Where Would Biomedical Research Be Without Open Data?

 

By Florence Chaverneff, PhD

 

Two major approaches in the study of neuroscience are electrophysiology, which consists in recording electrical activity of cells or cell populations and requires elaborate-looking equipment, and molecular biology, which requires…pipettes. Arguably, most biologists are thoroughly trained in either discipline, as they involve distinct skill sets, thinking process, abilities…My training is in cellular and molecular biology. An electrophysiologist friend of mine once told me (wording might be slightly inaccurate due to unconscious bias): “Molecular biology, that’s all about recipes! You follow the recipe, it works”, opposing it to none other than, you guessed it…electrophysiology. Unsurprisingly, electrophysiology, according to him, is soooo much trickier. Turns out, in practice, molecular biology is not all that straightforward.

 

Had my friend (being no more a wizard than the rest of us) ever actually had to use molecular biology to do his work, he most likely would have realized that it takes much more than following a recipe to obtain usable and reproducible data. The same holds for regular cooking, in that, carefully following recipes in a cookbook doesn’t turn one into Julia Child. That’s where biologists have understood that sharing tips for protocols used in molecular biology for example, can help the community (e.g. Protocol online). Making it freely accessible, providing feedback and a platform to interact. Well, this is sort of the concept of open data. What is open data? According to the Open Data Handbook, it is: “data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike.” In biology, open databases are either started and maintained by institutions: e.g. UNIProt  by the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics, Stanford’s SOURCE, or governmental organizations such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information provides the richest source of databases with for example Genbank, Epigenomics, EST and also Prodom. Which biologist, over the course of their career, has never had recourse to open access databases? Probably, very few. And we are all extremely grateful for them. And by open access, I mean, open access. As in, freely available online to anyone with an internet connection. Our work is not only facilitated by these databases, they have become an integral part of biomedical research.

 

The age of the internet has brought about a cultural shift. Sharing is not an attitude that’s associated with the mentality of the research community, where competing for funding, publications and jobs prevails. We compete, that’s who we are. But we are also learning to share information and resources, knowing our work will benefit from doing so. That’s who we have become. Thankfully. Understandably, the sheer existence of some of these databases is due to lack of manpower to analyze huge amounts of data (think big data), hence, the sharing. However, the majority of open databases addresses real needs and has, as sole purpose to benefit the entire community.

 

A parallel can be drawn between open access biological databases and the free online encyclopedia – Wikipedia. A few years ago, I caught a colleague of mine in his laboratory, working on the Wikipedia page of a topic related to his studies. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, being under the misconception that most information on this site was unverified, and that anyone could contribute, regardless of their expertise. My colleague corrected me, pointing to the fact that additions to the site go through a review process and require proper referencing. A while later, I heard a TED talk by Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales. In his talk, this open access pioneer describes the original concept of Wikipedia where “every person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge […] written by thousands of volunteers around the world in many different languages […] managed by an all-volunteer staff”. Wikipedia, is the epitome of open access, particularly under Mr. Wales’ definition. Why is it, then, those individuals who do not get credit or monetary compensation, spend valuable time and effort contributing to such databases? What are their motivations? Are some people simply altruistic? Or does it provide some sort of ‘feel good’ effect? I would say, it’s as simple as that: they do it to benefit, at their level, mankind.

 

 

The Lurking Power Behind Your Daydreams

 

By Katherine Peng

Despite my advocacy for the “use your brain or lose it” philosophy, I will admit to occasionally (alright, more than occasionally) enjoying the oh-so-satisfying pleasure of sitting back and not having to think about anything at all. But of course, our minds never shut off completely. Be it head-in-the-clouds on a subway train or walking down the street, we inevitably enter a self-obsessive stream of consciousness containing shopping lists, weekend plans, or who’s kicking the bucket on the next Game of Thrones.

Contrary to our brains being “at rest”, over half the equivalent energy of an active brain is being used to fuel these daydreams while our bodies are wakefully resting – leading some to dub this as our brain’s mysterious “dark energy”. While the name itself may sound ominous, can this baseline activity actually be dangerous? In 2010, a Harvard study developed an iPhone application that charted participants’ thoughts and happiness randomly throughout the day to reveal that people whose minds were wandering were less happy at the moment than those who were focused. Is it true then that the root of unhappiness stems from dwelling in our thoughts rather than enjoying the present moment?

Here is a philosophical question that may indeed have a biological answer. In 2001, Dr. Marcus Raichle noticed that there is a network of brain structures that is consistently activated when a participant is letting his/her mind wander in a functional MRI machine, but becomes deactivated when asked to perform a task. He coined this the “default mode network”. This DMN has since been indicated to play roles in creativity and planning, and reveals its significance in a study on autistic patients where permanently dampened DMNs prevent them from producing internal pictures of themselves and others.

However, overactivation of this network has also been implicated in multiple mood and mental disorders as well. In patients of major depressive disorder, dominance of the DMN over a task dominant network correlates with higher levels of depressive rumination. Many studies have also linked an overactive DMN to schizophrenia, hypothesizing it as the culprit of blurred boundaries between imagination and reality.

So how can we improve our mental well-being when the DMN is activated at the literal blink of an eye? It turns out that the answer is mindfulness. An imaging study at Yale has found that experienced meditation subjects had decreased DMN activity during meditation, one that was kept in check by co-activated brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control. Even more impressive was the ability of experienced meditaters to do this even when they were told to rest without meditation, indicating the development of a new and improved default mode network with the superior ability to suppress “me” thoughts.

And if that doesn’t make sitting still for extended periods of time sound at all appealing, there’s always the age-old method of… snapping out of it! We’ve heard it a million times, but it might help to just remind yourself to open your (mind’s) eyes and appreciate the beauty of what’s right there in front of you.

 

Surviving Your Qualifying Exam

 

By Robert Thorn

The qualifying exam is a part of graduate school that everybody has to go through, but nobody is really prepared for. The qualifying exam, also called a comprehensive or preliminary exam depending on the program, is generally a test of a student’s knowledge and expertise. Many programs schedule it towards the end of a student’s 2nd year, but the timing varies with each program. Overall this exam aims to determine that a student is prepared to continue on with their PhD training, and usually marks a transition period in their graduate training. Having just finished my own qualifying exam I thought it would be good to pass along some helpful information I learned along the way.

Ask senior graduate students in your program about their qualifying exam experience

Talking to senior students will help to give insight into how the exam will go in terms of expectations and pacing. In addition to giving you logistical advice, they can give you advice on how to deal with the stress associated with the exam.

Know your committee

If you have to submit your exam to a committee of professors in the department, know what they like and do not like. If you choose a committee member with a certain expertise, make sure to talk about their area of expertise. Talking to senior graduate students will help with this as well as they can give you insight into some of the likes and dislikes of the committee in terms of writing and presentation styles.

Take time for yourself!

This may seem like a silly piece of advice, but in this time of extreme stress it will be very easy to lose yourself in studying. Overloading yourself with stress will just add to anxiety over the exam and can be detrimental in the long run so reward yourself! If you spend a few hours studying take an hour off to do something fun or relaxing.

Edit, edit, edit and more editing

If there is a written component to your exam, finish writing it well before the date and spend time editing it. Your written piece will evolve and become better with every edit. Allow time for other people to read it (if that is allowed) to give you a better chance to succeed and to gain alternate perspectives.

Don’t take criticism too personally

If you are writing about your own project you will receive tons of criticism. From your PI, other students who help proofread and especially from the committee in charge of assessing you. They all are trying to help you succeed and their criticisms will help you become a better scientist. This is also good practice for receiving criticism from grant and paper submissions in the future. Take the criticism as a chance to become better, not as a personal attack.

It’s OK to pass the second time

Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, try again! I know this is very cliché but many people will not pass their exams the first time around and that’s why many programs allow a 2nd, or 3rd Just keep your head up and try not to become discouraged.

Ancient Flyers and Gargantuan Creatures

 

By Susan Sheng

If you like dinosaurs and ancient reptiles, then this past month has been a real treat with major discoveries from land, sky and sea. On August 13, 2014, the discovery of a rare pterosaur fossil bed in southern Brazil was reported in PLOS One. Two weeks later, Drexel scientists described a fossil of a gargantuan land animal, possibly the largest ever discovered. Even more recently, on September 12, another group reported that the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever, the Spinosaurus, had adaptations that allowed it to swim.

 

Sky – Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs are an extinct group of flying reptiles which evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree from dinosaurs. They evolved over a period of approximately 170 million years, and ultimately became extinct during the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, around the same time that Tyrannosaurus rex and other large dinosaurs died out. Pterosaurs are thought to be the first, and largest, vertebrates to fly under their own power; they had a wide range in size, from the very small, such as the Nemicolopterus with a 25cm  (about 10 inches) wingspan, to the very large, such as the Hatzegopteryx with a 12m (about 39 feet) wingspan  (to put that into perspective, that’s a larger wingspan than an F-16 fighter jet, which is around 32 feet!). They flew with their forelimbs, with the wing membrane supported by one digit, which would be the equivalent of our fourth finger.

 

Pterosaur fossils have been found on nearly every continent, but the fossils are rare, as like bird bones, pterosaur bones were thin and fragile and prone to being scattered or damaged before they could be preserved. The fossil bed found in southern Brazil by Paulo Manzig and colleagues  were of a new species of pterosaurs, Caiuajara dobruskiis. These pterosaurs were mid-sized, with estimated wingspans ranging from 0.65-2.35m. This fossil bed is interesting for several reasons. While many pterosaur fossils have been found in northeastern Brazil, this particular fossil bed is the farthest south of any find in the country. Additionally, these fossils were found in a region believed to be around an inland lake in the desert, which is also unusual as pterosaur fossils tend to be found near ancient coastal regions or shallow marine deposits, and fossil records from areas deep inside continents is limited. Furthermore, several pterosaurs were found together, and while it is difficult to determine exactly how many unique individuals there are in this fossil bed, the researchers believe there were at least 47 individuals and possibly hundreds of individuals, ranging in age from juveniles to adults. The close proximity of the fossils suggest that these pterosaurs may have lived in social groups, rather than as solitary creatures.

 

As an aside, if any readers out there are in New York City before January 4, 2015, I highly recommend visiting the American Museum of Natural History and checking out their pterosaur special exhibit!

 

Land – Titanosaurs

A team of scientists from Drexel University have reported a new member of the titanosaur family of plant eaters. The Dreadnoughtus schrani, meaning “fears nothing”, was unearthed between 2005-2009 from Argentina, and is “exceptionally complete, with over 70% of the bones, excluding the head, represented.”  It is estimated that this particular individual was 26m (85 feet) long, and weighed about 59,300 kg (65 tons); amazingly, based on the bone structure, scientists believe that this individual was still growing, meaning that in its fully matured adult form it would have been even larger!  Currently Dreadnoughtus holds ths record for largest land animal, breaking the previous record set by Elaltitan, another large titanosaur found in Argentina weighing in at 47 tons (approximately 42,600kg). Today, the largest land animal is the African bush elephant, weighing in at an average of 8,500kg.

 

Sea – Spinosaurus

Fans of Jurassic Park III might remember the fight scene between Tyrannosaurus rex and Spinosaurus; the two massive carnivores circle and charge at each other, until finally the Spinosaurus gained the upper hand and snapped Tyrannosaurus’s neck, killing it instantly.  Indeed, Spinosaurus was an enormous dinosaur, likely measuring in at over 15m (49 feet) long and weighing up to 20,000kg, making it possibly the largest carnivore ever; in comparison, Tyrannosaurus measured around 13m (43 feet) and weighed in around 7,000kg (http://www.walkingwithdinosaurs.com/dinosaurs/detail/tyrannosaurus/). Fossils of Spinosaurus aegytiacus were first found in Egypt in 1912, but were destroyed during the bombings of World War II. This most recent find is the most complete skeleton of Spinosaurus aegytiacus. Analysis of the size and bone density of the limbs suggested that Spinosaurus was better suited paddling and submersion in water, rather than running on land. Additionally the structure of the snout shows similarities to the pressure sensors in the snouts of modern-day crocodiles, with the teeth being suited for snagging fish. This makes Spinosaurus the first dinosaur known to swim. While a battle between Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus makes for good movie scenes, the reality is that Spinosaurus likely hunted for aquatic prey (additionally evidence suggests that Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus lived in different time periods and on different continents!)
I find it both amazing and somewhat terrifying that these giants once roamed the earth. Also, it is fascinating how much palaeontologists can deduce by studying rocks and fossils. While a part of me thinks it would be really cool to travel back in time and observe these creatures, another part of me worries about being crushed or eaten, given how miniscule we are in comparison. For now I’ll stick with documentaries and natural history museums.

Behind the Front Lines: Transitioning from Academia to Industry

 

By Elaine To, PhD

Apologies, dear Scizzlers, for my absence from the blogosphere! Since you last heard from me, I’ve graduated, moved across the country, and started my postdoctoral stint at InCube Labs, a medical device startup incubator. While this isn’t the traditional big pharma path that comes to mind when one talks about “going into industry,” I’d like to share the differences I perceive between the academic environment and the one I’m currently in.

On my first day, I expected to be given a project immediately and was ready to start reading the relevant literature. After a tour, being shown my cubicle, and setting up the laptop I was assigned, I was told to talk to people. I had a general idea which of the company’s ongoing projects I would be contributing to, but no specific tasks. So I talked to my coworkers, got to know them, and learned their roles within the company. I attended engineering group meetings, participated in manufacturing, and caught up on current progress with all products by reading the stored data. This lasted for two weeks before I figured out what niche in the company’s needs I could fill. Once I started working on that, I was assigned an additional task that required my specific skillset. This experience highlights multiple things:

1)     Most likely, one of the reasons the company hired you is because they don’t want their competition to hire you. They value your skillset and recognize that if you’re on the job market, someone else may value you as well. Thus it’s in their best interest to keep you happy and ensure your needs are met. This is why I wasn’t given any tasks with specific deliverables until I showed I was ready: they erred on the safe side and didn’t want to overwhelm me with my own project while I was still settling in and catching up.

 

Tied into this is the work-life balance that my company encourages. A typical workday is 9 to 10 hours and I haven’t yet seen anyone stay late into the night to finish an experiment. To be fair, I try to do a lot of the reading in the comfort of my own home and I’m sure my coworkers do as well. However, overall there is less pressure to constantly be seen working in the lab. Need to visit the doctor? Pick up a child from school? Just need to be home early to prepare something special for your family? It’s understood and accepted. There is never an implication that your project will fail and you will never graduate because you have other priorities in your life.

 

If you are unhappy, you will leave, and the company doesn’t want their valued employees doing so.

2)     Getting along with your co-workers is crucial. Not only is science done collaboratively with multiple individuals working on the same task, but nobody wants to work with somebody they don’t like. It’s an uncomfortable environment that impairs productivity. Be positive, chat with everyone, and be willing to help.

 

3)     Being proactive and taking the initiative is quintessential. In startup environments, every employee wears multiple hats. You may have been hired for a specific skillset, but you will need to be willing to do anything the company needs that you can take care of. However, there won’t always be somebody telling you to work on a specific aspect because your supervisors may not know you have the skills necessary for it. You know your skills best and it’s up to you to apply them in the roles that create the most value for the company.

And some additional things I’ve noticed:

4)     Every company has competition, and thus every company has a non-disclosure agreement. Gone are the days of discussing your data and poring over it with your fellow graduate student friends. True, if I hid enough of the details, I could probably get valuable feedback without revealing anything, but why take the risk? When people ask me what projects we work on I am careful to only talk about what has already been revealed in articles published in the media. Additionally, (individuals who have worked with patient samples in graduate school and are familiar with HIPAA will recognize this) we must trace our trash and throw anything with business secrets into the confidential disposal bins.

 

5)     Networking most certainly does not end when you get a job—it’s a lifetime duty. However, as a graduate student I often felt that I was the one hoping for help from others. Now, I am in a position to provide the help not just to my fellow recent graduates, but also to individuals who have seen much more of industry than I have. Yet, I still benefit greatly from the perspectives of those individuals with more experience and they appreciate the viewpoint of somebody who isn’t so far removed from the academic realm. In networking, everybody’s on equal footing, whether you’re the senior engineer with 15 years of experience or the industrial postdoc who just started a month ago.

What Would Scottish Independence Mean for Science?

 

By Sally Burn, PhD

What do the following have in common: John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Fleming, and James Watt? Well, apart from being scientists or engineers who have had profound effects on your daily life (by virtue of inventing the television, telephone, penicillin, and modern steam engine respectively), they are also Scottish. Scotland, if you are not familiar with it, is a small country within the United Kingdom (UK) that is home to just over five million people (or around 8% of the UK’s total 64 million inhabitants). Despite its small size, it is an incredibly well accomplished and well-funded nation in the fields of science and engineering – it is also the country that produced Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from a somatic cell. According to the Scottish government’s website, Scottish research is cited by scientists from other countries more often than that of any other country, when citations are compared relative to Gross Domestic Product. I completed my MSc, PhD and first postdoc in Scotland, so I have witnessed firsthand the excellent facilities and high quality research this little powerhouse has to offer.

Scotland is an all-round great place to live and be a scientist. However, not everyone is happy. To condense down an awful lot of history, let’s just say that there was a lot of bloody fighting from medieval times through to the early 1700s during which England and Scotland tussled over who owned Scotland. In 1707 Scotland entered the union to become part of the-then Kingdom of Great Britain (the forerunner of the UK), and was governed entirely from London until 1999 when limited self-government was permitted. But this is not enough for many Scots, who now want complete independence from the UK (which also includes England, Wales, and Northern Ireland). In theory, Scotland would become an independent country, with a small population but amazing science capabilities… or would it? The majority of my Scottish or Scotland-based science contacts seem to think otherwise. They envision major drains on funding and personnel, not helped by a predicted economic nightmare. Supporters of independence, however, are confident that separation from the UK will be a positive move and that there is no reason for the existing excellence in science to falter.

Residents of Scotland will cast their vote on independence on September 18th. Scizzle asked four Scottish-based scientists how they will be voting and what independence will, in their minds, mean for Scottish science. Some respondents have chosen to remain anonymous as the subject is sensitive and they currently work in Scotland. It should also be noted that the views expressed are their own and do not reflect those of their employers.

NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Anon, Edinburgh-based postdoctoral researcher

As the Scottish referendum looms, ‘No’ campaign supporters are increasingly being labelled as being ‘negative’ or ‘scaremongerers’, tainting the ideal of Scottish independence. But what I fear the Yes campaigners are missing is that we are already living the dream – in a country recovering from financial crisis, our children still go to university without paying fees and we can all see a doctor and receive prescription drugs free of charge. Both of these benefits do not extend to the English taxpayer and I can’t help but think these benefits in Scotland are funded – at least in part – by the British taxpayer. The same goes for science – proportionally, we receive more public funding per capita than the rest of the UK.

While several prominent scientists have come out publically to state their fears for the future security of Scottish science funding in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, the story behind closed doors is more worrying; rumours of capital grants already being denied to Scottish institutions alongside new group leaders being called in for discussions about future funding ‘issues’.

The people of Scotland are being asked to make what is for many an emotional decision. But for those of us whose families are dependent on jobs in the science and engineering sectors, the luxury of an emotional decision simply is not there. If Scotland gains independence my husband will be relocated to England. As a female postdoc with young children, I don’t fancy my chances at gaining a new position if competition increases due to fewer jobs/less funding. I used to believe it was entirely possible to ‘have it all’ – a fulfilling family life and an exciting career as a postdoc. Despite have a baby, I’m no stranger to nights in the lab because science is my passion and I’m more than willing to sacrifice sleep to the cause. But in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, my family will most likely have to leave our home and start over again. Science is a luxury, and I’ve no doubt many of us will fall victim to a mass ‘cull’. So on September 18th, I won’t be voting ‘No thanks’, I’ll be voting ‘Please, No’.

 

NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Peter Hohenstein, Edinburgh-based principal investigator

It’s not rocket science. Good research needs three things: good people, good institutes and good money. The quality of an institute comes down to the people that work there and the amount of money they can spend. Good people will come to good institutes with good funding. So in the end it’s only about the money. And that’s where the problem is.

The numbers are not new, Scotland gets 13% of Research Council money (through being good) for 8% of the UK population. This is hundreds of millions of pounds. The Yes campaign thinks there will be a shared RC structure between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK), but forgets to ask the question ‘why would they?’. Why would rUK give research funding to a country that just decided to leave them, let alone more than they would be able to fund themselves? There are enough good scientists in England and Wales to spend the money on. Wellcome Trust have not made clear yet what their position on an independent Scotland will be. Other big charities neither, but again, why would they spend their money in another country? Cancer Research UK doesn’t spend its money in Belgium or Iceland, why would they spend it in Scotland if the Scots themselves decide to leave? Scottish charities will need a long time to get the same brand recognition (and thereby income) as the UK version have at the moment to fill this gap, if that ever happens (and again, also with charities Scotland wins a bigger portion of funding than based on population). Nobody knows at the moment if and when an independent Scotland could get into the EU. What does that mean for EU funding? Financially research in Scotland can only be worse off. Independence would give an extra hole in the budget of £6billion that needs to be filled somehow regardless of this, so an independent Scottish government will not be able to compensate. If Scotland eventually gets in the EU they will have to drop the ‘English students only’ tuition fee policy, giving an extra £150million gap in the science and education budget. I don’t think anybody outside the Yes campaign seriously believes an independent Scotland will be able to keep up the science funding levels. The sums simply don’t add up.

Right now the situation is made worse due the uncertainty about what is going to happen. Nobody is at the moment able to plan ahead in case there is a ‘Yes’ vote. And once it’s there, there are only 18 months to get things sorted. This is madness. The simplest grant application expects you to plan ahead longer in advance, and right now the whole of research funding in general is in limbo and would have 18 months to sort things out. I don’t see another possibility than a complete mess in the way universities and institutes will function and can be managed for several years to come for lack of planning opportunities.

Scotland will lose its attraction for good scientists to come to and stay in. 13 years ago I came to the UK, but since then I stayed in Scotland. I stayed because I love Scotland, and because I could do good science here with good funding. I don’t think an independent Scotland will have a comparable attraction to people as the UK as a whole has. Especially if a transition to an independent funding system turns out as messy as I fear – fewer good people will come to Scotland, more good people will leave Scotland. Scientists are used to following the funding streams, all over the world if needed. A large number of scientists are on temporary contracts anyhow, they’re expected to move around every few years for a big part of their career. Why would they come to or stay in Scotland if the funding is a mess and going down? Science in Scotland could all too easily slip into a negative spiral of losing good people and funding. It won’t take long to lose everything the country has worked on for three centuries, it will take much longer (if ever at all) to get it back.

As a non-Brit myself I don’t have any emotional feelings against or in favour of Scottish Independence. I would be the first to agree ‘No’ voters are for a big part driven by fear, as well as thinking ‘Yes’ voters are guilty of day-dreaming. Yes, Scotland has shown to bring forth great research and great scientists. But why would Scotland decide to risk the financial foundations of its science? John Logie Baird was a Scot, but he did his ground-breaking work on the development of the television in Hastings in the south of England. Alexander Bell was from Edinburgh, but was trained and worked in London (before moving to Canada). The Scot Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but it took British funding from the Medical Research Council (as well as the German Jewish refugee Ernst Chain and Australian Howard Florey working in Oxford, England) to bring out its potential. James Watt was born near the Firth of Clyde but to make his steam engine a commercial success he had to partner up with Birmingham (England)-born Matthew Boulton. Science transcends borders, funding much less so. Scots can be brilliant, but they have always worked in the context of the wider UK, and why wouldn’t they? And it goes both ways, England-born and trained Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for work he did (until his retirement very recently) at the University of Edinburgh.

Some might say an immigrant in Scotland like me should not voice an opinion on Scottish Independence. I think every scientist in Scotland should (especially since the universities don’t), wherever they are originally from and whatever their opinion is. In the case of a ‘Yes’ vote Scottish science might eventually catch up again, but science in the rest of the world would have steamed ahead while we are spending time, energy and money on setting up a new scientific (funding) system. Are nationalist emotions important enough to make our own lives unnecessary difficult? For me that’s not rocket science…

 

YES TO INDEPENDENCE – Keith Erskine, Edinburgh-based laboratory technician

If Scotland became independent, it would need to grow its economy and invest in industry, and obviously universities and other scientific bodies would be at the heart of this. Scotland has a good history of innovation, discovery and invention, and this would be more necessary than ever before, if we were independent.

Throughout the debates and arguments over the pros and cons of independence, both sides of the debate seem to paint a picture where the amount of money in the economy and in individual’s pockets appears to be much the same as it is now, regardless of which way the referendum goes – the main difference seems to be more about how money is spent and who decides this. Currently, and rightly in my opinion, the UK government has to put the needs of the majority of its people first and because Scotland is so much smaller than England in terms of population, many decisions which have a direct impact on Scotland and Scottish people are not being made by people whose main priority is what is best for Scotland. This would not be the case in an independent Scotland, and this could only ever be beneficial in a situation where an industry or field which was central or important for the future of the country was in need of funding or help from the government.

I actually think that the psychological boost of a new found optimism and positivity from the recreation of an independent country could inspire millions both domestically and abroad to work on the growth and development of science and technology. There would be a need to build and grow, and this would surely attract the minds and money of the world of science, to be a part of that.

All I see is new opportunity if the vote is yes, and I am excited about the possibility of being there to witness it happening. I find the thought inspiring and exciting, and I hope that it can be the legacy of my generation in the history of Scotland.

 

NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Anon, Dundee-based scientist

Scotland currently produces outstanding research and attracts a disproportionately large share of science funding. Our current membership of the UK gives us access to generous funding from UK research councils and from the EU. It also makes it easy for groups across the UK to collaborate and share skills, expensive equipment, and access world-class facilities. This is central to any developed economy, and something that Scotland should be proud of.

Why would we want to change this enviable position?

Pro-independence campaigners argue that Westminster will cut budgets. However, despite the financial crisis, funding of the life sciences has been well protected compared with many other areas. In contrast, what is promised on independence is vague. The Scottish Government has asserted that the UK research councils will continue funding Scottish research. Not only is this contradictory to the argument for leaving the UK, it seems wildly optimistic to expect the UK to continue funding a foreign country.

The lack of planning for post-independence funding is shocking. What happens if, in fact, the UK does not intend to fund research in an independent Scotland? We can’t fall back on EU funding and facilities because we won’t be part of the EU for several years at least. Even a short gap in funding would severely damage research here; researchers need money to continue their work and to eat. If the money dries up for even a matter of months, many people would need to leave to find other jobs. Once people have left, it is virtually impossible to reassemble teams and expertise that have been carefully built over decades.

Indeed, what happens if the UK does intend to fund research in an independent Scotland? Although we may continue to receive money, we would lose any political say in how the Westminster government decides science-funding policy. This would put us in a very precarious and dependent position; precisely the opposite of what independence is supposed to achieve.

Collaboration and sharing is fundamental to science. Why should we rip up the fabric of UK research and build unnecessary barriers in an unfunded, poorly planned future?

 

Ending Poverty with Science

 

By Florence Chaverneff, PhD

The predominant role that Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) play in a nation’s general economic health need not be emphasized. Yet, in developing countries, STI are often neglected, as scarce resources are used for more pressing matters (e.g. health and education). Although it might be hard to reconcile the short-term benefits of investing in STI, one cannot deny the importance of such efforts to attain sustainable development. And this is precisely what the United Nations (UN) have long regarded as a durable answer to eradicate poverty and hunger in the developing world. So, knowing the importance of STI in promoting a country’s development, why is there so much resistance to support these endeavors?
The UN’s Developmental Goals

 

In September 2000, ensuing the Millenium Summit, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the ‘Millenium Declaration’. This document, through eight Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), defined the role of the UN for the first fifteen years of this new era, in accordance with the organization’s original principles defined in its 1945 Charter. In an effort to set a post-2015 agenda for the UN, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were outlined in June 2012, at the issue of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. An Expert Group Meeting on Science and SDGs was held in New York in March 2013, aiming to get “the scientific community to discuss among itself how science can best inform the SDG process, and for the scientific community to initiate a dialogue with the policy-makers, who are engaged in intergovernmental deliberations on the SDGs”. The resulting document stressed the importance of including the scientific community in the designing of goals and policies that were to be the framework for SDGs, and the 10 year ‘Future Earth Initiative‘ was launched  with the objective, on an international scale, to ‘strengthen partnership between scientists and policy-makers to provide sustainability options’.

 

That’s all good.

 

Shortly after this Expert Group Meeting, the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convened, to determine the impact of STI on each of the MDGs. The summary of this meeting  states that “STI and culture can significantly impact each of the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. Specifically, STI drives the dynamic transformation of economies, through productivity growth, which influences economic growth. STI also affects economic growth through the knowledge spill-overs it generates between countries, firms, and industries.” and that “STI and culture should be clearly articulated as enablers for sustainable development and important elements of the post-2015 development agenda”. A UN Open Working Group (OWG) issued a ‘zero draft’for the SDGs in June 2014, document which also presented STI as key in the designing, supporting and implementing of the proposed SDGs.

 

That’s even better.

 

Surprisingly, however, the role of STI was significantly weakened in a later draft of SDGs  released by the OWG last July. It took extensive lobbying  by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to re-establish the place of STI (through developing both capacities and international cooperation for science and research) as a means for developing nations to attain sustainable development.

 

From a global to a local perspective

When asked about the role of academic and research communities in SDGs, Jeffrey Sachs, the UN’s Secretary General’s special advisor on the MDGs and director of the UN initiative, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN http://unsdsn.org/ ), stated that: “There are two phases in the work of SDSN, but they are overlapping. One is to help the process of setting meaningful goals […]”. The second is to create a network — mainly centered around universities, but also research institutions, national laboratories, and partnering with companies in different sectors — a network that will be there for the period of the SDGs to help with implementation”.

 

There is a need worldwide for scientists and policy-makers alike, to re-think the role of science in enabling sustainability. Global scientific action means much more than pooling of resources, knowledge, policies and actions to curtail climate change. Capacity-building efforts and establishment of scholarships in STI fields to train a new generation of scientists in developing nations are mandatory measures if we are to achieve a more equitable world.

 

 

Our Memories in a Geometrical Context

 

By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

How do memories carry different emotional weights? Are they put in different geometrical context in the brain that would be associated with different emotional capacities? Or do they turn on and off by some chemical factors, which have the ability to mount different emotions on different memories? What are the neuronal mechanisms that enable the switching of the valence of memories (from bad to good or vice versa)? We do not know!

However a recent paper by scientists from MIT and Japan’s RIKEN Institute, has demonstrated a method that can switch of the valence associated with a hippocampal contextual memory engram in mice. This study reveals a physical connection between “memories” and the “emotional weight” given to them that can be manipulated or engineered.

This is the closest we have ever got to some science fiction stories and movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). The movie describes a passionate couple who are basically miserable with and without each other. They break up their romantic relationship because they never find a way to make it work. Yet after breaking up, they cannot move on from the past to start a new life because of carrying memories that were some remarkably pleasant and unique and some strongly painful. So they decide to medically erase each other from their memories so they become who they were before they met each other! Don’t be surprised that after all this complicated process they meet each other again in real life, they do not remember each other of course, but they start a new story all over from the beginning! Maybe they forgot to erase the attraction that existed between them?!  

Getting back to the recent scientific discovery and assuming that one day the results will apply to humans, we face a serious question: to what extent can such methods of manipulating memories, or manipulating the emotional weight associated with them, help people have a better (more pleasant) life? Putting aside the possibility of treating serious psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, don’t we really change our sense of self by changing our memories?

Let’s zoom out a bit and from a bigger perspective think about memories, emotions and the ability to experience pleasure and pain both at very high levels. Can we really consider any one of these as a failure of evolution? Or do we just need to find those key factors that can put our memories into a context of a story? A story that has the best geometrical configuration to accommodate all our memories, where nothing good or bad has to be erased!