Approaching an Energy Revolution

 moritz320 from Free Photos

Renewable energy has come a long way in the last 60 years. A major influencer was the OPEC crisis which led the U.S. government to a drastic change in energy policy. In general, carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for ocean acidification and an increase in global temperatures. The environmental impact of these emissions motivates investigating carbon free or neutral energy sources. This is energy which releases no carbon dioxide in the former or the carbon dioxide released is harvested or stored in some way in the latter case. Currently, 11% of U.S. electricity comes from renewable sources: predominantly wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. This represents a 4% increase from 2006. After the drastic decrease in silicon solar cell prices, integration of solar energy into electricity production has become attractive even without environmental motivation. Despite this progress in renewable energy’s competitiveness and economic attractiveness, complexity surrounding the incorporation of renewables into the current energy market exists. Economic competition, energy storage, and environmental considerations dominate the field of renewable energy.

Because fossil fuels have existed for hundreds of years, the heavy price of infrastructure has already been paid, which makes any new rival energy disadvantaged to market success. An underappreciated aspect of economic competition in the energy market is the dynamics of government funding for different energy sources. Various industries may receive different levels of financial support from the government. Understanding the nuances of a country’s budget is difficult, and this adds an entirely different level of complexity to the picture. In the U.S. in 2016, $1.9 billion was spent on fossil fuel research and development with tax credits and direct subsidization. This does not account for many other programs that support the infrastructure itself: pipelines, mining, and pay for disabled coal miners. Alternatively, renewable-tax-funded support totaled $5.7 billion in 2013. Comparing these numbers might seem like a good start; however, ignoring the unaccounted-for fossil fuel values, which have become integrated into most of our energy budget, these credits represent a market for renewable energy that is not independent of government aid.

Photo by Mariana Proença on Unsplash

With DOE funding having been cut by almost 40% in 2016, which supports most of the renewable energy research, breakthroughs in renewable energy technology will become more difficult. What’s more, the present field of renewable energy that stands on incentives in the form of tax credits and stipends can be viewed as dependent on political favor rather than economic clout. Based on the extreme cuts to the DOE from 2013 to 2016, U.S. support systems for renewable energy may quickly fall short. Fortunately, the solar market, which only composed ~1.2% of all U.S. energy in 2016, has become much more economically feasible, with energy costs approaching $0.37/W, which is comparable to the cost of coal generated electricity.

Most of the renewable energy research, breakthroughs in renewable energy technology will become more difficult. What’s more, the present field of renewable energy that stands on incentives in the form of tax credits and stipends can be viewed as dependent on political favor rather than economic clout. Based on the extreme cuts to the DOE from 2013 to 2016, U.S. support systems for renewable energy may quickly fall short. Fortunately, the solar market, which only composed ~1.2% of all U.S. energy in 2016, has become much more economically feasible, with energy costs approaching $0.37/W, which is comparable to the cost of coal generated electricity.

While the production of sustainably sourced electricity is great, nature does not always align its energy output with the energy usage of your local city. For example, a field of solar panels may produce excess energy one Sunday morning in the summer when very little energy is being consumed. Thus, energy storage is a major concern. On December 25th, 2017 in Germany, prices went negative for two days as a result of high energy output, as the grid had so much energy that transformers and other components could be severely damaged. Citizens were paid to use electricity as a result of this risk. Since then, Germany has developed several strategies for excess energy storage, also known as energy harvesting. Strategies to use excess energy have been developed since. One strategy pumps water uphill to later be used for subsequent hydroelectric power.  Another strategy is to distribute “virtual power plants” in which homes are equipped with large batteries where excess energy can be stored and later used by neighboring homes. While battery storage mitigates the need for active fossil fuel burning when renewable energy sources cannot be used, they use either cobalt oxide or nickel manganese as cathode materials for the most energy dense batteries. These metals have been shown to be toxic and mechanisms for how they might become available to wildlife have been explored. Additionally, batteries do not store energy as efficiently as liquid fuels such as gasoline.

Alternative uses for excess energy should be explored, and prior to implementation, the environmental impact must be assessed. One long sought avenue has been the production of high energy, dense fuels which could be stored and later used. A popular molecule to exploit has been hydrogen due to abundance (water can be used as the supply) and easy reversibility (simply converts back to water after either burning or use in a fuel cell whereas most carbon-based molecules convert to carbon dioxide or have less predictable behavior). A major concern with hydrogen-based energy is the storage of flammable gas. Metal organic frameworks (MOFs), an extremely porous class of materials which can bind and release molecules, have become increasingly effective at gas storage. In a similar vein, frustrated lewis pairs have the capacity to similarly bind and release hydrogen using more abundant phosphorous and boron based compounds. Thus, safe and high-density hydrogen storage may very well become available.

The problem with energy production are waste streams; one of which is heat. The best solution for efficient energy production is likely synergistic. That is, the connection of the waste of one process to the necessary input of another. In a  solar cell, waste heat is produced from light that heats the panel because it is not absorbed and converted to electricity. One might envision a regime where that excess heat is used for another beneficial purpose. In a recent review on desalination, a simple graphene layer over wood was reported to achieve desalination efficiently with 86% energy converted into distilling water. Solar cells overlaying a similar setup may serve as both a radiator for waste heat for photovoltaics and clean water. This type of cooperative energy production can turn the waste of one process into the driving force of another, and this is the mentality that should frame our energy frontiers.

The history of renewable energy in the U.S. began primarily with the motivation to obtain energy independence. Since then, global climate change has become an increasing concern. At the same time, concern over the health of the natural environment has grown as a result of both economic and altruistic motivations. To ensure the future of many industries which rely on the health of biomes, climate change must be mitigated and this can only begin with renewable energy. Solar energy has risen as an affordable alternative in recent years for electricity. To such an extent, that at peak operation, some solar fields are producing more than is needed. This opens the capacity for renewable energy to produce stored forms of energy such as hydrogen fuel or a charge in a battery. Safely and compactly storing hydrogen is becoming more possible with current research. Batteries as a storage option for excess energy must be strictly regulated to minimize heavy metal waste reaching the environment. Renewable energies have adopted a strong economic role in the market where a few decades ago a solar panel was considered fairly niche in terms of applications. This can be seen in the drastic drop in price and the production of massive solar fields. Similarly wind has grown, with China having nearly 200 gigawatts of wind energy installed. However, we should not place our faith solely in solar energy,  wind, or hydroelectric, but attempt to optimize each while finding ways that one process might help another. By reframing the way our world produces and uses energy, we can obtain an energy market which effectively sustains itself with repairs being the only cost.

Peer edited by Jessica Griswold and Mikayla Armstrong.

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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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Science Communication, Advocacy and the Federal Budget

Scientific societies, such as ASBMB, provide opportunities for trainees to travel to Washington, D.C. and meet with policymakers.

Recently, the federal budget for the fiscal year (FY) 2019 (beginning October 1st, 2018) was released. Shockingly, the initial plan called for brutal cuts to basic research funding agencies—slashing the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 27% and 29%, respectively. While Congress subsequently lifted spending caps to compensate for these losses, the budgets of both the NIH and NSF will now remain stagnant at levels for FY2017.

Although catastrophic funding losses have been avoided, these flat budgets are still worrisome. When adjusted for inflation, a stable budget equates to a decrease in funding.  Furthermore, three health research institutes currently located in the Agency of Healthcare and Human Services and the CDC will be terminated and their successors will be created within the NIH. The relocation of these institutes without an increase in NIH funding will further strain the budget.

Numerous scientific societies have responded with criticism to the federal government’s budget proposal. A statement from The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) highlighted the public’s support for scientific research funding and emphasized that adequate funding is critical to combat devastating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Likewise, a press release from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) expressed concern regarding America’s ability to lead in science and innovation amidst stagnant funding.

Educating elected officials on the importance of scientific research is a key focus of scientific societies. ASBMB sponsors an opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to travel to the capital and meet with Congress through their annual Hill Day. Societies also encourage local action. For example, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) compiles an advocacy toolkit to guide members through the process of contacting local representatives, scheduling meetings and organizing lab tours. On the UNC campus, the Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG) is a resource for graduate students and postdocs to gain skills in science communication and advocacy through outreach events, workshops and seminars.     

At the core of science advocacy is the ability to communicate why science is necessary. While the significance of developing new cancer therapies is clear, the importance of basic science research is still often misunderstood. Basic science research is often described as “curiosity-driven” and asks fundamental questions such as: “How do cells move?” This basic research provides a thorough understanding of cellular processes that is critical for later medical innovations. In the 1990s, Yoshinori Ohsumi observed an unusual structure in yeast cells when he starved them. His work in yeast was essential for uncovering the mechanism behind autophagy, a recycling pathway in the cell. Today, researchers know that defects in autophagy result in cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, and Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016.

Ohsumi’s story demonstrates that breakthroughs in basic science are critical for breakthroughs in medicine. Yet, proper funding must be secured before further innovations in either field can occur. As a result, it is critical to create a culture that both understands and values scientific research.

Peer edited by Kelsey Miller.

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Understanding the 2017 Climate Science Special Report

Earlier this year, the U.S. government released the Climate Science Special Report.  This document describes the state of the Earth’s climate, specifically focusing on the U.S.  If you are someone who is interested in environmental science or policy, you may have thought about reading it.  But where to start? The report contains fifteen chapters and four additional appendices, so reading it may seem daunting.  We published this summary of the report to provide a brief introduction to climate change, and to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to learn more.

Retreating of Lyell Glacier (Yosemite National Park) in 1883 and 2015. Park scientists study glaciers to understand the effects of climate change in parks serviced by the National Parks Service. 1883 Photo: USGS Photo/Israel Russell 2015 Photo: NPS Photo/Keenan Takahashi













What is Climate Change?      

“Climate change” is a phrase that has become ubiquitous throughout many aspects of American and global society, but what exactly is climate change?

Like weather, climate takes into account temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind patterns.  However, while weather refers to the status of these factors on any given day, climate describes the average weather for a location over a long period of time.  We can consider a climate for a specific place (for example, the Caribbean Islands have a warm, humid climate), or we can consider all of Earth’s climate systems together, which is known as the global climate.

Depending on where you live, you may have seen how weather can change from day to day.  It may be sunny one day, but cool and rainy the next.  Climate change differs from changes in weather because it describes long-term changes in average weather. For example, a place with a changing climate may be traditionally warm and sunny, but over many years, become cooler and wetter.  While weather may fluctuate from day to day, climate change is due to gradual changes that occur over long periods of time.  Climate is viewed through an historical lense, comparing changes over many years. Though we may not notice the climate changing on a daily basis, it can have drastic effects on our everyday lives.  It can impact food production, world health, and prevalence of natural disasters.,_plotted_against_changes_in_global_mean_temperature.png

Summary of the potential physical, ecological, social and large-scale impacts of climate change. The plot shows the impacts of climate change versus changes in global mean temperature (above the 1980-1999 level). The arrows show that impacts tend to become more pronounced for higher magnitudes of warming. Dashed arrows indicate less certainty in the projected impact and solid arrows indicate  a high level of certainty.

What Causes Climate Change? 

The major factor determining the Earth’s climate is radiative balance.  Radiation is energy transmitted into and out of the Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans.  Incoming radiation most often comes from light and heat energy from the Sun.  Earth can lose energy in several ways.  It can reflect a portion of the Sun’s radiation back into space.  It can also absorb the Sun’s energy, causing the planet to heat up and reflect low-energy infrared radiation back into the atmosphere.  The amount of incoming and outgoing radiation determines the characteristics of climate, such as temperature, humidity, wind, and precipitation.  When the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation changes, the climate also changes.,_2012).png

Scientists agree that it’s extremely likely that human activity (via greenhouse gas emissions) is the dominant cause of the increase in global temperature since the mid-20th century.

There are some natural factors that can influence climate.  The main ones are volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Effect.  Volcanic eruptions emit clouds of particles that block the Sun’s radiation from reaching the Earth, changing the planet’s radiative balance and causing the planet to cool. The El Niño Effect is a natural increase in ocean temperature in the Pacific Ocean that leads to other meteorological effects.  The increase in ocean temperature off the coast of South America leads to higher rates of evaporation, which can cause wind patterns to shift, influencing weather patterns worldwide. Together, these factors influence climate, so when they differ from the norm, they can contribute to climate change.

It is true that climate change can occur naturally and it is expected to happen slowly over long periods of time.  In some cases, the climate can change for a few months or years (such as in the case of a volcanic eruption), but the effects of these events are not long-lasting.  However, since the Industrial Era, the factor contributing most to climate change has been an anthropogenic driver, meaning one that is being caused by human activity. The primary cause of climate change since the Industrial Era has been the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).  These gases are problematic because they remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for a long time after they are released.  They trap much of Earth’s outgoing radiation, leading to an imbalance of incoming and outgoing radiation energy.  Because the Earth’s atmosphere is holding on to all that energy while still receiving irradiation from the Sun, the planet heats up.  This is called the greenhouse effect, because it is similar to what happens in a greenhouse—the Sun’s energy can get in, but the heat cannot get out.  The greenhouse effect has intensified due to the greenhouse gases that are released during our modern industrial processes.  This has caused the Earth’s climate to begin to change.


Who contributed to the Climate Science Special Report?

The report was written by members of the American scientific community, including (but not limited to) the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and multiple universities and national labs.  They analyzed data from articles in peer reviewed scientific journals—that is, other scientists read these articles before they were even published to check for questionable experiments, data, or conclusions—as well as government reports and statistics and other scientific assessments.  The authors provided links to each source in citation sections at the end of each chapter. They combined everything they learned into this one comprehensive document, the Climate Science Special Report.

What can we learn from this report?      

First of all, the report reveals that the Earth is getting warmer.  The average global surface temperature has increased about 1.8°F (1.0°C) since 1901.  This may seem like a small change, but this increase in temperature is enough to affect the global climate.  Sea levels have risen about eight inches since 1900, which has led to increased flooding in coastal cities.  Weather patterns have changed, with increased rainfall and heatwaves.  While the increased rainfall has been observed primarily in the Northeastern U.S., the western part of the U.S. has experienced an increase in forest fires, such as those that have devastated California this year.  Such changes in weather patterns can be dangerous for those who live in those areas.  They can even damage infrastructure and affect agriculture, which impacts public health and food production.  These changes mainly result from greenhouse gases, namely CO2, that humans have emitted into the atmosphere.

Where can I go to read the report myself?  

You can find a link to the main page of the report here.  There is also an Executive Summary, which was written for non-scientists.   While the rest of the report contains some technical language, it is generally accessible, and contains visuals to help readers understand the data.  If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of Earth’s climate and how it’s changing, we encourage you to take a look at the Climate Science Special Report to learn more.  


Peer edited by Amanda Tapia and Joanna Warren.

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Artificial Intelligence: Should We Trust It?

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably read about the boom in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some of the advances have elicited responses ranging from amazement to fear. So why has so much attention been diverted to AI recently? Advances in this technology over the past decade have surprised even experts in the field, and it has been spurred in part by cheaper and faster computing power as well as greater availability of large datasets. AI isn’t some futuristic technology that threatens to change our lives in the distant future, it has already changed our lives in many ways since its inception 60 years ago. Contrary to what many fear, however, it has not yet reached the point of surpassing human capabilities.

Definition and Scope of AI

The portrayal of problematic AI is pervasive in the film industry and can often be misleading. For a technology so widely discussed in popular culture, there’s no consensus on what it actually is. Stanford University’s 100-year study of AI defines it as “activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment.” This definition may explain why my calculator isn’t intelligent, but what about my iPhone? It seems the key is that AI achieves specific goals through methods parallel to human intelligence. Most progress in AI today is within specific subfields like machine learning and deep neural networks, which has enabled the next generation of speech-recognition on the Amazon Alexa or the facial-recognition on the new iPhone X. Future uses of AI include autonomous self-driving cars, diagnostic healthcare and several other applications that we don’t yet have the foresight to predict. According to experts, AI doesn’t have the capabilities that match human intelligence but it does have the ability to process massive amounts of data and learn from it in ways humans can’t. With increasingly available big data and cheap computing power, it won’t take long for us to train computers to make extremely accurate weather predictions, find new drug targets, or mine complex biological datasets in a fraction of the time that humans can. AI is being tested on games like Go, Jeopardy and Dota 2 as a low-risk way to improve its algorithm and to demonstrate the human-like abilities of this technology.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Artificial Intelligence is exceeding our expectations but are we ready for the changes it brings?

In 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and several other scientists and intellectuals signed  an open letter on artificial intelligence, specifically calling for more research on the potential impacts of AI on society. While they discuss several potential benefits of AI, scientists are also wary of the pitfalls and the possibility of losing control of autonomous AI. They believe that the rapid development of AI could threaten to shift society in ways similar to the industrial revolution or the creation of the atomic bomb; inventions that forever changed the social and economic landscape of the world. Another concern is the displacement of humans by robots in many fields. What kinds of jobs will become obsolete? This process of new technology getting rid of certain jobs is nothing new, but it could happen at a higher frequency. Therefore, more research is required to understand how the integration of new AI would affect certain industries.

Should we trust it?

There is no turning back from the future of AI. However, we as a society can engage on how we want to live amidst this increasingly powerful technology. During the past few decades, with the rise of social media, smartphones and cybersecurity issues, technological advancements have already forced us to think about the intersection of humanity and technology. Many scientists and intellectuals warn that AI is more advanced than anything we’ve ever dealt with. Therefore, healthy skepticism is warranted, but not so much that it hinders progress and inspires fear. The US is currently at the forefront of AI research, with China and Russia close behind. The technology is undergoing rapid progress so tighter regulation may slow research down. The existing technological hurdles gives society time to determine what roles we want AI to play in our lives. Some believe that this technology is merely an extension of human values and that our intentions will determine what our future with AI looks like. While this might be slightly naive, I believe that with the proper regulation set in place, we can make a better world more integrated with advanced technology.

Organizations Involved in A.I. Research and Outreach

  • Future of Life: A volunteer-run organization aimed at mitigating the existential risks to humanity from advanced AI.
  • OpenAI: An organization founded by Elon Musk to discover a path towards safe AI
  • Intelligence & Autonomy: A research organization funded by the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund to “provide nuanced understanding of emerging technologies and to inform the design, evaluation, and regulation of AI-driven systems.”
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI): Aims to make intelligent systems behave in a manner that aligns with human intentions.
  • Future of Humanity Institute (FHI): A multidisciplinary research institute that publishes on AI governance, safety and other issues like biotechnology to shed light on humanity’s long-term future.
  • Stanford’s One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100):  To anticipate the effects of AI through a century-long chain of standing committees, study panels and growing digital archive.
  • National Science and Technology Council (NSTC): An executive branch advisory council released two documents highlighting comprehensive research and development plans for AI during the Obama administration (briefs for the Strategic plan and Preparation here). However, since this office has not been staffed under the new administration, it is unclear what steps will be taken by the government.

Peer edited by Gowri Natarajan.

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House Tax Bill Could Lead to Significant Tax Increase for UNC Grad Students

The current IRS 1040 income tax form.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a version of the tax reform bill that, if made into law, could lead to a massive tax increase for many US graduate students.

The cause of this would be the removal of section 117(d)(5) from the tax code. This section establishes that any reduction to university tuition, granted in exchange for work, cannot be taxed.

Many graduate students work as teachers and researchers at their universities, and in exchange receive moderate stipends and have their tuition costs covered by waivers. The removal of section 117(d)(5) would mean that the value of these tuition waivers would be considered part of a student’s taxable income.

Depending on course load, a graduate student enrolled at UNC’s School of Medicine, is  charged from around $8,000 to $34,000 in out-of-state tuition. These numbers vary between different graduate programs at UNC, but generally fall within this range. That means a UNC graduate student in the life-sciences, receiving a $30,000 stipend, could see their taxable income increase to more than $60,000, without taking home any extra money.  

How much your taxes would increase would depend on factors like your residency status, credit hours, and the stipend value. But even for students with relatively low tuition costs, the increase could be several thousand dollars annually, adding significant financial strain for many students who are already scraping by. The effect would be even worse at institutions like MIT and Harvard, where graduate tuition can be more than $50,000.

Graduate students would not be the only ones affected. University employees are the other major group that benefit from tax-exempt tuition waivers, and are often able to send their children to school at greatly reduced costs. For many, that means access to education that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

Cutting tuition waiver tax exemption is not the only way the House bill would impact higher education though. The bill would also drop a $2,500 deduction of student loan interest, as well as the tax exempt status for bond financing at private universities.

Unsurprisingly, the House bill has been met with significant concern by US educational institutions as well as students. Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at MIT, wrote a sharp essay for the New York Times on how the House tax reforms may force her to leave school, and the president of Elon University, Leo Lambert, wrote an op-ed piece in the Raleigh News and Observer in opposition. The Association of American Universities has also issued a statement arguing that the proposed reforms would make higher education less accessible for many Americans.

On the other side, arguments have been made that the relevant proposals, particularly the removal of section 117(d)(5), would not be as detrimental to graduate education as many have claimed.

Forbe’s contributor Preston Cooper wrote that colleges could dodge any negative effects by simply reclassifying tuition waivers as scholarships. That change, Cooper argues, would keep tuition assistance protected from being taxed. Whether it’s feasible for public universities like UNC to make this change rapidly enough isn’t clear, but it seems reasonable that universities could make some adjustments to help students.

All that said, it’s important to point out that the Senate version of the tax reform bill, which could be voted on as soon as next week, retains the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers. So, it is still very much undecided whether the reforms affecting higher-ed will actually become law.

Even though the House bill has already passed, the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) has urged students to petition their senators to fight the House proposals and to prevent any reforms to tuition waivers from being made into law. Students should also call their state senators, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

With the Senate potentially voting on their version of the tax bill at the end of the month, the debate over these tax reforms is almost certainly just getting started.

Peer edited by Erika Van Goethem.

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Superbug Super Problem: The Emerging Age of Untreatable Infections

You’ve heard of MRSA. You may even have heard of XDR-TB and CRE. The rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in our communities has been both swift and alarming. But how did these once easily treated infections become the scourges of the healthcare world, and what can we do to stop them?

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose an alarming threat to global public health and result in higher mortality, increased medical costs, and longer hospital stays. Disease surveillance shows that infections which were once easily cured, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, and blood poisoning, are becoming harder and harder to treat. According to the CDC, we are entering the “post-antibiotic era”, where bacterial infections could once again mean a death sentence because no treatment is available. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, kills more Americans every year than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide combined. The most serious antibiotic-resistant infections arise in healthcare settings and put particularly vulnerable populations, such as immunosuppressed and elderly patients, at risk. Of the 99,000 Americans per year who die from hospital-acquired infections, the vast majority die due to antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Cartoon by Nick D Kim, Used by permission

Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics through their inherent biology. Using natural selection and genetic adaptation, they can acquire select genetic mutations that make the bacteria less susceptible to antimicrobial intervention. An example of this could be a bacterium acquiring a mutation that up-regulates the expression of a membrane efflux pump, which is a transport protein that removes toxic substances from the cell. If the gene encoding the transporter is up-regulated or a repressor gene is down-regulated, the pump would then be overexpressed, allowing the bacteria to pump the antibiotic back out of the cell before it can kill the organism. Bacteria can also alter the active sites of antibacterial targets, decreasing the rate with which these drugs can effectively kill the bacteria and requiring higher and higher doses for efficacy. Much of the research on antibiotic resistance is dedicated to better understanding these mutations and developing new and better therapies that can overcome existing resistance mechanisms.


While bacteria naturally acquire mutations in their genome that allow them to evolve and survive, the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance in the last few decades has been accelerated by human actions. Antibiotic drugs are overprescribed, used incorrectly, and applied in the wrong context, which expose bacteria to more opportunities to acquire resistance mechanisms. This starts with healthcare professionals, who often prescribe and dispense antibiotics without ensuring they are required. This could include prescribing antibiotics to someone with a viral infection, such as rhinovirus, as well as prescribing a broad spectrum antibiotic without performing the appropriate  tests to confirm which bacterial species they are targeting. The blame is also on patients, not only for seeking out antibiotics as a “cure-all” when it’s not necessarily appropriate, but for poor patient adherence and inappropriate disposal. It’s absolutely imperative that patients follow the advice of a qualified healthcare professional and finish antibiotics as prescribed. If a patient stops dosing early, they may have only cleared out the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria and enabled the stronger, resistant bacteria to thrive in that void. Additionally, if a patient incorrectly disposes of leftover antibiotics, they may end up in the water supply and present new opportunities for bacteria to develop resistance.

Overuse of antibiotics in the agricultural sector also aggravates this problem, because antibiotics are often obtained without veterinary supervision and used without sufficient medical reasons in livestock, crops, and aquaculture, which can spread the drugs into the environment and food supply. These contributing factors to the rise of antibiotic resistance can be mitigated by proper prescriber and patient education and by limiting unnecessary antibiotic use. Policy makers also hold the power to control the spread of resistance by implementing surveillance of treatment failures, strengthening infection prevention, incentivizing antibiotic development in industry, and promoting proper public outreach and education.


While the pharmaceutical industry desperately needs to research and develop new antimicrobials to combat the rising number of antibiotic-resistant infections, the onus is also on every member of society to both promote appropriate use of antibiotics as well as ensure safe practices. The World Health Organization has issued guidelines that could help prevent the spread of infection and antibiotic resistance. In addition, World Antibiotic Awareness Week is November 13-19, 2017, and could be used as an opportunity to educate others about the risks associated with antibiotic resistance. These actions could significantly slow the spread and development of resistant infections and encourage the drug development industry to develop new antibiotics, vaccines, and diagnostics that can effectively treat and reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Peer edited by Sara Musetti 

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How to Advocate for Science

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 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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Science and Ethics

So let’s say, hypothetically, that your lab receives blood samples from a group of individuals to study genetic links with diabetes.  However, these samples would also provide important insights into other diseases.  But the researchers did not get consent from the blood samples donors for the extra research.  For researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona (U of A), this was not a hypothetical situation.

DNA from blood samples provide the information needed to potentially cure many diseases that plague us today.  But if the proper procedure is not followed, these scientific breakthroughs may never leave the courtroom.

They collected 400 blood samples from the Havasupai Tribe around 1990 to understand if there was any connection between genes and diabetes, at the tribe’s request. This particular tribe is from an isolated area of the Grand Canyon, with a restricted gene pool contributing to genetic diseases.  This Native American tribe has a high-incidence with diabetes.  The researchers did investigate this problem with diabetes, but they also wrote a grant proposal for researching schizophrenia in the Havasupai Tribe, which the tribe was not aware of nor gave consent for.

The main issues raised in this case are:

  • What is informed consent?  In this case, the consent form stated that the samples were to be used for studies on behavioral and medical diseases. But, meetings between the researchers and tribe members indicated that only diabetes was to be studied.  Using broad or vague language in consent forms can lead to miscommunication between scientists and subjects.
  • What information in the medical records can be accessed and by who?  Some researchers gained access to medical records without permission. Files should be kept in a secured place where only the authorized users have access.
  • Who has control of the samples?  This is a question that needs to be discussed with the subjects before samples are collected.  Researchers might want to contact their university’s research center for more information on sample ownership.


As scientists, we have a set of standards, or ethics, that help members coordinate their actions and establish trust with the public. Below are four ethical norms (or goals) that affect graduate students:

Scientists build and maintain credibility with the public by conducting research responsibly and with integrity.

  1. Promote the goals of scientific discovery, such as furthering knowledge and truth.
  2. Advocate collaboration between scientists; diversity and collaboration create new and novel discoveries that we can all benefit from.
  3. Promote accountability to the Public; it’s essential that the Public can trust the scientists to do their best work and avoid misconduct, conflicts of interest, and ensure that human/animal subjects are properly handled.
  4. Build Public support, without federal funding many of us graduate students would not be able to do our research.

For the misuse of their DNA samples, the  Havasupai Tribe filed a lawsuit against Arizona Board of Regents and ASU researchers in 2004, which eventually led to a settlement in 2010.  The tribe received $700,000 and their blood samples were returned.  The situation with ASU and U of A researchers has left an air of mistrust in Native American communities.  As scientists, it’s our responsibility to build trust with the public and maintain open and honest communication.  


Peer Edited by Bailey DeBarmore

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What Will A Trump Presidency Mean for Scientists? votes are in, and to the surprise of pundits and pollsters everywhere, Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States. However, many scientists are concerned about what a Trump presidency would mean for important issues like climate change and research funding. For one, Trump is cautious about allocating resources for scientific research (see this pre-election article from Science and Q&A session at for more). On the other hand, Trump has also stressed the importance of continuing research relevant for public health, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Due to his unclear stance on research funding, it is difficult to predict whether Trump will propose more budget cuts to the NIH and NSF.

More alarming, however, is Trump’s consistent denial of climate change. He has repeatedly called climate change a hoax and has strongly endorsed the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. On November 2nd, less than a week before the election, the Bloomberg BNA reported that Trump, at a Michigan rally, proposed to end climate spending.

“We’re going to put America first. That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary wants to increase, and instead use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air and safety,” said Trump.

One example of infrastructure Trump wants to expand in his first 100 days in office is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would provide a more direct transportation of oil from Canada into the US compared to the current Keystone pipeline. Although Trump has not yet met with TransCanada specifically, Trump has consistently pushed for removing environmental regulations. Perhaps in a significant conflict of interest, he also owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for building the pipeline. President Obama and Hillary Clinton had opposed the pipeline because they did not believe building the pipeline would have a significant impact on the economy, creating jobs, or lowering petrol prices. In addition, environmental activists worry that this deal with TransCanada Corp. could instead increase America’s reliance on carbon fuel.

Nevertheless, Trump’s stance on many key issues in science and technology are still unclear. Ars Technica expresses concerns about his unclear stance on net neutrality and encryption (Trump’s campaign statement for cybersecurity can be found here). Trump’s senior advisors have suggested that even NASA could change focus under his direction. Based on his business background, backed by a Republican-majority Congress, it’s possible that Trump will place his efforts in science and technology as they relate to job creation and deregulation.

At this point, there’s still much that is unknown on how Trump will impact science policy. For more info, check out this Nature news article summarizing the concerns of other scientists.

Peer edited by Aminah Wali.

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