Heart to Heart

https://pixabay.com/en/heart-curve-bless-you-healthy-665186/

Hearts and heart health are front and center throughout the month of February.

The month of February is a big month for hearts. Between Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month, you cannot escape heart-shaped decorations and reminders to exercise daily. And while many of us are fortunate that our heart health can be maintained through diet and exercise, there are some cases where that is not enough. Individuals with certain congenital heart defects, weakened heart muscles, or other types of heart disease may need a totally new heart. In the United States, about 2,300 heart transplants occur each year with over 70% of those patients surviving for five years afterwards. This high survival rate is in stark contrast to the early days of heart transplants in the late 1960s and 1970s, and it is largely due to advances not in heart physiology, but the immune system.

Our immune systems are exceptionally good at identifying foreign invaders and attacking them. In the cases of bacterial or viral infections, the immune system’s voracious assault on foreigners keeps us healthy. However, in the case of a heart transplant, where foreign tissue is introduced to the body to save the patient’s life, such voracity is detrimental to survival. A distressing catch-22 emerged as early heart transplants were performed – doctors gave patients powerful immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of the heart, but these drugs left the immune system so weakened that it could not fight off post-surgical infections. Eventually, a breakthrough came from an unexpected place – a Norwegian soil fungus.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/38151055715

Sometimes medical breakthroughs come from unlikely places – like a Norwegian soil fungus.

While on vacation in Norway, a scientist collected a soil sample that would change the fate of organ transplants forever. The soil sample was taken to Sandoz Pharmaceutical Ltd. where Jean-Francois Borel worked diligently with a team of scientists to characterize an interesting compound found in the Norwegian soil: cyclosporine, which was made from a fungus.

Sandoz Pharmaceutical was interested in developing new antibiotics, but, cyclosporine did not prove to be an effective antibiotic. Luckily for future recipients of heart transplants, cyclosporine  did show promise as an immunosuppressant. Cyclosporine specifically inhibited white blood cells and T cells instead of killing them, thus preventing organ rejection while still allowing the immune system to fight off infections. Dr. Borel and his team faced several setbacks while studying cyclosporine, including pressure from Sandoz to discontinue the studies. However, they persisted until 1983 when the Food and Drug Administration approved cyclosporine as an immunosuppressant for all organ transplants. Many healthy hearts are beating today due to cyclosporine, and a heartfelt thanks goes out to the countless individuals who worked so hard to make these survival stories a reality.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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Physics Through the Looking Glass

On Christmas Eve 1956, a woman caught the last train to New York in the snow to report experimental results that would alter the landscape of modern physics forever. Although members of the physics community would initially dismiss her results as nonsense, the evidence would soon become incontrovertible, launching many scientific possibilities.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_C.jpg

C. S. Wu working in the lab.

The scientist’s name was Chien-Shiung Wu, and it took her many years of study and perseverance to make this discovery. Starting at a young age, she was quite curious about the natural world. Chien-Shiung Wu’s father, Zhongyi Wu, was an engineer who believed strongly in equal rights for women. He started the first school for girls in his region of China. Chien-Shiung Wu was one of the first girls to obtain a formal education in China. She rapidly outpaced her peers, and proceeded to an all-girls boarding school 50 miles from her home. She continued on to college in Nanjing before traveling across the globe to pursue her graduate degree at University of California, Berkeley, in the US. Not long after her arrival in California, Chien-Shiung learned of the Japanese invasion of China, which affected her family’s hometown. She would not hear from her family for eight long years. After she completed her PhD, she was considered ‘the authority‘ on nuclear fission, according to Robert Oppenheimer. Renowned physicist Enrico Fermi even consulted her for advice on how to sustain a nuclear chain reaction in the making of the atomic bomb.

For decades, physicists had assumed that, there was no way to differentiate left from right according to quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the theoretical underpinning of modern physics that successfully describes the behavior subatomic particles. The assumption that left and right were indistinguishable was known as ‘parity symmetry’. It was naturally appealing, much like symmetries that exist in art, biological organisms, or other natural phenomena, like snowflakes.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chaoticmind75/6922463361

Zoomed-in image of a snowflake. When Mme Wu awaited the train that Christmas Eve, she was surrounded by snowflakes, a reminder of how symmetry is ubiquitous in the natural world. Such symmetries stood in stark contrast to the discovery she was about to announce.

Nonetheless, the idea of this symmetry was called into question at a scientific conference in 1956. Within that same year, Chien-Shiung Wu would demonstrate in her lab at NIST that parity was violated for particular types of decays. In other words, these decay processes did not look the same in a mirror. This discovery was far from Chien-Shiung Wu’s only claim to fame.

Wu made many advancements in beta decay, which is the disintegration of a neutron that results in the emission of an electron and another particle called a neutrino. It was eventually with the beta decay of the element cobalt-60 that she ran her famous parity violation experiment. Using a magnetic field and low temperatures, she was able to achieve the parity violation results that turned the world on its head.

Chien-Shiung Wu did not receive the Nobel Prize, though her two male theorist colleagues did. In spite of this oversight, she obtained recognition in other ways. She was the first female physics instructor at Princeton University and the first female president of the American Physical Society (APS). Her success can be partially attributed to her parent’s encouraging attitude towards women’s education. Fortunately, they survived the Japanese invasion during World War II, with her father engineering the famous Burma Road. C. S. Wu ushered in an entirely new era in which other assumed symmetries would be overturned, helping us to more deeply understand the state of the universe that we see today.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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Representation Matters: Spotlighting Accomplished Women of Color

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

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

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

Dr. Alexa Canady, M.D.

https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/aframsurgeons/canady.html

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

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

http://geekgirlcon.com/black-history-month-inspiration-dr-aprille-ericsson-jackson-engineer-pioneer/

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

Dr. Antonia Novello, M.D.

https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/gallery/photo_239_3.html

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

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D.

https://alumni.ucla.edu/stories/flossie-wong-staal-68-ph-d-72/

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

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

Peer edited by Madelyn Huang and Joanna Warren.

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Why it Takes Tanks to Separate Two Phone Books

It can be tempting in science, and in life, to believe that every stone has already been turned, that the most impactful steps in your field have already been made, that there is nothing left for you to discover. This type of sentiment is often said to have existed (though it was certainly not ubiquitous) in late nineteenth century physics, when people may have felt there was nothing more to be done but the refinement of previous measurements. Of course, the turn of the century shattered any such mindset with the revolutions of quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Even if science does have a good handle on a certain regime of natural behavior, solid work still remains to be done. Even in the most well-trodden fields, there are stones that can be found yet unturned.

A great example of a surprising phenomenon arising from basic rules is that of the phone book trick, which goes something like this: Place two phone books so that they open toward each other and overlap alternating pages from the two books. Now attempt to pull the books apart by their spines. You can’t! In short, it is extremely difficult to pull apart two phone books whose pages have been interleaved. Discovery Channel’s MythBusters gave it a shot and could not pull apart the phone books until they employed the help of a few military tanks.

As it turns out, though squarely in the domain of classical physics, the phone book phenomenon had not been studied in great detail until recently when a few valiant physicists, with resolve to leave no well-trodden scientific stone unturned, sought to dig deeper and give the ol’ phone book trick a proper treatment.

A few surprising results arose from examination of this seemingly simple system, and we’ll discuss one of them here. As you may have guessed, friction is the source of the two phone books’ incredible resistance to separation. But how does that friction arise? Friction is due to a “normal force,” meaning that the direction in which friction acts is perpendicular to the force that initially causes there to be contact between two objects. Just imagine pressing your hand down on a table: You press down, but the resulting friction prevents your hand from moving left or right.

If friction is caused by a perpendicular force than how does friction arise in the phone book trick? After all, you’re pulling on the spines of the books and friction directly opposes your pull — there are no perpendicular, 90˚ forces there, right?

Reproduced from Dalnoki-Veress, Salez, &amp; Restagno. "Why can't you separate interleaved books?" <em>Physics Today</em>, June 2016, 74, with the permission of the American Institute of Physics.

A diagram showing how pages angle outward from a book’s spine when they are interleaved with the pages of another book. Someone attempting to separate the two books would pull on the spine in the direction of T. Reproduced from Dalnoki-Veress, Salez, & Restagno. “Why can’t you separate interleaved books?” Physics Today, June 2016, 74, with the permission of the American Institute of Physics.

The secret lies in the fanning out of the interleaved pages as they leave the spines of the books. Because the pages are overlapped with those of the other book, they leave their spine at a small angle. Pulling on the spine then pulls on an angled page, like pulling on a rope, and, because of the small angle, that page gets in part pulled downward. This downward action squeezes a page downward, not side-to-side, on top of a neighboring page from the other book and our mysterious side-to-side friction force appears. Now repeat this process for as many pages as are in a phone book, and you’ve got a lot of friction!

Though a familiar concept, friction is a subject worthy of much more scientific study and the physicists behind this phone book trick have taken the time to point out some of the ongoing research on friction in modern science. Check out their full Physical Review Letters publication for more detail.

Peer edited by Joanna Warren.

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The Impossibly Ideal Scientist

Image and artwork created by Lindsay Walton

The solving scientist: can this be fixed in time?

Beverly Crusher. Roy Hinkley. Emmett Brown. Samantha Carter. Sheldon Cooper. The Doctor. Abby Sciuto. Temperance Brennan. What do each of these scientists have in common? From creating a Geiger counter out of bamboo, to discovering, identifying, and curing a disease in the nick of time, each of these cinematic scientists has completed impossible tasks. Often works of fiction create all-knowing scientists who can solve any problem posed to them in the nick of time. However, do these depictions affect public expectations and imply that scientists are experts in every scientific field imaginable?

During recent years, many stereotypes about scientists have shifted, allowing researchers to shed the traditional “geeky” scientist persona. Some say that new perceptions of scientists reflect their cinematic portrayal as heroes and experts, “mavericks” who overcome obstacles both cerebral and physical in nature, persevering until they successfully save the day at the last moment possible.

However, how do these changing ideas about scientists translate to public expectations of the average scientist? Do “maverick” scientists portrayed in film cause people to idealize scientists and lead to the expectation that they will have all the knowledge Data, the android in Star Trek, has in his memory banks? In a recent survey, 49% of polled scientists stated that they felt the public has unrealistic expectations about the speed at which scientists should generate solutions to problems. Perhaps scientists feel the pressure of comparing themselves to their science fiction counterparts. The data certainly shows that the public has historically had high expectations for scientists. When polled, most Americans predicted scientists would cure cancer within 50 years, with polling starting as early as 1949. However, cancer still has not been cured, as exhibited by the recent National Cancer Moonshot proposal generated by President Obama, pushing for research funding to improve cancer patient outcomes.

Is it even possible to be the all-knowing scientist? As a lowly graduate student, I know that I will never be as brilliant as Dr. Beverly Crusher, who could probably cure cancer within one single episode. However, I believe that each of these idealized scientists creates a good model of what we should hope to be as scientists — individuals who thrive on the work, constantly learn new things, contribute to current knowledge, and reward the faith and trust that the public places in them.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich. Image by Lindsay Walton.

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Dr. Margaret Scarry Named New Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology

Congratulations to Dr. Margaret Scarry! A longstanding faculty member of the Anthropology Department at UNC-CH, Dr. Scarry was recently promoted to the Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology (RLA) and Chair of the Curriculum in Archaeology. Having received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1986, Dr. Scarry has since garnered professional renown for her research on the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. Specifically, she explores such foodways of the late prehistoric and early historic peoples of the southeastern United States by using archaeobotanical data.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Scarry.

Dr. Scarry (center) with her colleagues Dr. Lee Newsom (left) and Dr. Gayle Fritz (right) at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA.

For those who are not familiar, the UNC RLA’s primary mission is to enhance knowledge of the archaeology and history of the ancient southeastern United States, but broadly offers support for both student and faculty archaeologists in classics, religious studies, linguistics, and gender studies in addition to anthropology. The RLA curates vast archaeological collections meanwhile supporting graduate student and faculty research in the southeastern United States and abroad. Most importantly, this mission is constantly expanding to encourage archaeologists who work abroad–from Dr. Patricia McAnany’s participatory research in the Maya region of the Yucatán Peninsula to Dr. Silvia Tomášková’s research on the stone engravings of South Africa. This collaborative and interdisciplinary tenet of the RLA is also apparent in the Curriculum in Archaeology. Although housed in the RLA, it was first created through a working group of archaeologists across disciplines who felt their diverse approaches to archaeology offered a strong and unique curriculum for undergraduate study.

Scarry Pull QuoteI had the chance to sit down with Dr. Scarry recently to speak about her new roles and what’s in store for the future.When I asked Dr. Scarry about her plans for the RLA, she responded with equal parts excitement and pride. “I have a fantastic group of collegial and enthusiastic people who work with me,” she says. Just having received an external review last year, both the Curriculum and the RLA were heralded as “gems,” but are still relatively unknown on campus and in the general public. As a result, Dr. Scarry mentions, “one of the things I want to do is grow our reputation so that we are more visible.” This visibility will not only strengthen “the ties amongst archaeologists across campus” but also create a place for both graduate students and faculty members to succeed.

Dr. Scarry is also immensely proud of the RLA’s strong relationship with Native American communities, both on campus and more broadly. “We’ve tried to be a leader and a partner, to be sensitive to the political and ethical issues of the conjunction of archaeology and Native American concerns.” She thinks it is imperative to continue to foster these relationships, and is actively seeking out opportunities with other RLA faculty members to develop similar relationships with other communities worldwide.

Further, Dr. Scarry is aiming to expand the technological resources of the RLA available to student researchers. “We have a current initiative to work on 3D imaging and virtual reality and we hope to increase our computing capacity for that,” she says. Ultimately, Dr. Scarry says, “we encourage people to see who we are. I’d like for [the RLA] to be a home where people can get involved.”

As a graduate student associated with the RLA, I can agree with Dr. Scarry when she says “we value the students here. We have such a great community because our students push each other, not out of competition, but because there is a synergism, and we want to see each other succeed.” If you would like to learn more, click here.

Special thanks to Dr. Scarry for speaking with me. Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Alissa Brown.

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The Excellent Journey of Bob Bagnell

As I enter the Microscopy Services Laboratory (MSL), a soft southern accent greets me: “Come in- want a cucumber? Help yourself!”

Dr. Bob Bagnell, the faculty director of the MSL, is an institution at UNC. Over the course of thirty years, he has developed the MSL from a set of electron microscopes in the Pathology Department to a full-featured microscopy core, offering numerous light and electron microscopy services in the basement of the Brinkhous-Bullitt building. Bob is an expert at microscopy, a natural teacher who never hesitates to help his patrons whether they are newbies or experienced users. His good nature combines with acumen for troubleshooting in such a way that even if your slides are worthless, leaving the MSL in a bad mood is difficult. You know how to fix your experiment, and almost feel joy from your failure, because you learned from Bob. His frequent offers of fresh bread also help. Continue reading