Understanding Sea Turtle Navigation with Laser-based Imaging

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

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

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

Designing an Imaging System

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

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

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

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

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

Developing a Method for Magnetic Particle Detection

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

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

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

Testing the Magnetomotive OCT System

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

Future Research: Turtles and Beyond

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

Peer edited by Allison Lacko and Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Girls Talk Math – Engaging Girls through Math Media

Girls Talk Math is a non-traditional math camp in that students not only learn challenging Mathematics usually not encountered until college, but also research the life of female mathematicians who have worked on related topics. Campers share what they learned during the two-week day camp by writing a blog post about their Math topic and writing and recording a podcast about the mathematician they researched. Media created by the campers can be found on our website at www.girlstalkmath.web.unc.edu.

Girls Talk Math was founded in 2016 by Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan, then Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UNC Chapel Hill. It was born of a desire to create a space for high-school students identifying as female or from an underrepresented gender who are interested in Mathematics. This summer, a sister camp at the University of Maryland at College Park had its first run thanks to Sarah Burnett and Cara Peters, Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UMD (www.gtm.math.umd.edu).

During two weeks of July 2018, 39 high schoolers came to the UNC Mathematics Department to participate in the 3rd year of Girls Talk Math. They were divided into groups of 4-5 campers, and each group completed a problem set focused on a different Math topic:

-Number Systems
-Network Science
-RSA Encryption Cryptography
-Elliptic Curve Cryptography
-Mathematical Epidemiology
-Quantum Mechanics
-Knot Theory
-Classification of Surfaces

Each group then wrote a blog post to share what they learned about their topic. Below are excerpts from each post written by the campers, and you can read the full blog posts here. 

 

Number Systems
Miranda Copenhaver, Nancy Hindman, Efiotu Jagun, and Gloria Su

The Number Systems problem set focuses on learning about number bases (in particular, base 2 and 16) to understand how data is stored in computers and how to translate information into a language readable by machines. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We count in the decimal – or base 10 – system. This means that we count using 10 basic numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. In base 10, each place value represents a power of 10.”

“[…]  The two most important bases in coding are binary (base two) and hexadecimal (base sixteen). Binary is quite simple to think about because it only has two numbers that you could possibly use: 1 and 0.”

“[…]  If we had the number 1101010, we would start by labeling each place value with what power of two it represents. Next, we would multiply each digit by its power of two and simplify:                           

                       1101010 = 1*26 + 1*25 + 0*24 + 1*23 + 0*22 + 1*21 + 0*20

                                       = 26 + 25 + 23 + 21

                                       = 64 + 32 + 8 + 2

                                       = 106

We see that the binary number 1101010 is the decimal number 106.”

 

Network Science
Myla James, Shania Johnson, Maya Mukerjee, and Savitha Saminathan

The Network Science problem set focuses on graph theory and how it is utilized for large data sets. Students learned about data storage in networks and how to analyze and study different data sets. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We were given a map of the city of Königsberg, Prussia that helped us learn about paths and circuits. Euler Paths and Circuits were named after Leonhard Euler, who asked the question: “Is there some route in this city wherein one would cross each of the seven bridges once and only once?”

“An Euler path must include two or less odd degree vertices. […]  In simplest form, an Euler path is a set of edges that is connected, and an Euler circuit is a set of edges that is connected and begins and ends at the same node. An analogy would be an electrical circuit. Electricity can flow in a closed circuit, but not an open path.”

 

RSA Encryption Cryptography
Camille Clark, Layke Jones, Isabella Lane, Aza McFadden, and Lizbeth Otero

The RSA Cryptography problem set introduces the field of Number Theory through modular arithmetic, prime numbers, and prime factorization. RSA cryptography is one of the most widespread methods to transmit codified information and has several applications in everyday technology.

“[…]  A common divisor is an integer that all the numbers in a given set can be divided into without a remainder. To calculate the of 2 numbers, you need to write out the prime factorization. (Camp directors’ note: the greatest common divisor (gcd) of two or more integers, not all zero, is the largest positive integer that divides each of the integers without a remainder.)

For example, let’s consider 8 and 12. The prime factorization of 8 is 23, while the prime factorization of 12 is 3*(22). Then, take the largest factor that overlaps in the two factorizations. Here, 22 is the largest factor in common between the prime factorizations of 8 and 12; then, 4 = gcd(8,12).

We say that two integers a and b are if gcd(a,b) = 1, where a and b don’t need to be prime themselves. For example, if a = 35 and b = 8, then gcd(a,b) = 1, but neither is a prime.”

 

Elliptic Curve Cryptography
Mukta Dharmapurikar, Anagha Jandhyala, Savanna Jones, and Ciara Renaud

In the Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) problem set students learn how to apply this fascinating method of encoding, transmitting, and deciphering information. Elliptic Curve Cryptography is an interesting application of very theoretical concepts from Algebraic Geometry and Abstract Algebra.

“[…]  While the road to understanding Elliptic Curve cryptography was interesting and exciting, there were many twists and turns along the way. Our greatest challenge was that ECC is extremely hard to conceptualize as most of the math differed from our previous understandings and was often very theoretical or abstract.

However, we thoroughly enjoyed learning about topics in math, typically not discussed in school. For example, on the first day, we were learning about modular arithmetic. It was a difficult concept to grasp because it was fundamentally different than what we had learned before. Over time, just by working through the problem set, we became more and more comfortable with the topic, even going as far as being able to explain how it works to other people.

This goes to show, that even when faced with a very difficult problem set, if you keep persevering, eventually you will understand the math. Girls Talk Math has really taught us to never give up, and increased our confidence in learning higher level math.”

 

Mathematical Epidemiology
Camilla Fratta, Ananya Jain, Sydney Mason, Gabby Matejowsky, and Nevaeh Pinkney

The Mathematical Epidemiology problem set introduces the concept of modeling as a whole and in particular focuses on modeling disease spreading in populations. In this problem set campers have used an applet in Python.

“[…]  A mathematical model is an equation used to predict or model the most likely results to occur in a real-world situation. We used these types of equations to model the spread of a disease in a population, tracking the flow of populations from susceptible to infected to recovered. In real life scenarios, there are too many variables to fully account for, so we only were able to place a few in our equations. This made the models less accurate, but at the same time very useful to us in our problem set. They gave us a good idea of how things worked in an actual epidemic and helped us to understand what mathematical modeling really is.”

 

Quantum Mechanics
Izzy Cox, Divya Iyer, Wgoud Mansour, Ashleigh Sico, and Elizabeth Whetzel

The Quantum Mechanics problem set starts by explaining why classical mechanics does not describe properly the behavior of subatomic particles. It then introduces the main concepts of quantum mechanics, in particular focusing on the wave-particle duality, i.e. the fact that mass can be described as both a particle and a wave. As part of their problem set, campers ran a physical experiment to measure Planck’s Constant.

“[…] Quantum Mechanics is the physics of molecular and microscopic particles. However, it has applications in everyday life as well. If someone asked you if a human was a particle or a wave, what would you think? What about a ball? What about light? Not so easy now, is it? It turns out that all of those things, and in fact, everything around us, can be expressed in physics as both a particle and a wave.”

“[…] The realm of physics gets much stranger when it gets smaller! […]  [Quantum mechanics] is arguably one of the most complicated fields of physics, where all traditional rules are wrong. There is much still being added, and so much more to be discovered.”

 

Knot Theory
Jillian Byrnes, Monique Dacanay, Kaycee DeArmey, Alana Drumgold, Ariyana Smith, and Wisdom Talley

The Knot Theory problem set discusses the fascinating field of Abstract Geometry that deals with knots. Maybe surprisingly, there is a Mathematical theory behind tying and untying knots which can be described formally with algebraic symbols. This problem set is a Mathematical approach to knots and how to study and classify them.

“[…]  The Reidemeister moves are the three possible manipulations of knots that are used to find out if two diagrams represent equivalent knots. None of them physically change the knot, because they don’t make any cuts or make the knot intersect itself, so if the two diagrams are equivalent, they are related through a sequence of these three moves:”

Three examples of Reidemeister moves: I, II, III

 

Classification of Surfaces
Ayanna Blake, Lisa Oommen, Myla Marve, Tamarr Moore, Caylah Vickers, and Lily Zeng

The Classification of Surfaces problem set deals with questions of shape, size, and the properties of space. Starting from a Mathematical definition of surfaces, students learn about aspects of a number of shapes, some of which they are already familiar with and some that do not exist in 3-dimensional space, with the aim of classifying them.

“[…]  Before we start off with explaining the basics, we give the definition of a surface, which is an example of a two-dimensional object. When talking about dimensions, basically it’s a way of classifying how many directions of travel an object has.

For example, a line on a piece of paper would be one dimensional because you can only go up or down on that line. A sheet of paper would be two dimensional because you can draw up or down and side to side. A room would be three dimensional because if you imagine throwing a ball in the air, it can move up or down, side to side, and forwards or backwards.”

 

* Girls Talk Math has been funded through the Mathematical Association of America Tensor Women and Mathematics grant which has supported the camp for the past three years. *

 

Peer edited by Rachel Cherney.

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Finding Power in Discomfort: 5 Ways to Advocate for Yourself and Others in Science

https://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/10980294455

Share your experiences, it might just empower others. Image: Parliamentary Copyright/Jessica Taylor

Three years ago, I moved from California to North Carolina for graduate school, an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than I expected. The most discomforting was feeling very different from my colleagues. For example, my identity as a woman of color became more salient when I realized there were fewer people who looked like me in the classes and meetings I attended. It wasn’t until recently that I found a community of like-minded, underrepresented students who told stories similar to mine. I felt empowered through this shared struggle to learn how to advocate for myself and others in order to increase visibility for underrepresented groups in science. Not sure how to do it (like me)? Try these tips!

Bring your personal identity into your work. Increase the visibility of your personal identity in the workplace so that you are not left out of the conversation. It can be uncomfortable to bring up your experiences and challenges related to gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc., but doing so may provide the opportunity for others to exhibit empathy. Regardless of the differences between people, everyone shares the mutual need for kindness and respect. It’s important and necessary to stay true to who you are in order to create more of a dialogue, so don’t hide it.

Empower others by sharing your story. Share your own stories of success or hardship because not only does it feel intrinsically rewarding to communicate your thoughts and feelings with others, but it can also validate the range of experiences that other underrepresented students face and often in silence. If you’re shy or nervous, try sharing your story on Akin, an anonymous digital storytelling platform created by my friend, Cassandra Lam, to empower people to connect through stories of shared experiences.

Step into a world you don’t know much about. Equally important is the ability to listen to others’ stories, as it can provide insight into the privileges you might not even realize you have. Be mindful that some people will face certain challenges that you might never have to face (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation). Be open-minded, ask questions, and acknowledge others’ perspectives (try to avoid phrases like “at least you don’t have to deal with…” which might undercut what they’re sharing).

Express your intellectual humility. It can be hard to say “I don’t know” to anything, but learning how to articulate exactly what you don’t know can be the engine for establishing new learning and networking opportunities. Seek knowledge from teachers and experts about topics you’re unfamiliar with, but are interested in learning. It’s also okay to ask for support from mentors and colleagues. You’ll be surprised at how many people want you to succeed and are willing to help.

Dive into more uncomfortable conversations about uncomfortable topics. When discussion of uncomfortable topics (e.g., lack of visibility for underrepresented groups) arises, I challenge you to speak up, even when it’s easier to stay silent to avoid causing rifts in conversation. Advocating for the importance of your/others’ needs lifts up the voices of those who are unable or are afraid to so themselves.

Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong.

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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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The Ethics of Open Access: Is Pirating the Best Path?

 

Alexandra Elbakyan will go down in history as the mastermind of Sci-Hub and perhaps as a champion for open access research. Sci-Hub is an online repository of pirated research articles that enables scholars to access millions of articles free of charge.  Elbakyan founded Sci-Hub in 2011 in response to the paywalls guarding many of the articles that she needed for her neuroscience graduate studies. The pirating website provides research article access for a community of scholars who could not afford to access the articles through traditional channels.

As you might imagine, Sci-Hub is surrounded by controversy. The Sci-Hub repository relies on hacked publishing websites or donated institutional login credentials to obtain research articles. You may even consider Elbakyan to be a modern day Robin Hood – robbing the rich publishing giants to provide research articles to those without access, and many scientists have praised her efforts (and even donated to the cause) for advancing open-access research. However, many others (including publishers) view Sci-Hub and research article piracy as ethically wrong, and they have condemned her efforts.

Apneet Jolly - https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajolly/4696604402/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56109793

Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of Sci-Hub, speaks at a conference at Harvard in 2010.

A recent article on PeerJ that is based out of a group from the University of Pennsylvania investigated how extensively Sci-Hub has infiltrated the databases of publishing agencies. According to Daniel Himmelstein, the lead author of the study, Sci-Hub contains 69% of all research articles that exist (based on an estimated 81.6 million articles in total), with coverages approaching 93% for disciplines such as chemistry. What’s particularly fascinating is that the 56 million or so articles are all located within one repository, and they are easily accessed via a DOI (digital object identifier) search bar. The PeerJ article contains more about the extent of Sci-Hub’s reach than can be covered in this briefing, but you can also explore an interactive website about Sci-Hub’s capacity that is associated with the study.

Over the past two years, Elsevier and other major publishing companies such as Springer and the American Chemical Society have been scrambling to counteract the growing influence of Sci-Hub. In June of 2017, a U.S. court ruling was finalized that ordered Elbakyan to pay Elsevier $15 million in damages after a judge ruled that Sci-Hub had violated copyright laws by providing free access to 97% of Elsevier’s articles. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has also filed a complaint against Sci-Hub, who has actually mirrored the ACS website to provide easier access to pirated ACS publications.

Open-access research is a hot topic, and the recent lawsuits against Sci-Hub have only added fuel to the fire. While Sci-Hub has increased publicity for open-access research, the ethics behind Sci-Hub’s article piracy has clouded the open-access conversation. Many would agree that open-access research is important, but at what cost? Does the end result that all people have equal access to research data justify the ethical quandary of article piracy? Alexandra Elbakyan believes that is does. Only time will tell if she is right.

If you found this article interesting, check out these other articles for more information on the evolution of scientific publishing, open access and Sci-Hub, and Sci-Hub worldwide usage stats.

Please note: Accessing Sci-Hub is illegal in the United States. The author of this article and the editors of The Pipettepen do not condone the use of Sci-Hub to access research articles. Rather, this article is only intended to provide current scientific news on open-access research.

 

Continue the conversation with Tyler on Twitter: @Farnsworthtw

 

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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Defying Regression Towards the Mean

As a young woman in pursuit of a career in academia, I find the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, and specifically scientific research, to be a daunting statistic to face. In STEM fields, the percentage of tenure-line faculty positions held by women has merely increased from 19% in 2004 to 23% in 2012. In comparison, women composed 44% of non-STEM, academic positions in 2012.  STEM fields are failing to matriculate women into faculty positions in equal numbers to men, and it is difficult to uncover the forces that create unfavorable and, at times, inhospitable environments for women in academia. Antiquated gender biases, intrinsically male-centric tenure track pressures, and deeply institutionalized chauvinistic attitudes do perpetuate inequality in academia, but what accounts for the discrepancy in STEM fields? Amid the institutional struggle to unravel the cryptic barriers impeding the advancement of women in STEM careers, I offer only my own struggle with gender bias and how it has shaped my career goals, and in turn what it means to me to be a woman in science.

When I began my graduate program at The University of California, Riverside (UCR), an institution renowned for its diversity, I did not expect to encounter resistance based on my identity as a woman in science. During my first year of graduate level courses, a professor requested that I meet with her to discuss my future. I assumed she wanted to discuss my academic progress or perhaps inquire about my research topic of interest. Instead, she cautioned me that despite being an intelligent woman, I would need to change my personality to be respected as a scientist in academia, as I was too outwardly feminine. She impressed upon me that I would never be accepted by peers, be taken seriously by male faculty, or advance in the ranks of academia since it was still a “boys club.” Alternatively, she suggested that it could be in my best interest to refocus my career goals on positions at institutions with a higher emphasis on teaching rather than research. My perceived femininity would be a liability as I sought to climb the ranks of research institutions, and possessing effeminate qualities meant I was ill-equipped to undertake the rigors of a research career. Her message was equal parts pejorative and subliminal: I was the wrong kind of woman to be a researcher. In limiting my aspirations, she believed she was advising me. I was devastated; and yet, throughout my graduate work I struggled to escape echoes supporting her warning.

Three years into my doctoral research, I developed a body of evidence that won funding for an international research collaboration. During the first collaborative meeting, a foreign PI glibly remarked that the inclusion of women on research proposals was simply for appearances. He complimented my contribution, expressing more gratitude for my name than for my research, and he subsequently refused to share significant experimental responsibilities with women on the team. Not only was he disinterested in including women, he promoted the use of women as pawns to advance his own success, appealing to the image of gender equality without subscribing to it. My thoughts wandered back to the meeting with my past professor, and I wondered if she had possibly endured any similar experiences over her career? I imagined how discriminatory attitudes could have misshaped her own gender perceptions, misleading her to marginalize another woman’s potential under the veil of guidance, as perhaps she had limited herself.Image Credit: Carly Sjogren

I hope for a future where any semblance of gender bias is relegated to anecdotes of the past, but for now – though it is still very much a reality – I choose to persevere. The only thing that truly matters is that I am a woman who loves science. I will not become less feminine simply because it may be perceived as a weakness to some, and I have absolutely no intention to pursue an alternate career. I aspire to become a professor at a Research I institution, and my training at UNC will propel my development as an independent researcher to become a competitive professorial candidate. As such, I will be more than just a female STEM professor – I strive to become a woman with a superb record of research who serves as a positive and inclusive mentor, educator, and role model for my community and for other women striving to reach their greatest potential.

Peer edited by Salma Azam.

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