Molds, Mealworms, and Missed Opportunities: How We Think About Young Scientists

It’s no exaggeration to say that the discovery of antibiotics revolutionized medicine. For the first time, doctors had a powerful, reliable tool for treating deadly infections. We usually credit the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, to Alexander Fleming in 1928. However, the ability of Penicillium molds to stop infections was actually discovered some 30 years earlier – by someone 24 years younger.

In 1896, a French medical student named Ernest Duchesne made a key stride toward the development of antibiotics as part of his thesis, yet it was all but forgotten until a few years after Fleming received the 1945 Nobel Prize. Though it is unlikely that the antibiotic that Duchesne observed was actually penicillin, as discussed here, his work should have received far more recognition than it did. Fleming was an excellent researcher, to be sure, but had Duchesne’s work been acknowledged instead of ignored by the Pasteur Institute, it’s hard to imagine that Fleming would have been credited with the key penicillin breakthrough.

An image of Ernest Duchesne.
Ernest Duchesne (1874-1912)

Sadly, Duchesne’s story is not unique in the scientific community. Though science has sought to value knowledge above all else, countless examples exist of findings being ignored due to biases about what makes a good scientist. In fact, even Duchesne’s work may have come from watching Arab stable boys treat saddle sores by allowing mold to grow on saddles, which raises further questions about attitudes toward non-Western knowledge – a contentious topic that I won’t delve into here. Instead, I want to consider how the scientific community views young scientists and how our assumptions hurt more than help the pursuit of knowledge. (Note: I use “our” here and throughout to acknowledge that grad students like me and other young academics can be victims of elitism while also perpetuating it against other young researchers.)

“But wait,” you might say, “surely we’ve gotten better at valuing young scientists in the past 100 years!” To some degree, you’re right – as a young researcher myself, I’ve felt generally supported and respected in academic circles. Yet, despite substantial progress, there is still a barrier between our young people and widely-accepted, legislation-informing science.

For instance, a recent discovery in the battle against plastic waste was the ability of mealworms to break down styrofoam. Once the worms eat the styrofoam, explains one of the two highly impactful 2015 articles, the bacteria in their guts can completely digest it. It was a fascinating finding, but it had already been made in 2009 by a 16-year-old. Tseng I-Ching, a Taiwanese high school student, won top prizes at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF; typically held in the U.S.) for her isolation of a styrofoam-degrading bacterium that lives in mealworms. Yet, there is no mention of her work in the 2015 papers. Even working with scholars from local universities and excelling at the ISEF – the world’s largest pre-college science fair – is not enough for a young researcher’s work to break into the bubble of academia. Prize money and prestige are certainly helpful for kickstarting an individual career, but allowing valuable research to go unnoticed holds science back for the entire community.

A man looks out of a window into a large room filled with science fair posters.
International science fairs like the ISEF can be great sources of fresh scientific ideas.

Now, any researcher can tell you: science isn’t easy. Producing data that you can be confident in and that accurately describes an unknown phenomenon is both knowledge- and labor-intensive. We therefore tend to assume, maybe not even consciously, that young people lack the skills and expertise needed to conduct good, rigorous science. Surely much of the work at high school science fairs, for example, has already been done before, and what hasn’t been done must be too full of mistakes and oversights for professionals to bother with, right? In fact, that’s not a fair assumption for large fairs like the ISEF, where attendees have already succeeded at multiple levels of local/regional fairs and are judged by doctoral-level researchers. Had established scientists paid attention to Tseng’s work, research on breaking down styrofoam could be years ahead of where it is now. Perhaps we should be considering how these students’ projects can feed the current body of knowledge, instead of just giving them a prize, fawning over their incredible potential, and sending them on their way.

A speaker at a workshop I recently attended about research careers left us with a memorable quote, to the effect of: “An academic’s greatest currency is their ideas.” When academia ignores young researchers, we’re essentially telling them that their ideas are not yet valuable. One group working to prove this wrong is the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS). Founded in 2016 and operating in the UK, IRIS works to get school-age students working on cutting-edge scientific projects. In working with the group, Professor Alan Barr (University of Oxford) noted that his project 

“…has morphed into something that’s been taken in so many different directions by so many different students. There’s no way that we ourselves could have even come up with all of the questions that these students are asking. So we’re getting so much more value out of this data from CERN, because of the independent and creative ways in which these students are thinking about it. It’s just fantastic.” 

IRIS often encourages its students to publish in professional scientific journals, but even if a young researcher’s work is not quite worthy of publication, acting like they have nothing to contribute is foolish and elitist. In the Information Age, it’s easier than ever for curious, passionate people to gather enough knowledge to propose and pursue valid research questions. We might be surprised at the intellectual innovation spurred by browsing projects in IRIS or the ISEF and reaching out to students that share our research interests. Perhaps our reluctance to do so stems more from our egos than from fact.

Ultimately, promoting a diverse and inclusive scientific community will improve the quality of science done and help ease the strained relationship between scientists and the public. Doing so means we have to recognize and challenge our biases about who could be part of the team. These are widespread biases that can be difficult for individuals to act against; a well-intentioned researcher may struggle to convince funding agencies to back a project inspired by a high-schooler’s work. Therefore, I’m not pointing fingers, but calling on every member of the community to help change scientific culture. 

Perhaps students like Duchesne and Tseng are more the exception than the norm. Yet, when given an attentive ear, their fresh ideas are bound to be well worth any naiveté. The biggest barriers they face in contributing to science may not be their flaws, but their elders.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Dardis and Brittany Shepherd.

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 amlacko@ad.unc.edu

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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How to Advocate for Science

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Capitol_-_west_front.jpg

The U.S. Capitol is home to the Senate chamber (left) and the House of Representatives (right). When the flag is flying, that means that Congress is in session.

 

From the careful planning of experiments to the more mundane mixing of coffee, milk, and sugar – or milk, then coffee, no sugar – science is part of our daily lives as graduate students. In contrast, science is far from the daily thoughts of the majority of American adults. Yet, all of us come across questions of scientific interest such as, “How to manage the opioid epidemic?” or “What are the available treatments for sickle cell?” Because the scientific method provides evidence to answer these questions, scientists must participate in the policy-making process by communicating with members of Congress. Engaging with politicians and policymakers can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. Below are four ways to start your path as an advocate for science:

 

  1.       Request a meeting.

Meeting with legislators is the most effective way to advocate for science. If you are unaware of who represents you in D.C., search for your legislator on the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate websites using your zip code. Visit the legislator’s website to request a meeting using the contact form. Otherwise, write down the email, address, and phone number of local and D.C. offices. In your email, explicitly state the purpose of your meeting and the topic or issue you wish to discuss. If you are unsure how to format the letter, click here and here for sample letters.

After the meeting is scheduled, it is time to do your research! Determine if your legislator has appointments in committees relevant to your discussion. Identify the legislator’s position on the issue by browsing the legislator’s voting record on their website or by calling the office and asking a staff member. A useful resource is GovTrack.us where you can track what bill your legislator has sponsored and what legislation are currently under scrutiny. Gather relevant information you would like to add to your discussion including reports and figures.

Dress professionally for the meeting and arrive to the building 15 to 20 minutes before the scheduled time to avoid long lines at the entrance. Limit your conversation to one or two points as meetings last about 20-25 minutes. Remember to maintain a calm and conversational tone throughout. Most importantly, make the discussion personal by sharing your story on how the issue affects you and your district. Before leaving the office, thank the legislator or staff for their time and willingness to meet. After your visit, write a thank you email.

 

  1.       Write to Congress.

After your visit, send a thank you email summarizing the topic discussed. Instead of writing a long email, attach a text document with a bullet list that includes your position on the topic and what you wish the legislator to do. Staff members will likely download, archive, and refer back to the bullet list when writing letters and reports for the legislator. In addition, attach supplementary information that strengthens your position on the topic such as reports and figures. Find a sample letter here. If you did not meet with a legislator, write a short email explaining your concern on a topic and how it affects you and your district. Provide possible solutions to the problem and do not be afraid to highlight what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to include your address, phone number, and email.

 

  1.       Call, every day.

At the end of the day, staff members sort calls to local and D.C. offices by zip code and topic. The top three topics make it to a report that reaches senior staff and the legislator. Therefore, calling offices is an important and easy way to voice your position on current issues. Similar to a face-to-face meeting, limit your conversation to one or two points that you would like to make. Make the call personal by sharing specific examples of how the issue affects you and your district. Avoid ambiguity by clearly stating what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to call your district representative, two senators, and both local and D.C. offices for six calls total.

 

  1.       Get involved.

Learn more about careers in science policy and how to engage effectively with congress by getting involved in the Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG) at UNC. SPAG is a student-led organization that enables students, postdocs, and faculty to learn about and advocate for science policy. Use your newly-minted skills at our yearly visits to Capitol Hill and state capitol to emphasize how investment in scientific research benefits North Carolina’s economy. In addition, we visit public schools in rural North Carolina to raise awareness about the federal agencies that support research.

 

As graduate students, we must engage in the policy-making process to cement partnerships between politicians and the scientific community, and to reinforce the connection between policy and scientific knowledge.

 

Peer Edited by Lindsay Walton

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