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Aujourd’hui — 8 avril 2020Massive Science

While you sleep, specialized neurons in your brain remember — and forget

While you sleep, the brain forgets. But, until recently it was not clear how the brain decides to forget.

Scientists analyze sleep by measuring the electrical activity of neurons near the outer layer of the brain. By quantifying brainwave changes, scientists have already determined sleep is not just one process. There are two basic types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM, or NREM. In NREM, your heartbeat slows, your muscles relax, and your brainwaves fall into a constant rhythm producing slow sleep waves. In REM, voluntary body motion is paralyzed and the brain's activity suddenly jumps

We don't remember every detail of our lives: Our brains decide which events are important for long-term storage and which can be purged. So, how does the brain divide memories between long-term safekeeping and the garbage bin?

A collaboration between Japanese and US researchers has revealed an unheard-of method of the brain actively "forgetting" under the lens of REM sleep. The researchers, authors of a recent study led by Shuntaro Izawa and published in the journal Science, have spent years studying sleep and wakefulness. They examined a group of neurons that produce melanin concentrating hormone (MCH) near a pea-sized area in the brain called the hypothalamus, which produces various types of hormones, including those needed for sleep. MCH neurons are known to control sleep and appetite, but more recently they have been studied for their involvement in memory. 

Izawa and the other researchers first confirmed that MCH-producing neurons sent blocking signals into the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory. Once they visualized the interaction between MCH neurons and the hippocampus, they had to test the memory of the mice. They did this with a test called Novel Object Recognition. In this test, a researcher introduces two identical objects (say, film canisters) to the mouse and allows it to become familiar with the objects. The next day, the mice are exposed to the same two items but this time, after ten minutes, one of the items is replaced with a new item (a Lego block, for example). If the mouse remembers the film canister, it will spend less time exploring it, instead exploring the new item. 

a mouse sitting on top of a pink object against a blank background

 Neuroscientists commonly use the Novel Object Recognition test to assess the memory of mice

CC0 on PeakPx 

Izawa and the other researchers tested the memories of mice with and without active MCH neurons. Surprisingly, the mice lacking MCH neurons had a considerable improvement in memory. These mice remembered objects more quickly and for longer periods of time. In contrast, when testing mice with MCH neurons turned on, their memories plummeted. These mice spent equal time sniffing and licking the old objects (which they had already been introduced to) as with the new objects. In other words, it seemed like the mice did not remember old objects at all. 

In the world of sleep science, MCH neurons have been quite popular due to their predominant activity in REM. Since REM is known to be important in memory consolidation, the researchers tried to see if memory retention (the period after learning something new but before long-term storage) was affected by manipulating MCH neurons during sleep. The researchers could precisely control when the MCH neurons were active in a sleeping mouse, effectively creating a time-specific "light switch," using lasers. 

The results were phenomenal: by temporarily “turning off” MCH neurons during the REM phase, mice showed significantly increased memory during the memory tests, while “turning off” the neurons while the mice were awake or in NREM had no effect on their memory. 

It's easy to think of forgetting as a passive process, where things slip through the cracks. The results of this study suggest that MCH neurons can substantially impair memory and prompt forgetting during REM. Understanding the mechanisms of forgetting during sleep may help answer some questions about memory degeneration in disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease. For example, how is it an Alzheimer’s patient is able to process and respond to new experiences but have trouble retaining them? Is this due to a neuronal “off” switch or does this entail multiple processes researchers are not fully aware of yet?

Your most vivid dreams probably happen during REM sleep

Sleep, particularly REM sleep, has many functions. For many of us, the dreams we would describe as deeply emotional and perceptually vivid happen during REM sleep. Scientists speculate dreaming may help us regulate our emotions better, process fears and trauma, and assist us in consolidating our memories and forgetting negative events. Studying memory and emotional modulation of dreaming can shed some light on disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as well as the neuronal plasticity involved.

Sleep is a regular biological phenomenon that we all experience. Research investigating the relationship between memory, dreaming, and emotions can help us understand the significance of sleep. The importance of these results points out the fact that little is known about the process of forgetting, despite the mass of knowledge we have about memory. This new pathway can help scientists clarify how and why we forget, and how sleep may help us in trashing the "extra" memories while keeping the useful ones.

Kamila Kourbanova studies

Neuroscience and Molecular Biology


Johns Hopkins University


a sleeping baby

sleeping baby in a striped shirt
Hier — 7 avril 2020Massive Science

Where does the word "quarantine" come from?

This piece was originally published on Science Friday. Subscribe to Science Diction to hear more episodes! 

First Known Use: 14th Century

Etymology: From the the Latin quadraginta and the Italian quaranta, both meaning “40.”

From The Black Death, The Birth Of Quarantine

In 1793, yellow fever hit Philadelphia, and sailors were quarantined in a hospital outside the city. When typhus landed in New York City in 1892, at least 70 people were quarantined on a nearby island. When an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) moved through Canada in 2003, about 30,000 people in Toronto were quarantined. And during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, health workers returning to the United States from affected areas were quarantined.

But to find the origin of the word, we have to look back to mid-14th century Europe.

At the time, the bubonic plague, infamously known as the Black Death, was ripping through the continent. Starting in 1343, the disease wiped out an estimated one-third of Europe’s population during a particularly nasty period of three years between 1347-50. This sweep of the plague resulted in one of the biggest die-offs in human history — and it was an impetus to take action.

A poster showing a baker, labeled as a "typhoid carrier" as a potential source of disease through the food they bake.

Poster of a typhoid carrier infecting food

Via Wikimedia

Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) passed a law establishing trentino, or a 30-day period of isolation for ships arriving from plague-affected areas. No one from Ragusa was allowed to visit those ships under trentino, and if someone broke the law, they too would be isolated for the mandatory 30 days. The law caught on. Over the next 80 years, Marseilles, Pisa, and various other cities adopted similar measures.

Within a century, cities extended the isolation period from 30 to 40 days, and the term changed from trentino to quarantino — the root of the English word quarantine that we use today.

No one knows for certain why the isolation period was extended to 40 days, but scholars have a few hunches. There’s a lot of cultural meaning packed into the number 40 — plenty of Biblical events draw upon the number, such as Jesus’ fast in the desert, Moses’ time on Mount Sinai, and the Christian observation of Lent. Others suggest that perhaps it was simply thinking that 30 days wasn’t quite enough time to burn out the disease.

“It’s arbitrary in a lot of different ways,” says science historian Karl Appuhn. “Why 40 instead of 30 or 50?” The terms of the practice were fickle — in some cases the clock on quarantine wouldn’t start until the disease had run its course, so people often weren’t quarantined for exactly 40 days.

For others, especially those with money, quarantine could be optional. “There are people who are able to evade quarantine, there are people who were able to buy their way out of quarantine, there are people who were able to just leave when a quarantine was imposed and not come back until it was over,” says Appuhn. “So, the people who suffered under quarantine tended for the most part to be poor — people who had no choice.”

Quarantine Before ‘Quarantine’

While we can trace the word quarantine to the time of the Black Death, the practice of isolating the sick stretches back much further. In fact, references to isolating people with leprosy can be found in the Bible, and hospitals called lazarettos, which were intentionally constructed outside the city center, existed by the first half of the 14th century in Venice. (The name lazaretto itself is named after the beggar Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers in Catholicism.)

When the Black Death began to ravage Europe, cities and officials grappled with how to contain the outbreaks without quite knowing what caused it. Before people had a notion of microbes or a full-blown theory of transmission, there were competing ideas about contagion, explains Appuhn.

A painting of the quarantine area of Malta.

A view of a quarantine area in Malta

Via Wellcome Trust

“[At the time] some people say it’s caused by a bad astrological conjecture, some people say that it’s divine punishment,” he says. But a pattern had already emerged in early approaches to containment: “They recognized and behaved as if the contact between infected and non-infected people or infected objects and non-infected people is what spreads disease.”

Before the legal establishment of quarantine, officials in Reggio, Italy declared that people affected by the plague should be taken to fields outside the city and left to either recover or die. And, says, Appuhn, “There’s something actually true to life about the plague scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There’s considerable evidence that they would just take people out who were still alive but very sick, and they would just dump them on these outlying islands and leave them to die.”

The 1348 outbreak created an urgency to cement those procedures and build a legal framework for them, explains Appuhn. And of course, it also gave them a name.

In the United States, it took a bit of a process to develop any sort of national quarantine policy. Like many matters, it originally fell to the states to handle the influx of infectious disease, but repeated outbreaks of yellow fever prompted Congress to pass the National Quarantine Act in 1878, creating a path for federal involvement. In 1892, a cholera outbreak nudged officials towards giving the federal government more authority to impose the requirements. By 1921, the quarantine system was completely nationalized.

Today, there are 20 quarantine stations across the United States, used to isolate those with diseases such as yellow fever, cholera, and yes, plague — many of the same diseases that helped develop the system used today.

This article originally appeared on Science Friday, an editorial partner site. Beyond their weekly Friday show, SciFri also creates podcasts, articles, and educational tools, covering all things science.

A California Board of Health quarantine card warning that the premises are contaminated by poliomyelitis.

Finally, proof that honeybees are bullies

Honeybees may be in decline globally, but in a field of flowers they still reign supreme over smaller, wild, native bee species. Due to our agricultural system’s reliance on transporting honeybee hives from other states to pollinate crops, honeybees often dominate the nectar and pollen scene in agricultural fields. But to date, researchers have had a hard time quantifying competition between honeybees and wild species because it is hard to pinpoint whether honeybees actually deprive native bees of any foraging opportunities.

A new study published in the journal Acta Oecologia looked at whether wild, native bees were relegated to different times of the day or parts of a flower in the presence of honeybees. The researchers, from two collaborating laboratories in France, collected bees they found visiting cornflowers throughout July and August, when the plant is in bloom.

Cornflowers are special because they have what are called extrafloral nectaries – meaning that parts of the plant other than the flower carry nectar. In the case of the cornflower, these plants excrete small droplets of nectar just below the flowerhead. For bees, it’s a nice extrafloral snack. But the droplets don’t offer as much nectar as the flower itself and this snack spot doesn’t have any pollen – which bees need to feed to their growing larvae.

bee cornflower

A bully devouring someone else's lunch


Sure enough, the scientists found that 82.5% of the cornflowers visitors were honeybees, regardless of the time of day. But the breakdown of visitors at different locations on the flower revealed something interesting. Most of the smaller bees that did brave the cornflower foraging scene were found lapping up nectar from those extrafloral nectaries below the flowerhead. 

Therefore, while both types of bees were technically found visiting cornflowers, paying attention to where on the flower these visits took place suggests that, compared to smaller bees, honeybees are monopolizing access to the nectar motherload and the pollen stash.


bee on cornflower
À partir d’avant-hierMassive Science

Cleaner fish learn how to steal a little mucus snack by watching adults

How do we learn when to cooperate, and when to cheat? It likely depends in part on the social interactions we observe growing up. Turns out that the same is true for cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus), according to a recent study.

Cleaner fish, also known as bluestreak cleaner wrasse, feed on ectoparasites found on other fishes — their “clients.” What cleaner fish really like to eat, however, is the protective mucus that covers their clients’ bodies. While eating ectoparasites is great for client fishes, cheating by eating mucus is bad. Client fishes will punish cheaters by fleeing, or by chasing the cheaters around.

colorful fish

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

What’s the best option, to cheat and eat a brief but delicious snack (and risk being chased around), or to cooperate and eat a larger, peaceful, but not as tasty meal? A group of researchers led by Noa Truskanov, from the University of Neuchâtel, set out to understand how juvenile cleaner fish learn to answer that question.

In a series of experiments recently published in Nature Communications, Truskanov and her collaborators allowed juvenile cleaner fish to observe adults interacting with model clients. They then placed these juveniles in the same situations they had just observed, and tested if they copied the adult fish, learned from the adult fish, or behaved independently of what they had just seen.

Their results show that juvenile fish are actively learning to cooperate by observing the interactions of adult fish with their clients. Juvenile fish are more cooperative when client fishes are intolerant of cheating. When given the choice, however, they prefer clients who allow them to cheat a little. Juvenile fish also didn’t just imitate random adult preferences, showing that there are not copying, but rather learning.

Although both social learning and cooperation are widespread in nature, examples of animals that learn socially how to cooperate are extremely scarce. This leads us, humans, to erroneously assume that we are the only ones who learn to cooperate by observing others. Cleaner fish are putting us right back in our place: they can do it, too.

moray ell cleaner fish

A cleaner fish cleans a giant moray eel

Day or night, retroreflective and light-up gear can save pedestrians' and cyclists' lives

 “Is that driver blind?”

Have you ever had a similar thought after a near-miss with a car on the road at night? Your clothing choices during hours of darkness could majorly affect your visibility to drivers and other road users.

Pedestrian fatalities have increased by 35% in the past twelve years. And a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that in 2018, 76% of all pedestrian deaths from vehicle accidents occurred after dark.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, some of the ways to alleviate this problem are improving street lighting, reducing speed limits in high pedestrian areas, and enforcing nighttime police patrols. But, there are also precautions that pedestrians themselves can take to increase their safety at night.

Wearing high visibility clothing is one such example.

This can greatly increase the distance at which drivers can see the pedestrians. Longer sight distances give more time and space for a driver to stop safely and avoid a collision. High visibility clothing makes use of "retroreflective" materials, which reflect light back in the same direction in which they originate. Because so much of the light is reflected back to the light source, retroreflective materials appear brighter than regular materials. And brighter means more conspicuous.

A diagram showing the difference between reflection (where light bounces against a surface in a mirrored direction) and retroreflection (where light bounces back at the source).

Rajaram Bhagavathula

Moreover, wearing retroreflective strips on moving joints of the body like arms, knees, wrists, and ankles has also been shown to greatly increase pedestrian visibility. A study found that participants in a moving vehicle noticed pedestrians who wore retroreflective strips on their arms and legs at distances that were 10 times longer than when the pedestrian was just wearing a retroreflective vest on their chest. This is called biological motion or biomotion. Biomotion uses the innate ability of humans to recognize the movements of other humans by their motion.

One of the drawbacks of relying solely on retroreflective markers is that they only work when they are illuminated by car headlights and other sources of outside light . If the pedestrian wearing the retroreflective clothing is beyond the range of any headlights then there is no light for the retroreflective material to reflect back. But, incorporating LED lights into pedestrians’ clothing can not only overcome the drawback of retroreflection but also increase the pedestrian’s visibility. 

A pilot study that I led compared the visibility of bicycle mounted lights and bicyclist worn retroreflective materials on roads during both night and day conditions. In this study participants driving a vehicle on a public road, and the distances at which they were able to detect bicyclists equipped with different kinds of visibility enhancing devices like flashing lights, steady-on lights, and biomotion bands were compared. Flashing head and tail lights were detected from farther away than biomotion bands during both day and night. These results were also found to be true for both older (65+ years) and younger (18 to 35 years) drivers. 

“[Flashing lights and retroreflective clothing are] vital for situations like turning vehicle and t-intersections where vehicle headlights are not aimed toward the pedestrians," says Dr. Ron Gibbons, Director for Center for Infrastructure-Based Safety Systems at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He added, “The additional attention-grabbing nature of a flashing light draws the attention of a driver to the cyclist or pedestrian even when roadway lighting is present.”

bikers with bright reflective strips at night

A group of cyclists in retroreflective clothing

CGP Grey on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Although wearing lights or reflective clothing is clearly beneficial, it also causes a problem: pedestrians tend to overestimate their visibility. Research has also shown that pedestrians substantially –and, dangerously – underestimate the benefit of high visibility clothing. 

Educating pedestrians about their overestimation of their visibility showed promising results. For example, participants who received an intensive 90 minute lecture with photos and videos illustrating the dangers of the road at night and how retroreflective and biomotion clothing can increase pedestrian conspicuousness had lower estimates of their own visibility than participants who did not receive that information by 56%.

To reduce pedestrian fatalities, it is important for pedestrians to make themselves more conspicuous by using every tool available. These days the market is flooded with LED-based lights and retroreflective clothing (like biomotion bands) for runners, joggers, and walkers for under $30. Dr. Alan Lewis, an Adjunct Professor of Physiological Optics at the New England College of Optometry says, “It is no longer an issue of whether to have them (lighting and retroreflective clothing) or not, it is absolutely essential to have both lighting and retroreflective clothing on. It makes a big difference."

You may feel uncomfortably conspicuous, like a lit up Christmas tree, when wearing a combination of flashing lights and retroreflective markings. But being conspicuous is far better than being a fatality statistic.

Rajaram Bhagavathula studies

Industrial Engineering


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


walk light at night

illuminated green pedestrian walk light at night

Squid bamboozle predators with elaborate ink-based dancing and weaving

When a Japanese pygmy squid gets attacked, it will use its ink as a decoy so that the predator attacks the ink instead. It's not just a visual decoy — ink will also throw the predator of the squid's scent, literally. However, distracting a predator is not as easy as just releasing a single cloud of ink. In a recent video article, researchers showed that the Japanese pygmy squid use elaborate methods to mislead their predators.

Black ink in clear water

Photo by Vincent Botta on Unsplash

When the squid are followed by a predator or, in this case, a scuba diver pretending to be a predator, they will often first change their color to be pale, which is less obvious in the water. They then swim away in a straight line, releasing little puffs of ink behind them. After releasing a few puffs, they will do one of two things: either they suddenly stop, or they suddenly change direction. 

If they suddenly stop in what's called an S-stop, they will often also darken their color, so that they seem like one of the ink clouds, and the predator is unable to find them. If they change direction, called a C-change, they will remain pale, thus being as inconspicuous as possible. In both cases, the goal is for the predator to be distracted by the ink clouds and attack the decoys instead. The researchers showed that if the squid released more ink clouds during their escape, predators were more likely to attack those instead of the squid. 

The question remains whether all squid have similar behaviors, or whether each species has evolved its own behavior to avoid predation. This might have to do with the specific species predating on the squid and their surroundings. In any case, judging from the study’s videos, it looks like its methods work pretty well for the Japanese Pygmy squid.

No more coronavirus takes

There is only one story now and I know it by heart. Everybody is telling one variation on it or another. Some of them are the political takes:

A screenshot of the New Republic's front page, with a bunch of coronavirus stories and opinions, on April 3rd, 2020.

Some of them are economic, cultural, economic again, and political again, like at the New York Times:

A collection of New York Times opinion articles about the coronavirus.

Literally as many stories as I could fit into a screenshot

(this isn't even to mention the genre of celebrities announcing their diagnoses like the birth of a royal child:)

At the absolute bottom of the pile, way down in the dirt, is Peggy Noonan's paean to the quintessentially New York experience of death and ruin:

The first paragraph of Peggy Noonan's April 2nd, 2020 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK *cough cough* NEW YORK

Wall Street Journal

Baby no one does a crisis like New York.

Many of these are from writers and publications I like and admire (not Peggy Noonan). But still! I'm begging! You! No more! Have mercy on me! No more coronavirus takes!

It's a gold rush out there for coronavirus stories, since it's basically all anyone wants to read right now. And yes, writing this is like sending a cease-and-desist letter to a tornado. But please let me vent this gas. 

No more takes. Got coronavirus news? Great, I want to read it. Got coronavirus science? Even better. Got a coronavirus take? Unless you're an epidemiologist or you work on the frontline, I don't care. You don't know anything. No one does. 

I encourage you all to write those stories you've been sitting on for ages. Now's the time. Hell pitch me your story. But if I read the word "coronavirus" one more time I might literally explode, right here in my kitchen, in my pajamas, the way I've always wanted to die. 

Four men sitting around a table arguing.

Scientists name new species after its belly full of plastic

The deepest location on Earth sits below 6.8 miles of the western Pacific Ocean, deep enough to hold Mount Everest and prevent it from reaching the ocean’s surface. It is part of a 2,550 km (1580 miles) long trench, known as the Mariana Trench. At those depths it may seem a sanctuary from our plastic pollution. Unfortunately, that is wrong.

In November 2014, a group of scientists discovered a new species of crustacean within the Mariana Trench (pictured above). Crustaceans are a large class of organisms with an exoskeleton that includes lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and krill. Upon examining the organism’s body, scientists found a microplastic fiber in its gut. They named it Eurythenes plasticus to draw attention to the current plastic pollution crisis

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic pollution in the environment that are less than  the width of a pencil. Scientists have found them in every corner of the globe – even in the atmosphere and in arctic ice. Organisms like E. plasticus that feed on scraps are highly susceptible to ingesting microplastics from dead organisms and sediment. We’re not immune either. Alarmingly, microplastics can even work their way up the food chain and eventually reach us.

Mariana Trench

Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth


This study adds to a growing body of research finding wildlife to be ingesting microplastics, including birds, whales, fish, and sharks. It is tragic that organisms in such remote places can be affected by humans before we have the chance to encounter them. Hopefully all these cases remind us to be more conscientious when considering the use of non-reusable plastics. 

The amphipod Eurythenes plasticus, a small crustacean

Scientists use the humble slime mold to map the universe's cosmic web

What do a single-celled slime mold and outer space have in common? Enough, it turns out, that researchers were able to use the behavior of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum to develop an algorithm to map the previously elusive cosmic web structure of the universe. 

It started when scientists at the University of California at Santa Cruz were searching for a way to visualize the cosmic web. Composed of dark matter and laced together with thin gas, the cosmic web provides structure to the universe. Oskar Elek, a computational media scientist on the team was inspired by the work of Sage Jenson, a Berlin-based media artist who creates art by using algorithms to mimic biological properties, such as the growth of slime mold. 

a branching purple and yellow intertwined pattern

The slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, uses a complex web of filaments to find food. The scientists couldn’t help but notice similarities between the mold’s food-seeking web and the theorized cosmic web that connects the galaxies. Published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the group developed a three-dimensional computer model of the buildup of slime mold to estimate the locations of many of the cosmic web’s filaments.

By using data previously acquired by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Hubble Spectroscopic Legacy Archive, the researchers created a new view of the galaxy. 

First, they applied the “slime mold algorithm” to data containing the locations of 37,000 galaxies at distances as far as 300 million light-years and came away with a three-dimensial map of the underlying cosmic web structure. They also used data from quasars, massive objects billions of light-years away that emit huge amounts of light energy, to visualize the extremely thin hydrogen gas signatures on the web that had been previously undetected. With the large scale structure in hand, the group hopes that they can now map specific trajectories that galaxies take as they move through the universe. 

Remember this story the next time your microbiologist friend says they don’t have anything in common with your particle physics friend. The most impressive advances in science are often those made by scientists who work together and build connections between fields.

slime mold

a yellow slime mold growing on a log

Meet Betty Hay, the scientist who saw how cells grow and limbs regenerate

Limbs regenerate, embryos grow, and cancers invade.

In each of these processes, cells change dramatically. Betty Hay studied fascinating biological phenomena, relentlessly asking questions with her students and colleagues to understand how cells behaved. By the end of her life, she had made enormous research contributions in developmental biology, on top of committing herself to mentoring the next generation of scientists and advocating for more representation of women in science.

She made significant contributions towards understanding cell and developmental biology

Betty Hay began as an undergraduate at Smith College in 1944. She loved her first biology course and started working for Meryl Rose, a professor at Smith who studied limb regeneration in frogs. “I was self-motivated and very attracted to science,” she said in an interview in 2004, “Meryl at that time was working on regeneration and by the end of my first year at Smith I was also studying regeneration.”

Hay regarded Rose as a significant scientific mentor in her life and followed his advice to apply for medical school instead of graduate school. She ended up attending Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for her medical degree while continuing her research on limb regeneration over the summers with Rose at Woods Hole’s Marine Biological Laboratory. She stayed at Johns Hopkins after to teach Anatomy and became an Assistant Professor in 1956.

The year after, she moved her studies to Cornell University’s Medical College as an Assistant Professor to learn how to use the powerful microscopes located there. Her goal was to use transmission electron microscopy (TEM), a method of taking high-resolution images, to see how salamanders could regenerate an amputated limb. “Nothing could’ve kept me from going into TEM,” she said later.

With her student, Don Fischman, they concluded that upon amputation, cells with specialized roles, known as differentiated cells and thought to be unchangeable, were able to de-differentiate and become unspecialized stem cells again. These cells without an assigned role could then have the freedom to adopt whatever new roles they required to regenerate a perfectly new limb.

Already making leaps in figuring out an explanation for the process of limb regeneration, Hay turned her attention from salamanders to bird eyes when she moved to Harvard University. She studied the outermost layer of cells on the cornea, known as the cornea epithelium. With the help of a postdoctoral scholar in her lab, Jib Dobson, and a faculty colleague, Jean-Paul Revel, they isolated, grew, and took pictures of cornea epithelium cells and demonstrated the epithelial cells could produce collagen.

Collagen is the main type of protein that weaves together to form the extracellular matrix, a connective tissue (the “matrix”) found outside of cells (“extracellular”). The collagen in the extracellular matrix provide structure, acting as a foundation for connective tissues and organs such as skin, tendons, and ligaments. Other scientists in the field were skeptical of the conclusion. They thought that one dedicated cell produced collagen, and nothing else. They dismissed the idea that cells in the cornea could somehow do the same. Despite their doubt, Hay, along with postdoctoral scholar Steve Meier, continued their studies. In 1974, they further showed that not only could epithelial cells produce collagen and extracellular matrix in different organ systems, but that the matrix could also tell other cells what type of cell to become.

She was a committed educator and mentor

Kathy Svoboda and Marion Gordon, two colleagues of hers, wrote about Betty Hay and described her “not only as a superb cell and developmental biologist, but also as an educator and beloved mentor.”

Limb regeneration in salamanders

Limb regeneration in salamanders

Russell et al BMC Biology 2017

She was dedicated to teaching and influenced the careers of many junior and early-career scientists. In addition to working with and training her students to produce successful research and results, others mentioned how she would take the time to introduce students in her department to more established and prominent scientists in the field of cell biology. These actions reflected her belief that every student was worthy of being heard and introduced.

She held influential positions and advocated for more representation of women in science

At the time of her graduation from Johns Hopkins in 1952, she was one of only four women in her graduating class of 74 people. Afterwards, she experienced frequent moves for her career, going from Baltimore, to New York, to Boston. Despite how difficult it felt moving alone and leaving her personal relationships behind every time, she felt it was necessary for her career. In her mind, she strongly believed her research always came first, fueled by her “intense desire to find answers, using the scientific approach.”

She went on to serve as president for multiple professional societies, such as the American Association of Anatomists, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the Society for Developmental Biology, demonstrating her commitment to leadership and service. In two of these societies, she was the first woman to ever hold the position.

In 1975, she became the first female chair of what is now the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard University and held that position for 18 years. Even with these impressive milestones, she acknowledged one of her biggest obstacles to be achieving acceptance in the male professional world.

In 2004 and nearing retirement, Betty Hay would go on to say, “I am very glad to see in my lifetime the emergence of significantly more career women in science,” in an interview with editor-in-chief Fiona Watt for the Journal of Cell Science, “this so enriches the intellectual power being applied to the field of cell biology.”

Luyi Cheng studies

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology


Northwestern University


A picture of Betty Hay in her lab at Harvard University in the 1960s.

It's not too late to change America's coronavirus future

The world is in the middle of a pandemic.

As of March 26th, the US surpassed China as the country with the most COVID-19 cases and is now the new epicenter of the outbreak. And yet, there are still people and organizations going about as though everything were normal, or insisting that measures to control the virus are an overreaction. This insistence in pretending that everything is normal will only make things worse.

The world is in this situation because many countries across the globe did not react quickly enough and did not take the threat seriously. This becomes clear when comparing those countries that reacted rapidly, including South Korea and Taiwan, to those that tried to ignore the virus or insist that it was not their problem, including the US and the UK. As a result, the entire world is in a position of lasting consequences for populations, health systems, and economies.

Nevertheless, the situation can still be improved. Even now, quick science-informed action can help to mitigate the damage — improving testing capacity and efficiency, rapid identification and isolation of cases, strong measures of social distancing, and clear communication and transparency from governments and health systems.

crowded train station

US leaders were slow to respond with social distancing measures.

Skitterphoto from Pexels 

The US and South Korea detected their first cases on the same day, but the responses were very different, particularly in virus testing. As of March 24th, Korea had tested around 300,000 people out of a population of about 51 million, or about 1 in 170 people — including many with mild or no symptoms — while the US had only tested about 1 person per 1,090. Tests remain difficult to obtain in the US, even for those with symptoms.

Korea greatly slowed its epidemic without locking down entire cities. “South Korea is a democratic republic, we feel a lockdown is not a reasonable choice,” says Kim Woo-Joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University, in an interview with Science. Korea also tested widely, introduced strict social distancing, and monitored citizens extensively while maintaining widespread education and transparency of information

They had learned valuable lessons from earlier coronavirus outbreaks, including the outbreak of SARS in 2003 and a 2015 outbreak of MERS. For example, South Korea set up daily announcements providing detailed description of the extent of the outbreak in the country starting in January. In early March, US President Donald Trump was still making misleading comparisons to the seasonal influenza on Twitter, neglecting knowledge that COVID-19 would be much worse. While the CDC sent US households a small card, with only one side containing minimal information about avoiding infection, and the other announcing “PRESIDENT TRUMP’S CORONAVIRUS GUIDELINES FOR AMERICA,” South Korea has released extensive data, allowing the creation of detailed outbreak maps (though there are also concerns that the government is disclosing individual data in too much detail, threatening citizen privacy).

trump mailer

Trump-branded mailer for coronavirus response guidelines

Dan Samorodnitsky

On the other side of the spectrum, the UK was also slow to react, at first suggesting that the virus be allowed to sweep across the country to establish “herd immunity” no matter the toll. This strategy proved untenable and immoral and it has since been discarded. But the poor response has led to widespread infection in the UK, including positive tests for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles

The failures in testing for COVID-19 in the US continue to make it impossible to know how widespread infection actually is. Messaging from state and federal governments has been confusing and inconsistent, and social distancing was not implemented quickly enough nor in a systematic manner across the country. There was extended focus on restricting movement in certain regions without an understanding that the virus had already spread beyond those hotspots. For example, there was evidence that the virus was spreading “under the radar” in Seattle, Washington as early as late February, but the Federal Government did not declare a disaster and release federal emergency funding for that state until March 22nd. Trump recently voiced a fleeting plan to declare a quarantine around New York and adjacent states, even though the virus by then had already been spreading throughout the country. Finally, there was an intense focus on the risk to older individuals without enough acknowledgement that the true dimensions of vulnerability are not yet fully known. CDC data from March showed that nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were age 20 to 54.

The New York City area has emerged as an outbreak epicenter within the US, with almost 40,000 confirmed cases in the city alone by March 30th, and the full extent of the outbreak is still not known. The risk to the rest of the country has not received as much attention, but there are alarming indications that the entire country faces difficult times. Cases in Louisiana, for example, are increasing rapidly and the case fatality rate is at 4%, higher than anywhere else in the country. (US case fatality rates may change as testing becomes more widespread.) Rural areas of the US also have higher risk related to underlying health conditions that are likely to make infection worse, both as individuals and as specific social groups, including coal miners with lung diseases. Nationwide, areas where people are concentrated and cannot socially distance, such as prisons, immigration detention centers, and the homeless are also at extreme risk. 

Now, the only choices are between bad and worse. The best choice is for social distancing to extend as far into the future as necessary. It is time for individuals in the US government to stop making false promises, like recent claims that the country could be back to normal by Easter even though that was never plausible. The US must be honest about resource constraints and areas of uncertainty, such as admitting that masks may have some practical use for healthy people, but that individuals at low risk should not use them in their daily lives because it would deprive front line health workers from a sorely needed and scarce resource. To do otherwise only breeds distrust and confusion. The US administration must begin to follow the instructions of public health experts in order to minimize the damage, since it is too late to contain the spread of the virus. Many legitimate warnings have gone unheeded, both from experiences in China and from US health experts

The US must also make strong decisions that will help to protect its healthcare workers, who are already suffering from shortage of protective equipment and overwhelmed by the number of patients. A stronger system of sharing resources across the country, such as Spain’s decision to nationalize private hospitals during the crisis, could help the entire country work efficiently as a whole. Setting aside political divisions and accepting more help from other countries could also help ease the burden on US health care providers, with China offering supplies, and Cuba offering medical personnel to assist across the world. The US response must stop prioritizing the economic well-being of private companies over the well-being of the citizens. Low-cost ventilators designed with taxpayer money were sold to other countries rather than being stockpiled to be used in the US. The US has been catastrophically slow to use the Defense Production Act, which can compel private manufacturers to make ventilators to meet national need. Finally, the US must prepare for future outbreaks as soon as possible, including stockpiling medical equipment once this pandemic abates, and establishing efficient hospital procedures to further reduce the spread of disease to health care workers, which have been successfully used in Singapore.

A collection of coronavirus particles, yellow circles with red spikes emerging from them.

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, in yellow) particles isolated from a patient

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

With COVID-19 devastating high-income countries, the future of the pandemic for middle- and low-income countries is bleak. Leadership in some countries, including in Mexico and Brazil, continue to downplay the virus. India, with its large population and high rates of poverty, cannot establish the same social distancing protections that are possible in the US or Europe. Low income countries with limited healthcare capacity, including Uganda and Somalia, are bracing for a widespread crisis. Displaced persons and individuals in refugee camps and war zones are at extremely high risk due to the crowded and difficult conditions in which they live.

Though the picture is frightening, this does not mean that public health measures are useless. To the contrary, the combination of scientifically sound policy and transparency like what was achieved in South Korea, a focus on protecting health care providers and coordinating hospital resources, medical research, and a social system where people act responsibility for themselves and others, is the best way to emerge from the pandemic with the least possible damage. 

Sara May Bergstresser studies

Bioethics, Public Health, and Biochemistry


Columbia University



trump red

How do predators learn to avoid the colors and patterns of poisonous prey?

We have all heard about the extraordinary animals that use chemical defenses to avoid predation, and how their usually bright colorations warns predators about their unpleasant flavors (a skill called aposematism). But, how do predators learn to avoid eating prey with these defenses?

Previous studies suggest that how quickly a predator learns about color patterns depends on the complexity of the prey community – that is, the number of different  patterns and the abundance of toxic prey. But testing this hypothesis using natural populations can be incredibly challenging.

A group of researchers came up with a clever solution: they used a videogame played by humans! In this videogame (you can play it here), they tested two different prey communities based on real aposematic butterflies from the tropics. One was a simple community with four color patterns and a high probability (50%) of encountering toxic butterflies, affecting the player’s score; the other, a complex community with ten color patterns and a reduced probability (20%) of finding a toxic butterfly.

The data collected shows that predators – humans in this case – are much better learners when only four color patterns were present. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn to avoid toxic patterns in a complex community: humans learned better when the toxic patterns were more similar to each other, and more different from the non-toxic patterns. 

This fun experiment confirmed that the protection given by aposematism increases when the community has fewer color patterns, more toxic animals, or when the color patterns are more different between toxic and non-toxic animals. The authors think that these results are representative of what other predators, such as birds and other mammals, may experience in nature.

Experiments like this one help scientists closely examine animal behaviors that depend on multiple factors that are difficult to manipulate in natural settings. But at the same time it gives us perspective, reminding us of how much human behaviors were shaped by our evolution before civilization happened.

Stuck at home? College chemistry lessons are on TikTok, with Katy Perry accompaniment

Timothy Su, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside, had been enjoying watching science videos on TikTok, a relatively new social media platform that is popular among Gen Z. That is when he got the idea to incorporate the new teen obsession into his classroom. He told his General Chemistry class, sized about 300 students, that he would give them extra credit if they created videos explaining general chemistry concepts using TikTok. About 65% of his students participated, far beyond Su’s expectation.

Su said that UC Riverside students come from various backgrounds. “I was hoping that the enthusiasm for science would go viral [in students’ communities],” Su said to me in an interview. Even though he was not expecting the videos themselves to go viral, to his and students’ surprise, some of the videos did very well in terms of popularity; as of this writing, the most liked video made by his students gained upwards of 49,000 likes on the platform.

Su is hoping to expand this practice to the other courses he will teach. “18-year-olds are brilliant in ways that I'm not,” Su said. “How people engage with learning is changing rapidly, so it’s good to be open-minded and communicate with students in their terms.”

Below are three of the most popular videos that Su’s students made. You can find more of these videos here.

two people sitting on a sofa holding phones smiling laughing

Scientists are testing for coronavirus with genetic "fishing hooks"

"These baits act as fishing hooks; we can throw these hooks in and physically pull out the virus of interest."

The virus that Jalees Nasir is interested in is SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak that started in China, in late 2019. At the time that this article was written, there are over 716,000 confirmed cases and 33,000 deaths associated with the virus.

When a person walks into a hospital with symptoms related to COVID-19, one of the first things a doctor might do, in an ideal world, is collect a sputum sample by asking them patient to cough into a cup. 

"Say, you have a patient sample," says Nasir, "you're likely to have a combination of human material and bacterial material – you can have viral material as well, but the proportion of the virus will be far smaller than that of human or bacterial."

A transmission electron microscopic image of coronavirus particles, colored blue, in a patient sample. The virus's genetic material can be seen as little black dots within the blue particles.

A microscopic image of coronavirus particles, colored blue, in a patient sample. The virus's genetic material can be seen as little black dots within the blue particles.

Hannah A Bullock, Azaibi Tamin, via CDC

In a nutshell, it's a biological soup. To study the viral genome, a microbiologist has to grow more virus to get a large enough sample. To do that, the virus has to be separated from everything else. This kind of work is designated Biosafety Containment Level III — the second most dangerous category for hazardous biological laboratory work. This is where scientists work with microbes that can be easily spread through respiratory transmission. Isolating and growing the virus is not only expensive, but it also increases the risk of exposure for anyone working with the viruses, in comparison to working with the relatively small amounts of virus in patient samples. Another concern is that the virus could further mutate during its time growing in the lab, and the final genomic sequence could be different from what was in the patient.

An alternative is to take that complex sputum sample, and sequence the genetic code of everything in that complex sputum sample. But you might not even get any viral RNA or DNA because of how much other stuff is in there. This is known as metagenomic sequencing, and is typically even more expensive to run.

To fix this problem, scientists at McMaster University in Canada have developed a set of molecular probes, or "fish hooks" capable of pulling the coronavirus from those complex patient samples. This method, commonly used for sequences of ancient samples, involves "fishing out" the desired target molecules with probes that specifically attract viral genomes.

Being able to pull out and sequence the virus in a safe and cost-efficient manner is important to study viral transmission and evolution.

"We actually want to examine the differences that could potentially occur in transmission between Patient A and Patient B," says Nasir. "We need to start looking beyond that diagnosis aspect. We don’t want to just say, 'We have SARS-CoV-2,' but that 'We have this specific strain of SARS-CoV-2 from Patient B,' where it might have mutated during the transmission. We need to see the specific differences."

There are three layers to the epidemiological response surrounding an outbreak. The first involves the front-line doctors and clinicians who diagnose and treat the people. The second layer, which is also the primary focus of the research community, involves finding an immediate solution — vaccines, cures, and treatments. The third layer is about surveilling the outbreak.

How fast is the virus spreading? Is it mutating and evolving as it moves from one patient to another? Are the viral strains in Italy the same as the ones in China?

These are exactly the kinds of questions that scientists working at this level are trying to answer. And, needless to say, these answers matter when formulating a global response to an outbreak. However, these questions have been difficult, risky, and expensive to answer in the past, because it requires an amount of lab work and genomic sequencing that isn't feasible for every single case.  

A scanning electron micrograph picture of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, particles on the surface of a human cell undergoing apoptosis.

A picture of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, particles on the surface of a human cell undergoing self-destruction.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

"In this case, we have hopefully made these baits as specific as possible to SARS-CoV-2, so that the virus of interest we end up pulling is, in fact, the novel coronavirus," says Nasir.

As a PhD student in Andrew McArthur's lab, Nasir had been working on creating molecular probes for respiratory viruses for over a year. 

"When the outbreak started, I was more or less still in the design phase. At that time, I thought I should double down." Nasir immediately started comparing the novel coronavirus to the pre-existing probes he had made for other respiratory viruses. "I walked into Andrew’s office and I said, 'We could potentially hit this'."

As soon as they validated the "bait" design, McArthur and Nasir wrote up their findings and shared it with the research community. 

"We could go the traditional academic route, and wait for the samples and find a collaborator, and then it wouldn’t be useful. This is crowdsourcing the science," says McArthur. "We did the first part, which is the design, and it’s what we’re good at. And now we crowdsource the validation. Like any assay, it might have to be tweaked once people start testing it."

A similar bait set was also released by an independent research group in Arbor Biosciences, further validating these results. The company is also providing their 2019-nCoV hybridization capture kits to researchers around the world without any cost.

Since molecular probes would extract only the viral material from the entire patient sample, this would reduce the additional costs from the alternative methods — such as sequencing the entire patient sample, or growing the viral sample in lab. This process could be made even faster by using sequencing technologies like the Oxford Nanopore, which is a portable sequencer that can sequence longer genomic strands at a time. Used together with more traditional Illumina sequencing, this could give researcher high quality data to compare even single base-pair mutations in the virus. High quality genomic data is essential when it comes to developing a vaccine.

"I think any discussion of vaccine has to tempered with the fact that we have not yet been successful with SARS, so we could have the same poor success rate with this virus," McArthur says, "But, if this particular virus was much more workable for a vaccine, we would want to know what the antigen was, and which gene encodes the antigen. And from the sequencing, we want to know how it’s evolving. We want to know if it has the capacity to out-evolve the vaccine, or whether you’re building a vaccine for a site that’s not likely to evolve, like the measles vaccine."

Bhavya Singh studies



McMaster University


A scientist wearing a white lab coat and latex gloves holds three test tubes with clear liquid in them up to the light.

Protecting forest cover could reduce flood risks

In many mountainous regions, such as the European Alps and the Rocky Mountains, natural hazards threaten infrastructure such as roads, buildings, and railways. These natural hazards have globally increased by almost 70% in the last 30 years because of climate change. Triggered by harsh rainfall and storms, these hazardous events include rockfalls, landslides, floods, and debris flows, or a large mass of loose material moving down a slope. 

However, it is well established that forests protect mountainous regions from natural hazards. Tree roots can decrease the availability of loose material by stabilizing the soil in steep terrain. In addition, forest canopies catch and collect rainfall, reducing surface water runoff. Getting rid of that forest canopy, either by human timber harvesting or natural causes like bark beetles, also reduces the protective function of forests. 

Recently, Austrian researchers performed a large-scale study based on a large Landsat satellite image database, documenting 3768 torrential hazards that occurred in the Eastern Alps during a period of 31 years. They confirmed that an increase in forest cover decreased the probability of torrential hazards, like floods. It also turns out that regularly reducing forest canopy, such as small-scale logging interventions to regenerate forests, is actually more detrimental for natural hazards than singular, occasional disturbance events. 

Unmanaged forests – where human intervention is absent or minimized – may better help protect human infrastructure against natural hazards than managed forests. And that could be important to know in a future where we want mountain regions to become more resilient to increasing heavy rainfall events and canopy reduction predicted under climate change.


Woman with umbrella

Oil spills melt the superpowers of the double-crested cormorant

Bird feathers are a superpower. Small, downy feathers keep birds, and sometimes you, warm during winter. Contour feathers help birds blend in with their surroundings. And interlocking, aerodynamic pennaceous feathers are what allow birds to soar atop air currents and stay dry when diving for fish. But if feathers have a Kryptonite, it turns out to be oil. Oil breaks feathers’ waterproof layer and can leave birds suddenly out in the cold.

This is the mechanism behind new research on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which in April 2010 leaked 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded offshore. With the ten-year anniversary of this disaster just around the corner, findings about its various and immense impacts on wildlife are still trickling in.

double-crested cormorant

Double doubled-crested cormorant


The scientists, from several different wildlife research centers and universities, used a “Niche Mapper” model to estimate how much harder the double-crested cormorant, a fish-eating species, would have to work throughout its range to maintain its body temperature after being “oiled” to varying degrees. In the model, birds were either unoiled, or covered in oil once, three times, or six times. Using existing calculations of this species’ energetic expenditure at different times of day and ambient temperatures, the researchers showed that the most heavily oiled birds had to spend, on average, an additional 1.5 hours foraging each day just to make up for lost heat.

In addition to exhausting birds with an extra 1.5-hour foraging shift each day, the model suggests that repeat exposure to oil may threaten cormorants’ success at mating and breeding, or to store enough fat before migrating between winter and summer ranges. These are just a few examples of sublethal effects animals endure from oil exposure, many of which have yet to be evaluated for the dozens of species affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

double-crested cormorant

double-crested cormorant

Just how hot was this winter?

In the United States, this January and February were some of the hottest months on record. January was the warmest on record, the 44th consecutive January with temperatures above records from the 20th century. Temperatures were 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in the northern hemisphere, and 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the southern hemisphere. In the United States, several states experienced below average snowfall and precipitation. February continued the trend – measuring an average of 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual, making this one of the warmest winters ever. 

This news rides on other drastic climate news from around the world, including 65-degrees in Antarctica and wildfires in Australia

Perhaps most notably, this warm winter was not preceded by a strong El Niño event. El Niño, an ocean-atmosphere climate event resulting in ocean warming, has often been tied to warmer Januarys such as in 2016. The four warmest winters have occurred since 2016. 

NOAA scientists predict this record-breaking winter could precede a record-breaking year. The southwest is expected to be dry and experience drought, and Alaska is also predicted to have a warm year. In some areas, springs could be wetter and summer temperatures could arrive earlier. 

Scientists have repeatedly warned about climate tipping points, events that lead to severe consequences, arguing society needs to take directed action to avoid future catastrophe. Warm winters have already led to cascading effects, such as wildfires in Australia and record temperatures in the Arctic. It’s no longer enough to meet expectations. As the report warns, “international action — not just words — must reflect this.” 

snowman fire

warm winters are the new normal

Even vampire bats do social distancing when their friends are sick

A common way illnesses move is through physical interaction – touching hands or hugging, having close conversations, and being coughed or sneezed on are all common ways that pathogens are spread. But the intricacies of how sickness spreads are of increasing importance as diseases like COVID-19 spread around the world, prompting questions about what we really know about transmission.

“Epidemiological models have tried to predict how pathogens spread, assuming all interactions are the same," said Sebastian Stockmaier, a PhD student at the University of Texas. But this isn’t always the case.

New research, led by Stockmaier and published in the Journal of Animal Ecology from a group of researchers in the US and Panama explores how social behaviors in vampire bats were affected when the bats were sick. 

a researcher studying a small bat

Sebastian Stockmaier, the lead author, examining a vampire bat during the study

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Stockmaier

Vampire bats are highly social creatures, living in colonies of hundreds to thousands of individuals. Socialization is a key component of their survival strategy, as they care for one another through mutually beneficial behaviors such as reciprocal grooming and food sharing, the process of licking each other’s mouths to share food – the food being regurgitated blood. Relatives are most likely to food-share, and this behavior is more common between female bats than males

This behavior, while essential to survival, also plays a role in social structure. Studies have shown some bats will stay home while the rest go out hunting, waiting for them to return and food-share regurgitated blood. But, these lazy bats who take advantage of the food sharing process may eventually be treated like freeloaders and be denied food-sharing from bats who spend more time hunting. 

To measure how sickness impacts social behavior, both "sickness" and "social behavior" must be defined. Stockmaier and the other researchers defined "sickness" as an immune response to an infection, causing a bat to spend more energy fighting the infection than other activities. They wanted to examine how social behavior, including food-sharing and grooming, were affected when bats were sick.

The researchers monitored the social behavior of a small captive bat colony at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Bats were injected with a bacteria that stimulated their immune systems and made them sick, so that they lacked energy for basic activities. Food (raw cattle blood) was dispensed through the trial, and the bats were free to interact with one another. To encourage food sharing, the researchers also periodically withheld food from some of the bats, keeping them isolated from the rest of the group for 26-28 hours. This simulated "missed foraging opportunities," or nights where the bats left their colony to feed but were unsuccessful. The researchers wanted to see if the bats with food would share with the fasting bats when they were returned to the colony.

Despite being sick, bats continued to socialize, but sickness changed how they did so. Sick bats groomed themselves less and received less grooming from healthy bats. The researchers attribute this to the symptoms of their illness itself, since the less active bats groomed other bats less, causing healthy bats to not return the favor.

Food-sharing is considered an essential habit for survival, and both sick and healthy bats continued to practice it. Bats that were injected with the bacteria (the "sick" bats) had been fasting before the injection, so they especially needed food. The sick bats then begged for food by licking another bat's mouth. Bats continued to beg and feed each other, despite being sick. The only notable behavioral change that Stockmaier and the other researchers observed was that sick bats groomed bats that were not closely related to them less often than they did when the "groomees" were healthy. 

Even in the midst of an epidemic, the vampire bats retained their familial structures – mothers continued to feed their offspring, regardless of who was sick. This shows that while sickness may make bats lethargic and less inclined to socialize, it doesn’t prevent them from doing so with close family members.

vampire bat snarling while sitting on wood log

Close-up of a vampire bat

Uwe Schmidt on Wikimedia Commons

Not all diseases are made equal. Many bats in North America are afflicted with white nose syndrome, a fungal disease with a high fatality rate that especially affects hibernating bats. A study on little brown bats found that white nose syndrome also interferes with bat socialization behaviors; sick bats were groomed less and were less likely to visit a water source, likely because the trip took a lot of energy.

Stockmaier compares the group's findings in their vampire bat experiment to a child who is sick at home: their parent will care for their child no matter what. Says Stockmaier, “If you think of it like social distancing – it’s not like you’re totally self-isolated. You’re probably with your family and still interacting in some way."

Olivia Box studies

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology


University of Vermont


A trio of vampire bats inside a crate.

Stressed out crabs don't camouflage very well

Man-made noise negatively impacts a multitude of animals, including birds, whales, and, as it turns out, crabs.

Shore crabs, or Carcinus maenas, can change the color of their shells to better match their surroundings, camouflaging efficiently against rocky shores. In a new study published in Current Biology, Emily Carter and her team at the University of Exeter show that juvenile shore crab exposed to ship noises don’t camouflage very well.

In this study, crabs were brought to the lab and exposed to three treatments: a neutral control of natural underwater sounds, ship noises, and a loud control consisting of natural noises with the same amplitude as the ship noises. All crabs were dark brown when they first arrived. After eight weeks, both control groups were much lighter in color, matching their background in the lab. The ship noise group, however, remained markedly brown.

shh quiet girl

Shhhh quiet


The researchers then tested if these poorly camouflaged crabs were at least good at running away from predators. Another surprise: when faced with a simulated bird flying overhead, crabs exposed to ship noises were slower to retreat, and sometimes didn’t even flee at all.

Carter and her collaborators suggest that the stress of being exposed to ship noises hinders the crabs’ ability to change color, as well as their anti-predator fleeing behavior. If crabs exposed to ship noises do indeed become easy prey, crab populations may have a grim future ahead.

Most studies on the impacts of man-made noise focus on species that communicate through sound. What shore crabs are telling us is that the consequences of man-made noise can be much broader than a drowned dialogue.

Shore crab

Shore crab

Sanguine glimpses of positive environmental change on pandemic-Twitter

Amidst the daily COVID-19 news and press conferences, travel restrictions and hospital case reports, there are some silver linings making the rounds on Twitter. 

Nature seems much better off with humans stuck at home. 

Levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution fell drastically in parts of Italy — a direct result of the country closing due to #COVID19 . Venetians say the water hasn't been this clear in 60 years. Air quality and pollution continues to clear. Some refreshing positive news for your TL🌎 pic.twitter.com/PxOAFV8ajd

— 바 네 사 🌙 (@finessabae) March 17, 2020

I know we're all contemplating the pandemic, but check this out. Air quality in SoCal right now isn't good. It's incredible. Like numbers from another era. It's not just the rain. Having less traffic is making our city more livable. Think about it. pic.twitter.com/GPNIzDnmXj

— Peter Flax (@Pflax1) March 18, 2020

To be clear, a pandemic is not the solution to climate change. Locking ourselves away for the foreseeable future does not even remotely resemble a solution, and we have the technology and knowledge to address our environmental issues without widespread human suffering. 

I’m sorry, I just can’t get crunk about improved air quality or dophins in canals when it comes at this high of a price. THERE ARE FUCKING BETTER WAYS TO DO THIS!!!

— Mary Annaïse Heglar (@MaryHeglar) March 18, 2020

But COVID-19 does afford us a peek into what happens when humans take their foot off the gas — literally and figuratively.

Once the crisis gets under control and the dust settles, we should reflect on what it means for our relationship with other Earthlings (and our fight against climate change) when a week of staying a home has such a big impact. 

If we just gave nature a little bit more of a chance — work remotely a little more, run errands more efficiently, make some other small changes in behavior — we could do a lot of good. 

key takeaway: humans aren’t the problem—it’s our systems. we don’t need to vanish to heal the earth, we need a revolution of policy and ideology that changes the way we interact with the earth. the problem is our methods, not *us,* and to think otherwise veers into ecofascism https://t.co/kiST3xBOZ7

— Talia (@taliavogt) March 17, 2020

An important subtlety here is that humans are not intrinsically bad for the planet. But many of the things we do carelessly, like burning huge amounts of fossil fuels to commute, producing plastics and other materials that will never break down, and importing food from the other side of the world because it isn't in season, take their toll. 

Maybe we should re-evaluate the systems we rely on in our global society, and how we can adapt them. 

alone on street

alone on street

With no vaccine anytime soon, how will we treat COVID-19?

Par : Max Levy · Max Levy

Expert opinion suggests that our most permanent paths out of the COVID-19 pandemic will be to develop either a vaccine or a treatment. Unfortunately, we're likely at least 12 months away from deploying a coronavirus vaccine. So what can we expect in terms of treatments?

The international scientific and medical communities are scrambling to answer that question. To do that, they have to learn from the successes and failures of treating the last two outbreaks of coronaviruses, and learn more about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects cells. By understanding how the virus works, researchers can pinpoint which processes are most vulnerable to be dismantled with drugs. Human trials are underway to test many existing drugs on people who need help right now, and labs across the globe are rushing to create and test others.

A collection of coronavirus particles, yellow circles with red spikes emerging from them.

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, in yellow) particles isolated from a patient

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

To understand what all of these treatments are, it’s helpful to consider what they’re trying to treat. SARS-CoV-2, like its relative SARS, is covered in tiny protein “spikes,” or S-Proteins. Those spikes are the key to getting the virus to infiltrate our otherwise healthy cells. But, despite their name, the spike proteins don’t poke and slash a path into any human cell — the actual process is far more elegant.

It turns out that the S-Protein attaches really well to a different protein that dots the outside of some of our cells. That protein, the angiotensin converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, sits on the surface of some cells in our lungs, and other organs like the kidney and heart. So when people are exposed to the virus, either through contaminated coughs or face-touches, the virus can sneak into their airways and latch on to the ACE2 on healthy cells. The attached SARS-CoV-2 then gets absorbed into the cell and releases its cargo: a short fragment of genetic code.

The cell reads this genetic code, a blueprint for its own self-destruction, and builds all the bits and pieces for the coronavirus to copy itself. The infected cell basically turns into a coronavirus factory. This is how one virus particle turns into billions and makes you sick.

As daunting as this all may sound, knowing how this process works helps scientists to invent treatments to stop it. In some cases, they don’t even have to invent anything. The drugs in clinical trials right now were invented years ago for other diseases.

Human trials are underway to repurpose existing antiviral drugs. In the US, multiple hospitals are testing remdesivir, a drug originally designed for Ebola, and hoping for better luck treating COVID-19. Remdesivir was considered to be the most promising candidate by the World Health Organization back in January. Preliminary reports from China suggest that favipiravir, a new flu medicine, could also be effective. And others are reporting some success with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — a drug dating back the 1930s to treat infections caused by the malaria parasite – though those claims have been scrutinized by some experts, and new studies suggest that they are not effective. One man died after taking a chloroquine product meant for cleaning fishtanks.

Each of these drugs goes after the virus’ ability to copy itself, and each may stop the infection from progressing to the full symptoms of coronavirus disease. While that’s clearly a valuable strategy, it’s also known that antivirals don’t work as well if given later in a person's infection — the key is diagnosing and treating early.

A single coronavirus particle, false colored yellow with a pink membrane, surrounded by "crown" proteins.

Microscope image of a single coronavirus particle showing the "spike proteins" on its round surface

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

But a COVID-19 treatment doesn’t have to focus only on viral replication. We may also see successful drugs that go after completely different aspects of coronavirus infection. After the 2003 outbreak of SARS, researchers showed that cells react to coronavirus infections by reducing the amounts of ACE2 available for the virus to latch on to. That may sound like a good thing, but our bodies may rely on ACE2 to protect us from organ damage.

One proposed treatment currently in trials uses losartan, a blood pressure and diabetes medication. Losartan increases the levels of ACE2, the protein that the virus’ spikes target, and can prevent lung damage from COVID as a result. These ever-important ACE2 levels may even contribute to why the elderly are more susceptible to severe infections, as ACE2 levels appear to decrease with age.

Scientists are also proposing treatments that could prevent the virus from entering cells in the first place. One report suggests treating people with free-floating versions of ACE2. These proteins would serve as a sort of dummy target that intercepts SARS-CoV-2 before it can infect cells. (The authors declared a competing interest as the patent holders of a way to make soluble ACE2). Another recent study suggests that we could prevent coronavirus infection by deactivating a human protein that "softens" the spikes, making it easier for the virus to release its cargo.

Looming over this nowhere-near-exhaustive list of treatments is the fact that the world is squarely in the throes of a pandemic. There are hundreds of trials ongoing, but no treatments have yet been approved as safe and effective. In the absence of a safe, effective, and regulated treatment, extensive diagnostic testing is one of the best preventative measures that the world has.

South Korea has instituted widespread testing, even for people without symptoms. That approach has allowed the country to keep the virus in check without needing citywide lockdowns. The US is not even testing every person with symptoms. In a recent report, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Ian McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, called on the FDA to establish two task forces: one for rapidly advancing drug development, and the other for developing better, faster diagnostics.

There's no easy return. We must accept a sober truth. This pathogen has altered history and changed our world. But it caught us at a time when we have the public health tools, technology, and know how to defeat it quickly and vanquish it for good. We must stay on the battlefield.

— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) March 24, 2020

In pursuit of better COVID-19 diagnostics, a team led by Florian Krammer of the Icahn School of Medicine recently developed a blood test to detect who has been infected, and which people have developed immunity. Krammer has suggested that we could use this information to better test and count people infected, and even treat people using blood from people with immunity. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere are actively working on this sort of “immune therapy” for COVID-19.

Max Levy studies

Chemical Engineering and Biological Engineering


University of Colorado Boulder



doctor with patient

Tropical glaciers are receding, but hidden groundwaters can make up the difference

In Peru, tropical glaciers coat the Andes, overlooking the arid Pacific coast. It's counterintuitive, but glaciers can form in the otherwise balmy tropics due to high mountain elevations. 70% of Earth's tropical glaciers sit in the Peruvian Andes. These mountain glaciers are essential sources of water. Snow and glacial meltwater feed into rivers that bring water into foothill communities — a lifeline during the dry season where rainfall is minimal.

But, as global temperatures rise, Peru’s tropical glaciers are receding at a record pace — a 40% decrease in coverage since the 1970s. This dramatic increase in glacial meltwater has led to a temporary boom in irrigation and development downstream, though the rate of usage of this water is not sustainable forever. Over 70% of studied glacial watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range — part of the larger Andes range — have reached “peak water”, meaning the rate of meltwater coming from glaciers has reached its maximum and is now decreasing. What will happen to the millions of people who rely on glaciers for water once they disappear? 

Somers recreates a photo from the 1980's of the  Huaytapallana glacier

Somers recreates a photo from the 1980's of the Huaytapallana glacier 

Jeffrey McKenzie 

Scientists are now searching for answers beneath the surface. A study led by Lauren Somers, a former PhD student at McGill University, examines the role of groundwater in the mountain water cycle. Groundwater is found underground in soil pores and bedrock fractures. Although it’s a major source of freshwater globally, it has been overlooked in mountain water research until recently.

“It’s really difficult to get data on [groundwater] because a lot of mountains are remote, groundwater wells are expensive, and you can only monitor one point with each well," says Somers. "There also aren’t a lot of existing wells on mountain tops.” To overcome this data deficit, her team incorporated field measurements into computer models to simulate their study site, the Shullcas watershed in the Peruvian Andes, located near the city of Huancayo, 300 kilometers east of the capital city Lima.

In the Andes, groundwater is replenished by both glacier meltwater and precipitation that seeps into the soil during the rainy season. Over the course of the dry season, the groundwater slowly drains into rivers, contributing to river flow. Somers used computer models to simulate these groundwater processes in conjunction with the glacier and river systems to learn more about the Andean water cycle. “We wanted to model [the processes] and push them into climate change simulations to answer the ultimate question: what is the current and future role of groundwater storage in a mountain catchment in the Andes?” explained Somers.

The model results show that the Schullcas watershed reached peak water around 2013, meaning the amount of glacial meltwater feeding into the Rio Schullcas will continue to decrease until the glacier disappears. On the other hand, the results also show that glacial meltwater only accounts for about two percent of annual groundwater recharge, due to the small area the glaciers cover relative to the entire watershed. This means that groundwater can continue to be a buffer for the water supply as glaciers shrink. But under “business-as-usual” climate projections, less rain and snowfall are expected to reduce groundwater recharge, while rising temperatures will increase evaporation and water use by plants, tapping into the groundwater storage. With a decrease in supply and rising demand, the total volume of groundwater will shrink. The simulation results indicate that in about 60 years, environmental factors are expected to affect groundwater supplies, reducing dry season river flow.

Somers examines water samples taken below the Cuchillacocha glacier (Credit: Jeffrey McKenzie

Somers examines water samples taken below the Cuchillacocha glacier

Jeffrey McKenzie  

Water management will become increasingly important for the city of Huancayo over the next few decades. The city of 365,000 residents relies heavily on the water from the Rio Schullcas, its primary water source, during the dry season for municipal and industrial needs. It is not uncommon for the river to run dry. Upstream of Huancayo, the river sustains small-scale agriculture and livestock. Engineering projects such as micro-dams and larger reservoirs can store rainy season water for dry season use, though there are social and environmental drawbacks. Other methods such as digging trenches along mountain slopes to increase groundwater infiltration and storage were also studied. “Some groundwater-based climate change adaptation strategies do have promise, but they require careful consideration because everything has side effects,” said Somers.

Though the future of water resources in the Shullcas watershed is uncertain, the citizens of Huancayo are ready to take action. Somers and her team have done multiple outreach events in the city with their Peruvian partners to engage with the public. Last summer, they hosted a one-day conference with politicians, government employees, and students to discuss glaciers and climate change in the Shullcas watershed. “People are interested, concerned, and fired up,” emphasized Somers. “There’s will among the people to be good environmental stewards and a lot of passion in the spiritual significance in the mountains and the mountain glaciers. I feel hopeful when I see the passion people have for their home.”

Somers teaching water professionals in Huancayo about measuring glacial lake water levels

Somers teaching water professionals in Huancayo about measuring glacial lake water levels

How a Scientific Reserve Corps could help us in a pandemic

Scientists everywhere want to help. We are helping, as much as we can. We’re donating lab supplies, skyping about our science with children stuck at home from school, and helping inform the public. Medical and education students are volunteering to care for the children of medical personnel. 

But for many of us, we still want to do more. As research labs close, there’s an enormous potential workforce with the skills needed to run diagnostic tests, though many lack formal certification. Some opportunities are appearing, including a call for volunteers at University of Washington and the University of California at Berkley, and increased hiring by private companies. Michael F Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, is creating a database of scientists who want to help. While that’s a step in the right direction, it can take quite a while for new volunteers to get up to speed. For example, a call-out from the Innovative Genomics Center at UC Berkeley cites a two to three week training period — precious time in a pandemic. In a pandemic, weeks matter. 

This likely won’t be the last epidemic or pandemic. It may be worth investing in a system of training for these situations. While a Medical Reserve Corps does exist, the corps focuses on the medical and public health aspects of potential emergencies, without a specific role for scientists.

Help me in creating a national database of researchers willing and able to aid in local COVID-19 efforts.

This info will be a resource for institutions/govt agencies upon their request.

For more info, please follow this link: https://t.co/7cTTUDnRGI

— Michael F. Wells (@mfwells5) March 18, 2020

Scientists and students could be valuable help on the front lines. An organized, nationwide “Scientific Reserve Corps” could help. Scientists and students could complete training (and mandatory refreshers) on how to perform a variety of common tests, many of which could be similar to tests from their own research. They could train in collecting samples with proper PPE, analyzing data and data-sharing. For this to work, a Scientific Reserve Corps could encourage governments to plan for specific needs — coordinating types of test kits, extraction kits, and software — so that people could train before pandemic hits. 

With financial aid or compensation, this reserve system could also help students, who often struggle to make ends meet, The motto of the army reserve is “twice the citizen.” Perhaps it’s time for twice the scientist. 

scientists protests

scientist protest outreach

Could chronic joint pain improve with changes in sex hormone levels?

Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) are a group of rare hereditary chronic diseases which cause collagen deficiency in the body leading to weakness of connective tissues that support the joints, organs, bones, and skin. People with EDS experience a wide range of symptoms and other conditions including chronic pain, bleeding disorders, migraines, and high-risk pregnancies. Recent research suggests that early gynecological care and elective hormonal treatment for people with EDS might help improve their quality of life. 

Previous research had shown that people with EDS report worsening of chronic pain and ligament weakness at particular times: during puberty, after giving birth, and prior to menstruation. That link suggests a possible association between EDS symptoms and hormonal levels. For instance, the levels of the hormone progesterone increase during the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation and ends at menstruation. Existing hormonal contraceptives are already known to regulate progesterone levels, so scientists have considered using these drugs to help young people with EDS. Unfortunately, these medications may clash with other conditions associated with EDS, potentially leading to decreased bone mineral density and increased blood clot formation.

In the more recent study from the University of California San Francisco-Fresno and Baylor College of Medicine, researchers evaluated the menstrual information, gynecological complaints and prescribed interventions from medical records spanning 10 years for 26 patients aged 12 to 16. Their findings suggest that the long-term reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) could be an option for patients with EDS. But other options less invasive than IUDs may also work. The authors note that referring more children and teenagers with EDS to gynecological care could make a big difference in giving them better treatment.

We need further research on EDS because of how detrimental the disease can be. Due to the associated complications of EDS, it is important to consider what types of contraceptives to use. Collecting information on treatments brings promise to the possibility of controlled studies testing different hormonal treatments to manage EDS symptoms. 



Keep coronavirus from spreading in Hawai'i. Cancel your vacation

Scrolling through Instagram past the warnings to stay home due to COVID-19, you see it. 

A $49 flight deal to Hawai'i. “Your office at the beach!" The ad paints a serene image of waves crashing while you answer emails and sip Mai Tais. What this ad doesn’t show are the estimated 227 licensed acute critical care beds available in the entire state (as of 2018), with some islands having only 9 and Hawai'i island, the second largest island in terms of population, having only 24 beds. With a population of 1.4 million residents, these 230 ICU beds will go quickly and those in more remote islands will be left without care should COVID-19 spread. Add to this the fact that 140 acute care beds were reported as unstaffed in 2018, and this paints an even more dire picture of how strained Hawai'i’s healthcare system will be should the pandemic take hold in the state. In times of panic and pandemics, tourist destinations and tropical paradises are hit hardest. They will hesitate to close ports and airports as tourism is the primary source of income and livelihood. That is why you must be the one to say no to traveling to Hawai'i. You are directly responsible for the safety of the state.  

We talk constantly now of staying indoors to protect our most vulnerable; those immunocompromised or above the age of 60. But just as there are vulnerable individuals, there are vulnerable states and this must rise to our common conscience. Hawai'i is one of them. Compare Hawai'i’s 227 acute critical care beds  with California’s 7,274. In concrete terms this means that there are 1.81 acute critical care beds per 10,000 people in California compared to 1.6 in Hawai'i. While the numbers seem small, the impact on Hawai'i’s death toll will not be. Hawai'i is 24% short of the minimum number of physicians required to adequately care for the population. On some islands, such as Hawai'i Island, they are short 44%.  Add to this that 25% of the doctors in Hawai'i are over the age of 65, putting them at particularly high risk of serious complications from COVID-19. In addition to an incredibly precarious health infrastructure, Hawai'i is 2,467 miles from the nearest land mass, lending it even greater vulnerability should more advanced care be needed for those that fall ill or should food and supplies run out. 

As of Saturday March 21, of the 37 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hawai'i, only 2 were not attributed to recent travel. It is only a matter of time before a tourist is responsible for the community transmission of a deadly virus that cripples the health of the people of Hawai'i. And if this is not enough to convince you to postpone your vacation, just think how much better a future vacation to Hawai'i will be if the state isn’t ravaged by COVID-19. 

(Ed: Governor David Ige has imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone returning to or visiting Hawai'i.)

Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, USA. A white sand beach in a cove seen from above.

Meet Antonia Maury, astronomy's renegade who changed the way we classify stars

Antonia Maury was born March 21, 1866 into a true science family. Both her grandfather and her uncle were renowned scientists. She was helping her uncle, Henry Draper, in his laboratory as young as four years old. She was tasked with handing him the test tubes he needed for his chemistry experiment. By the time she went to Vassar College, she was primed to succeed in science.

Antonia Maury was one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, alongside other influential astronomers, such as Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne and Annie Jump Cannon. These women were hired by the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering to classify the observations made by the male astronomers at Harvard College. This was the late 1800s and early 1900s, and in a reflection of how science-minded women were treated at the time, were also called "Pickering’s Harem." 

Matteo Farinella

These brilliant women were hired as inexpensive labor, working for as little as 25 cents an hour. But Antonia Maury's accomplishments reflect the depth of talent these women had: She was a creative and independent scientist who made major contributions to astronomy, despite the challenges of working as – and sometimes, being treated as – a human computer. 

Maury’s job was to work on a catalog of stars honoring her late uncle, the Henry Draper Memorial. Her uncle was a pioneer in astrophotography, and was the first person to photograph a nebula. He also took many photos of the moon, including the first photo taken through a telescope. Draper died in 1882 and his wife, Mary Anna Draper, donated money to the Harvard Observatory to create the catalog of stars in his honor.

This included bright stars in the northern hemisphere, which Maury studied. The men in the observatory would point their telescopes at these stars and obtain stellar spectra (a measure of the light a star emits). Depending on what a star is made of, it won’t emit pure white light, which contains all the colors of the rainbow. Instead, only certain bands of color will show up on the spectrum. The colors that do and do not show up can tell astronomers something about the temperature and the size of the stars. For example, two lines in the yellow part of the spectrum, called D-lines, indicate a star contains sodium. 

Maury did not like the classification system that Pickering and Fleming developed, which only included 12 types of stars. She decided to make her own. She reordered some of their classes, and added some of her own, resulting in a classification of 22 different types of stars, which were based on the combination of colored lines in the stellar spectra. The truly innovative part of her classification was the addition of lettered classes, a, b and c, indicating the brightness and width of the lines.

black and white photo of the women known as the harvard computers

The astronomers known as the "Harvard computers," including Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, Willamina Fleming, and Antonia Maury

Harvard College Observatory on Wikimedia Commons

During her time at the Harvard College Observatory, Maury did not get along well with Pickering, the director of the observatory and her boss. He did not like that she created her own classification system, taking away time from her work on the Draper Memorial. Maury was described as an “independent renegade” by her colleague at the observatory Dorrit Hoffleit. Hoffleit surmised that she probably got away with this because of her family status, a perk the other women who worked with Pickering did not necessarily have.

Maury had an additional problem with Pickering: he would take credit for the women’s work, including hers. She discovered that Zeta Ursae Majoris, one of the stars in the Big Dipper actually consisted of two stars, called a double star. She found this through spectroscopy, the first time this method had been used to discover a double star. However, Pickering didn’t make her co-author on the paper describing this achievement, and only mentions her very briefly, saying: “a careful study of the results has been made by Miss. A. C. Maury, a niece of Dr. Draper.”

Maury left the observatory in 1891 for a teaching position in Cambridge, Massachusetts, following her disagreements with Pickering. But it wasn’t so easy to just leave. The Memorial Catalog for her uncle wasn’t finished yet. His widow and her aunt, Mary Anna Draper, was paying for the project and wanted Antonia to keep working on it. The two did not get along. Mary wanted Antonia to finish the work, but was happy to cut ties with her afterwards.  

Antonia did return to finish the work at Harvard twice, in 1893 and 1895. Eventually her contribution to the catalog ‘Spectra of Bright Stars’ was published in 1897. On this work, Antonia was listed as an author and finally got her recognition. With it, she was also the first woman ever to publish a star catalog. By the time the catalog was published, she had already left the observatory and gone back to teaching. This would remain the case until 1918, when she returned to the Harvard Observatory as an adjunct professor. 

Pickering died the next year, and Antonia got along much better with the new director. She published several works under her own name. During this time she studied Beta Lyrae, a star system in the Lyra constellation, and Upsilon Sagittarii, a star system in the Sagittarius constellation. Cecilia Payne, who worked with Maury, recalled: “She had a passion for understanding things. It was typical of her that she devoted years to the mysteries of Beta Lyrae and Upsilon Sagittarii, still incompletely solved.”

diagram showing the light emissions of different types of stars

A diagram of the stellar spectra compared to the sun-spectrum, and others

Dodd, Mead and Company on Wikimedia Commons

Antonia Maury officially retired over 50 years after she started working at the Harvard Observatory, but continued her research –in addition to studying ornithology, natural history, and campaigning to save sequoia forests in the western US when they were threatened by timber companies – even after that. She passed away in 1952. 

Antonia Maury published many influential papers during her time at the Observatory, such as her catalog on northern stars and her analysis of Beta Lyrae, and significantly impacted the field of astronomy with her work. Maury's enduring legacy is her classification system: Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung partially based his Hertzsprung–Russell Diagram, the main system to classify stars in modern times, on her c-characteristic. The official system of star classification adopted in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union used the letter c as well, to indicate narrow well-defined lines, a recognition of Antonia’s classification work. This system, with minor changes, is still in use today.

Dori Grijseels studies



University of Sussex


Researchers study the economics of mangroves by looking at nighttime satellite photos

 Mangroves are pretty incredible. They are the only type of trees capable of living in saltwater and perform a ton of beneficial services for the environment and humans like providing critical habitat to important fish species and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, thanks to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we can add “protecting coastal economies” to the list. 

Coastal mangrove forests serve as a barrier between oceans and human settlements on land. In the midst of tropical storms, mangroves buffer shorelines from damage by reducing wave action and storm surges. As the strength and frequency of hurricanes increases as a result of climate change, scientists and economists have been wondering just how much economic value these barrier forests provide as they protect us from storms. 

To find out, researchers studied how coastal areas in Central America fared during hurricanes from 2000 – 2013. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get a full picture of the economic impacts of storms so researchers relied on an interesting indicator of economic activity: the appearance and amount of lights visible in an area in satellite imagery at night. More lights in an area equates to more infrastructure and activity, which tends to correlate to higher income and economic activity. By comparing the images of lights in an area before and after storms, scientists were able to judge just how much damage the area had sustained and how long the area was likely facing an economic downturn post-hurricane. 

In areas with relatively narrow bands of mangrove forests (less than 1 km wide), there was around a 24% decrease in lighting at night after a category 3 hurricane. But areas that had larger bands of mangroves buffering them from storms were unaffected! 

Unfortunately, mangroves risk deforestation from threats like human development, pollution, and overharvesting. While scientists have been trumpeting the phenomenal benefits we receive from having healthy and intact mangrove ecosystems for a while, it is still shocking to see how this service impacts the bottom line for so many coastal communities. When you see the numbers, you really can’t deny how important it is for us to focus on conserving these important habitats.   

paddling through mangroves

a man in a small boat passes through mangrove trees

Dogs' medical records are helping machine learning researchers track ticks

Spring came early this year, bringing warmth, flowers, longer days…and ticks. Ticks emerge from winter dormancy earlier in warmer years. Reported cases of  tick-borne Lyme disease have increased over the past 25 years and expanded into new geographic regions as the planet warms. And humans aren’t the only ones who can catch Lyme. Our pets, especially dogs, are also at risk.

Getting hard numbers on ticks and where they are spreading isn’t straightforward. About 30,000 cases of Lyme in humans are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year, which is only one tenth of what experts estimate the true number of diagnosed cases to be. To build models from incomplete data, public health officials pull from diverse sources: diagnostic laboratories, insurance claims, weather reports. Even infections in dogs can tell us something about infection rates in humans. These aren’t perfect methods, though, and they rely on people actively providing samples or undergoing somewhat invasive tests.

close up of golden retriever dog looking at camera

Your dog's medical records could help science

 Photo by Ryan Walton on Unsplash

Luckily, there might be another option for detecting ticks. A cross-disciplinary team led by James O'Neill at the University of Liverpool recently presented a method to use machine learning to predict ticks’ presence from a pet's health records.

In order to build the method, O’Neill and his coauthors took advantage of the Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network, an initiative that has accumulated over 3 million records from veterinary visits in the UK. These records include “clinical narratives” — written descriptions of veterinarians' observations. These notes are rich with information about pet health. But it isn’t simple for a computer to make sense of them. Human mistakes like misspellings and transcription errors can make normal words incomprehensible to a machine. Medical jargon is also often missing from the dictionaries that language processing tools rely on.

To get around these problems, the authors built up levels of meanings for sub-words, words, and combinations of words within the text. They had to create a sort-of dictionary for the algorithm to refer back to when looking for evidence of ticks. Assigning classifications at different levels allowed the machine learning algorithm to recognize patterns, even when the words or phrases didn’t exactly match the examples in the dictionary. For example, "outdoors" and "outside" might be synonyms to a reader but not to a computer. A computer can be trained to recognize the sub-word "out." If being outside increases a dog's chance of getting a tick, the computer can assign higher tick probability to "out" when it is in the same sentence as, say, "walk," and a lower tick probability when it shows up as part of a common and unrelated word like "about."

Cn y rd ths? Most likely you can. There's a lot of information in text that isn't strictly necessary for our minds to understand it. We subconsciously recognize the important patterns and ignore the rest. In this machine learning algorithm, the computer did something like the reverse of what your mind just did. It took the vet records as input, simplified the text by identifying the important features (possible key words like "outside," for example), did this multiple times creating different layers, and then spat out a probability that a tick was present on an animal.

The particular method used here is called a "convolutional neural network," a type of machine learning that got its name because it handles data similarly to how neurons in the eye pick out patterns in visual information. The Liverpool group tested variations on the method, allowing the program to more easily forget the features it identified, and to more easily remember information from layers farther back in the process. Their best version was 84% accurate overall, but only 72% accurate when specifically predicting an absence of ticks.

If 72% accuracy seems low, that's because machine learning isn’t yet ready to diagnose your pet. Artificial intelligence is just starting to be used to diagnose medical images, aid drug discovery, and prevent surgical complications. The method of tick detection described here was only presented at a conference, so the findings should be taken with a grain of salt for now. There’s still a high rate of false negatives with the method the researchers described. Partly this is because there are far more vet records without ticks than with, making comparisons unbalanced. Another shortcoming is that the method only reports tick presence, whereas a blood test can provide information about tick-borne disease directly. Used carefully, however, text mining of dogs’ medical records can be a complementary tool for understanding tick ecology.

longhorned tick

An Asian longhorned tick, a species that was first reported in the US in 2017.

Ticks are changing their behavior and their range in response to changing climates. We can forecast where ticks and tick-borne diseases will be based on where they are now and the environments they prefer, but our predictions are only as good as the data they’re based on. Veterinary clinical narratives offer a complementary source of information to add to our current data. In fact, positive blood tests in vet records between 2001 and 2007 clued scientists in to the possible existence of a not-yet discovered pathogen in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Scientists knew that a bacterium called Ehrlichia chaffeensis could infect dogs, but the particular species is rare in that region of the US. Yet, dogs tested positive at a surprisingly high rate for antibodies associated with the disease, which could happen if the dogs had been exposed to a similar species. Sure enough, human cases of ehrlichiosis were discovered in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2009, and a new species, Ehrlichia muris euclairensis, was formally described in  2011. 

Victoria DeLeo studies

Plant Biology


Pennsylvania State University


A short haired brown dog running on a trail in a forest between some trees.

How to stay calm during a pandemic

We are currently living in a situation of extreme uncertainty, and if you are like me, you may have noticed yourself feeling extra anxious lately. Maybe you feel a constant ache it in your shoulders and neck. Maybe you are compulsively checking your phone, unable to tear your eyes away from Twitter and Facebook, or maybe you're extra irritable. According to medical professionals, these are very normal responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Luckily there are lots of things you can do on your own to help ease the stress. Here are a few that work for me personally (note: I am not a medical professional). Not all of these will work for everyone, so don't beat yourself up if you try something to lessen your anxiety and it doesn't do much. Each of us is unique in our experiences and reactions to stressors!

Create something: Make something with your hands. You can cook or bake, put together a puzzle, color or draw, work in your garden or yard (if you have one), or even clean out your car. Whatever you choose, try to really focus on what you are doing instead of letting your mind wander. Don't worry about making something perfect — just enjoy the process!

Go outside or get moving inside: Unless you are currently under lockdown, and assuming you stay at least 6 feet from others, it is safe to go outside. Exercise can help you redirect nervous energy. It also gets your feel-good neurotransmitters flowing. By the way, dancing in your living room counts as exercise!

Step away from your phone: Put the phone down. Leave it in another room while go about your other activities. It will feel weird, but I promise you that logging off Twitter and other social media for half an hour will not harm you. To be clear, your phone isn't the root cause of your anxiety, but a constant barrage of COVID-19 related news isn't helpful, either. 

Give yourself a break: If you are really feeling anxious and it is keeping you from your daily activities, try just letting yourself be. A lot of times the pressure we put on ourselves to stay productive, keep working, clean the house, and so on keeps us paralyzed. Banish the word "should" from your vocabulary for now, and just do the best you can. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to slack off is enough to get your motivation and focus back. 

Try mindfulness: Mindfulness seems like the hip, hot thing to do lately, but there's a reason for that — it works. There are tons of online resources and apps for learning mindfulness. I am most familiar with Headspace, and the thing I like most about it is that students (including grad students!) can get access to the full app for $10/year (usually $70). There is a lot of material in the app, and in my opinion it's worth it. 

If full-on mindfulness isn't for you, but you need a way to stay calm when it feels like the world is falling apart around you, the 54321 method of grounding yourself is a good place to start. Take a deep breath, then look around you for five things that stick out to you in the moment, and say them out loud. Then repeat that with four things you can feel, three sounds you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Then take another deep breath. 

We're all in this together. While you may have to stay physically distant from people right now, don't forget to connect socially in any way you can. And if you are feeling totally overwhelmed or depressed, please reach out to a mental health professional.

person in nature

a man standing outside in the sunset

What happens when a scientist investigates results that are "too beautiful to be true"?

Some fields of science are currently experiencing a reproducibility crisis. This means that a large number of scientific studies, that have been peer reviewed and published, cannot be repeated with the same results. One of the causes for this is scientific misconduct. This may include p-hacking, the practice of adding in data until the results are significant, selective reporting, where only the desired results are shared, or outright falsification of data.

The Editor-In-Chief of the journal Molecular Brain, Tsuyoshi Miyakawa, recently wrote an editorial in which he examined the manuscripts he had handled over the last two years. As an editor, his job is to judge whether a manuscript is good enough to send to reviewers. In some cases he might decide to ask the authors to provide the raw data before sending it out for review, especially if the results look ‘too beautiful to be true.’ 

Over the two years of manuscripts he analyzed, Miyakawa sent out requests for the raw data 41 times. He only received data in 20 cases. In 19 out of those 20 cases, the data was either incomplete, or did not match with the results in the manuscript. The reason why in so many cases the raw data was not available or incomplete is not clear, but it might suggest that this data never existed in the first place.

Miyakawa calls for increased availability of raw data. His journal, Molecular Brain, now requires the raw data for every manuscript submitted to be made publicly available. This makes it easier to determine whether results are genuine, and it will increase transparency. Although the reproducibility crisis is complicated and will not be solved completely with just this requirement, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

purple microscopic organisms

glowing purple groups of cells