ArtLab: In Translation

by Maryam Zaringhalam, @thisisartlab Given that artists + scientists employ similar approaches to developing their work and that this work is often presented in very similar mediums, it has eluded me for quite some time why art and science are generally thought of as being incompatible. As a result, in December 2012 I launched ArtLab :: The Series to provide a physical space for artists + scientists to come together to talk about their respective crafts, using art as a lens to focus a conversation about science. The ultimate goal is to spark collaborations between these two traditionally disparate communities, using the strengths of each to inform and compliment the other. To get us thinking about our work in a different context with a different set of tools at our disposal. On May 24, 2013, ArtLab presented In Translation: an inside look at the practice of art and science featuring insights from the insightful Gabrielle Rabinowitz, a molecular neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University + senior editor // regular contributor for The Incubator, and Dylan Zavagno, a Brooklyn-based poet. With the much-appreciated help of co-moderator Rachel Broderick [co-founder // creative director of Brooklyn-based mixed-media arts company Our Ladies] and our ever-enthusiastic

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

Podcast: DEET, Mesquite, and Mutant Mosquitoes

Why do some mosquitoes bite us? How do mosquitoes spread disease? What can we do to prevent getting "eaten alive?" Scientists Matt DeGennaro, Lindy McBride, and Emily Dennis from the Vosshall Lab of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller discuss their latest research on Aedes aegypti -- the mosquito that carries Dengue and yellow fever. We talk about the importance of a specific gene called ORCO (Odorant Receptor Co-receptor), and it's role in human host seeking. This episode also includes a Behind the Buzz segment by Gabrielle Rabinowitz, who discusses gene patenting, and what it means for society. Further Reading: Mosquitoes Mutant Mosquito Solves Mysteries of Attraction and Repulsion orco mutant mosquitoes lose strong preference for humans and are not repelled by volatile DEET (paywall) A Mosquito That Won’t Ruin a Barbecue Behind the Buzz What The Ruling on Gene Patenting Means Gene Patenting — The Supreme Court Finally Speaks Intellectual Property and Genomics

From BAM to The BRAIN Initiative: A clearer view of a major neuroscience enterprise

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz Obama announcing the BRAIN initiative In February, the media was abuzz in response to President Obama's pledge to fund the creation of a Brain Activity Map (BAM). Reporters erroneously promised a comprehensive human brain map, complete with cures for neuropsychiatric disorders, while glossing over the fact that BAM was actually more about technology development using model organisms. I joined a growing number of commentators on the project, presenting arguments for why this seemed like a 3 Billion Dollar Mistake. On April 2, 2013, the White House formalized the proposal, rebranding it as the BRAIN Initiative (a tortured backronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies; #BRAINI). Here, I’ll break down the main aims of the project along with the strengths and weaknesses of the BRAIN initiative and the associated PR campaign. The Goal The White House announcement summarizes the BRAIN initiative as follows: The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. The Funding Government: $40 million in the first year: National Institutes of Health

5 Steps to Separate Science from Hype, No PhD Required

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz and Emily Jane Dennis   “Does flossing decrease my risk of heart disease?” No, but is it good for you? Yes. “Does aluminum cause Alzheimers?” Nope. “Should I start following the Paleo Diet?” Probably not & paleolithic people probably didn’t either. As scientists, we’re asked these sorts of questions all the time. Although we’re trained to evaluate scientific ideas, it definitely doesn’t take a PhD to judge the latest craze or newest finding. To do it yourself, follow these 5 steps:   1. Separate the sales pitch from the science Almost everyone is trying to sell something. In articles about science, the sales pitch is usually right in the headline. The science is harder to find. Start by looking for a quote from a scientist. Read the quote but ignore the spin the author put on it. Don’t forget that scientists can have biases too: be skeptical of scientists who don’t acknowledge the limitations of their research and fail to present alternate explanations. Also, check to see who’s funding the research- they might have an agenda too! In short, read articles carefully and figure out if the claims they make are based on the facts they present.   2.

A 3 Billion Dollar Mistake: Why the American government should think twice about a Brain Activity Map (BAM)

Update: The United States government has released more information about the specifics of their brain mapping project, now called the BRAIN Initiative. I break down the details and discuss the pros and cons here. White matter fibers in a human brain imaged by diffusion spectrum imaging. (Copyright Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, UCLA and Randy Buckner, PhD. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, MGH.)   By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab In the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama praised American scientists for developing drugs, engineering new materials, and “mapping the human brain.” This scientific shout out was not just a pat on the back for American researchers. Rather, it was a veiled reference to a new multi-billion dollar research initiative planned by the Obama administration and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). So what is this plan? As the director of the NIH, Francis S. Collins tweeted: Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU — Francis S. Collins (@NIHDirector) February 13, 2013 The Brain Activity Map (BAM) is a project that will bring together federal agencies, neuroscientists, and private research foundations to create a functional map of every connection in the human brain - numbering in hundreds

Sensationalism in Science, Part II

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab In Part I of this post I explained the harm that can result from over-hyped science reporting. But what if scientists’ own enthusiasm for their work is what sparks the hype? As Rob O’ Sullivan of Dar-winning pointed out in a comment on Part I, scientists in poorly funded fields sometimes rely on hype to raise funds. As science funding is increasingly threatened by federal cutbacks, scientists need to reach out to the public to explain why their research is exciting and important. As we reach out, we need to be careful that our sincere enthusiasm doesn’t feed the hype machine. Every scientist needs to consider the consequences of their words. Hype on Mars No one knows better about shrinking funds and the need to excite the public than NASA. I’ve already mentioned the “arsenic life” incident of 2010, where NASA scientists did nothing to stop the overexcited press from exaggerating their findings. Last November a much more cautious NASA research team unwittingly let their enthusiasm become the source of hype. The senior scientist from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, told NPR that he and his team had discovered something in a soil sample from Curiosity that was “gonna be one

Sensationalism in Science, Part I

By Gabrielle Rabinowitz Image credit: Zach Weiner (SMBC) “NASA Discovers Alien Life”  “Doctors Talk to Vegetative Patient Through Brain Scans”  “Sleep Apnea Tied to Increased Cancer Risk” The world according to popular science headlines is a pretty crazy place. Miraculous cures and surprising causes for all of our ailments can be found in a bite of chocolate. Everything we knew about something is wrong. And NASA has confirmed either the existence of aliens or a world-engulfing black hole. Of course, these are just sensational blurbs intended to grab your attention. Surely the real science can be found after the jump… And yet more often than not, the articles themselves are mere jumbles of over-hyped conclusions, out of context quotes, and clichés. But where do these headlines come from? Buried under all the hype, there is an actual scientific study. This source may not even be cited in the article, but it is out there. It presents evidence for a new discovery, or a new way of thinking about some, often small, aspect of our world. Eventually, the data presented in that study will be reanalyzed, critiqued, revised, and applied to advances in health or technology. But that process