When Science Meats Fiction

In Vitro Meat (IVM), or lab-cultured meat, aims to transform the livestock industry into a more sustainable and ethical enterprise, but it will have to get through a few hurdles first. IVM involves taking a small sample of animal tissue to grow it into consumable meat, which is no simple task. It is being developed as an alternative to the livestock industry, which is a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses, uses up to 30% of arable land, and has been subject to criticism for animal rights violations. Despite the increased awareness of these issues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that meat consumption will increase 73% by 2050, particularly in developing countries where median incomes are rising. This presents a niche market for IVM, which scientists are now trying to scale up while reducing costs. The real challenge will be to effectively communicate this technology and actively engage with ethical issues and consumer fears.


In vitro meat (IVM) could one day be a reality. This image, while fake, shows what could be in future meat departments.

IVM is reminiscent of stem cell research and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were promising research fields that sparked intense debate in the early 2000s. Religious concerns resulted in the restriction of federal funding to stem cell research during the Bush administration; distrust of the safety of GMOs led to heavy regulation and banning of these crops in certain countries. We are only now gaining momentum in these fields. For instance, in 2013 (nearly 12 years after the funding ban), stem cell transplants were shown to regrow heart tissue in heart attack patients. Golden rice, a genetically fortified rice produced to combat vitamin A deficiency, was developed in 2005, though it is still not commercially available. Perhaps if scientists had more effectively communicated stem cell science or been more transparent about transgenic plants, more progress would have been made today without controversy looming. The same case can be made for a technique like IVM. 

Image Credit: Amala John

Lab-grown meat may be the sustainable alternative to the livestock industry. 

Effective communication is easier said than done. I recently witnessed a conversation that mirrors the discourse we often have about novel technologies. On our way to lunch, my cousin mentioned the first lab-grown burger presented to the public in 2013 and cited the benefits of such a technology, to which my aunt responded with disgust at how unnatural IVM was. As they went back and forth about the environmental impacts of the factory farming system or the moral implications of culturing meat, the conversation got pretty heated. I stayed out of the argument, which seemed to only breed misunderstanding and frustration, but decided to research IVM later to bring up in a more neutral manner.
With any new technology, backlash is inevitable. Today, however, the emergence of new technologies and their integration into society far exceeds the rate of their communication to the public. The controversies around stem cells and GMOs reveal just how important effective communication is early on to the acceptance of a technology. Beyond their work in the lab, scientists should think about their role as communicators, especially when the steaks are so high.

Read more about In Vitro Meat here or here.

Read about some of the critiques and challenges of IVM here.

Peer edited by Tyler Farnsworth. 

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A Paradigm Shift in Autism Diagnosis

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disease characterized by various problematic behaviors. Children diagnosed with autism demonstrate language impairments, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, difficulties in engaging in social interactions, mood and sleep disturbances, and many other behavioral issues. Because it depends on multiple genes and various environmental factors, ASD is difficult to diagnose and predict. Due to the lack of conclusive biomarkers for this disease, current clinical diagnostic standards are mostly based on behavioral tests. This presents a dilemma, as autistic children sometimes obtain medical attention too late, when their eccentric behaviors become very conspicuous.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Autism_Awareness_Ribbon.png

Fortunately, ASD is not totally irreversible. It is shown that if autistic children receive behavioral intervention during the first few years of their life, their condition can be significantly improved. This is because during the first three or four years after birth, the developing brain is highly plastic, or changeable, which maximizes the influence of external factors on a child’s brain development. However, current methods are not good enough for reliable diagnosis of ASD earlier than age of two, which cuts down the treatment efficacy in most cases. Countless children have lost their opportunity to live a normal life because they were diagnosed too late for any effective treatment.

About a month ago, a paper in Nature proposed a hopeful method to resolve this dilemma. Multiple research institutes collaborating through the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) network developed a method to accurately diagnose children at high risk for autism as early as one year old. The researchers first identified a link between autism and brain overgrowth during the first two years of childhood. Based on this finding, scientists took MRI scans of the newborn’s brain at 6 months of age, and again at 12 months of age.  The scientists then compared the scans using a machine learning algorithm that they tested on over 300  infants, and gave predictive diagnoses for autism to the family. Compared to the behavioral tests currently used for clinical diagnosis of autism, this MRI-based method is less subjective and confers a very high predictive accuracy among children with a high risk of autism. It is a paradigm shift in the field of autism diagnosis. While this technology is still preliminary and requires more confirmation before being applied for clinical diagnosis, as the first of its kind, this MRI-based diagnostic tool represents a life-changing modality for the autistic children by allowing them to start behavior treatment earlier.

Peer edited by Holly Schroeder.

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A Call to Guts

I’ve found that it is rather difficult to write an article when you are lying in the fetal position and afraid to move. No, I wasn’t trying to hide from a T-rex. I was having a migraine attack, and what really kept me curled up was its good friend and accomplice, nausea. According to a 2013 study, over half of migraineurs suffer from this additional punch to the stomach during the majority of their attacks. Is this collection of symptoms merely a coincidence, or are the brain and stomach in cahoots to make people miserable?

The brain “communicates” back and forth with the gastrointestinal tract via neuronal, immunological, and hormonal signals, forming what is now called the gut-brain axis. The link between the immune system and microbes within the body has already been well established, and has recently begun percolating into the mainstream media. For example, podcasts are discussing fecal transplants (yes, really) to combat gastrointestinal disease, and the hygienic hypothesis has parents thinking that maybe they should let their kids eat dirt every now and then to avoid developing allergies. Only recently has the contribution of the brain been thrown into the mix to form the microbiome-gut-brain axis.

The mutual communication between the gut (enteric nervous system) and brain (central nervous system) was discovered serendipitously, with a fascinating backstory. As scientists were attempting to form a link between the immune response, stress, and disease, they discovered that mice, when fed a bacterium that does not trigger the murine immune response but that makes humans sick, exhibited more anxious behavior. Meanwhile, animals raised in germ-free environments were less anxious. As interest in the link between behavior and biota grew, more associations between gut bacteria and emotional changes or changes in an animal’s ability to learn were discovered. This line of research has been taking off ever since.gutbrainaxis

According to PubMed, “gut-brain axis” publications per year recently nearly doubled from 75 (2014) to 146 (2016), and over 70 have already been published in 2017. Thanks to this fervor, preliminary evidence is popping up everywhere linking the microbiome, which is predominantly focused in the gut, to neurological disorders from anxiety to Alzheimer’s disease (reviewed recently in Cell). This is also jumping into the mainstream media, with such catchy headlines as, “A Yogurt a Day Could Relieve Depression.” Always remember to take such information with a grain of salt, as this information is preliminary.

So why did it take so long to find the link between this system? More often than not, scientists have been approaching the human body much like the Blind Men and the Elephant parable*: A neuroscientist grabbed a tusk and an immunologist grabbed a tail. While each scientist can make valid conclusions based on their own observations, neither can fully understand the elephant by themselves. Likewise, if scientists had continued studying the gut and the brain independently, without also considering behavior and learning, we would still be blind to their reciprocal relationship. Now, by investigating neurological health problems from a gastrointestinal point of view and vice versa, we can potentially double the chances of finding treatments for each. There is hope yet for my migraine.

*Special thanks to Dr. Keith Kelley, editor-in-chief of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity for using this in his talk at the 2016 Triangle Society for Neuroscience Spring Meeting!

Peer edited by Rachel Haake.

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Representation Matters: Spotlighting Accomplished Women of Color

As a woman of color in graduate school, I greatly appreciate the paths that have been paved for me both directly and indirectly by women, and especially women of color who have shown great accomplishment and determination in their fields of study. Representation is important, not only for women like myself who are currently pursuing graduate and professional degrees, but also for young women and girls of color, who may be aspiring scientists and professionals. Given the opportunity to identify themselves in those who have come before them, this will hopefully inspire a strengthened belief in their own abilities to achieve.

While many of these women have received accolades and awards for their extraordinary work, critically, the important point to assess is the accessibility of their stories. Documenting and sharing the stories of such women of color is a task given to all who are willing and able. This is something we have most recently witnessed in the widely acclaimed film, Hidden Figures. At the very essence of this film are brilliant, talented African American women who were integral to the success of NASA’s space program and its international recognition as a leader in astronomical pursuit. The importance of their journeys, their struggles, their drive, their hard work, their determination, and their success goes beyond a certificate or trophy. The strength of their example lies in the lives which are touched and the way in which their example may serve as a catalyst for change.

In honor of Black History Month recognized in February and International Women’s Day which has recently passed on March 8th, I decided to take this time—albeit late, but no less significant—to spotlight a few extraordinary women of color whose stories should be shared.

Dr. Alexa Canady, M.D.


Dr. Canady grew up in Lansing, Michigan and attended the University of Michigan, from which she graduated in 1971 with a degree in zoology. She also attended medical school there as well, graduating in 1975. While in medical school she gained an interest in neurosurgery and went on to pursue a surgical internship at Yale-New Haven Hospital. In 1976, Dr, Canady completed her internship and started her residency in neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota as the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States. She became the nation’s first female African American neurosurgeon at the completion of her residency in 1981. From 1987 to 2001 she served as a pediatric neurosurgeon as well as the chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital in Michigan. Undoubtedly, Dr. Canady faced obstacles over the course of her career. Namely, being the first Black women in her field and feeling the pressure to perform exceptionally above all her counterparts. She worried that as a Black woman the success of her practice would be stunted, but her commitment to patient-centered care led to exponential growth. In addition to practicing medicine, she was a professor at Wayne State University, where she taught and conducted research. Currently retired, Dr. Canady spends her time working to change the perception and assumptions held by the medical field of Black patients as well as of Black personnel in medicine.

Dr. Aprille J. Ericsson-Jackson, Ph.D.


Dr. Ericsson-Jackson grew up in Brooklyn, NY, but completed her high schooling in Massachusetts, where she went on to attend MIT. In 1986, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical astronautical engineering. She then went on to earn her master’s degree in engineering from Howard University as well as her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. She was the first African American woman to receive this degree at Howard. In 1992 she began working at her current position as an aerospace engineer at NASA. In her work, Dr. Ericsson-Jackson cares a great deal about her impact on the earth. For instance, much of the work she does designing satellites are for the purpose of monitoring and collecting data that help us better understand the earth. Dr. Ericsson-Jackson is also very active in the African American community. She is a strong proponent of math and science educational opportunities, particularly for young Black girls.

Dr. Antonia Novello, M.D.


Dr. Novello was the first woman and the first Latina to become the surgeon general of the United States. She was raised in Puerto Rico, where she also completed medical school at the University of Puerto Rico. She went on to complete a medical internship in nephrology and pediatrics at the University of Michigan. She later completed additional post graduate work in pediatrics at Georgetown University. She led her own private practice for a few years until going to work for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in 1978. There she collaborated with several departments of the National Institutes of Health. During this time, she became the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development focusing on pediatric AIDS. In 1982, she earned a degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Over the course of her career, Dr. Novello has been a strong advocate for more effective methods of educating the public on health issues. She also has had a special interest in the health of the youth, women, and minorities. Most recently, she is known for her work as the commissioner of health for the state of New York.

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D.


Dr. Wong-Staal left Hong Kong, China to come to the United States to attend UCLA where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1965. She also earned her doctoral degree at the same institution, graduating in 1972. In 1973, she began working at the National Cancer Institute alongside some of the pioneers in AIDS research. In 1983, Dr. Wong-Staal and her team discovered HIV and identified it as the virus that causes AIDS. She was the first scientist to clone and  genetically map the entire virus—which was crucial in the development of HIV testing. She later became the chair for the center of AIDS research at UCSD in 1990, where her research focused on gene therapy and she developed a protocol to repress HIV in stem cells. After leaving UCSD in 2002 she became the vice president of a drug development company that she co-founded called Immusol, which was later renamed iTherX.

These women have not only contributed to science and their respective fields, but many have also in their own way taken part in the dissemination of knowledge to the community. Their stories are unique and inspiring to me and, hopefully and more critically, to young women of color who have the same or similar dreams, drive, and determination to inspire change and to pursue education and discovery.

Peer edited by Madelyn Huang and Joanna Warren.

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The March for Science Raises Concerns Over Politicization

The March for Science has drawn widespread support from a community anxious about the state of science under the new Trump administration. But while many are strongly in favor of such a march, the event has spurred a debate among scientists about what the role of the scientist should be in politics, and if holding a march is even a good idea.

The March for Science is scheduled to take place on April 22 (Earth Day), with a central march planned for Washington DC, along with more than 250 smaller satellite marches occurring around the world. On the event website, March for Science organizers state that their goals are to humanize science, partner with the public, advocate for accessible science, support scientists, and affirm science as a democratic value. There is also clearly an underlying motivation to push for more scientifically driven policy decisions in the US government.

Initially proposed in a Reddit thread discussing the removal of references to climate change from the White House website, organizers of the March for Science have since made efforts to craft the event as more apolitical; more pro-science than specifically anti-Trump.

Still, there have been several vocal objections to scientists participating in an organized protest in DC. Notably, the Independent reported that a former science advisor to President Obama, Dr. James Gates, was concerned about the possibility of violence at the march and that having scientists speaking on political issues may do more harm than good.

Perhaps most visibly, Dr. Robert Young, who is the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last month in which he argued that the march “will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about.” Rather, Young has proposed a strategy of greater engagement at the local level, with the goal of educating the public about who scientists are and what is involved in their work.

Not unsurprisingly, Dr. Young’s message was received with mixed feelings by march supporters, with several critical responses published online (see below for relevant links). Some have argued that this is in fact the perfect time for scientists to take a political position. Others have taken a more measured stance that this is not about politics but about scientists standing up for reason and truth in the face of rampant misinformation and “alternative facts.”

Dr. Young has since responded to the criticism in an email published by a recipient on Twitter, in which he softens some of his initial concerns about the march being overtly political, apparently responding to a change in the march name from “The Scientist’s March on Washington,” to the less political “March for Science.”

Designed by Matt Niederhuber

Whether the March for Science is labelled as political or apolitical on its surface, it represents a pervasive anxiety among scientists that has peaked since the inauguration of President Trump, and it is by no means the only example of scientists recently raising their voices.

This anxiety has come on the heels of several executive actions that many have interpreted as threatening the future of science in the US. Executive orders, such as the now infamous travel ban, directives to dismantle regulatory laws protecting ground and surface water, as well as orders to freeze grants and rumors of significant budget cuts at the EPA, have set off alarms in the scientific community.

In response, scientists from around the country have organized protests, penned letters to congress and the president, and published strongly worded statements against the Trump agenda.

Just this past month scientists in Boston gathered in Copley Square outside the annual AAAS conference for a Rally to Stand Up for Science. This past December, scientists attending the American Geophysical Union conference rallied in San Francisco. There is also a growing push for scientists to leave the bench and run for political office, with organizations like 314 Action working to train and support scientists in taking public office. Notably, UC Berkeley Professor Michael Eisen has indicated he intends to run for senate in 2018, stating in an interview with The Mercury News that “there has been a growing sense of frustration among scientists about the way decisions are made in politics — in particular, the way science is integrated into decision-making.”

The tone and content of these protests depict a community with a range of concerns. There is an obvious frustration that human caused climate change and environmental protection continue to be partisan political issues. But there is also a deeper concern that the role of science in society is neither well understood, nor fully appreciated.

Clearly, the debate over what responsibility scientists have as advocates for science in government and society is just getting started. Though it may be difficult and contentious, it is a vital discussion to have. The success or failure of the March for Science does not necessarily depend on how political it is or isn’t, but on what comes after.

Scientists face an obvious problem with how large portions of the population lack a strong understanding of science, its role in their lives, or how it can help us progress as a healthy, equal, and secure nation. The only way to combat misinformation and populism is through education and engagement. If the march motivates more scientists to reach out to their communities, to teach, to write, to make art, and to run for office, then in my opinion it will be an outstanding success.

Relevant articles/podcasts:

Why I’m Marching For Science — by Eric Holthaus

Yes, It’s Time to Politicize Science — by David Niose

Why I’d Rather Not March — by Adam Frank

Should Scientists March on Washington? — Hello Phd – podcast by Joshua Hall and Daniel Arneman


Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong and Manisit Das. 

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The Legacy of Minamata Disease


Map of Minamata Bay and River

During the 1950s, strange events began happening around Minamata Bay, located in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan. Fish floated belly-up and birds collapsed while flying. Cats convulsed, salivated excessively, jumped into the sea and drowned, or merely dropped dead. Eventually, a young girl was brought to a physician because she was having difficulty walking and talking, and it was discovered that her sister and other neighborhood children were showing the same symptoms. It wasn’t long until the physician declared that “an unclarified disease of the central nervous system has broken out.”

This mysterious disorder was officially recognized in 1956 and later termed Minamata Disease. In 1958, two doctors from the Kumamoto University published a report in The Lancet that described the disease as widespread degeneration of the nervous system, particularly in the cerebellum. Although they could not pinpoint the underlying cause, they noted that fisherman and their families were those that were primarily affected. This lead them to suggest that a toxic agent from the waste flowing into Minamata Bay from the nearby fertilizer factory was the cause. Many years before, in 1908, the Chisso Corporation opened a chemical factory in Minamata. The factory disposed of its waste into Minamata Bay and later to the mouth of the Minamata River, leading to the contamination of the entire Shiranui Sea. A year after The Lancet article was published, methylmercury, generated by acetaldehyde production at the factory, was identified to be the toxic agent. When the citizens of Minamata consumed fish and shellfish from the sea, they were poisoned by the methylmercury and the epidemic took hold. To date, over two thousand people have been affected by Minamata Disease.

In 1959, Chisso Corporation was ordered to switch the flow of its waste from the river back to the bay. In a display of grandeur, the Chisso Corporation also unveiled a newly installed water purification tank, which lead most people to believe Minamata Disease was resolved. However, the Chisso Corporation misled the public as the purification tank was not removing methylmercury from the waste. As a result, Minamata Disease continued to ravage the community in the years following. It wasn’t until 1968 that the government released an official conclusion that methylmercury, originating from the factory, caused the disease and that Chisso Corporation halted release of methylmercury into the sea. After hundreds lost their lives and years of lengthy legal battles, the Chisso Corporation and the state have paid millions of dollars to the Minamata disease victims. Additionally, in response to the epidemic, numerous environmental policy changes occurred. Japan set safe regulatory standards for mercury and methylmercury levels in fish and shellfish and also instituted clean up efforts in Minamata Bay. In 1997, Minamata Bay was officially declared safe and fishing efforts resumed. However, the outbreak of Minamata Disease remains one of the most influential environmental disasters to occur in Japan to date and is a reminder of the potential devastating effects of pollution.

Peer edited by Kelsey Noll.

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Can’t Decide? Use Math!


Please help me decide, the hanger approaches.

Too many choices!

I want to present a situation I occasionally find myself in: while visiting a city and looking for dinner, I try my best to find an outstanding place to eat. To help make this decision, I usually turn to my phone and read restaurant reviews and menus online for 30 minutes hoping to find the perfect restaurant. As my hunger continues to grow, I think about all the restaurants I’ve looked at and settle on a restaurant that seems good enough. On my way to the restaurant, I second guess my choice, all the while fighting the hunger nipping at my stomach. After experiencing this restaurant conundrum too many times, I was left wishing there were a more efficient way to handle these choices.

Luckily, within mathematics there exists a theory, named optimal stopping, which has a technique that can be elegantly applied to this problem. Optimal stopping theory presents various methods to choose the best option out of a large number of choices or given a limited amount of time. Applying a technique from optimal stopping theory to my restaurant problem can guide me to the restaurant of my dreams.

Here’s how to handle this restaurant struggle using optimal stopping theory. Consider the same 30 minutes that I usually spend looking for the best restaurant. I take 37% of that time, about 11 minutes, and look at reviews and menus just as I have done many times before. This time, I spend these first 11 minutes only looking at restaurant choices and noting the most appealing choice. Once time is up, I continue scrolling through menus and reviews, remembering my previous tasty sounding choice, until I find a restaurant that sounds even better. This new, better restaurant is where I choose to go. I can now enjoy a meal, confident that I made a good choice and spared myself time before hanger sets in.

Where does this 37% number come from and what makes this technique so optimal? According to optimal stopping theory, when given a large number of options sampling the initial 37% gives sufficient perspective to find the best overall option. When using optimal stopping, as the number of choices increases, the probability picking the absolute best option closes in on 36.8%.

Finding the best option 36.8% of the time doesn’t sound that spectacular, but consider interviewing thousands of applicants for a job position that must be turned down or accepted on the spot. Using optimal stopping, the absolute best choice can be found 36.8% of the time regardless of the choices numbering in the twenties or twenty-thousands!

Optimal stopping is not limited to picking a place to eat; it can be applied to many everyday situations. What if you want to spend as little effort as possible online dating, but still want to find your soulmate? Optimal stopping theory to the rescue! Facing a staggering number of porta potties and want to touch as few handles while finding the cleanest toilet possible, optimal stopping theory will save the day. Trying to get the best deal selling your brother’s beanie babies on Craigslist? Optimal stopping can help you out.

So how can you find the king porta pottie, or the match of your dreams in the most efficient way? When presented a set of choices take 37% of the total number of choices, and skip past this first 37%. Importantly, you must keep in mind the best option from these choices. As you look over the rest of the choices, as soon as you find something better than what was in that first 37% that is your best choice.

This article was directly inspired by Numberphile and the podcast Note to Self, both of which are fantastic sources for how math can be applied to everyday problems.

Peer edited by Christina Parker. 

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