What an 1.5°C increase can bring

Did you find the past few years’ climate peculiar, with extremely high temperature or intense rainfall days occurring more often? Have you ever heard of shrinking ice sheets or seen this famous photo of polar bear clinging to an iceberg? What about the massive bleaching of coral reefs? Unfortunately, you’ve spotted evidence of climate change

Temperature trends by NASA

Human-induced global warming has resulted in a 1°C increase in global mean surface temperature in 2017 when compared to the period prior to the spur of large-scale industrial activities (1850-1900, here-on referred to as pre-industrial levels). Further, the temperature increase can reach 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels as early as 2030 and as late as 2052, a recent report released by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says. We are already noticing some inconveniences previously noted at the 1°C above pre-industrial levels, but the extra 0.5°C warming on top of that is projected to amplify risks for all inhabitants on Earth.

The report by IPCC explains that many regions will be impacted with the global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, with high temperature days, heavy precipitation, and intense droughts occurring more often. Such changes will impact our lives in the foreseeable future, not only by causing the disturbances we notice nowadays, but by increasing food insecurity, water stress, risk of vector-borne disease (e.g., malaria, flu), and heat-related deaths. Many ecosystems and the biodiversity within are at risk too; some species will face extinction and some will lose their habitats due sea-level rise, sea-ice loss in the Antarctic, coral bleaching, shifts in biomes.

So what is being done in the global scale to address the issues that come with climate change? The first global effort to fight climate change, the Paris Agreement, was initiated in Paris 2015 by the IPCC. 195 participating countries have agreed to focus their efforts on limiting the global temperature rise to not more than 2°C above pre-industrial level. Long-term climate change adaptation goals were established through the Paris Agreement, which will be met by participating countries through nationally determined contributions. Each countries are requested to outline and communicate country-level efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change (nationally determined contributions). To facilitate reduction in greenhouse emissions through nationally determined contributions, Talanoa Dialogue was launched in January 2018 and the next meeting will take place in December 2018. More recently in October 2018, the special report by IPCC was released in South Korea, assessing the global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

This special report by IPCC includes the impact of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and assessments on mitigation and adaptation strategies. To halt global warming, the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere must equal the amount that is removed from the atmosphere (net zero). The report warns that such net zero CO2 emissions must be reached around 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Good news is that we could slow the progression of climate change using currently available means, by changing our (individual and industrial) behaviors to reducing energy consumption and switch to more energy-efficient fuel options. Additionally, energy consumers can implement carbon capture options; energy providers must switch from coal-based to renewable energy sources, agricultural sector can shift to producing non-CO2 emitting crops and limit expansion into carbon rich ecosystems such as tropical forests. Luckily, some of these strategies are already underway in many countries, but the report warns us that more drastic measures need to be implemented in order to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C. Given that the U.S, the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, has announced to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, it is of particular importance to continue to increase awareness. It is critical to actively tackle adaptation and mitigation strategies to response to climate change across the nation.

Want to learn more and get involved? Visit the website for IPCC to read recent reports and activities to help reduce climate change. Follow their SNS to be up-to-date on global effort to fight climate change (facebook, twitter, instagram, or linkedin)!

Peer edited by Eliza Thulson.  

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Superior Syntheses: Sustainable Routes to Life-Saving Drugs

While HIV treatment has come a long way over the past few decades, there is still a discrepancy between total number of HIV patients and those with access to life-saving antiretroviral therapies (ART). The inability to access medications is often directly linked to the cost of the medication, demonstrating the need for ways to make these medicines cheaper. In October 2018, Dr. B. Frank Gupton and Dr. Tyler McQuade of Virginia Commonwealth University were awarded a 2018 Green Chemistry Challenge Award for their innovative work on the affordable synthesis of nevirapine, an essential component of some HIV combination drug therapies.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/blyth/1074446532

Neviripine, a component of some HIV therapies.

For the past 22 years, the American Chemical Society (ACS) in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has awarded scientists who have contributed to the development of processes that protect public health and the environment. Awardees have made significant contributions in reducing hazards linked to designing, manufacturing, and using chemicals. As of 2018, the prize-winning technologies have eliminated 826 million pounds of dangerous chemicals and solvents, enough to fill a train 47 miles long. The nominated technologies are judged on the level of science and innovation, the benefits to human health and the environment, and the impact of the discovery.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/37873897@N06/8277000022

Green Chemistry protects public health and the environment.

Gupton and McQuade were awarded the Green Chemistry Challenge Award for the development of a sustainable and efficient synthesis of nevirapine. The chemists argue that oftentimes, the process to produce a drug remains consistent over time, and is not improved to reflect new innovations and technologies in the field of chemistry, which could make syntheses easier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. Synthesizing a drug molecule is not unlike building a Lego tower; the tower starts with a single Lego and bricks are added one-by-one until it resembles a building. Researchers start with a simple chemical and add “chemical blocks” one-by-one until it is the desired drug molecule.  Gupton and McQuade demonstrated that by employing state-of-the-art chemical methods, they can significantly decrease the cost to synthesize nevirapine.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/billward/5818794375

Producing pharmaceutical molecules is like building a Lego house.

Before this discovery, there were two known routes toward the synthesis of nevirapine. Researchers used projections to determine which steps were the costliest. With this knowledge, they were able to improve the expensive step of the synthesis by developing a new reaction that used cheap reagents (“chemical blocks”) and proceeded in high yield. A chemical yield is the amount of product obtained relative to the amount of material used. The higher the yield, the more efficient the reaction. Reactions may have a poor yield because of alternative reactions that result in impurities, or unexpected, undesired products (byproducts). Pharmaceutical companies often quantify chemical efficiency by using the Process Mass Intensity (PMI), which is the mass of all materials used to produce 1 kg of product. Solvent, the medium in which the reaction takes place, is a big contributor to PMI because it is a material that is necessary for the reaction, but not incorporated into the final product. Gupton and McQuade were able to decrease the amount of solvent used because they streamlined reactions that reduced impurities, allowing them to recycle and reuse solvent. These improvements reduced the PMI to 11 relative to the industry standard PMI of 46.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nevirapine.svg

Molecular structure of nevirapine 

In addition to their synthesis of nevirapine, Gupton and McQuade also developed a series of core principles to improve drug access and affordability for all medications. The general principles include implementation of novel and innovative chemical technologies, a decrease in the total number of synthetic steps and solvent changes, and use of cheap starting materials. Oftentimes, the pharmaceutical industry focuses on starting with very complex molecules in order to decrease the number of steps needed to reach the target molecule. Interestingly/unfortunately, starting with complex “chemical blocks” is often the most expensive part of  producing a medication. By starting with simpler chemicals, they believe production costs can be significantly decreased. Virginia Commonwealth University recently established the Medicines for All Institute in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and Gupton and McQuade hope that by employing the process development principles, they will be able to more efficiently and affordably synthesize many life-saving medications.

Peer edited by Dominika Trzilova and Connor Wander.

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Understanding Sea Turtle Navigation with Laser-based Imaging

https://www.maxpixel.net/Sea-Turtle-Is-Animals-2547084If you’ve ever been lost in an unfamiliar city or tried to walk around in the dark, then you may have found yourself wishing you had the eyes of a cat or the echolocation abilities of a bat. But have you ever wished for the navigation abilities of a sea turtle? While many animals are known for their superb sensory perception which make them better navigators than humans, it may surprise you to hear that sea turtles are among the elite navigators of the animal kingdom. Sea turtles are able to cross entire ocean basins (covering distances of thousands of miles) surrounded by seemingly featureless, dark water in order to return years later to their original nesting grounds. This behavior is as perplexing as it is impressive: while we know that sea turtle navigation has something to do with sensing Earth’s magnetic field, the mechanism which enables them to sense and interpret magnetic fields has not yet been identified.

To compare, humans have five senses. Each of these senses is linked to some kind of receptor which converts the environmental stimulus into a signal which our brains can interpret as either an image, a sound, a taste, a texture or a smell. For example, our eyes contain photoreceptors which convert light into electrical signals that travel to our brains and are interpreted as images. Sea turtles have another sense: they are able to sense magnetic fields. This means they must have some magnetic receptor which converts the magnetic field into a signal which is interpreted by the animal’s brain. However, scientists don’t know what these magnetic receptors are or where they are located within the body of a sea turtle. This is a crucial step on the path to understanding the impressive navigation abilities of sea turtles.

Working in collaboration with biologists who study sea turtle navigation, my research project is to design and build a special imaging system which is able to locate these magnetic receptors in sea turtles. This project can be broken down into three parts: design the imaging system, develop a method for detecting magnetic particles, then build and test the hardware.

Designing an Imaging System

You may wonder why it’s so hard to find these magnetic receptors if we know they must exist. It’s difficult because these magnetic receptors are extremely tiny, thought to be smaller than the size of a single cell, and they may be located anywhere inside the body of the sea turtle. The smallest species of sea turtle is roughly the same size and weight as a Labrador, with some species being several times larger, making the search for a cell-sized particle challenging. For an imaging system to detect these magnetic receptors, we need the following conditions:

  1. High resolution- Because these receptors may be very small, we need high resolution to locate where they reside within the tissue.
  2. High magnetic sensitivity- If we want to detect very small magnetic particles, then our system has to be very sensitive to small amounts of magnetic material.
  3. Fast- Because we have to search through large volumes of tissue, we need a fast imaging system to do this in a reasonable amount of time.
  4. Non-destructive- Many existing imaging methods require the addition of dyes and other contrast agents which irreversibly alter the tissue. We would like to avoid this because sea turtles are endangered and finding dead sea turtle tissue to image can be challenging.

So why can’t we use an imaging system that already exists? Although there are several imaging systems which are able to detect magnetic particles, none of them meet all four of our requirements. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is very sensitive to magnetic material, but the resolution is not high enough for our aim. A microscope has really good resolution, but it can only image a very small section of tissue at one time, so the overall imaging speed is slow.

In order to meet all four imaging system requirements, we use a relatively new optical imaging system called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). OCT is very similar to an ultrasound, the same technology used to produce fetal sonograms.  Rather than using sound waves to form an image as in ultrasound, OCT uses light waves from a laser to create an image. By using light instead of sound, we shrink the scale of the imaging down so that our resolution is much better than that of MRI or ultrasound. By its nature, OCT is also non-destructive.

OCT works by illuminating the sample we want to image with light waves. When the light hits the sample, it can either pass through the sample or it can bounce away (we call this scattering). OCT captures the light that is scattered back in the direction from which it came. We record this light on a camera along with light that was reflected from a stationary mirror in a process called interferometry. By comparing the light reflected from the mirror and the light back-scattered from the sample, we can tell how far the light travelled after it was scattered from the sample. This allows us to create 2D images of the sample.

Developing a Method for Magnetic Particle Detection

To get the desired magnetic sensitivity, I designed and built an electromagnet which can produce a sufficiently high magnetic force. We place this magnet over the tissue we want to image. By applying a current with a sinusoidally varying amplitude to the electromagnet, we create a magnetic field with a sinusoidally varying amplitude. This variation in the magnetic field strength causes the magnetic force felt by a magnetic particle to vary sinusoidally as well. Therefore, any tiny magnetic receptors in the sea turtle tissue we are imaging will oscillate up and down in sync with the applied magnetic force. As the magnetic particles oscillate up and down, they will cause the surrounding tissue to deform. This deformation causes a measurable change in the back-scattered light. We record a series of images while applying the oscillating magnetic force. We can then compare consecutive frames to identify any pixels whose intensity is varying in sync with the applied magnetic force and by doing so, locate the magnetic receptors (see Fig. 2). An OCT system combined with this method of magnetic particle detection is called magnetomotive OCT.

https://users.physics.unc.edu/~aold/MethodsMMimaging.htm

Fig. 2 Schematic Diagram showing that when the magnetic receptors (black spheres) feel the oscillating magnetic force, they oscillate up and down creating a measurable change in the light reflected from the surrounding tissue.

Testing the Magnetomotive OCT System

After designing and building the magnetomotive OCT system, we first had to test the system to ensure it met our requirements for  resolution, speed, and magnetic sensitivity. We measured the resolution by imaging small, highly scattering particles and confirmed that we achieved our desired resolution. To test the imaging speed, we imaged human bronchial epithelial cells. These are the cells lining our airways which contain cilia and secrete mucus. The mucus layer acts like a shield preventing the bacteria we breathe in from entering our bloodstream. The cilia beat to propel the mucus (containing all those trapped bacteria) out of our airways and are a vital component of a healthy immune system. Therefore, the ability to image living, beating cilia is helpful to doctors who study respiratory diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis. Our collaborators in the Cystic Fibrosis Center at UNC provided us with a sample of these cells, and we were able to image the beating cilia. This was a very exciting result. Not only did we confirm that our OCT system has a fast imaging speed, but we also discovered that this novel imaging system may be useful for helping to diagnose and research respiratory diseases.

Future Research: Turtles and Beyond

Our imaging speed experiment using epithelial cells demonstrates a vital point in the scientific process: often, by setting out to answer one question, you may open avenues of investigation you had never considered. We demonstrated with this experiment that our OCT system has the best combination of high resolution and high-speed of any OCT system to date. We will next measure the magnetic sensitivity of our system by imaging tissue phantoms, silicone-based samples which mimic the light-scattering properties of biological tissue, containing increasingly small concentrations of magnetic particles. Once we are sure that our system has the desired magnetic sensitivity, we can begin imaging animal tissue. If we are able to locate the magnetic receptors, it would be a huge breakthrough in the study of sea turtle navigation. If we are able to find these receptors, biologists can study them to understand exactly how they are used to sense magnetic fields and how the turtles use that information to navigate. Building this novel imaging system is just one step toward finally understanding sea turtle navigation. In addition, we have also discovered that our technology may have other uses, as our preliminary work with the cilia suggest. We will continue toward our goal of detecting magnetic receptors in sea turtle tissue while also investigating the system’s applications in respiratory disease research.

Peer edited by Allison Lacko and Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Nobel in Chemistry for an Evolutionary Revolution

https://phys.org/news/2017-10-nobel-chemistry-prize-major-award.html

The Nobel Prize awarded to Dr. Arnold, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Winters

Evolution, the process of gradual changes to genetic information in each generation over millions of years, proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century is being revolutionized by modern science. Unexpectedly, the revolution is driven not by evolutionary biologists or ecologists, but rather centered around the methodologies of chemists and enzymologists.

Accumulation of mutations is a slow and random process. However, scientists were able to harness the power of evolution to identify and select for specific mutations that improve the ability of molecules of interest. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Dr. Frances Arnold “for the directed evolution of enzymes” and to Dr. George Smith and Dr. Gregory Winters “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies.”

Dr. Arnold was able to develop a methodology to enhance enzyme activity and give existing enzymes new functionality, a feat that was realized in unprecedented amount of time. She was able to accomplish this by simply using error prone PCR to cause mutations in enzymes and then selecting one with favorable ability compared to the many enzymes produced. Repeating the cycles hundreds of times enhancing the functionality of the enzyme each time, allowed her to develop P450 with novel function.

Dr. Smith was also able to apply the concepts of evolution by using bacteriophages, viruses that normally infect bacteria. Dr. Smith developed the process of phage display, a means to study protein-protein interactions by encoding genetic information into bacteriophages. By using E. coli cells infected with bacteriophages and then infecting with another virus, Dr. Smith was able to encode genetic information of a protein on to the viral coat of bacteriophages. This allowed the new protein to be displayed on the viral coat and able to be recognized with an antibody.

Dr. Winters then incorporated the antibody gene rather than a specific protein into the viral coat. This allowed him to scavenge for antibodies with a specific binding site via interactions with different antigens. Using a similar method to Dr. Arnold, he caused mutations in the antibody, and selected for the antibody with highest affinity to the antigen. The results were highly efficient antibodies and a mechanism that is used to produce 11 out the 15 most-sold drugs on the planet.

Peer edited by Rachel Battaglia.

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Science Behind the Dance – Autobiography by Wayne McGregor

Auto-Bio-Graphy = Self-Life-Writing or how your body and life look as told through choreography.  This is what Wayne McGregor imagined as he began working on Autobiography with the McGregor Company Dancers.  The Science Writing and Communication club (SWAC) and Carolina Performing Arts recently sat down with the dancers to discuss how science and dance intersect.

SWAC learned that McGregor has been collaborating with scientists for many years regarding different facets of dance.  For example, his dancers have worked with Professor David Kirsh at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied creative cognition with the dancers and how dance content is created and remembered between dancers and choreographer.

Photo by Andrej Uspenski

Company Wayne McGregor dancers perform Autobiography. Photo by Andrej Uspenski.

When McGregor began working on Autobiography, inspired by having his DNA sequenced, he gave his dancers ideas, or what they call tasks, to demonstrate different concepts with their bodies through dance.  For example, at the beginning of creating Autobiography, the dancers were paired into groups of 4 and given the letters A,T,G, or C.  He then asked them to create choreography together.  Then McGregor and the dancers visited The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge UK, a world leader in genome research, and learned what the letters A,T,G,C meant biologically as the building blocks of DNA. After visiting the sequencing facility, McGregor asked the dancers to repeat their choreography tasks.  During our conversation, the dancers said that with their new understanding of DNA biology, the choreography tasks took on a new meaning.

The dance Autobiography is broken down into 23 different choreographed segments that are assigned an order randomly by an algorithm to mimic the randomness of DNA recombination.  This aspect of the choreography is complicated for the dancers, who don’t know the order of the segments until a couple days before the performance.  This meant that sometimes they would be dancing for long periods of time, whereas other times their performances would be broken up into smaller segments throughout the night.  Sometimes the dance segments flow into the next piece of choreography seamlessly, and sometimes they end quite abruptly.  In our conversation, the dancers said they envisioned this re-ordering and occasional abrupt stopping as being very similar to the chaos of life.

An interesting moment from our conversation evolved as both dancers and scientists alike realized that we both strive to achieve communication through our bodies.  It is easy to imagine how dancers do this, but not as easy to imagine how scientists communicate with body movement.  As scientists, we realized that we attempt to communicate concepts visually through use of our bodies, whether it be through gesturing with our hands to emphasize points during a presentation, or through mimicking with our bodies what we believe is happening, invisible to us, inside a cell during DNA damage, repair, or replication.  Another moment in our conversation where science connected easily to dance was when the scientists and dancers discussed how both published scientific findings and performed choreography are both put into the ether for others to interpret using their personal lenses.  We all interpret data differently based on our own experiences, and as scientists and as dancers we hope that people find use in our work and can apply it to their own lives.

Peer edited by Adrienne Cox.

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Golden Medicine: Use of Plasmons for Cancer Therapy

Cancer is an immensely complex disease to treat. The number of mutations and combinations of mutations that can lead to its development make each “cure” more of a patch to a few specific cases. Couple that with the increasing rate of mutation within cancer cells, and it becomes difficult to even diagnose the issue. Plasmon therapy offers the potential for a broadly applicable treatment, and because it couples well with the bodies immune response, offers a therapy that could decrease the chance for metastatic tumor development.

Before we discuss this topic with greater specificity, a few terms should be defined. Plasmons, from the word plasma, are a material that has electrons that flow back and forth in a wave when light shines on them. Plasmas are just gaseous ions, like lightning or neon signs, and in the case of a plasmon, this plasma is confined to the surface of a nanoparticle. You can read more about plasmon theory here.

Nanoparticles abound in modern technologies and are defined by one dimension, the so called “critical dimension”, which is around two hundred nanometers. For reference, that’s roughly one hundred thousand times smaller than a human hair. This size can afford a variety of unique properties to a molecule: distinct colors, uncharacteristic electronic activities, and even the ability to move through a cellular membrane. All these attributes will come into play in how these molecules interact with cancer cells, so they’re important to keep in mind.  Plasmons are nanoparticles that are so small, that the plasma on the surface can be manipulated by light. This rapid movement of plasma gives rise to heat as it collides with surface particles just as your hands generate heat rubbing together. The type of light that does this can be visible or even radio waves, meaning that very low-energy and harmless beams can be used to generate this rapid heat.

The second bit of background knowledge necessary for this discussion is: how is cancer treated in the first place? Many current cancer therapies come from small molecules roughly the size of glucose. Whether they use metals or strictly carbon, small molecule cancer therapies usually rely on interrupting one or a few cellular pathways, like DNA replication or a checkpoint before mitosis (cell splitting). One of the first nanoparticles approved for cancer therapy have been gold nanorods, which are thousands of times larger than a small molecule and have used physical rather than chemical mechanisms for therapy. To clarify, instead of changing some pathway in a cell, these nanorods can selectively heat cancer cells until the cell dies. If you were to think about this in terms of pest control, nanoparticle therapy is like burning a nest of cockroaches. In that same case, using small molecules like cisplatin would be like spraying the cockroaches with the latest bugkiller.

Extending this analogy, it’s fairly obvious that setting a fire inside someone’s body is not a good medicinal practice, so it would be fair to question how plasmon therapy might be helpful. There are two strategies for plasmon cancer therapy: precision lasers and radio waves which can pass through a body. The earliest use of plasmon cancer therapy used a fiber optic that was inserted under the skin to a location near the tumor. Then, beams of light would hit only the tumor. This has the advantage of targeted dosing, but can still be considered fairly invasive. Others have begun using plasmons that generate that intense heat with radio waves so that no procedure is necessary: simply an injection or ingestion of nanoparticles and then stepping into a radio transmitter This can be impractical if the tumor is not in a confined space. Common gold plasmonic nanoparticles would go inside all cells so healthy cells would be damaged just as easily as cancerous ones. Recent work shows that the surface of the nanoparticle can be changed so that the majority of uptake occurs by cancer cells. Cancer cell metabolism makes the charge of cancer cell membranes different from the charge of normal cell membranes, so these nanoparticles can exploit that difference to target only cancer cells.

With this targeted dosing, plasmons show promise as a noninvasive form of therapy that do not harm the patient and would be applicable to most forms of cancer. Even though the safest and most effective nanoparticles will use gold, treatment costs are currently around  $1000, thereby promising a treatment that will not be prohibitively expensive for the future.

Peer edited by Kasey Skinner.

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Midterm Election Ballot Amendments: What’s up with the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment?

Do you think the right to hunt should be protected by the NC state constitution?

This election cycle, North Carolinians will be voting on six constitutional amendments, one of which is the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment. The amendment would upgrade hunting and fishing to a constitutional right, designating “public hunting and fishing [to] be the preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.” Restrictions on hunting and fishing would be prohibited, except to comply with wildlife conservation and management laws.

At UNC’s Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG), we highlighted the quoted language from the amendment, wondering: Are voters being asked to make a decision motivated by wildlife conservation science or by politics? While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services claims that hunting is a wildlife management tool, this largely depends on local context based on hunting regulation and the species in question.

To answer this question in North Carolina, we consulted resources at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. While NC has a Deer Management Assistance Program, a recent publication on the Wildlife Restoration Program states that the primary contribution of hunters is financial. In addition to the state taxes we all pay, hunters contribute to conservation funds through hunting licenses and excise taxes on arms, ammunition, and equipment. The Wildlife Commission uses those funds to purchase and manage habitat lands, restore wildlife species, conduct research, and survey wildlife populations. In fact, the increase in game populations (turkey, quail, fox, black bear, etc) is desirable because it incentivizes a growth in the popularity of hunting, which would in turn maintain revenue streams for conservation. The report does not mention hunting’s impact on wildlife population control in NC, and a search of academic literature yielded no results on the topic.

So hunting is an important financial tool for wildlife management, rather than a tool for wildlife population control. However, there’s also no evidence that anyone wants to reduce hunting licenses. If anything, because of the important funds generated by hunting, NC has a Hunter Heritage program to try to reverse declines in the number of people who hunt.

Which brings us back to the ballot amendment – what are we really voting for?

A “yes” vote supports creating a state constitutional right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, affording it the same protection as free speech. This would mean the NC General Assembly would have the sole power to regulate hunting and fishing. In comparison, a “no” vote opposes codifying this right in the state constitution, maintaining having a license as a privilege.

In the end, it’s unclear what exactly this amendment would accomplish besides adding another amendment. Of all the ballot amendments, this is the one toward which state legislators feel the most ambivalent. Some democratic state representatives believe the amendment is politically motivated to draw more conservative voters to the polls who may misunderstand the amendment to mean that their ability to hunt and fish is vulnerable. This would help shore up votes for Republicans across the state.

This article is not a referendum on hunting, which, it turns out, is a prime example of how recreational activities can be leveraged to support conservation and science. However, we find this amendment uses misleading language about the efficacy of hunting itself as a wildlife management tool in NC to create unnecessary legislation.

Peer edited by Izzie Newsome.

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If everyone jumps off a bridge, would you too?

For better or for worse, some of our most vivid memories are the ones we made as a teenager. Memories of questionable fashion choices, high school cliques, and many faux pas certainly reinforce just how tumultuous the adolescent years were. With the newfound importance of peer and romantic relationships, a key motivation underlying most teenage behaviors is the desire to “fit in.” Do they want to hang out with me? Does he like me? Will this make me look cool? Although these questions may arise at any age, the motivation toward social belonging is perhaps most salient and emotionally evocative during adolescence.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbdodane/11857296626

If everyone jumps off a bridge, would you too?

In some situations, individuals will shift their own attitudes and behaviors to be more like others, a phenomenon known as social influence. Although conforming to social influences can increase feelings of social belonging, most research has focused on the negative consequences of being affected by, or susceptible to, social influences, especially during adolescence. For example, relative to adults, adolescents take more risks in the presence of peers than when they are alone. Thus, a widely popular belief shared by parents, educators, and policymakers is that peers steer youth toward engaging in negative behaviors that they otherwise would not participate in. While adolescents are notorious for “hanging out with the wrong crowd,” researchers wanted to know if adults are susceptible to social influence too.

Scientists recently showed the effect of social influence on decision making changes significantly from late childhood to adulthood. In two studies, participants (8-59 years old) rated the perceived riskiness of everyday situations (e.g., crossing a street on a red light).Then, they were shown the ratings of a social influence group (either teenagers or adults) on the same situations before being asked to rate the everyday situations again. Although all participants changed their risk perception in the direction of the social influence group, younger participants were more susceptible to social influence on risk perception than older participants. In other words, risk attitudes are most likely to be shaped by social influence during childhood and early adolescence, an effect that wanes but persists in late adolescence and adulthood.

The source of social influence matters too. The authors found that early adolescents (12-14 years) were the only age group to change their perceptions of risk more in the direction of other teenagers’ perceptions. Children (8-11 years), late adolescents (15-18 years), young adults (19-25 years), and adults (26-59 years) showed the opposite effect, being more influenced by the risk perceptions of other adults relative to other teenagers. Overall, these findings highlight the profound impact other people have in shaping risk attitudes, even beyond the teenage years. Whereas peers are most influential in shaping early adolescents’ risk attitudes, adults play a stronger role in changing risk attitudes at earlier and later ages. One possibility is that most individuals incorporate the advice of adults when forming their risk attitudes because adults are considered experienced and trustworthy. In contrast, early adolescents may value the opinions of other teenagers more than the opinions of adults to inform their risk perceptions, potentially due to the heightened importance of peer acceptance and social belonging during this time. While the desire to fit in may push everyone to give in to social pressures, even beyond the teenage years, the type of consequences that arise from adopting others’ risk attitudes depends on the source of that social influence. Thus, perhaps the more appropriate question to have posed at the beginning of the blog is whether those around you would jump or not?

Peer edited by Kathryn Weatherford and Breanna Truman.

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A picture is worth a thousand words…or more

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20090211_thousand_words-01_cropped.jpg

“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” This timeless expression first appeared in a 1911 Syracuse Post Standard newspaper article. If you ask Mohamad Elgendi, he’ll say it’s more like 10000 words, based on how fast our mind processes words vs. images. Although true for almost everything, this phrase is becoming even more important in the sciences where data visualization is a necessity for clearly communicating complex and large data sets.

The concept of data visualization is simple: it is the representation of data in a graphical or pictorial format. Creating effective data visualizations, however, is quite difficult. Scientists are often tasked with this challenge every day, whether by presenting their work to peers or to the general public through written and oral forms of communication. Data visualizations play a huge role in all of these outputs, so scientists should be pretty good at it, right?

Most scientists would probably say they are decent at preparing figures and graphics for someone that is within their field of study. Beyond just the typical representations of data like bar plots, scatter plots, pie charts, and line graphs, different fields within the life sciences have created various types of plots for representing certain data. For example, protein sequence conservation is sometimes depicted in “sequence logo plots”. But these field specific data representations may not be appropriate for all audiences and branching out to create something that is both visually appealing and effective at conveying the proper message to the right audience is tough.

There are multiple possible explanations for the gap in scientists’ ability to make effective data visualizations. The first is that we simply are not trained in art or graphic design. Additionally, scientists do not always have access to someone, such as a graphic designer, to collaborate with for making figures. Although there are efforts being made, such as this one at the University of Washington, that work to forge collaborations between science and design students. Another factor that introduces a hurdle to scientists making good data visualizations is time. First, a good figure requires a complete and thorough understanding of the data which can take a tremendous amount of time, particularly in the days of big data, where data sets are extremely vast and complex. Finally, it also takes time to create a figure. Creating a beautiful data visualization requires hours of training and working with unfamiliar software, such as Adobe Illustrator, that takes patience and persistence to master.

So scientists need to improve their data visualization skills but it is often difficult to find the time to practice some of these skills. Some helpful beginners tips for data visualization are shown below because the goal is always the same.

Goal of data visualization: To create a story from a set of data in a clear manner

How to get there:

  1.   https://stock.adobe.com/Figure out your narrative, or the story that you want to tell with the data. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the dataset you aim to represent along with the an understanding of your audience.
  2.   Determine the best way to represent the data. This sounds easier than it actually is and could take some time making and comparing multiple different types of figures. Again remember the story and the audience.
  3.   Learn a little bit about how the brain perceives images, color, and depth. Learning the core principles of design, such as color choice, negative space, and typography, can have an immediate impact on
    the visual appearance of the graphic. This
    document highlights data visualization specifically for the life sciences and Nature has compiled a collection of articles related to design.
  4.   Get feedback from everybody. Before finalizing a data visualization make sure to get feedback from multiple people with different backgrounds. Ensure they all interpret the data as you aimed to present it. And, as most things are not perfect the first time, refine and remake until you create your ideal data visualization.

Nearly every scientist hopes to turn the ideas in their head into a beautiful work of art, similar to this process of going from sketch to infographic. It takes time, patience, and practice to develop these skills. If you are a scientist looking to enhance your data visualization skills consider taking an online course, reading up on data visualization, practice making figures from some largely accessible datasets or for your colleagues, entering a contest such as the NSF Vizzies Challenge, or attending a conference or workshop.

Peer edited by Alex Mullins.

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Why the Ocean needs the Desert

What do you imagine when you think of the desert? I grew up in the desert and I think of dry hot days and clear cool nights. I think of my home town where mountains and a vast sky surround us.  I think of sand and dust which permeates all crevices and openings. I think of low-lying scrub bushes and an ecosystem that, while not as diverse as the Amazon rain forest or the oceans, is certainly unique.

Source: https://www.panoramio.com/photo/96124662

What do you imagine when you think of the ocean?  I think of the ocean as the exact opposite of the desert. I have seen the ocean maybe five times in my life so my personal experiences are limited, but my first impression of the ocean was that it was overwhelmingly vast and intimidating. However, when I look beyond my own fears, I think of the ocean as a biodiverse ecosystem that is dependent on its diversity.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation

It’s hard to imagine two more different places on earth in terms of environment and animals. So what is the connection between the two, between the desert and the oceans? Dust.

Around 450 million tons of dust enter  the world’s oceans every year, and two-thirds of this dust comes from the Sahara desert. The dust from deserts can stay in the air for weeks and travel thousands of miles. The dust from the Sahara desert travels across the Atlantic ocean and deposits into the Caribbean Sea or even in the Amazon rainforest. This dust carries vital nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and iron, which are especially important to ocean ecosystems.

Visualization of aerosols produced around the world from dust to sea spray. The tan and red colors are denoting dust aerosols that are traveling.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

 

The importance of dust deposits in the ocean are apparent  in marine phytoplankton. Marine phytoplankton are microscopic plant-like organisms that are at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean and are a critical part for the survival of other ocean creatures. These marine phytoplankton not only serve as a food source for larger creatures in the ocean but they also consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In fact, over half of the world’s oxygen is actually produced by marine phytoplankton. The rate limiting step for marine phytoplankton growth in the ocean is iron availability, which for a majority of the ocean comes from the dust produced by the great deserts of the world.

However, as fantastic as I think dust carried on the wind and contributing to the world’s ecosystems is, there can be some downsides. For example, when a lot of dust enters the ocean in   a short amount time due to dust storms in the Sahara desert, phytoplankton can create  overgrown blooms. These overgrown blooms can actually deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water and cause a dead zone in the ocean.

Despite the previously stated downside to dust, the ocean needs the desert. We, as a species, need the desert. So the next time you are thinking of the desert, think of the dust and where it’s going.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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