Why are People “Rallying Around Science”?

Hello Everyone,

I, like many other scientists, participated in the March for Science this past month.  Today I wanted to mention briefly my reasons for participating in the March.  There are some good questions being raised in the scientific community about whether or not scientists should be involved in politics or influencing public policy.  In my personal, humble, opinion people who think that science is “above politics” are full of themselves.  We are all human beings, we all have our own goals and we want to have input on public policy because, by its nature, it affects us.  I had the great opportunity last Friday to meet with Dr. Franklin Carrero-Martinez, the Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State.  Dr. Carrero is a scientist by training and one who is now heavily involved in helping the State Department determine what to do with scientific information.  This does not mean hiding any information or presenting a biased view but it does mean forming an opinion and making a decision based on a fair reading of the facts.  That’s what I was marching for, a fair reading of the facts.  In the field of public policy, opinions should not be formed and then backed up with data after the fact.  All facts should be debated and an opinion should be formed from that debate.  Of course, new data can always help us to refine or even change our opinions.  In my mind, however, the failure to form an opinion and failure to take decisive action is a failure in leadership.  So again, I’ll call on everyone to please get involved in scientific research and to think about how it affects your daily life.

 

Thanks for reading,

GRW

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Gaining more Flexibility in Science: Pursuing International Opportunities

Hello Everyone,

To add more flexibility to our platforms for conducting scientific research, perhaps it’s time that scientists here in the US take into consideration options abroad.  This thought was spurred on by a recent trip I took to China.  I had the opportunity to see some of the university system there and how it’s become quite international.  Not only can the environment be friendly, but there is also the fact that China is spending the second most total money on R&D behind only the US(1) and has been heavily investing in a computing power that might soon outpace the United States (2).  In a previous post I said scientific research is an inherently globalized enterprise.  I think as the reputation for quality research increases in Asia this fact will only become clearer.  Certainly there are some caveats to working abroad in a large bureaucracy such as China, namely greater amounts of corruption by some academics (3).  Still, this is no reason to completely discount the possibility of US students moving outside of the US to conduct their research.

For those seriously considering moving out of the US, it’s important to consider how you’ll be perceived by the scientific community.  Students from the US are, by and large, considered top tier in terms of academics.  This means students going from the US to, for example, Europe or Asia are very valuable.  These students will have some leverage getting a position as a research professor/post doc/grad student abroad.  There is always the question, however, of coming back to the United States, if that is the ultimate goal.  I haven’t heard much downside to people doing research abroad, especially at top tier universities such as Max Planck, Oxford, University of Tokyo, etc.  A person who goes to a smaller institute might be plagued with the same prestige-bias that students who attend smaller universities in the United States suffer.  This begs the question: if you want to study or do research at a smaller university, why not try moving abroad?

One last concern about researching abroad, however, is that the research funding systems might work drastically differently in other countries.  A labmate from Poland told me that in her country there are barely any postdoc positions available.  People either go straight from graduate school to being a professor or not at all.  I’ve heard from others that there are similar concerns in other countries in Europe.  Certain institutes use a model where the PI of the lab, rather than getting tenure, has a strict term limit for their time.  This might the window for what may seem like an ideal position very narrow.  Countries such as China strictly limit career movement from university to university.  This could cause a problem if the situation in a lab sours.  If you are considering moving from the US to another country to do research please do some research into how the academic system works in that country.

Thanks for reading this time.  I hope I’ve given you something to think about and maybe at least an interest in looking into how research works in other countries.  Regardless of what happens in the world, the pursuit of science will continue to happen all over the Earth.  I would encourage you to become a part of it wherever you can!

Sincerely,

GRW

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_research_and_development_spending
  2. https://www.wired.com/2016/06/fastest-supercomputer-sunway-taihulight/
  3. http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-caught-in-chinese-anti-corruption-sweep-1.16152

New Paper: Controlling Membrane Active Peptide Activity

Hello Everyone,

I’m happy to say that I was able to publish what was the bulk of my PhD thesis work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and that it is finally available.  This work formed the initial basis of my ideas around Molecular Yoga, the ability to control the ways in which molecules can change conformation and activate certain functions.  In short, we created a combinatorial library based on the membrane active, toxic peptide Super-Melittin (derived from Melittin from honeybee venom).  This peptide has excellent antimicrobial and potent anti-cancer capabilities but it is very harmful to our own body’s cells as well.  I believe that by changing just a few of the amino acids we could create a peptide that would be inactive at neutral pH but could fold into an alpha-helix and activate at a low pH.  Low pH environments are often found in tumors and with fungi and bacteria, making it an good activating key for these peptides.  We’re currently working to develop a patent for these exact purposes and some of my colleagues, Sarah and Elmer are still working very hard to improve these peptides further.  Please give it a read and let me know what you think!

I have another announcement too.  I’ll be reporting next month as part of the 61st Biophysical Society Meeting blog in New Orleans.  I hope to use this as a way to bring science to the public and to help them to interact with the scientific community.  Look for updates along these lines in the next few weeks!  Thanks for reading!

Sincerely,

GRW

 

Paper:

pH-Triggered, Macromolecule-Sized Poration of Lipid Bilayers by Synthetically Evolved Peptides. Wiedman G, Kim SY, Zapata-Mercado E, Wimley WC, Hristova K. (2016)  JACS

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jacs.6b11447

 

Skepticism versus Denial in Science

Hello Everyone,

Before the year is out I wanted to make one last post on a topic I feel is becoming increasingly more important in today’s academic climate.  That point is about the difference between skepticism and denial.  We hear a lot in the news (fake or real) about how different people are either “deniers” or “skeptics” of various ideas.  The utility of vaccines, climate change, AIDS, are just a few topics that come up with these labels on them.  Perhaps it would be best to have a discussion of the topic with, instead of politically charged rhetoric, a view towards science itself.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about this topic recently stems from a book I got as part of a Secret Santa gift: “Dancing Naked in the Minefield” by Kerry Mullis.  Kerry Mullis won a Nobel Prize for his part in developing Polymerase Chain Reaction synthesis of DNA.  He’s a man I deeply disagree with but whom I think has a good point nonetheless.  Mullis, in the early 1990’s challenged the prevailing wisdom that Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  By the mid-1990’s, however, there were several cases of isolated HIV accidentally being introduced to healthy individuals and these individuals eventually developing AIDS. These cases established a link between HIV and AIDS(1).    For his part, Mullis would describe himself as a “consummate skeptic” always questioning whether or not the scientific community has sufficiently tested and evaluated a hypothesis.  In a sense he’s right; as scientists we should always be skeptics, no matter how established the dogma in our field has become.  We can go back to Copernicus (and earlier Greeks) challenging the idea that everything revolved around the Earth or Louis Pasteur and others challenging the idea of Spontaneous Generation as examples.    There comes a point, however, where to make progress in a field we have to accept that our data point towards a scientific consensus on a topic. From this consensus we can test new hypotheses and create new ideas.

Then we reach what we would call “denial”.  Denial, in as non-political of terms as I can put it, is ignoring the scientific consensus and the data that support it and instead interpreting results based on your own biases and beliefs.  The correct way to do science is to make as objective observation as possible, create a hypothesis objectively, and then evaluate that hypothesis without presuming any specific outcome.  Contrary to popular belief, scientists actually really love to prove things wrong, especially well, established ideas.  You have to approach it though as if you don’t already know what is going to happen.  A really good scientist will know how to ask new questions regardless of the answer they get.  This then gets us into another discussion about transparency in science and the perils of a “results-driven scientific culture” but I’ll get back to that another day.  Overall there’s an important difference to highlight:  Not all skeptics are deniers but all deniers are bad skeptics.

Finally something to think about for 2017 for both scientists and non-scientists is how we view those in academia and who we look to for authority on a subject.  The best defense of the Liberal Arts I ever heard was from a man I greatly admire and respect: Dr. Phil Nichols a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who said (and I’m paraphrasing), “People who study history, language, culture, are the people we turn to when the world is in moral crisis”.  People who’ve studied an area very intensely are in unique position to help others understand the world around them.  Education is not something to lord over other people like some kind of medieval sale of Indulgences.  Rather, it’s a calling and a responsibility; it’s service to humanity at large.  Therefore, scientists have a responsibility very clearly communicate what we mean by skepticism and what we mean by scientific consensus.

On that note thank you for reading and have a Happy New Year!

Sincerely,

GRW

 

(1) O’Brien SJ, Goedert JJ, “HIV causes AIDS: Koch’s Postulates Fulfilled” Current Opinions in Immunology: 1996, 8(5) 613-618.

 

Science, Government, and Globalization

Hello Everyone!

I wanted to finally post something this month related to science now that the US election is over.  A fair warning, this will be another opinion piece of mine; I welcome the opportunity to discuss all manner of opinions.

I, as a scientist in the United States, like many other scientists, apply for funding from the US government.  This can come from a number of different places: The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Energy, US the Department of Defense and many other government sources.  There are also outside sources of funding: The Gates Foundation, MacArthur Fellows Program, and The Beckman Foundation all of which provide funding for projects with specific goals in mind.  This brings up the obvious question: what sort of bias does receiving funding from a given institute introduce into the scientific process?  To address this first point I want to highlight the fact that when scientists apply for a project grant they have already developed a project to fit a specific funding call.  From all I can tell faceless government organizations are not handing out projects to push political agendas.  Ideas are the currency of the scientific community; few people with good ideas rely on somebody else to pursue them!  As scientists we constantly look for new areas to expand the knowledge of the scientific community and we’re always willing to challenge our own views.  So while, yes, funding directives might limit the scope of scientific inquiry the scientific community will always look for ways to expand beyond just the easy funding opportunities.

Along this point as well, the scientific community is a global community that goes beyond nationalism.  There are nationalistic biases in research as well.  People may question the ethics of research done in certain parts of the world or whether or not the results produced there are reliable.  I’ve heard people say more than once to take authors’ papers from a particular part of the globe “with a grain of salt.”  Still that doesn’t mean that they should be shut out.  Their ideas should be put to the test like anyone else’s ideas and if they hold up to scrutiny then they hold up.  As scientists from the United States of America we can stick our heads in the sand and say that we are the best and we don’t trust work done outside of the US.  This ignores the fact, however, than many other countries are on par or even above our level of R&D spending in terms of per capita GDP. (1)  We ought to be proud of the excellent work done in the United States and of the universal respect that the world at large has for US academia.  This does not entitle us to narrow our view and miss out on ideas from other parts of the world.

Finally the question that’s been on my mind recently and that I want to discuss is: what is the way forward for the scientific community?  What does our global community do in the fact of increased isolationism and reactionary rhetoric throughout the world?  I’ll hark back to what I spoke about in previous posts: we need to increase scientific outreach and to help improve public scientific literacy.  People would benefit from a better understand of the role that the scientific method plays in their everyday life.  They can observe the world around them, make hypotheses about it, test their hypotheses, and analyze the results to come to a logical conclusion.  Then, in sharing their conclusions, they will perpetuate a global scientific discourse.  This requires all of us to donate our time to reaching out, to teaching the young and the old.  Not because we want recognition for it, not because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t but because we have conviction to do so!

 

Move forward!  Find an opportunity and get involved!

Volunteer at a Children’s museum such as:

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum

https://www.childrensmuseum.org/content/volunteer

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

https://www.fi.edu/join-our-team/volunteer

The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore

http://www.mdsci.org/get-involved/volunteer/

Participate in Public Debates in your local municipality on science issues that are important to you!

 

Consider organizing a “Science Night” at a local restaurant to promote discussion!

 

Start a discussion club, invite people from your community to participate!

 

Do anything you can!  Move forward!

 

Sincerely,

 

GRW

 

 

 

What’s in your Guts? Part 2: Using Gut Bacterial Genomes to Predict Useful Drugs

Hello Everyone,

For this post I am going to talk again about drug discovery but in a manner that is really an emerging area of research.  The lab I’m working in, though not I personally, have been collaborating with another group at Rockefeller University to study the genomes of the bacteria Rhodococcus equi and R. erythropolis (1).  These are bacteria which normally exist in our oral cavities, our nose, and our mouth, but sometimes end up growing in our gut.  We’ve talked in a previous post about how changes in your gut microbiome can affect your health.  Here, in this paper, we asked the question: what are different types of bacteria doing in your gut and could they actually be useful to us?

Gut bacteria produce all kinds of different molecules that act as signals to your body and towards other bacteria.  Your gut is almost like a Wild West of bacteria as well as fungi and viruses, all of which are fighting to survive.  When you have the right balance of these organisms you exist in a stable state or “homeostasis”.  How do some organisms end up tipping the balance and getting a foothold in the gut?  The answer likely comes from the molecules that they produce!  Certain types of bacteria might have a way of inhibiting the growth of other bacteria which allows them to overpopulate your gut.  We would want to study these bacteria in particular to see what they are doing to our normal homeostasis.

Many of these bacteria are finely tuned to survive in the environment that our bodies provide to them.  How can we understand what they are making if we can’t grow enough of them outside of our body?  This is where genetics comes in to the picture.  We’ve mentioned before one of the central dogmas of biology, that the DNA in a genome encodes for specific protein sequences.  Dr. Brady’s lab at Rockefeller looked at the DNA sequences in several portions of the Rhodococcus equi and R. erythropolis genome where we might anticipate active peptides to be encoded.  His lab then manually synthesized the peptides that those sequences encoded using synthetic chemistry and tested them against various bacteria and in combination with other drugs called beta lactams (this is the class of drugs that includes Penicillin).  They found two active drugs which they called, Humimycins.  When they studied these drugs in bacterial culture and when we studied them in mice we discovered that they seem to target a protein complex called a “Flippase”.  These Flippases, as the name suggests, have the ability to flip drugs like penicillin to the outside of the cell, thus rendering them ineffective.  If you are a bacteria that can inhibit Flippases you can confuse your neighbors and cause dysregulation and you can inhibit their growth.

While this all sounds very exciting there are a few questions that we need to ask about these Humimycins.  The first question is: if these drugs are active against specific types of gut bacteria, what effect would using them have on our normal gut microbiome?  You might eliminate MRSA for instance but would some other type of bacteria take over your gut?  Again this begs the question of what exactly is the “normal” situation in your gut?  This is a difficult question and it’s still an area of research that requires an enormous amount of research.  For now, because of how difficult beta-lactam resistant bacteria are to deal with, we might as well explore every option we have in our antibiotic arsenal.  Overall I think the most encouraging sign is that we are now considering how antibiotics and other drugs affect the microbiome and we are utilizing genetics to try to gain a better understanding of it.

Thanks for reading!  I’ve got a few of my own papers in the works so hopefully I’ll be able to discuss it more soon!  Cheers!

Sincerely,

GRW

 

 

1 Chu J et al. Discovery of MRSA active antibiotics using primary sequence from the human microbiome. Nature Chem Bio. 2016. doi:10.1038/nchembio.2207