Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fetus' Immune System Halts Attack on Cells from its Mother

Repost from AAAS Science Roundup

Tolerating Maternal Influences

A baby developing in the womb receives vital nutrients from its mother, but also some of her cells. Researchers have long known about such maternal crossover cells, but have been unable to explain why they are able to escape attack by the baby's immune system. In a Report in the 5 Dec 2008 Science, Mold et al. provided new insight into the capabilities of the human fetal immune system. The researchers found that substantial numbers of maternal cells cross the placenta to reside in fetal lymph nodes and that this crossover spurs the baby to produce regulatory T cells -- white blood cells whose job it is to suppress fetal immune responses -- that persist at least until early adulthood.

As noted in an accompanying News story by M. Leslie, the work "suggests a new mechanism for how the human immune system learns to spare the body's own tissues, a tolerance that breaks down in autoimmune diseases." Lead author Jeff Mold discussed the findings in a related podcast interview.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Next Generation Microscopy: Goodbye Purple Fingers - No Stain Microscopy

Twenty years ago when I took Microbiology I learned about staining. Tissues had to be stained in order to 'see' the cells and cell organelles. Under a light microscope it all looks clear or pinkish and transparent. Add a couple of drops (or micro drops) of a certain dark stain would attach to the walls of the cell or organelle and then * wa-la* Contrast.

And for some reason all of the important stains were blue, hence the reference to blue fingers because you get some on your hands, lab coat, apron, table, etc.
Example stains include Methylene Blue Stain, Methyl Blue Stain,Indigo Stain....

and my time favorite, because it was the first staining technique I learned, was Crystal Violet or Methyl Violet used to differentiate Gram Negative Bacteria from Gram Positive Bacteria.
Microbiology lab was the first lab I took that made me feel so empowered. Lab was twice a week and I never minded staying for the whole time. It was hands-on learning and application of stuff I was learning in the class. I was holding a vial of something putrid and I was going to figure out what it was with stain and petri dishes. I felt like MacGyver. Do my pre-med, biology, chemistry, and biochem majors feel me? Aaah memories. My blue fingers were a badge of honor (and I didn't bite my nails much that semester.) But alas, those days may be no more. Some super-duper microbiology genius has helped us see the invisible without stain. Read more about it below.

Repost of NSF Press Release 08-218

Microscopes have revolutionized the practice of science, especially in the fields of biology and medicine. Just a few hundred years ago, gaining the ability to study what was previously unobservable opened up an entirely new world. Today, imaging techniques remain indispensable to clinicians and researchers who regularly diagnose medical conditions and work to develop new treatments.

Test results can often take hours or even days because cells or tissues must be subjected to lengthy fixation and labeling processes, sometimes called staining, in order to visualize and distinguish cellular components. In addition to long processing times, staining procedures often include harsh treatments or conditions that alter the tissues themselves, making interpretation of results difficult.

A newly developed label-free imaging technique called stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) will likely revolutionize biomedical imaging in research and diagnostic laboratories. A team lead by Sunney Xie at Harvard University reported this new technique in the December 19 issue of Science.
"It is a big step forward in terms of biology," said Xie. "SRS is a powerful imaging modality with widespread applications on many fronts of biology and medicine. This work compliments an earlier technique we developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, adding a new imaging modality to the vibrational microscopy field."
The key to this new chemical imaging technique is the use of two lasers with different frequencies. Researchers visualize samples by tuning the laser frequencies to match the vibrational frequency of a specific chemical bond. Each type of molecule within a sample, including nutrients or drugs, is detectable at a unique frequency. By combining sample data collected at numerous frequencies, researchers can produce a high-resolution 3D image of the sample. SRS microscopy represents a big gain in biomedical imaging because it avoids labor-intensive sample preparation and autofluorescence, or "background noise", associated with traditional fluorescence microscopy.
Xie is enthusiastic about the ways in which SRS imaging will facilitate progress in many fields. "Applications of SRS imaging range from mapping distribution of small metabolite and drug molecules in cells and tissues to medical diagnosis of cancer. Neuroimaging is another exciting area of application."
Media Contacts
Lisa Van Pay, NSF (703) 292-8796 lvanpay (at) nsf.gov
Lily Whiteman, NSF (703) 292-8070 lwhitema (at) nsf.gov
Principal Investigator
X. Sunney Xie, Harvard University (617) 496-9925 xie(at)chemistry.harvard.edu

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On Becoming Independent - Hands-off Teaching/Hands-on Learning

I was leading an activity with children at the zoo. We were making luminaries. I explained how to do it, made some myself along side the kiddies, gave kids the materials and cheered them on as they took off. Then I watched the parents. Some parents worked with their youngsters, holding the stencil or the markers. Other parents were doing the craft for the child, particularly if they were very young - which makes sense. But it was remarkable to see how some children were allowed to do the activity with hardly any input from the parents. Those children seemed more creative, relaxed, and spent some time creating some very nice paper bag luminaries. I especially credit the parents for being patient as opposed to criticizing them for being inattentive.

On the other hand there were some parents who took charge of the activity. They directed the child, helped choose the stencil or in some cases selected it for the child. There seemed to be a control over the activity where the child was second chair to the parent. They were compelled to do the activity a certain way, "the right way" - trace the stencil perfectly, don't embellish the picture with color or free-hand art, use certain color markers. Sometimes it was because the parents were impatient and seemed to rush the activity to get it over with.

As I watched those parent-child interactions, it got me to thinking about something I noticed when I was in high school classroom and at the job house. Some formative experiences may have shaped some people to be less independent. Many people (not just children) seem absolutely afraid to take risks and make mistakes. For example, whenever I gave a pre-test or open-lab assignment or an independent project, I had some students who just hated it. They lost it. Got belligerent. They wanted to be told exactly what to do, how to do and immediately rewarded. Free-thinking was not at all appealing to them. There was a right way, a singular way to do things and they did not care about the hows and whys of the matter.

At the job house, my employees struggled with executing projects without serious oversight. They got frustrated and often gave up quickly because things didn't appear to work out the first time. They did not take criticism well, even mild criticism. They always expected a positive response even when they knew they hadn't tried their best or were properly trained to handle a task. I had a host of issues, including managing them, which is why I eventually left the job. I wasn't a great fit.

What I realized is that my preferred teaching/leading style is Authoritative. I give you instructions or guidelines, explain the boundaries, but give you free opportunity to figure the rest out. How I see it, I can only facilitate learning. I can't make you learn. You can ask questions, challenge the rules, be absolutely creative. It's okay if things don't work out the first time or second time. Learning or perfecting a skill involved mistakes. In fact you learn more when don't get in right the first time, because you get positive feedback and the chance to practice what you've learned.

For these frustrated learners/workers they don't want to ponder the mistake or see correctness in alternative views. Thinking back to those kids whose parents made them do things a certain way, they may have a hard time making their own decisions when their parents are absent. What do I like? How can I get this done? Can I feel confident about what I have done? And that confidence in doing something for one's self is very important.

As these thoughts were on my mind, I was listening to NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge program about craftsmanship (Reconsidering Crafts, Dec 14, 2008). A Craft is a skill, an effort to work hard at something, to do it well and produce a product that is sound and sometimes beautiful. Skills such as carpentry, or quilt-making, landscaping, candle-making - these are crafts. But service jobs are also crafts - such as nursing, surgery, plus hair and skin care. How seriously one takes his or her profession in providing the best possible product or service to enhance or enrich the lives of your clients. Lack of facilitated learning, positive feedback, and the requirement to practice and revise actually hurts some people, at least I think so.

This idea of working hard and doing something is essential to personal pride and satisfaction with one's place in life, I think. From my personal observations, poor people are not respected or treated as if there is something in life that they CAN do, do it well, and enjoy doing. Regrettably, urban schools are so frustrating and confusing that children aren't given the chance to truly learn. They forced to listen and regurgitate and get it right the first time. Learning, particularly hands-on learning is thrown away by 4th grade. This hands-on learning is much like the act of learning a craft, becoming skilled at something. My employees did not want to work hard, so no value in it and as a result struggled to fit into the work place and it very program that was supposed to help them out of poverty seemed to fail them.
Please check out entire show on NPR. It was enlightening, especially the segment with Sociologist Richard Sennett. He talked about his book "The Craftsman" in which he makes the case that our definition of craft should be expanded to include any job a person commits to executing to the best of their abilities. He tells Steve Paulson that lots of working-class people care about what they do, with no expectation of material reward.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Science Blogging Conference will address Diversity in Science

The 2009 ScienceOnline Conference will take place MLK weekend in Research Triangle, North Caroline. This conference is like many other Blogging Conferences - networking, increasing readership, moneytizing, and improving your blog. Like other "special interest blogging groups" the participants will address important matters of concern to them.

The overarching issue being addressed is Scientific Literacy. How the public consumes, comprehends, and using science information (and disquishes it from psuedo- or non-science information) in order to make decisions about their lives.

Another important issue is Inclusion or Diversity in STEM. How do we create and maintain diversity among our ranks at colleges, universities, and other research centers? There are two workshops to deal with this.
1. Gender in science — online and offline — moderated by Suzanne Franks, Abel and Alice Pawley: How to get and make allies? What allies can and should be doing? How the Web provides new methods and means for action and effecting positive change. Go here to discuss.
2. Race in science – online and offline — moderated by Danielle Lee and Samia Ansari: The issues of gender and race are related and have overlaps, yet there are differences as well that need to be explored. If there is no profile picture, most readers will automatically assume that the author is white. What can be done to promote minorities blogging? How can blogs by minorities be used to attract kids into science careers? How to get and make allies? What allies can and should be doing? How the Web provides new methods and means for action and effecting positive change. Go here to discuss.
I really hoped to attend the Conference. Last year I missed it for work reasons and I think the same precluding factors will keep me away this year. However, I appreciate that the conference organizers encourage bloggers to sound off about issues by posting comments on the wiki. I can't quite yet figure out how to do that, so I'll sound off here and encourage others to sound off here in the comments or visit the wiki to sound off or post at your blog and trackback or all of the above.

Since I've talked about race issues, particularly, my race (African-American) and STEM diversity, I'm tempted to just offer them links to my previous posts. I still might do that, but I offer this first - an abstract I ran across on ERIC. It is an abstract of a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Montreal, Canada, April 1983).

"The differences in the personality and social backgrounds of college students majoring in science and nonscience fields were assessed with 91 black and 109 white students. The following categories of majors were compared: natural science, social science, and nonscience (education, business, history, and all others). The personality and attitudes of students were assessed by the 16PF, Bem Sex-Role Inventory, and the Attitude Toward Women Scale. Data were also collected on birth order, number of siblings, and social class. The black natural science majors were from a higher social class and more practical and toughminded than were the black social and nonscience majors. The white natural science majors were more masculine sex-role oriented and more sober than were the white social and nonscience majors. In comparison with nonscience majors, natural science majors were more often first born and from higher social class families with fewer siblings. There were more racial differences found than college major differences; however, black and white science majors were more similar than black and white students in the other two college major groups. It is suggested that knowledge about the characteristics of black scientists may be helpful in identifying prospective scientists. "

Authors: ML Clark and W Pearson, Jr.

This paper/data was presented 25 years ago. A whole generation ago. I wonder what new insights we have today?

Here is another paper, something more recent, that is also very interesting.
African American Women in Science: Experiences from High School through the Post-Secondary Years and Beyond by Sandra L. Hanson.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Say It Ain't So...NPR News & Notes Cancelled

Yes, you read or heard right. N&N and the lovely Farai Chideya have been invited to leave the NPR line-up. Get the details at We Love You! (And, Yes, We Are Cancelled). March 20 will be their last day.

I am sad. First Bryant Park Project, now News & Notes. It's like the Horror film where the Black Actors always go first. I enjoy almost all of the NPR news programming. And I really enjoyed the African-American/Minority American programs and angles. I thought it brought more issues to the mainstream conversation.

Is there anything we can do to stave this off? Hey, African-American Radio Consortium, any ideas?

And something a little more recent:
African American Women in Science: Experiences from High School through the Post-Secondary Years and Beyond by Sandra Hanson

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Diluting Baby Formula can be fatal. Spread the word.

These lean economic times can lead many people to tighten their belts. Stretching food across several meals is a natural way to make due. But in an effort to cut a few corners and save money, one mom learned a hard lesson. Warning: A little water can hurt babies—So don't dilute infant formula. The Florida mom had been diluting her baby's formula to stretch out her monthly ration from WIC. She didn't know (and neither did I) that it can cause water intoxication which can be fatal. This is such a sad but very realistic problem. With poor people doing what they can to survive they become more vulnerable to mistaken fatalities.

In an effort to ration food and supplies, we should all work to find ways to cut back AND help one another. I don't want another family to suffer like this. I is a shame that some programs give families a hard time when they need to adjust their receivings - soy milk instead of traditional forumula, or switch brands because some formulas aren't received well by some babies. There is no one size fits all in nutrition or social services.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Food Democracy Now - Real Change We Must Embrace

Food. It is a necessity. However, many people are completely blind to how our food is grown, raised, processed and distributed. Food processing is no easy task - at a local level (the farmer and processors) or on a large scale (big agribusiness, distribution, and preservation).

A few things that need to be kept in mind:
1. In this fragile economy many more people are at risk of food insecurity. We need better solutions. Reduce food waste. Keep people fed. Offer affordable nutritious foods to every neighborhood. Eat a healthier, balanced diet. Make produce, whole grains, and healthy meats, poultry, and dairy products available to everyone one. Take care of ourselves and each other.
2. Get back to more 'traditional' farming. Grow food crops in areas that are best suited to the local climate. Rotate crops. Eat more seasonal produce items. Eat more local foods. Presently, US agriculture practices are intensely dependent of fertilizer. We also transport our food items hundreds and thousands of miles to get them to our dinner plates. In this time of energy reconsideration, we need to cut back on our petroleum use - which is used to make fertilizer and transport our food.
So where can we start?
Join me in asking President-Elect Obama to select a responsible person to be the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Go to Food Democracy Now and sign the Petition.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

NSF-AAAS Student Research Conference Underlines the Importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

John Haynes, Professor and Dean of Science and Mathematics at Morehouse College, Atlanta
Credit: Photos by Sidney Perkowitz

December 5, 2008
ATLANTA, Georgia-Historically black colleges and universities play a significant-but often unrecognized-role in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education of minority students in the United States, producing scientists and engineers ready to apply their education to the important problems of the day. These messages were strongly delivered by students and educators at the National Science Foundation's 2008 Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program Research Conference, organized by the AAAS.

In 2004 nearly half-49%-of bachelor's degrees in physics and 39% in chemistry awarded to African-Americans came from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), according to a recent report by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology and the American Institute of Physics. One well-known HBCU, Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduates more bachelor's degrees in science per year than some countries, said John K. Haynes, professor and Morehouse's dean of Science and Mathematics, who spoke at the conference.

According to Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS: "We must invest in development of talent and potential for science and engineering. HBCUs provide access to many students and introduce them to the possibilities of education and careers in STEM." HBCUs, she said, "contribute disproportionately as the baccalaureate origins institutions in many fields that are crucial to U.S. competitiveness and national security."

Much of the research described by HBCU undergraduates at the event directly addresses pressing national needs. For example, a poster headlined "Preparation of Biodiesel from Waste Oil" presented by Ashley White, a junior chemistry major at Jackson State University, Mississippi. Asked why the work is important, she responded: "Because we need cheaper gas! And we need to stop depending on foreign oil. We can do this ourselves." She went on to describe the chemistry involved in converting discarded vegetable oil used for cooking into diesel fuel. The quality of the fuel is acceptable, she added, but the process needs to be improved for greater yield.

Another poster described research in steganography, an area that turns out to be important for national security. The poster's presenter, Kevin Harris, a junior applied math major at North Carolina A&T State University, defined steganography as "disguising information without arousing suspicion." One virtually undetectable method is to encode a message within a digital graphics file by tweaking the data bits in a way that leaves the image unaltered. While this sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, Harris cited a recent FBI White Paper on the subject that shows its seriousness in an age of terrorism.

These two posters were among some 275 student poster presentations and over 100 talks at the four-day HBCU-UP conference, held 23-26 October in Atlanta. The presentations covered virtually every major field of science and technology, with cash awards offered for the best research as chosen by a panel of experts. This is the second year under a three-year NSF grant that the AAAS has organized a student-oriented event with the atmosphere and format of a full-scale scientific conference, this year with over 800 attendees. The conference featured student research abstracts in a glossy program book and gave the students opportunities to explore offerings from various graduate schools and employers.

The student activities were supplemented by workshops, and plenary talks from some of the leading players in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at HBCUs. James H. Wyche, director of the NSF Division of Human Resource Development, Directorate for Education and Human Resources, spoke of the significance of STEM education for global competitiveness and noted the importance of key "transit points" in keeping potential and current HBCU science students on track toward their careers, such as the transition from 11th to 12th grade.

Haynes, in his plenary address, emphasized the excitement of today's forefront science and the importance of a research experience in undergraduate science education. Carlton E. Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University, another major HBCU, reported large numbers enrolled in STEM courses at his institution but noted that graduation rates are lower than desired. He said raising the number and skills of qualified middle- and high school science teachers would be crucial for improving university-level graduation rates in those fields.

In a later conversation, Haynes placed HBCU training within the framework of a national commitment to STEM education. "The country realizes it's got to tap all of its resources," he said. "Other countries are producing many more students in science. The question is whether we have the national will. The next president has to send a clear message to the country that all of its citizens should receive quality education." As a critical factor, Haynes added, that should include pre-college education.

For some students, the conference gave an opportunity to reflect on their HBCU experience along with their research. Jasmine Greene, a sophomore biology major at Lemoyne-Owen College, Memphis, Tennessee, presented work on the interaction between chromium metal ions and the neurotransmitter aspartate. Even trace amounts of certain metallic elements can impair human neural behavior. Greene's project is the first to examine possible harmful effects from chromium. The results will be submitted to the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
When asked about the pros and cons of attending a historically black college compared to a school with a diverse population, Greene responded that while she strongly favors diversity, an HBCU offers "a family bond."

"The teachers really care," she said. "I'm not just a number."

Justin Morrissette, a graduating senior in chemical engineering at Hampton University in Virginia, gave a different response to the question. Morrissette studied viral infections of bacteria in the Pacific Ocean, which could have consequences for the prevalence of plankton and the food chain that it supports. He carried out his research partly at institutions that are not HBCUs; for him, the most important thing in choosing where to learn and work was to follow the science.

The buzz of activity around the student presentations was matched by the buzz of activity around the conference exhibits. Over 80 exhibitors and recruiters, mostly representing graduate schools across the United States but also from employers such as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, illustrated that the pool of HBCU undergraduates is indeed a valued resource for further STEM education and jobs.
For all the activity and student enthusiasm, however, the current economic downturn could potentially alter federal and other funding for science education including HBCUs and their supporting programs. Some HBCUs suffer from lack of the resources needed to provide complete student research experiences. Bad economic news may trigger other problems because "many of these students need financial help to go [to college]," said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. "Many of the students come from rural areas--first-generation college students."

Added Malcom: "We can anticipate tough budget years ahead for R&D, to the extent that these can be considered a 'nice to have' rather than a 'must have.' If, however, R&D become necessities or, better still, investments, we can make a case for support even in tough times."
Haynes sounded perhaps the most optimistic note of all. Even in the face of financial difficulties, he said, we should realize that "global awareness is where we're going so internationalizing the experience of students is the next new frontier... We have to get young people out of [provincialism] to see there's a wide world with opportunities."

See the full list of young researchers who won awards for oral and poster presentations at the National Science Foundation's HBCU-UP conference in Atlanta.
Learn more about the NSF's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program.
More images from the Conference

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $6.06 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to over 1,900 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Sickle Cell Anemia Treatment discovered

Thanks to hard work, patience, and scientific pursuit of knowledge and application there seems to be New Hope for Sickle-Cell Anemia Sufferers. According to a report in Science Magazine,
Researchers have discovered the molecular switch for activating the fetal form of hemoglobin—the iron-containing protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen—which could help alleviate the symptoms of genetic blood disorders, including sickle-cell anemia.

Sickle anemia is widely regarded as a Black disease because it affects an estimated 70,000 people (mostly African-Americans) in the U.S. But it in fact peoples from many regions of the world have high incidences of this disease in their populations: Africa, Mediterranean countries (such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy), The Arabian peninsula, India, and Latin America (such as South America, Central America, and parts of the Caribbean).

Sickle-cell anemia can be fatal with most people dying by their mid-40s. When I was a young child, persons with sickle-cell anemia had a life expectancy of 25. Thank goodness for modern medicine. However, it is a high-maintenance disease. Sufferers deal with extreme pain in the legs when their red blood cells sickle and prevent a constant flow of oxygenated blood. Many take blood thinners or have frequent blood transfusions to stem the symptoms. This new treatment technique may by-pass all of that. Inherited forms of anemia may soon be treated by turning on a gene normally active only in the womb, when individuals with sickle cell anemia are asymptomatic. Read more about this new discovery at Scientific American.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Public Libraries as Egalitarian Institutions

I spent the day in the public library studying and writing. Public libraries are perhaps the most under-appreciated and over-looked information and education resources in American cities and towns. Specifically thinking about socioeconomic and class issues to information and resource access, public libraries really do address these issues. Not only can one check out literature (fiction and non-fiction) but the catalogs of education books, texts and references for all levels is a marvel. Libraries have always been the place where one can access public archives and texts, and now they are internet hubs, too.

Though funding varies from place to place, most modern libraries have free computer and internet access for any member of the public. Competition for these computers can be fierce, but it is available. Also, libraries offer free literacy classes, GED preparation, and computer lessons. They also serve as community meeting places.

Public Libraries are great education resources. Support your library, host an informal class or make a donation. It’s for everyone – all ages, all education levels, all economic levels. Few institutions are truly as egalitarian as our libraries.