women are so critical to the field. Kadiatou Dao “Women are the key to peace,” Kadiatou Dao declared to an eager audience at CRDF Global headquarters in April. Founded in 1995, CRDF Global is a nonprofit organization that promotes international scientific and technical collaboration through a number of incredible programs including the Robin Copeland Memorial Fellowship. The award recognizes a woman leader working to promote nonproliferation in emerging countries. So as the 2015 fellow, Dao is uniquely qualified to make such a bold and inspiring statement. With funding through the U.S. Department of State, she has spent the last year gaining the expertise to tackle biological nonproliferation of infectious disease in her mother country of Mali. I had the great fortune of meeting Dao when Rockefeller University’s Science Diplomacy class visited CRDF Global. There, she shared her experiences — which include working in the bacterial meningitis diagnostics at Mali’s National Institute of Research in Public Health and studying malaria’s resistance to drugs at the University Pierre et Marie CURIE in Paris —

One step forward, two steps back….?

by Judith M. Reichel One step forward, two steps back By Judith M. Reichel, PhD The Status Quo So much has been said and written about the “special kind of hell” that often describes the daily life of a postdoctoral research fellow. There have been objections against the poor pay and horrid hours, advice on how to combine a young family with the demands of a prosperous career, and many other more or less specific issues regarding the career choices and trajectories of postdocs. But after all this reporting, writing, and the discussions – what has actually been achieved? Small steps Unfortunately, not much has really changed. While there have been some isolated improvements for more pay, they are limited to a select few universities. In January 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released guidelines announcing slightly augmented postdoc stipends and yearly stipend increases. However, until each institute where postdocs are employed enforces these guidelines, postdoc stipends remain at the discretion of all-too-powerful PIs. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), established in 2003, is trying to rectify this situation. Yet, the NPA is still a fairly young organization, struggling with its own organization and without a big enough budget to put some well-deserved

Ebola: A Crisis in Science Literacy

By Meredith Wright A few weeks ago, an alarming link appeared on my Facebook newsfeed: “BREAKING NEWS: CDC confirms first case of Ebola in Paramus, NJ.” Considering that my hometown is only thirty minutes away from Paramus, I was quite shocked and clicked the link, eager to learn more about the circumstances around this confirmed Ebola case. But instead of an informative article, I was met with this: Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a practical joke as much as anyone. But jokes making light of Ebola, as well as shoddy journalistic practices on display in much of the reporting on Ebola, have no place in the fight to quell this outbreak (and don’t get me started on this Halloween costume). In case you haven’t been paying attention to the news, the worst Ebola outbreak in history is currently raging in West Africa. The Ebola virus is a negative-stranded, membrane-enveloped filovirus- the name is derived from the Latin word filum, inspired by the thread-like shape of this family of viruses- that causes a severe hemorrhagic fever in both humans and non-human primates. This means that upon infection, the Ebola virus enters a cell and lose its envelope. Subsequently, host cell machinery is used

The Science of Empathy

By Danielle Sonnenberg Ever since I can remember I have been very aware of the suffering of the people around me. I am cognizant of their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. The first time I remember being empathetic was when my parents paid a stranger ten dollars to thank him for getting their car keys after they fell in a grate below the street. I remember this man looking back at my parents and saying in a really grateful tone, “Thanks, I really needed that.” I began to imagine what his life was like—was he homeless, did he have a family, why did this $10 mean so mean to him? As I grew older, I became more aware of the emotional reactions of people around me including family members, friends, and even strangers. The sadness of other people would have a large impact on me. I started to ask myself why I was so affected by the suffering of people around me. Was I really being altruistic or was I simply trying to relieve my own discomfort? The word empathy comes from the Greek word einfullung meaning “feeling into.” Essentially, it means putting yourself in the position

Science Saturday!

by Derek Simon Hope for the Future: Inspiring Young Minds Some disturbing statistics: 46% of Americans deny that evolution is scientific truth (Gallup, 2012) and 29% still refuse to acknowledge that global warming is occurring (Gallup, 2014), despite the overwhelming consensus amongst the professional scientific community confirming the validity of these topics. Despite these trends, the United States remains the economic power of the world and the leader in innovations, discoveries, and scientific research, but how can we maintain this position when we allow some of our citizens to succumb to such unfortunate ignorance? Perhaps scientists themselves are partly to blame? After all, what good is knowledge and discovery unless it can be properly communicated and appreciated by the average American? On Saturday May 3, at the Rockefeller University (RU) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a group of over 60 scientists and 40 other volunteers transformed the prestigious research institute into a smorgasbord of scientific delight and a font of inspiration for young minds! With over 25 activity booths, the inaugural Science Saturday, brain-child of RU’s Science Outreach Director Dr. Jeanne Garbarino, was an ambitious and exciting approach to tackling public ignorance towards scientific discovery: preventing it from ever existing.

Why do half of Americans believe in medical conspiracies?

By Alison Carley All I have on my side is facts and science, and people hate facts and science. –Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation While I was writing a proposal for my qualifying exam, I hit what felt at the time like an insurmountable roadblock. Articles by important scientists in reputable journals seemed to be making completely contradictory statements. “Protein X is critical to process Z,” or, “Protein X is definitely not involved in process Z,” or my favorite, “Process Z doesn’t even exist!” What was I supposed to think? Just like I had trouble getting to the truth behind process Z, many Americans struggle to understand complex issues in science and medicine. Vaccines cause autism, doctors know this but give them anyway. There is a cure for cancer, but the FDA is preventing its release because of pressure from drug companies. Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but aren’t doing anything because of pressures from large corporations. Nearly half of all surveyed Americans believe at least one of these conspiracy theories according to a recent article published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Moreover, of the seven medical conspiracy theories included in the survey, 18% of respondents reported that

Introducing MySciCareer

This entry is mirrored from the new site, MySciCareer.  by Lou Woodley Today, my friend Eva Amsen and I launched a project we've been working on in our spare time: MySciCareer. MySciCareer is a new site that collects first person stories about science careers. What's MySciCareer for? There have been numerous conversations in recent years about how what is often assumed to be the traditional science career path (PhD --> a post doc or two --> tenure track or group leader position) is not in fact typical for many people with a science background. Instead, science graduates can follow many different routes and end up in roles in publishing, technology, industry, communications and more. Sharing first person stories can be a helpful way to consider career choices, but there aren't many places where you can find out more about a wide range of science careers in the form of personal narratives. So we decided to create a site that brings together new and existing science careers content in one place! Where's the content from? We've started off by including excerpts from content from all over the Web, but we will also be including some original content too. Where we’ve used content from elsewhere, we’ve contacted the

Gene Patenting is a Matter of Perspective

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab Image credit: OpenSourceWay On a typical day as a molecular biology PhD student, I combine tiny amounts of clear liquid in a small plastic tube. One of those small droplets contains several billion molecules of RNA, each one a copy of the information from a single gene. I put the tube in a machine that adjusts the temperature to the precise degree needed for the chemical reactions to occur, and I wait. An hour later, something has changed. I still can’t see anything in the clear liquid (the stuff I’m tinkering with is much too small), but something has happened. The tube now contains trillions of molecules of complementary DNA (cDNA), newly synthesized by enzymes which used the RNA as a template. As I look at the little tube in my hand I wonder how pure the sample is, if there is enough cDNA for the sequencing machine to return good results, and what the biological implications of those results might be. I don’t usually wonder about who should own the cDNA that the enzymes just created. But a war is being fought over the right to lay claim to these molecules and others

Speaking the Language of Data

By Michael LeVine, @thoughtculture   Source: Wikimedia Commons   Imagine you are standing in the middle of a busy street – the kind of street you’d find in Midtown Manhattan on a Tuesday afternoon. Now, imagine that not a single person speaks your language, but everyone is talking. The streets are buzzing, and while you can hear the chatter, you almost never know what it means. This is a data scientist’s reality. We accumulate terabytes of data every day, but if we can’t speak the language of the data, our data is useless. We could make every measurement pertaining to every aspect of the universe, but unless we know the laws of the universe, all we’ve done is waste a lot of time, energy, and data storage. What are scientists to do when they can’t speak the language of their data? They do what anyone might do if they found themselves lost in a foreign country – learn the language as quickly as possible. Scientists apply theoretical models, statistical methods, and machine-learning algorithms in an attempt to search for the structure of the data, and separate the signal from the noise. While methods to collect data have made