The Scary Side of Sunscreen

The sun is shining and you’re about to make the responsible choice to slather on some sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful (but also warm and wonderful) UV rays. Even the smell of sunscreen elicits summertime nostalgia for many of us. However, safety concerns have been raised regarding some of the most common ingredients in traditional sunscreens.

It’s an unfortunate paradox: protect yourself from skin cancer and expose yourself to the harmful ingredients in the sunscreen or forego the sunscreen and potential chemical exposure to roll the dice with UV ray-related cancers like melanoma. Thankfully, there is a growing body of toxicity data to help guide decision-making when choosing how to protect your skin from the sun!

What’s wrong with my sunscreen?

Many of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen have received scrutiny for their toxicity towards humans and the environment. Oxybenzone is the compound that has achieved the most notoriety thus far after it was reported that it can be found in the blood of nearly 100% of Americans, including in breastmilk. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreen because it absorbs damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays and is considered to provide broad-spectrum coverage, meaning it can protect skin from both UVB and short-wave UVA rays. Not only is oxybenzone exposure ubiquitous, but this chemical is also capable of disrupting hormone signaling in humans and is a common skin allergen for sensitive populations. Other common ingredients, such as octinoxate and homosalate, are also detectable in breastmilk and have both been reported to similarly disrupt hormones in humans.

A handy visual guide adapted from Environmental Working Group (EWG) showing the toxicity rankings of common sunscreen ingredients.

In addition to these human health concerns, there are also important environmental concerns to take into consideration. A recent review of the literature reported that common sunscreen ingredients (oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, among others) are detectable in nearly all water sources sampled from around the world and these chemicals are extremely difficult to remove from the water via traditional wastewater treatment. These chemicals have been detected in aquatic wildlife and have been linked to coral bleaching. In fact, Hawaii and Florida have recently passed legislation banning the use of sunscreens containing chemicals like oxybenzone to help protect precious marine ecosystems as well as improve human health.

Is sunscreen worth the risk?

YES. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70 and regular daily use of sunscreen that is SPF 15 or greater reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. While the risks associated with some of the active ingredients of sunscreen are not ideal, it is probably better than foregoing sunscreen altogether. However, there are sunscreen-free options for protecting yourself from UV damage. For example, wearing SPF-rated long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats or simply avoiding excess sunlight exposure whenever possible can be lifestyle changes that reduce the need for sunscreen usage. It is important to note that both protective clothing and avoiding sun exposure can only do so much to protect your skin and that there will always be circumstances under which sunscreen is the most appropriate skin protectant to implement.

So what kind of sunscreen should I be using?

Sunscreens impart their UV protection through two main mechanisms: chemical and physical. Most of the troublesome sunscreen ingredients are chemical barriers to UV rays. The sunscreen ingredients that impart the best UV coverage and act as a physical barrier are mineral-based, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. So far, the existing toxicity data suggest that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens are relatively safe for us and for the environment!

Here is a visual guide to UV protection based on the sunscreen ingredients, shared from Reef Repair.

For more information to help your decision making on sunscreen protection, visit EWG’s page for a comprehensive guide!

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore.

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Fun Facts about the Cutest Baby Animals of Spring, and how they Contribute to Science

Spring is officially here, so it’s time for some science about some of the most adorable baby animals. In my past training as an animal scientist at UC Davis, spring was largely marked by births within all the herds at our campus animal facilities. As a teaching assistant for the Animal Science department, I enjoyed interacting with these new additions and teaching future animal scientists how to safely practice animal husbandry. Considering the proximity of this post to the start of spring, I thought it fitting to discuss some of the history behind our most beloved spring animals and how they’ve contributed to science. Be the hit at your next cocktail party (or perhaps an Easter brunch) with these fun facts!

Rabbits and Kits

        Rabbits and hares may be some of the most iconic symbols of spring, and they’re probably best associated with the season through tales of the Easter bunny. According to folklore, the hare was the sacred animal of the Germanic goddess of spring, Eostre. There are multiple legends through which Eostre is believed to have created the Easter hare. In one version, Eostre transformed a bird with frozen wings into a rabbit, allowing the resulting animal to retain its ability to lay eggs. In another version of the legend, Eostre became annoyed with a bird which prided itself on laying the most beautiful eggs, so she transformed the bird into a rabbit; in a moment of mercy, she allowed the rabbit to lay its eggs once per year, in the spring. No matter what you believe, it’s undeniable that rabbits and spring are a classic combination, and rightfully so, as their rapid proliferation easily casts them as symbols of fertility.

A rabbit standing on its hind legs in a field.
Rabbits are often associated with spring through tales of the Easter bunny, but their biology also aids scientific discovery!

        Rabbits are extremely prolific. In terms of their reproductive behavior, rabbits are classified as induced ovulators, meaning they ovulate after sexual stimulation. Rabbits also have a relatively short gestation, or pregnancy, lasting about 28-32 days. This short gestation period in addition to induced ovulation means that a reproductive female is capable of giving birth, or kindling, a new litter of kits as often as once per month. Over the course of one rabbit’s seven-year lifespan, a single female and her female descendants could produce over 100 billion new female rabbits! It’s no wonder these animals are associated with spring, a season marked by new life.

        Besides their connection to spring, rabbits have also contributed to science as important model organisms. Rabbits provided the first model for cancer caused by a virus, which has been crucial for better understanding how human papillomaviruses (HPVs) cause cancer and in the development of vaccines against HPV infection. In addition, rabbits are commonly used to produce antibodies for laboratory use, such as for immunology and infectious disease research. Rabbits were also used in the development of certain vaccines, including the rabies vaccine, and surgical laser technologies. Finally, their physiology makes them ideal for studying several of the diseases plaguing humans, including cholera, cystic fibrosis, eye and ear infections, and non-infectious conditions such as those resulting from high cholesterol.

Chickens, Chicks, and Eggs

        Chickens and the eggs and chicks they produce also hold special significance for the spring season. Similar to rabbits, chicks and eggs have been regarded as symbols of spring, reproduction, and new life, even in civilizations as far back as ancient Rome. In Catholicism, eggs came to be associated with spring, and particularly Easter, though the practice of Lent. Traditionally, fasting practices during Lent excluded the consumption of all animal products, including eggs. As lent ends with Easter, spring may additionally be associated with an abundance of eggs as a result of the holiday.

        Another reason why chicks and eggs may be particularly associated with spring could be due to the unique laying cycle of hens. The avian reproductive cycle is stimulated by increased hours of daylight, as is characteristic of spring time. More specifically, light passing through the eye or skull of birds can be received by photoreceptors in the hypothalamus, which then activates the pineal gland, which in turn triggers the hormonal cascade that results in the production of eggs. If those eggs are fertilized by the passing rooster, then increased daylight hours mean more cute, fuzzy chicks!

A young chicken (chick) in a field.
In nature, hens lay eggs more frequently with increasing light hours. This means that spring brings more cute (and sassy?) chicks!

        Aside from the chicken’s ubiquitous use as an agricultural animal, chickens and their eggs have also helped scientists in the biomedical field! Eggs are the most common means of producing flu vaccines; the flu virus may be injected into eggs, allowed to replicate, and after several days these viral particles can be removed from the egg and heat inactivated to produce new flu vaccines. Current research with genetic engineering technologies has expanded the contribution of chickens to science, as researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland have now produced birds capable of producing and secreting medicinal antibodies into their eggs. These antibodies have the potential to treat diseases including melanoma and multiple sclerosis.

Sheep and Lambs; Goats and Kids

        Finally, near and dear to my own heart, are lambs (young sheep) and kids (young goats). Having raised sheep in high school and performed research with goats and goat milk while working towards my Master’s, I relish any chance to talk about them. While lambs are a frequent biblical symbol associated with Easter, goats are a similar species also born in the spring, and goats have become quite the rage nowadays with activities such as baby goat festivals, goat yoga, goat party rentals, and even goat-kart races!

A young goat kid standing on top of its mother.
Everyone is raving about goats these days, and it’s easy to see why! Who wouldn’t want to spend a beautiful spring day with these rambunctious cuties?

Within minutes after birth, lambs and kids are capable of walking, and one of the first items on their mind is food! Lambs and kids are both classified as ruminants, which means they have a specialized digestive system to help break down a plant-based diet. Ruminants have a single stomach with four compartments: the reticulum for temporary storage and size-sorting of feed, the rumen with its vast microbial population for fermentation of fiber, the omasum for water absorption, and the abomasum, which is akin to our own acidic stomach and helps with the chemical breakdown of food. Because lambs and kids are mammals like us, they solely consume milk for the first few weeks to months of their life. However, the microbial population in the rumen can potentially alter the nutrient composition of the milk and reduce its nutritional value for the offspring. So how do baby goats and sheep get around this hurdle? They have a specialized structure in early development, termed the esophageal or reticular groove, which bypasses the microbes within the rumen and allows milk to be broken down and digested directly from the abomasum. Isn’t that neat? Ruminants are the coolest!

Young lambs nursing off of their mother in a field.
Young lambs enjoying a meal from mom; ruminants like sheep and goats must use specialized digestive structures early in life to maximize the nutrition they receive from milk.

Sheep and goats have also been crucial contributors to science. The aforementioned Roslin Institute is responsible for the first cloned mammal, Dolly the Sheep. Cloning of the first mammal helped pave the way for other genetic modifications in livestock. In previous years, milk from genetically engineered goats has been produced to include supplemental antimicrobial enzymes, such as lysozyme, in efforts to fight childhood malnutrition and diarrhea. Today, genetically engineered sheep are potential candidates for human organ generation due to their similar size and physiology to humans.        

While spring is a time to enjoy the company of new furry, feathered, or woolen companions, it may also be a time to reflect on how all these species have contributed to science and the wellbeing of humans. So the next time you go to the grocery store to support your favorite animal industry, go to an event at your local farm, or attend your favorite goat yoga class, know that your efforts also support science!

Peer edited by Gabby Budziszewski.

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Flossing your way to cancer

Toxins are everywhere these days. In your water, in your food, in your beauty products, in mostly everything you consume or surround yourself with. Most importantly, toxins are in the headlines. The media has done a great job sensationalizing many toxicology papers and creating eye-catching headlines, like mine, that are not necessarily correct.

Earlier this year, USA Today released an article titled “Oral-B Glide floss tied to potentially toxic PFAS chemicals, study suggests” and Medical News Today released a similar piece titled “Flossing could increase exposure to toxic chemicals”. These were all based on a recent article published using self-reported data from the Child Health and Development Studies in Oakland, CA. Due to the media sensationalizing this study, it is important to break down the headlines and understand what was actually said and done.

Figure 1. Structure of PFOA: a non-polymer PFAS

Figure 2. Structure of PFOS: a non-polymer PFAS

Figure 3. Structure of PFTE: a polymer PFAS. n signifies that this basic chemical unit is repeated multiple times to form a polymer.

The toxins of focus in the article, as the USA Today headline states, are PFAS. PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products for nearly 70 years. PFAS are fluorosurfactants which are a group of chemicals whose properties originate from a substitution of hydrogen with fluorine along the carbon backbone. PFAS include chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and can be found in non-stick cookware, water-repellent materials, some cosmetics, food packaging, and products that resist grease, water, and oil. PFAS encompass many substances and the EPA has a list that includes over 5000 PFAS substances. The PFAS substances can be divided into two major families: polymer and non-polymer. Polymers and non-polymers are differentiated from each other by size, with polymers being a chemical made of many repeating units of non-polymers. The non-polymer PFAS include PFOA and PFOS and are the most commonly detected in the environment. The polymer PFAS are larger molecules than the non-polymer substances and include PFTE.

In the study described, they measured a total of 11 non-polymer PFAS (including PFOA and PFOS) in blood samples in 178 middle-aged women and collected data on behaviors that they believed would influence PFAS exposure. These behaviors included using things like non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn, glide floss (Oral-B), coated cardboard containers, seafood, and stain-resistant carpet and furniture. This is the first paper to consider dental floss as an exposure to PFAS. To narrow down the brand and type of floss, the researchers did something interesting. They analyzed 18 different floss types for the presence of fluorine and used it to evaluate the plausibility of PFAS exposure from dental floss. They found Oral-B Glide dental floss and two other dental floss products to have detectable levels of fluorine.

Fluorine is a chemical that is represented by the letter F on the periodic table of elements. We commonly know it as fluoride, which is made when you combine fluorine and a metal, like sodium. Fluoride can be a common component in many of our dental products, although Oral-B’s website does not specify whether their Glide floss contains any. They do have an instructional page that takes you through the different types of dental floss, where you can see a very familiar looking word: polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is the most commonly used chemical for Teflon coating and is in the polymer family of PFAS which is not the same class as PFOA and PFOS (these are non-polymers).

The article does take notice of the report that Oral-B Glide is manufactured from PTFE; however, it is confusing why they chose to evaluate PFAS non-polymer exposure when the Oral-B Glide Floss is made with PTFE which is a PFAS polymer. It is particularly perplexing since the studies that describe the toxicity of PTFE are few in number, in comparison to PFOA, and the results do not present substantial conclusions. This is when a little chemistry knowledge is needed. PFOA is commonly used in the synthesis of PTFE and is an established dangerous chemical. Additionally, PTFE may also contain PFCA (another type of PFAS). The studies done to assess the presence of these PFAS in PTFE were done with non-stick pans while applying high levels of heat to see if PFOA and PFCA gases were released. It seems a stretch to imagine that dental floss would undergo enough heat to release these more dangerous toxins and thus contribute to the circulating levels of non-polymer PFAS. However, it is possible that PFTE, when metabolized by the body, breaks down into these more toxic metabolites.

It is mentioned in the discussion of the article that “PFASs are detected in PTFE-based dental floss…” and cites two papers. One of the papers clearly shows that PFOA was detected in both dental floss and dental tape. However, the concentration is minute in comparison to PFTE cookware, PFTE film/sealant tape, and popcorn bags. There is one main thing to keep in mind from this seemingly damning paper. It is unclear from their methods how they measured the PFOA in the dental floss/tape, but it is clear that it was not under circumstances that would mimic human use. The researchers for this paper note that since “…PFTE does not dissolve…” you have to measure PFOA presence by extracting from a ground or powdered material.

All in all, it is important for studies to assess the potential sources of exposure and hold industry accountable. However, it is important when evaluating new sources of exposure to be sure that the exposure in question could be significantly contributing to your toxins of interest. For the case of Oral-B Glide, it is possible that the PTFE used in this dental floss is contributing to elevated levels of PFAS in people’s bloodstream. Nevertheless, we currently do not have the research to support this connection, and so it is important to be mindful with our results and not let the media sensationalize them.

Peer edited by: Isabel Newsome and Nicholas Martinez.

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Biomimicry – Harnessing the Power of Nature

Have you ever marveled at a gecko climbing on glass? Or wondered why mosquito bites are painless unlike the injections we get at the doctor’s office? The natural world has developed some ingenious features during the ~3.8 billion years of its evolution. However, until quite recently, humans weren’t taking full advantage of the ‘inventions’ of nature. Engineers and scientists work tirelessly to develop high tech solutions to everyday problems. Sometimes however, ‘getting back to nature’ is the way to go – enter the field of biomimicry.

Biomimicry, also called biomimetics, uses the natural world as an inspiration for innovative solutions. Instead of developing something brand new, we are more closely examining the natural world and then mimicking its properties for our benefit. One of the earliest examples of biomimicry is velcro, a common component of clothes and other accessories. Velcro was developed by a French engineer to mimic a bur, a little seed with hooks that he picked off himself and his dog after a walk.
A bur
Velcro hooks

Biomimicry experienced a boom after the release of a book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus in 1997. The super fast bullet train Shinkansen in Japan was designed using concepts of biomimicry. Although engineers didn’t have trouble achieving the desired high speeds, the trains produced large amounts of noise when entering/exiting tunnels. The shock wave produced was enough to structurally damage several tunnels. The redesign of the front of the train was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher. The kingfisher is able to enter water almost without splashing because of the streamlined shape of its beak. Application of this knowledge to the Japanese trains solved the issue of shock waves while also increasing speed and decreasing use of electricity.,_Tenn%C5%8Dji_Park,_Osaka,_December_2015_III.jpg
Common kingfisher
Shinkansen train

What is the future of biomimicry? There are many possible applications still out there and several technologies currently in development. German researchers are working on a robot that resembles a spider. While spiders scare many of us, these spider-like robots could be used to enter spaces unsafe for humans to accomplish important tasks, such as searching for survivors after disasters. Another interesting project is being pursued by scientists in Japan who are developing a needle based on the the mosquito proboscis (mouth) that would slide into skin painlessly just like a mosquito bite.

The potential to use nature as a template for development of new technologies is exciting. We may find previously elusive solutions by harnessing the power of nature, which has evolved for much longer than humans have been on this planet. Biomimicry strives for sustainability because “…the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.” (Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature).

If you want to learn more about biomimicry, I recommend checking out the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organization that is a driving force in the field of biomimicry.

Peer edited by Shaye Hagler.

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Shrinking the Lab is not so Dinky
Lab-on-a-chip Device

When feeling under the weather, we commonly end up sitting in a doctor’s office chair. Blood and saliva samples are whisked away to a room filled with instruments, some as big as a washing machine. In this room technicians run a litany of tests that can take hours or days for results to come through.

These medical laboratories and the tests they provide have evolved from pregnancy testing in ancient Egypt that measured urine’s ability to germinate seeds to the now ubiquitous blood workup at a yearly physical exam. For patients, getting tests done at a doctors office hasn’t changed drastically in the last few decades, but there’s an evolution occurring where these tests and instruments are getting miniaturized.

This growing field of shrinking laboratory instruments is called “lab on a chip” technology. When people say chip, it means many of these technologies are built handheld pieces of glass, plastic, or even paper. By shrinking computers, digital computing technology revolutionized our world, fitting into places previously unheard of such as cars, ovens, and phones. When it comes to shrinking a lab instrument, the benefits take a different shape.

Paper based Lab Tests and Tools

At first thought, using paper to perform medical tests seems rudimentary compared to the whirring computers in a high tech hospital lab. By removing electricity and the expensive complex components, paper-based tests are more affordable and highly mobile. Paper-based tests are often more rugged and compact, which makes their transport and use outside of the hospital plausible. In fact, a paper lab test can be bought in corner pharmacies today.

Author Created Image
Sandwich Immunoassay

The at home pregnancy test is an example of a paper based test. Many of these tests measure the amount of a hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), in urine. This hormone is only present in urine when the patient is pregnant. These tests function by using the paper to wick the urine across several key regions that facilitate the measurement of hCG. First, the paper moves the urine across hCG antibodies, molecules that will only attach to hCG, with tiny colored beads attached. The antibodies that captured hCG are then carried over a second bed of antibodies attached to the paper. This creates a “sandwich” with paper acting as the plate, antibodies as the bread, a filling of hCG, and a colored bead garnish. The sandwich shows up as a thin line of color only if the urine holds hCG confirming the user is pregnant.

Researchers at the University of Washington are expanding the use of paper for diagnostics by developing a test for malaria. Similar to the pregnancy test, this device uses lateral flow to move sample around, but a key difference is this study uses dissolvable sugar to delay the delivery of certain samples. These delays are necessary for measuring malaria; in the pregnancy test only one reaction step occurs, but the researchers are using malaria as an example of an application that requires multiple steps to make a measurement. In this multi-step device, all the samples are delivered at different times automatically because the researchers are able to control how long it takes the sugar to dissolve. Controlling how fluids move on paper automatically enables increasingly complex tests to be run without adding any mechanical components.

Human on a Chip

Where paper devices have shown their use in relation to diagnosis, there are other scientists trying to make chips that mimic human organs. In the future this sort of device could allow doctors to test which drugs would be easily absorbed in a patient’s intestine by using a chip that has their own gut cells. By performing these tests on a patient’s actual cells, doctors can avoid prescribing drugs that are ineffective or even harmful to a patient .

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gathered intestinal cells during gastric bypass surgery, with the patient’s consent, to make an intestine chip with the patient’s’ own cells. To grow the cells in the lab, researchers add growth factors, chemicals that tell cells how to grow correctly, and give the cells a carefully tuned surface to grow on. In the laboratory setting, hard plastics are often used to cultivate cells, but this is not a natural environment for cells, which are used to being surrounded by a soft support infrastructure inside the body. In this work researchers made a soft mold that mimics the shape of the intestine and provides a more natural surface for the cells to grow on. Using this technique the researchers were then able to make a chip that not only looks, but also and acts like our intestines.

With devices like this intestine on a chip starting to appear, there is hope for changes in the way drugs and other therapeutics can be developed. For example, much of drug efficacy testing occurs in mice. Although mice are mammals, which makes them similar to humans in some ways, they are also very different from humans. Frequently drugs that look propitious in mice turn into let downs when tested in human clinical trials. Therefore, by testing drugs on actual human cells early in the development stage mouse lives are spared and the initial investigations are more representative of the final use in humans.

An Imagined Future on a Chip

With “on a chip” technology, the way we approach medicine may look very different to the medicine of today. Waking up at home feeling under the weather, you may go into your medicine cabinet and grab your home diagnosis kit. You swab your cheek with a q-tip and insert the end into a credit card sized chip, you press a button allowing the fluids to flow through the chip and after 5 minutes you have your diagnosis- it’s strep throat.

You message your pharmacy, take a picture of your test results, and receive a notification that your medicine will be ready in a half hour. The medicine you receive was developed through organ on a chip testing and no laboratory animals were used during any stage. Going to the doctor’s office for something as routine as strep is practically unheard of. With the work going into chip technologies, this imagined future may soon become our reality.

Peer edited by: Elise Hickman and Matthew Varga.

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Nature’s perpetual role in the evolution of medicine

It was March 2019, I was at the end of my fourth year of graduate school, and finally taking a ‘real’ vacation. This meant I tried my best to unplug from the stresses of school by leaving my computer and scientific papers at home. I was going to be road-tripping through southern Germany and I wanted to experience the culture and take in the surroundings without the distractions of work. And although I tried to leave science at home, I still naturally gravitated towards science-related attractions.

In Frankfurt, we visited the Naturmuseum Senckenberg, a natural history museum with an extensive collection of dinosaur fossils and a near-complete cast of Lucy’s skeleton, a 3.2 million year old ancestor to Homo sapiens. In Munich, we went to the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science and technology museum, which had exhibits in all areas of interest, including physics,mathematics,pharmaceutics, cosmology, and aviation. One of my favorite science-themed visits, however, was to the German Pharmacy Museum at Heidelberg Castle as it sparked a personal reflection on the development of modern medicine and the role of nature, particularly plants, in that process.

The German Pharmacy Museum (Deutsches Apotheken Museum)

Entering this museum is like taking a step back in time.I walked through re-creations of 17th-19th century apothecaries (pharmacies)with beautifully labeled cabinets in fancy script containing delicate vials and bottles for many remedies. Just past the apothecaries was a room where you can more closely inspect these vials and the contents within. Some of the most recognizable medicines displayed, and still used today, were morphine and aspirin, both of which were isolated from nature by German scientists.

Although morphine and aspirin are now synthesized by chemists in pharmaceutical laboratories, it was nature that inspired the initial use of these chemicals as remedies for ailments. Morphine was first isolated from the opium poppy plant by German scientist Friedrich Sertürner in 1803. Opium, or ‘poppy tears’, however, has been used by humans for millennia to treat pain with evidence of its use pointing back as far  as the Neolithic age (~5000 BC). Aspirin, whose chemical name is acetylsalicyclic acid, was isolated in its pure and stable form in 1897 by German chemist Felix Hoffmann, although the attribution of aspirin’s discovery is a bit controversial. The creation of aspirin was made possible by the extraction of salicin from willow bark. Throughout history, willow bark has been used as a natural remedy for pain and fevers by many cultures including ancient Sumerians and Egyptians nearly 4000 years ago.
Left: Opium poppy from which opium can be extracted. Right: Weeping willow tree whose bark contains silacin.

Although these are only two examples, nature has been a continuous inspiration for remedies for human ailments since the beginning of human existence. All cultures across the world and throughout history have been touched by the medicinal properties of chemicals derived from natural sources like plants and micro-organsims. Modern chemistry has enabled the isolation, creation, and study of these active natural compounds and the realization of those promising compounds into modern medicines. With the extreme diversity in plants and animals on Earth, nature provides the ideal inspiration and source for numerous new medicines.

Peer edited by Jacob Pawlik.

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Could we rewrite the instructions for life?

Every living thing on earth is made from a genetic sequence that contains four different nitrogenous bases – adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). You can think of these bases like letters in a language – different words arise depending on the way they are arranged. However, unlike the 26 letters we have in the English language, nature only has four. But marvelously, these four letters are used to write genetic codes for over a million different types of living species. It stands to reason then that these four letters are special; they’re selected, optimized, and entrusted by nature to hold the instructions for life.

But what if we could rewrite those instructions? A group of scientists were recently able to make a DNA sequence with four new, completely synthetic, nucleobases. This eight-letter genetic code combined the standard A, G, C, and T, with new letters Z, P, S, and B. Normal DNA sequences fold into the shape of a long, spirally structure called a double helix. This shape is crucial for the long-term storage of genetic information and is therefore necessary for preserving the fidelity of life. These scientists showed that different 8-letter DNA sequences were all able to maintain a double helical structure and also exhibit chemical and physical properties similar to normal DNA. To further demonstrate the legitimacy of these new letters, they also showed that their synthetic sequence could be used to make RNA, the functional genetic instructions that are “read” by cellular machinery to make living things.  

The successful advent of 8-letter DNA expands our ability to store information – with 8 letters, we could write the same instructions in significantly less space, improving the potential for DNA to be used as a hard drive of sorts. Additionally, synthetic DNA could have medical and biotechnological implications. Short sequences of DNA are sometimes used to locate specific molecules, such as those that are uniquely expressed in cancer cells. More base options allow for more specificity, improving the targeting properties of these DNA sequences.

Most profoundly however, synthetic DNA also suggests that our DNA isn’t particularly special. There isn’t something uniquely perfect about the four bases nature chose for life on earth – in fact, life on other planets could exist with completely different types of genetic information, and a DNA scan may be insufficient to survey for life. Even if we don’t find extraterrestrial life forms, research in this field could be en route to engineering its own synthetic organisms – which would maybe be too close to all those famous sci-fi dystopian movies for comfort.

Peer edited by Nicole Fleming.

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March Madness Mayhem: Analyzing Performance Under Pressure

March Madness has arrived, which means my alter ego – the one that worships Coach Roy Williams, mumbles curses against Zion, and says words like “offensive rebound percentage” – has officially been unleashed.  As I fervently check my NCAA bracket and get misty eyed at the mention of graduating senior Luke Maye, I am keenly aware that the success of my bracket and any team’s ability to ascend to the Championship comes down to how well players perform under pressure. This leads me to ask an important question for the sake of science (let’s face it, it’s really for the success of my bracket and perhaps yours): What is it that allows humans to execute a series of learned behaviors at peak performance under stress?

Fascinatingly, sports and athletic endeavors of excellence allow us to ask this question and make observations in a relatively controlled environment. Let me take you back to a crushing but incredible memory for many Tar Heels.  It was a dark night on April 4th, 2016 and my boys (during the month of March I refer to the Tar Heels as “my boys,” bear with me) were playing Villanova in the Championship game. With seconds to the finish, my main man Marcus Paige shot a three-pointer and the CROWD WENT WILD. Three seconds later, Villanova responded and dreams were crushed, babies were no longer to be named Marcus Paige, and bonfires were doused. HOWEVER, THAT IS NOT THE POINT. Within the last ten seconds of this harrowing game, two teams had the ability to hit three pointers within mere seconds of each other in the Championship game. Was it nerves of steel? Was it sheer grit and determination? Was it just basketball destiny that we were to fall so that we may rise again in 2017? As I thought back to Marcus, I reflected on what many psychologists and behavioral scientists consider a critical facet in performance: balancing eustress and stress.

Frankenhouser first introduced the term “eustress” in 1980 and denoted it as a positive type of stress, the kind of motivation that enables you to use that nervous feeling or mild anxiety and channel it into positive outcomes. Eustress differs from the negative form of stress (also referred to as distress) in that it is a low underlying level of stimulus rather than acute and sudden stress. How does this act of balancing eustress with distress actually work? So as it turns out, that low to moderate levels of controlled stress (e.g. consistent exposure to high stakes games but at regularly paced intervals) can really help mediate this balance. In addition, eustress is most present when there’s considerable joy experienced by the expended effort (e.g. you really love the game). Let’s think back to our scenario, both UNC and Villanova are big-name teams. These so-called “blue-bloods,” are the schools that consistently make it to the top 32, top 16 or even the Elite Eight year after year. This means that there’s substantial exposure to this environment over the course of a player’s career, and more importantly, senior players pass down these experiences to the incoming recruits. Both teams also have notorious rivals that push and magnify even regular season games to be of tournament calibre. So, in part this explains how both of these teams were able to place outstanding shots with 10 seconds left in the game. However, you may say, is that the only factor here? Did Marcus Paige truly abandon all distress in the face of Villanova to bring us back on the scoreboard? I believe in addition to moderate levels of consistent NCAA exposure, there was an important secondary factor in play for Marcus.

If we really break down how I think peak performance is achieved, we have to consider how fear and anxiety are accepted and internalized. We just discussed eustress and practice theory, in which you overcome stress and channel it into eustress with consistent hard work and exposure. But what if you can’t do that? What if the acute distress is truly overwhelming? I would like to bring in a non-basketball example for a brief moment to really drive this point home (yes, I will use basketball puns all day err’day in this article). Recently, National Geographic released a documentary on Alex Honnold free climbing El Capitan (the death tower of granite in Yosemite Valley) without any ropes or gear. Most people would cringe at the mere thought of this venture and some, myself included, may just pass out from the dizzying idea of plummeting 3000 feet. However, Alex did his climb successfully and with an immeasurable amount of calmness. When interviewed, he stated that it wasn’t the lack of fear of dying that allowed him to perform these feats. Rather, it was an acceptance and compartmentalization of that fear and the acceptance of the outcomes of failure. I think what makes peak performance under stress truly possible is a combination of training along with internalization of fear. What’s most important in a stressful situation is acceptance of distress, taking control of it, visualizing the possible outcomes, and being okay with moving forward. That said, it’s very well possible that in those final moments of that game against Villanova, Marcus Paige saw the final seconds of his college basketball career and accepted that situation, found joy in it, and made a career-defining move.

The Tar Heels and March Madness have taught me a lot of things, but above all, they have taught me a lot about how stress and anxiety can be channeled into productive outlets and how to rise above the pressure to try to do your best when you can. As Coach Roy Williams would say, “That’s a pretty daggum good basketball team.” Yes, I did watch a 1-minute sports clip of all of Roy’s choice game interviews to come up with that for this article, but he’s right because they are able to play well under pressure. I can’t wait to see how March Madness will conclude this year and look forward to see who will rise to become champions.

Peer edited by Keean Braceros.

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Dietary Supplements: The Uncomfortable Truth
Dietary supplements by zone.

Unfortunately, the link between dietary supplement use and negative health impacts is not new. This is likely because the selling of these supplements is not controlled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is the U.S. government agency that ensures the safety of the food, drugs, and even the cosmetics sold in this country. They ensure that there is scientifically sound evidence to support safe human and animal usage of these products. However, the FDA is not legally permitted to conduct research and lead safety investigations on dietary supplements before they have hit our markets (find out why here). Only after certain evidence is collected – such as records of hospitalizations – can the FDA then begin an investigation into assessing the safety of the supplements and confirming the identity of all the ingredients.

Shifting to a healthier lifestyle can be a monumental challenge, but often a rewarding one. It can also be a slow process. In and out of the gym environment, we’re constantly bombarded by ads, commercials, and fellow gym members all ranting about their quick solutions to dropping pounds, gaining muscle, or getting “bigger, faster”. It’s likely that some of these quick solutions involve the use of easily obtainable dietary supplements. In 2016 it was estimated that 70% of Americans use some form of dietary supplement. The uncomfortable truth is that while many of these dietary supplements claim to improve health and fitness, their use is often connected with emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and in extreme cases, death.

Assessing the safety of supplements for human health is a multi-step process. A major stage of this process is assessing whether the supplement or a particular ingredient induces liver damage. The human liver is one of the largest organs in the human body, and plays a key role in removing chemicals and breaking down drugs in our body. For example, our livers break down the alcohol that is transferred from our stomach to our bloodstream after drinking. Excessive alcohol drinking can exhaust our liver, preventing it from completing its many other essential tasks like storing sugar for when our bodies need the extra energy. Like excessive drinking, supplements can also damage our liver. Specifically, supplements with high steroid levels hamper the liver’s ability to dispose of waste products.

Ultimately the usage of dietary supplements is a potentially dangerous game and the decision to take supplements should not be taken lightly. In fact, many of the key components of these supplements can simply be acquired from our diets. Thus, avoiding dietary supplements or consulting with a doctor beforehand is a much safer way to accomplish a healthier life transition.

Peer edited by: Kasey Skinner

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Climate change and environmental justice: a case study in ethics and science

A key part of the fight against climate change is to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). So, when a massive corporation reduces their emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road, we should celebrate their efforts in “breaking sustainability barriers” – right? Shouldn’t we nudge other companies to follow their lead? In an era where our government is denying climate change, why wouldn’t we embrace our climate allies in the business world?

A report was recently released about how Smithfield Foods is meeting its pledge to reduce GHGs. Since 2013, Smithfield has worked in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit at the forefront of environmental sustainability. As the EDF attests, it is true that Smithfield is leading other food industries in cutting GHGs. Yet it is also true that Smithfield continues to extort marginalized communities here in North Carolina.

In this article, I use the case of Smithfield Foods to ask broader questions about ethics and advocacy. I challenge my fellow scientists to consider how power is distributed between industry, academia and communities compared to how it should be distributed. Before we follow the EDF and hold Smithfield up as a role model, we must ask ourselves: if we’re only focused on reducing GHGs, on whose backs are we fighting climate change?

Smithfield Foods

The bacon on your BLT, the pork in your sausage and the carnitas in your taco likely all come from the same source: Smithfield. The scope of their business is massive, and in 2013 they were acquired by a Chinese company, WH Group. Smithfield is both the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, which means that they raise and slaughter pigs and package meat for distribution. In 2017 alone, global sales exceeded $15 billion. In North Carolina, Smithfield owns 225 hog farms and contracts 1,200 of the state’s 2,200 hog farms (altogether this accounts for 90 percent of North Carolina’s hog production).

Smithfield hog farms are Consolidated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where hogs are raised in large barns where they eat, sleep and defecate. The shift from pastures to CAFOs has been a seismic shift in North Carolina’s hog industry. In 1974, there were 22,975 hog farms and 1.4 million hogs in North Carolina. Today, there are 2,200 hog farms and over 9 million hogs. All of those hogs need to eat a tremendous amount of grain, which they then digest to produce a tremendous amount of waste. To put “tremendous” in perspective, consider that there are 10.3 million people in North Carolina. Imagine that each person weighed between 300 to 700 pounds, and that these giant North Carolinians lived almost exclusively in three counties. Now imagine that the volume of waste produced by these animals was stored in uncovered, football field-sized pits.

Hogs and Environmental Justice in North Carolina

If you didn’t know your pork chops came from Smithfield, you may have heard about them in the news. Smithfield has been heavily criticized for its waste management practices, which were brought to national attention last year due to a series of nuisance lawsuit settlements and contamination caused by hurricane-related flooding. Stick with me in this section – the injustices perpetrated by Smithfield run deep, but this understanding is necessary to engage with the ethics questions at the end.

The waste management practices in question involve the contamination of lagoons and sprayfields, which have been the focus of most environmental justice organizing against Smithfield. In an industrial hog operation, barns are constructed so that waste falls through holes in the floor and then is periodically flushed out into outdoor waste lagoons. As of January 2018, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had issued hog farms permits for the operation of over 3,700 waste lagoons. When the lagoons become full, liquid waste is sprayed on to nearby fields. As you can imagine, this leads to a number of problems: the build up of nutrients and metals in the lagoon water contaminates nearby groundwater and surface water through lagoon leakage or spraying; methane, hydrogen sulfide and nitrous oxides are released as the organics in the lagoon water decomposes; the risk of lagoon flooding during storms increases; and spraying  aerosolizes fecal water. The odor and pollution impact people’s health and quality of life. Although DEQ waste permits specify when, where, and how much lagoon waste can be sprayed, the process is self-regulated and frequently violated by hog farms. Besides waste management, neighboring communities are also affected by the use of antibiotics in animal feed, pollution from the storage of dead pig carcasses, and heavy truck traffic.

What makes this environmental pollution an issue of environmental justice? According to the US Department of Energy, environmental justice ensures that “no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences” and that historically marginalized populations have a seat at the table when environmental decisions are to be made. Hog operations, however, disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. In North Carolina, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are 1.4, 1.26, and 2.39 times as likely, respectively, to live within three miles of at least one hog operation. In total, an estimated 1 million North Carolinians live within three miles of hog operation, and over half of them live within three miles of two or more. In fact, about 16,000 residents live within only half a mile of 2 – 5 industrial hog operations [reference: public comment submitted by UNC faculty and students regarding the renewal of NC’s animal operations general permit]. A recent study found that residents living near industrial hog operations had a higher risk of infant mortality and low birth weights as well as higher risk of adult mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and blood bacterial infections as compared to communities of similar demographics.

Civil rights groups have taken two legal strategies to advocate for these communities. First, in 2013, 600 residents filed 26 lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, the subsidiary of Smithfield that produces the majority of Smithfield’s pork in North Carolina. This started a series of retaliatory steps by Smithfield and its allies in the North Carolina legislature. Immediately after the lawsuits were filed, the General Assembly made it more difficult to file nuisance lawsuits against agriculture (Right to Farm Act). In 2017, the General Assembly passed HB 467, limiting the total compensatory damages that can be awarded in nuisance lawsuits. HB 467 was sponsored by Representative Jimmy Dixon from Duplin County, which is home to over 500 industrial hog operations. In 2018, after the first trial ended and a jury awarded the plaintiffs $51 million, the General Assembly passed SB 711 by Senator Brent Jackson and Rep. Dixon, both of whom receive contributions directly from Smithfield or from political organizations funded by Smithfield. SB 711 further limits when a nuisance lawsuit can be filed as well as when punitive damages can be awarded. Both HB 467 and SB 711 were passed over Governor Roy Cooper’s veto. In the three cases settled in 2018, plaintiffs were awarded $51 million, $25 million, and a historic $473.5 million in damages, but these were reduced to $630,000, $3.2 million and $118 million, respectively, due to HB 467 and SB 711. An additional two cases have been settled, both finding Smithfield Foods at fault. Although plaintiffs were suing Murphy-Brown and not individual farmers, Smithfield chose to remove hogs from the specific farms involved in each of the three settled lawsuits, putting the hog farmers out of business. Smithfield has successfully framed nuisance lawsuits not as a right of property owners, but as an attack on farming families. Since hog farmers tend to be white and the plaintiffs are mostly people of color, this has flared tensions along racial lines.

Civil rights groups have used another legal tool: appealing to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fight the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). In 2014, the Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) filed a complaint with the EPA that the DEQ was violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits entities receiving federal funding from acting in ways that disproportionately harm communities of color. As mentioned previously, the DEQ grants permits to hog operations so they can have waste lagoons that, in turn, harm neighboring communities of color. Former North Carolina Governor Patrick McCroy had disregarded public requests to account for the racial and ethnic impacts of the hog industry when issuing waste permits. Under his tenure, civil rights groups attempted to negotiate with DEQ over the Title VI violation, but civil rights organizations were subject to intimidation by the hog industry. However, under Governor Roy Cooper, the DEQ has cooperated with the EPA and formed an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. As part of the settlement, DEQ will be more transparent about how it investigates animal waste complaints.

Finally, it is worth noting that Smithfield’s business practices do not only negatively impact neighboring communities, but the farmers themselves. Contract farming is responsible for 81% of hog production for Smithfield. In these contracts, farmers supply labor and equipment and are responsible for waste disposal (the part of the business that costs money), but Smithfield owns the feed and the pigs (the part of the business that makes money). This arrangement puts contract farmers in a financially difficult situation. The debt they face after constructing facilities keeps them vulnerable to their terms of contract and they are not left with sufficient resources to upgrade their facilities beyond what Smithfield requires. Furthermore, Smithfield controls almost every part of the supply chain in eastern North Carolina, from the distribution of grain-based feed supply to pork processing plants, a process called vertical integration. This means that even if a farmer wanted to break a contract and convert their land to a smaller hog farm, they would be operating in a place without easy access to feed or processing plants to support their business.

Didn’t the EDF say there was good news? Smithfield’s Sustainability Goals

In 2010, Walmart approached 15 of their major suppliers to lower their GHG emissions (an initiative which they renewed with their 2017 Gigaton Challenge to reduce emissions among suppliers). As a result, in 2013, Smithfield partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce emissions, largely by reducing fertilizer loss from grain production. The details of their progress were published in the case study mentioned earlier. Indeed, Smithfield has met their target for reducing GHG emissions from grain farms and feed milling, and has supported the majority of farmers from which they source  to adopt more sustainable fertilizer practices.

However, the case study points out that while 19% of Smithfield’s GHG emissions came from grain farms in 2018, 43% came from manure management. This refers to the methane and nitrous oxides given off by open waste lagoons. Smithfield is now turning towards biogas technology to address this issue, which captures methane and other gases and refines them into natural gas that can be used for energy. Biogas is a promising technology for curbing emissions, creating jobs, and providing renewable energy for North Carolina. However, Smithfield’s current plans do not involve community advocates nor do they ensure that their waste management practices will comply with environmental standards set by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2007 for new hog operations. Waste will still be pumped into lagoons that may pollute groundwater or be prone to overflow in storms, and effluent will still be sprayed on to neighboring fields. Smithfield has yet to include host community benefit agreements as part of their plan.      

The EDF and Smithfield have a clear strategy for environmental issues: make progress by putting aside differences and focus on common ground. This led to the successful reduction of GHGs through supporting grain farmers. This strategy seems pragmatic. However, after six years of partnership, at what point is pragmatism a euphemism for complicity?

Advocacy and hard questions

This case study illustrates how systems and sociopolitical context influence the way the scientific challenges of our day, like climate change and environmental justice, are tackled. Smithfield is an example of a powerful corporation both making meaningful contributions to fighting climate change through reductions in GHGs, while at the same time polluting the environment and investing heavily in the perpetuation of environmental injustice.

Yet if Smithfield can pay for lawyers to fight nuisance cases, buy the influence of North Carolina representatives, and support monarch butterfly preservation, they certainly can afford to compensate communities suffering from their hog operations and remediate the damage they have caused. And if the Environmental Defense Fund is truly committed to their mission of protecting our climate and human health and truly values ethical action, they should be transparent about the injustices Smithfield still has to right.

There are three main calls-to-action I would like to put forth.

1: Learn from communities. If you conduct research in a field related to identifying and treating hazards, recognize the expertise of communities affected by these hazards and learn how to support community organizing. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is a method that involves the community in every step of the research process, using their lived experience to drive research questions, collect data and interpret results. In this way, CBPR transforms “research from a top-down, expert-driven process into one of co-learning and co-production.” For example, when UNC’s Dr. Steve Wing investigated the health effects of living near hog operations in North Carolina, the project was a result of working with community members rather than simply in communities. Through their lived experience, community members best understood the kinds of healths effects of living near CAFOs, the relationships between different community members, and the relationship between Smithfield and contract farmers. When results were published, community partners were included as coauthors. Even if findings are not published, communities can use them as evidence when pushing for change, such as submitting public comments to local government or in court.

If your research is relevant to community health, how do you engage communities? Do you value their expertise? Are they involved in research design? Do you invest time into building trust and relationships? Do you compensate community members for their time? Do you present or disseminate results in a way that’s accessible, relevant and empowering for communities?

As an aside, if you follow no other link in this article, I urge you to read more about the late Dr. Wing here or here.

2: Be an engaged scientist. CBPR is most common in the health and environmental sciences, and not all STEM fields lend themselves to community engagement. For example, understanding the chemical bonds in tertiary protein structure or figuring out how to travel to Alpha Centauri  are scientific endeavors that expand our knowledge of how the world works. We do them because, as Mae Jemison has said, “pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow builds a better today.”

However, there are still ways to be an advocate in science, regardless of your field. Be aware that every stage of the scientific process is influenced by the politics of scientists, funders and institutions: the questions to be answered, the datasets to be used, the solutions that are offered and the way solutions are evaluated. This reality reflects the importance for diverse perspectives, both by increasing representation from marginalized communities within the scientific community as well as developing equal partnerships with communities themselves.

In addition, be vigilant against the influence of special interests in science. Advocate for a democratic scientific process in the institutions you work in. Unfortunately, the publication and dissemination of scientific findings are vulnerable to industry and political pressures. Recently we have seen this at the EPA with climate change. At UNC, Dr. Steve Wing’s documents were seized by North Carolina’s Pork Council, a special interest group funded by Smithfield.

How can science advance the public good when research is increasingly privately funded? Is any of your institution’s funding tied to special interest groups, and does this give science a lack of power? How can an academic best partner with community organizers to advocate for change, when institutions may have mixed support for more progressive and political causes? Is there an equal sharing of power between your research institution and communities?

3: Be an engaged citizen.  Show up to fight for a more equitable and sustainable future.

There are some individual actions you can take. Voting is one. In North Carolina, Governor Cooper unsuccessfully tried to veto HB 467 and SB 711, two pieces of legislation mentioned earlier that have dismantled community power, making it harder to file nuisance lawsuits and reducing the compensation plaintiffs can receive. Governor Cooper will be up for reelection in 2020, and many of his potential opponents receive contributions from Smithfield and  plan to use his support for HB 467 and SB 711 against him. You can also buy pork products from small, sustainable farms, such as Cane Creek Farms in Saxapahaw.

Unfortunately, in a gerrymandered state, your vote is not enough. In a consolidated food system, with large corporations like Smithfield, buying local is not enough. We must advocate for systems changes. Fighting climate change or environmental injustice both require a combination of public education, political legislation and engaged corporations.

As Dr. Wing advocated, “we need to insist that industrial producers pay for their damages to human health and the environment.” The most important direct action you can take is to aid organizations that uplift the voices of affected community members, through donations or volunteering. We must support their efforts to raise awareness of their issue, to lobby political leaders for increased regulation and enforcement and to negotiate with corporations. In the case of Smithfield, you can support NCEJN or REACH. If you are financially able, you can donate. You can also volunteer your time.

How else can you advocate for communities and support their right to self-determination? How can we work to make systems changes while up against corporations with large lobbies? And in pursuing a career in science where objectivity is valued, in a world where future employers in academia or industry will google who you are, are you willing to speak truth to power as a citizen to demand systems change?

I don’t pose these as rhetorical questions. I would love to hear what you think. Please leave comments! Or email me, at

I would like to thank Justine Grabiec for her help with editing. I would also like to give a special thanks to Danielle Gartner, Adrien Wilkie, Mike Dolan Fliss and Libby McClure for their thoughtful comments on how to improve my framing of this article, for their links to additional resources, for their continued partnership with organizations like NCEJN and REACH, and for all they do to keep Dr. Steve Wing’s legacy alive through the Epidemiology and Justice group. You all are rockstars.

Peer edited by Justine Grabiec and Rita Meganck..

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