Category Archives: Interviews

Scientist who helped discover Ebola and nearly got killed by COVID-19 says the pandemic is ‘still at the beginning’

Prof. Peter Piot, who helped discover Ebola at age 27 and has led the fight against HIV and AIDS, contracted coronavirus earlier this year. The director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, and a special advisor on coronavirus to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke to Horizon about how having Covid-19 changed his perspective on the illness, why we need a vaccine and the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

First things first. After 40 years chasing viruses, you recently had a close call with coronavirus. How are you?

It took three months from the beginning of the disease to recovery, but now I’m back to more or less normal. But it (my experience) showed that Covid-19 is more than either a bit of a flu or that 1% go into intensive care and die. There’s a lot in between.

But it gave me new insight. Now I know the virus from the inside – not just studying or fighting it. It’s a very different perspective.

How so?

First of all, this (crisis) is about people. A lot of the official Covid-19 communication is about flattening the curve and barely about people. Secondly, in terms of insight, the fact that this is not a ‘flu or intensive care’ type of thing. There are going to be a lot of people with chronic conditions.

Then, personally, it makes me double motivated to fight the virus. After having fought viruses for most of my life, they got me now, but I think it’s also the human experience that makes a big difference. It’s what we call – that’s the term in Dutch – ervaringsdeskundige (an expert from experience). It comes from social policy. So you don’t just have experts telling people what’s good for them. You also talk to people who were affected. And I come from the AIDS movement. So in HIV, we wouldn’t dream of designing, developing, even (doing) research without involving people living with HIV. So that’s my kind of way of thinking.

At present, there are more than 9 million cases globally and the pandemic is taking hold in Latin America. What is the current situation from your perspective?

Well, frankly, first of all, the figures are certainly underestimates because these are confirmed cases. So we probably are closer to well over 20 million, and soon, half a million deaths.

Together with HIV, which is now a silent epidemic that still kills 600,000 people every year, and the Spanish flu, it (coronavirus) is certainly the biggest, not just epidemic, but also societal crisis in peacetime.

When we think of Europe, that just about every country has succeeded in bringing down the spread of the virus, that’s good news. Societies are going back and relaxing various measures.

And now we’ve got to prepare for a so-called second wave. I hope that it won’t be a tsunami, but more like the outbreaks we already have, for example, in a meatpacking facility in Germany or in Korea around nightclubs. Also, in the UK, we have still (have outbreaks) in some care homes. So I think that’s what we have to prepare for now.

The truth is: we’re only at the beginning of this pandemic. As long as there are people who are susceptible to be infected, the virus will be very happy to infect us because it needs our cells to survive.

Is there any cause for optimism?

The good news is also unprecedented scientific collaboration. It’s hard to keep up with all the new information and science that is coming out of something that, it’s hard to believe, is only five months old.

Sometimes I say: ‘Oh my god, how can I keep up with all the publications?’ But on the other hand, that’s a good problem to have, because in past epidemics, information was not shared. Also unprecedented is that industry and countries are investing enormously in developing vaccines, therapeutics and so on. So it’s a bit of a silver lining.

If we’re only at the beginning of the pandemic, how long could it last?

I don’t have my crystal ball here, but it could last several years. I would say that in the shorter- or medium-term run, a vaccine could make a huge difference, although I doubt that it will be a 100% effective vaccine. Promises have been made that maybe hundreds of millions of vaccines will be available by October. For all practical purposes, it will be rather 2021, and that could really bring the epidemic under control in a large way.

But we will have to continue to change the way we interact with each other. When you look at Japan, for example, for generations people have been wearing face masks when they even have a cold to protect others. So, there is a need for some quite wide-scale behaviour change, in addition to counting on this magic vaccine. 

The pledging marathon hosted by the European Commission has raised nearly €10 billion in pledges that will be shared between vaccines, treatments, tests and strengthening health systems. In your view, what are the priorities for spending this money – and is it enough?

This pledging event is necessary for two reasons: to make sure there is money (and to ensure) equitable access of the vaccines and other (resources). The biggest need is in vaccine development and manufacturing.

But the very important point is that (the funds are) not only for research and development but also (for) putting into place mechanisms so that there is access (to vaccines) for those countries that are either not vaccine producers or are on the poor side. You (might) say it’s a lot of money (overall), but, it’s not enough.

Why not?

What’s unprecedented, again, is that we’re talking about billions, not millions, in terms of people who have to be vaccinated. That’s never been tried before. About 4 or 5 billion people will need access to this vaccine. And that also means billions of glass vials to put the vaccine in – all these very basic things that have to be taken care of.

Companies and governments have to take a bet and invest in vaccine manufacturing without knowing whether that vaccine will actually work. That’s quite a challenge, but that’s the reason there is such a need for also public money because this is going to be a public good.

Then there’s the issue of ‘vaccine nationalism’. It started with the US saying vaccines produced in the US will be for Americans. And if every country starts doing that, the majority of people in the world will be excluded because only very few countries produce vaccines.

So how do we make sure that no one gets left behind

That’s a big question. I think that’s ultimately going to be a political issue. And so that’s why I stress that the pledging initiative hosted by the Commission, that equitable access is an integral part of it. It’s not just raising money to develop a vaccine. It’s raising money to develop a vaccine that will be accessible to all those in need. It is quite a big difference.

Last month you said in an interview that we’re learning while sailing and that without a vaccine normal life won’t resume. Do you still think that?

It’s a bit more nuanced now. I’m now saying we’re learning while we’re racing because sailing is a bit slow. At the moment, everybody’s racing. And I still think that without a vaccine it’s going to be extremely hard to go back to normal society.

A lot will depend on whether vaccines will protect against transmission. So, in other words, that if I’m vaccinated I can’t get it, or, as with the case of influenza, the vaccine is particularly useful to prevent the development of severe disease and mortality. There are many unknowns. It is, for me, the number one priority for science and for the response because without a vaccine, then that means that we have years of having to live with this virus.

Is there a vaccine contender that you’re excited about and can single out?

No, I’m excited about quite a few. But the beauty at the moment is that there are very different approaches to making a vaccine. You have (messenger) RNA ones and then you’ve got more traditional approaches. I’m personally agnostic.

Even if a vaccine could prevent people from getting ill, you mentioned that many people will have chronic conditions. How should the response in the longer term be shaped?

We’re all busy with the acute crisis and, although now we have a little bit of time to prepare for these second-wave outbreaks, we also need a long-term view. That’s obvious for the economic and social impact. Even mental health impacts, not only of the epidemic, but of the counter measures – being in isolation, kids not going to school, etc. which could really also exacerbate social inequalities and inequities. Epidemics often reveal the fault lines in society and exacerbate inequities. That goes way beyond the biological and medical aspects, but that’s what we need to plan for now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. The views expressed in the article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission.

This post Q&A: ‘We are only at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’ – Prof. Peter Piot was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

Outbreaks like the coronavirus will become more common. Here’s how we must prepare

She is a member of the European Commission’s recently established advisory panel on COVID-19 and is coordinator of the VEO project, which is developing techniques to spot new infectious diseases as they emerge and to track them when they do. Much of what they have learned already is being used in the global fight against the new coronavirus pandemic.

What is an emerging disease?

‘These tend to be diseases that are circulating in human or animal populations to a degree, but when there is a change of some sort, it leads to an outbreak. In the case of the Covid-19, for example, it jumped the species barrier from animals to become a new virus in humans.’ 

Why do new diseases like this emerge?

‘When we reconstruct what has happened in emerging disease outbreaks, what we see is that something has changed. More and more humans share the world, and as we try to feed and accommodate them, it leads to habitat loss for wild animals.

‘This disturbance can lead to a change in animal behaviour that brings them into closer contact with humans. So we might see a forest being cleared or mining operations driving animals out of their usual habitat. Those interactions are an important driver as it increases the chance of a disease crossing the species barrier into humans.

‘Climate change also has an impact on (existing) diseases by allowing them to move into new areas. Socio-political unrest is also important as it can bring inequality or the breakdown of health systems, which can be a risk.’ 


Habitat loss such as forest clearing or mining operations can increase the chance of a disease jumping from animals to humans, says Prof. Koopmans. Image credit – M.P.G. Koopmans, Erasmus MC 2020.

Which types of diseases risk becoming outbreaks in the future?

‘In VEO, we have grouped diseases into different scenarios that cover a lot of possible ways we can get outbreaks. The first looks at vector-borne diseases – viruses, bacteria or parasites that can infect humans but are spread by animals, typically insects like mosquitoes or ticks. Malaria and Lyme disease are good examples of these. We might see certain species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes appearing in new areas as the climate changes. 

‘Then we have zoonotic diseases, which are carried by wild birds or animals and then jump the species barrier to infect humans. There are many examples of these, such as influenza and Ebola. 

‘We are also looking at hidden pathogens that might be released in the future, such as diseases that are currently trapped inside permafrost but could emerge as it melts.

‘Finally, we have rare infections that might become more of a problem in fast growing, high density urban populations.’

What has Covid-19 revealed about our ability to spot new diseases?

‘Disease detection mostly focuses on those that we already know about – we have surveillance networks that look out for specific diseases such as flu, norovirus or measles. The way it is organised is pathogen by pathogen. This means we still have a reactive approach to dealing with these diseases once they become an outbreak.’

What is VEO trying to do?

‘We want to be able to see these diseases coming better by taking a different approach that looks at everything so we can spot something before it becomes a major problem.’

How do you do that?

‘For each of the emerging disease scenarios, we are looking at what the drivers might be. So, if I am looking at mosquito-borne diseases, we would look at what influences how many mosquitoes we have, which species, what climate and habitats are important for specific species of mosquitoes to flourish. Are there conditions that might bring in tropical diseases, and are there people in these areas, and how are they behaving? We start layering all these things together from different types of data sets until we see a convergence of risk factors.’

What is the advantage of this?

‘Just look at what has happened with coronavirus. We have had to set everything up from scratch and it means the number of cases is outstripping our capacity to diagnose them. We don’t expect to have clear, scalable antibody tests for another couple of months.

‘If we can rethink our models of disease detection, we can get ahead of that by ensuring we already have tests available and make sure there won’t be a shortage of critical reagents we need for those diagnostic tests. We can make a start on looking for treatments and developing vaccines. But you can only do that if you are able to see these events coming.’

What happens when you identify a risk?

‘At first a flag goes up and we would intensify surveillance in that area. But we don’t know what we are looking for so we have to use techniques that allow us to spot anything out of the ordinary that might be there. One of the most powerful techniques we have for doing that at the moment is metagenomics.’ 

What is metagenomics and why is it so useful?

‘It is exactly what the Chinese used when they started seeing patients with unknown pneumonia. None of the usual diagnostics were either negative or not clear, so they carried out metagenomic analysis on samples from those patients. This is where you look at all the genetic material that is there. You might find five to ten million pieces of genetic material from all sorts of bacteria and viruses, and then you compare this with samples from healthy people. You are looking for something that stands out as unusual. This is how they first discovered the new coronavirus.’ 

How is VEO now contributing to the global effort against the coronavirus?

‘We are doing a lot of work translating the genetic data we have about the virus into tools we can use against it. One part of that is using it to develop rapid diagnostic tests and particularly the phylogeny (how the virus mutates as it spread) which is a critical tool in trying to understand how widespread the virus is and if there might be some level of immunity in the population already.

‘We are trying to use it to also understand why children are not getting as sick as older people. We are also tracking the diversity of the virus as it spreads around the world.

‘A third element is also trying to work with social media – we have digital epidemiologists who are trying to track Twitter feeds to understand how the disease might be spreading from new reports, for example. This has been overwhelming though because of the sheer volume of information now being shared.

‘We are using neural networks to analyse what is driving the information and where the reliable information is coming from. One of the first reports about the coronavirus outbreak was about an unknown disease in a Chinese newspaper. This is the sort of thing we are now trying to pick up. And of course, we are also trying to predict what the next emerging disease will be.’

How close are you to being able to do that?

‘The project is only in its first few months, but we know that outbreak events like these are likely to become more common in the future because of the growing human population, changing climate and land use change happening around the world. Diseases like Nipah virus (which is spread by bats and can pass to humans from infected pigs) and other bat-borne respiratory and neurotropic infections are of particular concern. 

‘Tackling these diseases is an Apollo programme for our time in terms of the effort, technology and scale of what is required. If we can bring the detection process forward so we can spot outbreaks coming, we can move very fast against them, track them and develop vaccines to keep them under control.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU.

This post Q&A: We have to rethink disease detection to get ahead of the outbreak after coronavirus was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

What you need to know about mRNA vaccines — a unique solution to solving the coronavirus crisis

Credit: Unsplash/Liliya Lisa.

The race for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is on, with 54 different vaccines under development, two of which are already being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization. And among the different candidates is a new player on the scene – mRNA vaccines.

One mRNA vaccine developed by US company Moderna began its first human trials on 16 March, whereas another under development by German company CureVac has been offered €80 million in investment by the European Commission. But what exactly are mRNA vaccines and why could they be promising in the fight against the coronavirus? We spoke to Professor Isabelle Bekeredjian-Ding, head of the microbiology division of Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institut, which provides scientific advice to companies, including CureVac, and who sits on the scientific committee of Europe’s Innovative Medicines Initiative. Here are five things to know.

1. They’re a whole new type of vaccine

If an mRNA vaccine was approved for coronavirus, it would be the first of its type. ‘It’s a very unique way of making a vaccine and, so far, no (such) vaccine has been licenced for infectious disease,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

Vaccines work by training the body to recognise and respond to the proteins produced by disease-causing organisms, such as a virus or bacteria. Traditional vaccines are made up of small or inactivated doses of the whole disease-causing organism, or the proteins that it produces, which are introduced into the body to provoke the immune system into mounting a response.

mRNA vaccines, in contrast, trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself. They work by using mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is the molecule that essentially puts DNA instructions into action. Inside a cell, mRNA is used as a template to build a protein.

‘An mRNA is basically like a pre-form of a protein and its (sequence encodes) what the protein is basically made of later on,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

To produce an mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.

2. They could be more potent and straightforward to produce than traditional vaccines

There are two parts to our immune system: innate (the defences we’re born with) and acquired (which we develop as we come into contact with pathogens). Classical vaccine molecules usually only work with the acquired immune system and the innate immune system is activated by another ingredient, called an adjuvant. Interestingly, mRNA in vaccines could also trigger the innate immune system, providing an extra layer of defence without the need to add adjuvants.

‘All kinds of innate immune cells are being activated by the mRNA,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding. ‘This primes the immune system to get prepared for an endangering pathogen and thus the type of immune response that is triggered is very strong.’

There is still a lot of work to be done to understand this response, the length of the protection it could give and whether there are any downsides.

Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding also explains that because you’re not introducing the whole virus into the body, the virus can’t mount its own self-defence and so the immune system can concentrate on creating a response to the viral proteins without interference by the virus.

And by getting the human body to produce the viral proteins itself, mRNA vaccines cut out some of the manufacturing process and should be easier and quicker to produce than traditional vaccines.

‘In this situation, the major benefit is that it’s easy to produce (and) it will also probably be relatively easy to do an upscaling of production, which of course, is very important if you think about deployment throughout Europe and the world,’ said Prof. Isabelle Bekeredjian-Ding, Paul Ehrlich Institut, Germany.

3. Most of what we know about mRNA vaccines comes from work on cancer

Most work on using mRNA to provoke an immune response has so far been focused on cancer, with tumour mRNA being used to help people’s immune systems recognise and respond to the proteins produced by their specific tumours.

‘This technology was very good for the oncology field, because you can develop patient-specific vaccines because every tumour is different,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

Using tumour mRNA in this way activates the body’s T-cells – the part of the acquired immune system that kills cells, which is useful to destroy tumours. It could be important for coronavirus, too.

‘In viral infections, often we know that there is a need for a strong T-cell response because viruses like to hide in cells,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding. ‘There is a certain hope that, especially in this setting, this could really work … and thereby eliminate … the infected cells from the body.’

But to combat a virus such as SARS-CoV-2, it is likely that a different part of the acquired immune system also needs to be activated – the B cells, which produce antibodies that mark the virus out for destruction by the body.

‘And there is little experience with this (apart from animal infection models), because for the tumour model this was not that relevant.’

4. There are a lot of unknowns

Because mRNA vaccines are only now beginning to be tested in humans, there are a lot of fairly basic unknowns which can only be answered through human trials.

‘What is really the current challenge, I think, is to understand whether these vaccines will really be able to mount a sufficiently protective immune response in the human and to understand, for example, which quantities of mRNA will be needed to do this,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

Other outstanding questions include whether the proteins that have been chosen for the vaccine are the right ones to prevent a coronavirus infection in the body, how targeted the immune response is to this particular coronavirus, how long any immunity would last, and whether it causes side-effects such as increased inflammatory responses like redness and swelling or, in the worst case, aggravates disease.

5. It would be possible to vaccinate on a large scale.

Once an mRNA vaccine has been approved, which could take 12-18 months, it should be easy to scale up production. Because the manufacturing process is shorter than for other vaccines – Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding estimates a few months rather than 1-2 years for conventional vaccines – there is potential for these vaccines to be scaled up quickly. This is useful in the context of coronavirus, which will likely need mass immunisation programmes.

‘I think we will need a very high population coverage, but it depends a little bit on the countries and the epidemiology,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding. ‘In the countries where coronavirus has been spreading very fast, we also expect that there’s many people who have been in contact with the virus and who have actually mounted a natural immune response. But on the other hand, if you look at Germany, for example, right now we’re all at home, barred, and not allowed to leave the house except for necessities.

The population therefore remains susceptible to infection, she says. ‘And so here, you would definitely need to think about vaccinating the whole population.

‘That’s why also these vaccines are of interest, because you could probably manage that, while, with other vaccines, it’s harder to produce these quantities (in a short period of time).’

This post Five things you need to know about: mRNA vaccines was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

‘Most ice on Earth is very close to melting conditions,’ glacier expert warns

Image credit – Sharada Prasad CS, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Measuring ice melt and the unprecedented changes in our cryosphere – the frozen parts of the planet which regulate the climate by reflecting the sun’s heat – is crucial for understanding future situations, he says.

We spoke to Prof. Kääb about the importance of the cryosphere and what we know about how it’s changing. 

Why is the cryosphere important?

‘The cryosphere – that is glaciers and ice sheets, snow, sea ice, permafrost, and lake and river ice – and changes of the cryosphere affect the lives of hundreds (of) millions (of people) and many ecosystems in various direct and indirect ways. Seasonal or year-round snow covers around 45 million sq km, and glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets an additional 15 million sq km, together (constituting) around 40% of the Earth’s land area.

‘Importantly, most ice on Earth is very close to melting conditions, a few degrees below 0°C, and thus reacts very sensitively to changes in air temperatures. Small temperature changes can trigger melt and (large) environmental changes. Sea level change through increased melt of glaciers and ice sheets is certainly the most far-reaching effect of ice melt on Earth.’

How are sea levels changing?

‘Melting of glaciers, (and) the two ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica contributes to more than half of the currently measured sea level rise and they are projected to contribute more. The other half is thermal expansion – as the ocean gets warmer it expands – and all this sea level change affects people around the world, especially in coastal areas, (and) even if living far away from the melting ice.

‘Mean sea level is projected to rise about 1 metre by 2100 and will threaten coastal societies. How much the ocean would rise in (the) case of an, unrealistic, complete melt of the Antarctic ice sheet is around 60m.’

What are the other impacts of ice melt?

‘In terms of more local effects, there are a number of hazards relating to glaciers and thawing permafrost that we expect to increase. For instance, if glaciers retreat they leave steep mountain flanks uncovered so there is debris and rocks that are set to destabilise. So, we expect more rockfalls or debris flows from such areas.

‘Greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost are much less understood, but could have an equally wide, actually global, impact by enhancing manmade emissions.

‘Then there are also hazard situations that could actually improve. (Ice avalanches from glaciers)  can destroy infrastructure, houses and kill people. But (there’s) the extreme case (where) if a glacier retreats very much, then the hazard from related ice avalanches could actually reduce.’


Glaciers are typically found close to where people live and changes can directly affect people’s lives, says Prof. Kääb. Image credit – Andreas Kääb.

Do you think we have passed a tipping point when it comes to ice melt?

‘The term tipping point is a bit controversial, because in most cases we don’t really know. Another term that is better is what the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) uses – committed (climate) change. So, climate change that man has contributed to has committed changes to the future.

‘That means the excess energy that mankind has already caused (through greenhouse gas emissions capturing the sun’s heat) will commit a long-term change in glaciers, ice sheets and ocean temperatures. Change that, let’s say, over a hundred years is irreversible. Even if we change our emissions now, a lot of ice melting has been committed.’

‘Glaciers are typically found comparably close to where people live. That means their changes affect people quite directly.’

Professor Andreas Kääb, University of Oslo, Norway.

You focus on glaciers. Why do we need to understand glacier change?

‘Glaciers are typically found comparably close to where people live. That means their changes affect people quite directly. Understanding glacier change helps to adapt to related climate change impacts such as changes in dry-season run-off and water supply, changes in glacial landslides and avalanches, or changes in the touristic value of glaciers.

‘Glaciers reflect climate change in a very visible and clear way. Their shrinkage has become for good reason an icon of climate change. For scientists, glaciers are important to illustrate climate change and make it understandable for a large audience.’

You were the coordinator of ICEMASS, a project using satellite imagery to measure and analyse changes to glaciers. How did you analyse change?

‘We have increasingly more and more different satellite data, and what the satellites measure is very different. My main goal, my main achievement, of the ICEMASS project was actually bringing different data together and integrating them. For instance, we use optical satellite images repeatedly to measure glacier flow. This works perfectly fine unless you have cloud cover or polar night (24-hour darkness). Then we use radar images that penetrate through clouds for the same purpose. But this does not give us the volume of glaciers.

‘For that we use, among others, satellites that shoot laser beams, like your laser pointer, and they measure the return time of this signal. The signal is sent from a satellite, bounces (off) the glacier surface, and comes back to the satellite. The time difference is directly related to the distance from the satellite to the (glacier surface). So, if you know the satellite position very well, which we do, then you can measure the height. And if you do that, over time, repeatedly, you get also the changes in glacier thickness and volume.’


The ICEMASS project analysed glacier avalanches in Tibet, with satellite images showing before (left) and after (right) the events. Image credit – Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2019)/processed by A. Kääb, Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, 2019.

And what did you find?

‘For me, personally, the most important results are more regional scale results. We developed glacier volume changes over a number of areas where little was known before. One of the examples that made it into the Nature journal, for instance, was glacier volume changes over the Himalayas and Central Asia. There was a lot of different numbers around for these melting glaciers – some actually massively contradicted each other – from very little change to massive change. And we (really) narrowed this uncertainty down.’

What did your project reveal about the state of glaciers around the world?

‘We found glacier mass loss in almost all regions we looked at. Unexpected large losses we measured in the European Arctic, on Svalbard. The massive retreat of sea ice in this sector of the Arctic raises air temperatures at a rate of roughly double the global average. The result is glacier melt rates (that are) much higher than one would expect so far north. In addition, about half of the glacier mass loss comes not from direct glacier melt but from glaciers that massively increased their ice flow and thus their ice discharge into the ocean.

‘(We found) unexpected low changes in glacier mass, lower than the global average, in parts of Central Asia, in the Karakoram, Pamir, and western parts of Tibet. There is even a region where glaciers grow a little bit. By also measuring changes of lakes without direct river outflow, we could show that the region received in recent years more precipitation, which let the lakes and the glaciers grow, despite air temperatures increasing at the same time.’   

This year’s IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere says climate change will cause up to 80% loss of glaciers in some places by the year 2100. What can research do to help society prepare for this future melting?

‘Carbon dioxide levels are much higher than they have been for the last 1 million years or more. This means our climate is at a stage where we don’t have historical experience to build sound statistics on extreme events. So, we need to monitor more what is going on now and then we need to better model future scenarios.  

‘The EU has their own fleet of satellites, the Sentinels within the Copernicus programme. They are really a game changer because before them there were mostly occasional scientific satellites.

‘These EU satellite constellations, in my experience, help develop models and strategies for really long-term perspectives. (We need these) satellites to allow for the long-term, consistent, observations that we need to predict and adapt to climatic changes.’

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The research in this article was funded by the EU’s European Research Council. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

This post ‘Most ice on Earth is very close to melting conditions’ was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

Harbour seal.

The role of art in research with science illustrator Sarah Gluschitz

What is the common trait all scientists share? And what role does art play in research? Today we talk with scientific illustrator Sarah Gluschitz to find out.

Sarah Gluschitz.

Sarah alongside some very impressive anatomy illustrations.

One of the goals we set here at ZME Science is, understandably, to promote science in society. You gals and guys make that job quite easy for us; you’re curious, thirsty for knowledge and hungry for the latest, juiciest morsel of research. Driving people to make the next step, that of getting personally involved in science, however, proves to be a more elusive goal.

Most people with whom I’ve discussed this conundrum confess that they want to bring their own contribution — but that they feel outclassed. They say they don’t have something that will make a difference when brought to the research table. They feel they don’t have Einstein’s prowess in physics or Darwin’s eye for evolution, and that that bars them from pursuing science.

But guys — very few people do. Einsteins, Curies, Darwins, and Newtons stand out in history because (you won’t believe this) they were outstanding. Most scientists you’ll talk to look up to them as leviathans, and most suffer from impostor syndrome as a result. However, the small, incremental advances these scientists put in every day are what advances scientific knowledge. The leaps that people such as Curie or Newton made were built upon these efforts — and the overall contribution to science these figures made are relatively small compared to that of the first group.

So don’t sweat it; science would be very happy to have your brain on the team.

Harbour seal.

The other reason people offer up is competence in ‘hard’ topics: math, physics, computer languages, and so on. I can completely empathize with this. I’m trained as an engineer, and I loved every day at Uni — except those that involved math. Which was basically every day. I’m not good at calculus, I couldn’t do it to save my life, and this haunted me throughout my four years of university.

The current, wiser me wants you to know that it’s totally fine. You don’t have to be great at everything to be a researcher. It helps, sure, but it’s not a prerequisite. I figured out I was quite good at geometry while my colleagues weren’t; so they would handle calculus on group projects and I’d crunch the shapes. It worked out well.

Still, I was at a loss as to what to say to the friends, strangers, or readers who broached the subject with me. I knew the tools but not the engine of scientific pursuit, its trappings but not its source — so I didn’t have any wisdom to share.

I found my answer at this year’s European Science Open Forum in Toulouse in the shape of one Sarah Gluschitz. In a room of researchers holding talks and journalists holding recorders, Sarah was drawing. Not aimlessly — contours merged with keywords on topics being discussed. This fresh (if unorthodox) approach caught my eye and sparked a conversation that served me with a heaping of realization: The only thing you really need to be an asset to science is curiosity.

Sarah is about as far from the traditional image of a scientist as you can get, and yet she was there. With a background in arts, she was discussing science and science journalism. Her story helped me make better sense of my work and what I can bring to science.

Today, I’m sharing her story with you.

With Sarah’s permission, we’ll also get to enjoy some samples of her work.

Human Dissection.

Tell me a little about yourself. A short bio of sorts. Something to help our audience get to know you better.

My name is Sarah Gluschitz. I am a Scientific Illustrator and Artist based in the Netherlands. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with a world hidden in plain sight. A world underneath our skin, one only visible to a small group of people. As a scientific Illustrator, I am fortunate to now be part of that world and to help to translate it for others.

After attending the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, graduating as a Bachelor in Interactive/Media/Design, I continued my studies at the ZUYD University of Applied Science and Maastricht University in Maastricht. There I have graduated cum laude in Scientific Illustration with my masters’ thesis “Corpse in the copse”, which focusses on the taphonomy [the study of how organisms fossilize] of the human skeleton in 2D and 3D for archaeological applications. This combines my passions for Archaeology, Forensics, Human Anatomy, and Illustration.

What was your first passion? Did you start with science, or with art? What made you mix the two together?

Work in progress.

Illustration in progress of the circulatory and respiratory system of the spiney dogfish (Squalus acanthias).

I have always been artistically inclined as well as having a great interest in getting to the bottom of things. During high school in Germany, it was mandatory to choose two subjects as the main focus point of your studies. I chose Arts and Biology which early on seemed to me like a natural combination of things.

I didn’t know about Scientific Illustration as a field just yet. Searching for a way to use my Arts degree on another level and satisfy my thirst for knowledge I came across Scientific Illustration. Once I got into contact with it for the first time it was as clear as day to me, that this is where I needed to be.

Do you regret your choice of career? Why or why not?

I absolutely adore my line of work. It gives me the possibility to express myself artistically, while also being in contact with science and the source of the knowledge I love so much.

It is multi-layered and diverse as I am not confined to any specific field, but get the possibility to dive into a large variety of topics. This summer, for example, I have illustrated Drones for the ENAC, the French National Civil Aviation School in Toulouse, while only a few months before that I was a research assistant at a forensic decomposition facility in the US.

My favorite thing about my job is being able to translate the researcher’s knowledge to a new audience and making both ends enthusiastic about the topic. I strongly believe that a visual language is one of the universal mediums we can use to reach an audience free of spoken language barriers.

Tell me something you love and something you hate about your line of work.

There is nothing I would like to change about my line of work. I would like to be part of bringing it into the spotlight and showing people the amazing world of Scientific Illustration.

Many people imagine ‘science’ as being strictly something you do with beakers in a lab. But art has a very important part to play in science and the process of gathering knowledge. Illustrations such as yours have graced the pages of encyclopedias for decades, even centuries.

What advice would you give to someone who has an artistic inclination and a passion for science, but feels like they lack ‘hard’ skills like maths, physics, so on?

I believe there is a niche for every one of us, that fits our interest and skillset. Being artistically inclined doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a career in arts, nor should a lack of hard skills hinder us from being in touch with science. Scientific Illustration is one way of combining both, so is journalism.


I believe that a symbiotic relationship between science and art will elevate research and help it outgrow the confinements of the scientific community. The community is often separated, through their own language, from the general public. Utilizing a visual language breaks down the walls and helps create spaces for open communication. Everyone who feels like neither arts nor science is a perfect fit should start exploring at what point they could come in and be the link between the two worlds they love.

Once you find that intersection it will come naturally as how to proceed.

What is your view on the relationship between art and science? Should they be more separated, or should they play together more often?

Like many things, art and science would be even greater combined. Both fields have their own mentality, research methods and ways of thinking. This sometimes leads to places where each is stuck. A fresh view, that might seem unorthodox at first, can open up new pathways for each field to continue growing.

Both science and art are very complimentary to each other.

Can art help us make better science? What about the other way around?

Within the Arts, the field of ArtScience is continuously growing and welcomed with open arms, while within the Science community there still is some resistance towards having Arts distort the nature of Science; the accuracy and the objectiveness.

In Scientific Illustration, we make sure that that accuracy and objectiveness is guarded, while still offering a different perspective and approach to a problem, such as the reconstruction of Archaeological findings. Reconstruction of archaeological finds has several layers and goals, one being to understand a past society. But can you truly understand the creation of an art object from the past, when you don’t engage artist with their unique way of thinking into the process of reconstruction?

All image credits to Sarah Gluschitz. You can see more of her work on her Instagram page or her website.

Credit: Gilbert/Wellcome Images.

In conversation with… Jane Goodall

Credit: Gilbert/Wellcome Images.

Credit: Gilbert/Wellcome Images.

As Jane Goodall turns 80, Henry Nicholls talks to her about her remarkable career studying chimpanzee behaviour, her animal welfare activism, and accusations of plagiarism in her latest book.

In February 1935, the year of King George V’s silver jubilee, a chimpanzee at London Zoo called Boo-Boo gave birth to a baby daughter. A couple of months later, a little blonde-haired girl was given a soft-toy replica of the zoo’s new arrival to mark her first birthday. This was Jane Goodall’s first recorded encounter with a chimp.

Goodall turns 80 this week. In the intervening years, her research on a community of chimpanzees in Tanzania revolutionised our understanding of these primates, our closest living relatives, and challenged deepset ideas of what it means to be human. She then packed in her fieldwork to become an activist, campaigning tirelessly for a more enlightened attitude towards animals and the environment. Along the way she has received nearly 50 honorary degrees, and became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002 and Dame Jane in 2004.

Though I have only crossed London to meet her, I am struck by the sudden feeling that I have reached the end of some epic, Henry Stanley-like quest… “Dr Goodall?” As I reach out to shake a slender hand, the words “I presume” pop into my head. I suppress them.

I follow her into the front room and she politely offers me tea or coffee. There is a sofa beneath the bay window and next to it – as if only just put aside – a large book. I pick up The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of behavior, Goodall’s magnum opus published in 1986. I flip through its characterful portraits of the Gombe chimps, many of them – like David Greybeard – now household names.

Goodall sits down neatly on the sofa with her back to the bright sun. This is a brief pause in her whirlwind travel schedule of more than 300 days a year, but she displays few signs of weariness – worldly or otherwise. She has just been going through proofs of her updated book Seeds of Hope, the first edition of which was troubled by allegations of plagiarism. I don’t want to broach the subject so early in the interview, so I ask instead about her childhood, which I sense is of great importance to understanding Goodall.

§

Having seen a photograph of that doting little girl clutching Jubilee, her somewhat scruffy birthday chimp, I love the idea that this fluffy character influenced what Goodall would go on to achieve. On this, however, she sets me straight. When she first ventured to Africa in 1957, Goodall says, it had never occurred to her to work with chimpanzees. Rather, she had a far less specific and more romantic dream inspired by fictional characters from the books she had read as a child, notably Dr Dolittle and Tarzan. “I never wanted to be a scientist per se,” she says. “I wanted to be a naturalist.”

Goodall tells a story from her childhood that demonstrates how fixated she was by the Africa of her imagination. As a special treat, her mother, Vanne, had taken her to the cinema to see her first Tarzan film. When the curtains drew back to reveal Johnny Weissmuller in the starring role, however, the young Goodall burst into a fit of hysterical tears. In the quiet of the foyer, she composed herself and told her mother firmly: “That is not Tarzan.”

When she describes her earliest experiences of Africa, however, they don’t sound all that different from the jungles of her dreams. Not long after arriving in Kenya, Goodall captured the attention of Louis Leakey, the eminent palaeoanthropologist and curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi. Within hours of meeting, she had so impressed him with her knowledge of natural history that he had offered her a job. Within months, Leakey and his wife, Mary, set out on an expedition to Olduvai Gorge in what is now northern Tanzania, and Goodall went too. The place was teeming with wildlife.

“There were lions and rhinos and giraffes – I mean, everything was there,” she recalls with a flash of excitement. “I often think that’s one of the most magical times of my whole life.”

It was while scouring this ancient landscape for evidence of early humans and other hominids that Leakey first mentioned the idea of establishing a complementary study on wild chimpanzees to the west, at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. Three years later, in 1960, Goodall entered the reserve to begin her research.

There had only ever been one concerted attempt to study chimps in the wild – and that scientist “had a trail of 22 porters”, Goodall says with a hint of pride in her voice. For the first few months in Gombe, it was just her, her mother and a single hired assistant. “I wanted to be alone,” she says, “but I wasn’t allowed.”

Goodall pauses, revisiting that period in her mind. “I’ll never forget going along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, then looking up…”

Up there, in the densely forested valleys that funnel streams off steep hills to the water’s edge, were the chimpanzees she had come to study. With the assistance of a game warden who acted as escort, Goodall and her mother put up their ex-army tent. “If you wanted air to come in, you just rolled up the sides and tied them with tape,” she says. “Well, the air came in, but the spiders, scorpions and snakes came in as well.”

Although her mother was terrified – “You know I’m afraid of spiders!” – Goodall was apparently fearless, setting off up the slopes to explore her new home. “I sat up there and just couldn’t imagine I was there. It seemed absolutely unreal.”

The picture Goodall paints – a folding camp bed beside a palm tree in a forest clearing beneath a bright moon, the sound of baboons barking in the distance – could have come straight from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I wonder if the realisation of so fantastical a childhood dream has helped her stay connected to her youth – but again she sets me straight. Rather it is The Birches, the home near Bournemouth in which she grew up: when not travelling, this is where Goodall still returns, to “all my childhood books, the trees I climbed as a child, the cliffs where I walked… I am blessed in this way.”

During her first stint in the field, Goodall struggled to get close to the chimps. However, the individual she named David Greybeard proved a particular inspiration, showing her a side to chimpanzees nobody had ever documented before. In late October 1960, she watched David from a distance as he gnawed away at the freshly killed corpse of what was probably a baby bush pig – an observation that ran counter to the then-widespread assumption that chimps were strict vegetarians.

A few days later, Goodall witnessed David making and using a tool to feed on ants. I ask her to describe this moment in detail: “There was vegetation in the way and David had his back to me… so what I saw was the hand picking up the tool. I saw the movements. And I saw it was obvious he was eating…”

Once David had moved off, Goodall went to investigate and discovered long stalks of grass lying around. Picking a stalk up, she pushed it into one of the narrow entrance holes to the ant colony. The disturbance caused ants to emerge. The chimps, presumably, would then lick them off the grass. After subsequent, clearer sightings of this behaviour, Goodall went to Leakey with the discovery.

“I knew it was very important because I’d been around Leakey long enough,” she says. At that point, most people believed humans were the only species capable of making and using tools. In response to Goodall’s observations of David and others, Leakey famously declared: “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

I am suddenly aware that Goodall is watching me, back perfectly upright, hands in her lap. She keeps very still, her soft green eyes studying my face as she waits patiently for my next question. I feel a peculiar, strangely comforting empathy with David Greybeard and the other Gombe chimps.

§

Despite Leakey’s excitement over Goodall’s early findings, not everyone was ready to embrace them. In late 1961, she arrived in Cambridge, where Leakey had used his connections to enrol her for a doctorate – not something Goodall wanted to do. “I was only doing this thesis for Leakey’s sake. I’d never had an ambition to be a scientist and be part of academia.”

The patronising treatment Goodall received at the hands of her mainly male colleagues can hardly have endeared her to the academic lifestyle. She was criticised for giving her study-animals names and personalities. “I didn’t give them personalities, I merely described their personalities,” she counters. As for Goodall’s reported discovery that chimps used tools: “Some scientists actually said I must have taught them.” She laughs. “That would have been fabulous if I could have done that.”

I try to imagine receiving this kind of dismissive treatment, and suspect I would have been infuriated, then crushed. Not Goodall. She says she simply knew that she was right and her critics were wrong. I ask where this conviction came from and, as an explanation, she returns to her youth.

“My mother always taught us that if people don’t agree with you, the important thing is to listen to them. But if you’ve listened to them carefully and you still think that you’re right, then you must have the courage of your convictions.”

So when her Cambridge colleagues told her she couldn’t talk about chimps having personality, mind and emotion, she begged to differ – because of Rusty the black mongrel. “Rusty had taught me otherwise. If you spend time with animals, you’re not going to betray them by taking away something which is theirs.”

Rusty, I discover, was one of two dogs with whom Goodall became friendly in her early teens at The Birches. The other, Budleigh, was a beautiful long-haired collie belonging to the owner of the local sweetshop. “Collies are meant to be bright but he wasn’t,” Goodall says, recalling how Budleigh proved incapable of learning to shake hands.

One day, though, as Goodall continued her efforts to train “Buds”, Rusty the mongrel (watching at a distance) raised his paw. “From that moment I realised Rusty was brilliantly intelligent because, even though I wasn’t teaching him, he’d learned by observing my teaching of Buds.”

I am struck by what Goodall did next. The young teenager imagined herself inside Rusty’s mind, she says, in an effort to see the world from his perspective and relive the intellectual feat he’d just performed. There are not many children I know who’d do this, I suggest. She considers for a moment: “Probably not.”

If her Cambridge colleagues had been patronising, it was nothing compared to the treatment she received at a symposium on primates held at the Zoological Society of London in April 1962. “I gave my first scientific presentation and was terrified, says Goodall. “I practised for hours,” she says. “I was determined not to read and not to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. I have remained true to that ever since.”

After three days of talks, the meeting came to a close with a speech by Sir Solly Zuckerman, an anatomist who had studied monkeys in Africa, and gone on to become secretary of the Society and chief science adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Although Goodall had been well received, Zuckerman took the opportunity to fire a volley of pointed comments at the twentysomething newcomer.

“There are those who are here and who prefer anecdote – and what I must confess I regard as sometimes unbounded speculation,” he told his audience, as recounted in Dale Peterson’s biography of Goodall, The Woman Who Redefined Man. “In scientific work it is far safer to base one’s major conclusions and generalisations on a concordant and large body of data than on a few contradictory and isolated observations, the explanation of which sometimes leaves a little to be desired.”

At the mention of Zuckerman, Goodall’s features sharpen slightly, and the pace of her speech quickens. She dismisses his monkey work as “rubbish”. It is the only bad word she has to say about anyone, and even then she controls the emotion almost before it has appeared.

This was not Goodall’s first run-in with Zuckerman. At the end of 1961, there had been a press conference at London Zoo to announce her preliminary findings – and she had hatched a plan to use this public platform to call for an improvement in the conditions of the captive chimps at the zoo. “There was a bare cage with a cement floor,” she explains. During the summer months, the chimps had no shade: “It got boiling hot and there was only one platform, the other had broken, so the male got that and the female had to sit on the floor. It was horrible.”

Before the meeting, over dinner with the diplomat Malcolm MacDonald (who had visited her briefly in Gombe and would become Governor-General of Kenya in 1963), Goodall shared her intention to champion the welfare of the captive chimps: “I was really excited.”

But MacDonald, with his experience as a politician, could see a flaw. Speaking out on behalf of the chimps to a packed auditorium would be a direct criticism of Zuckerman’s leadership of the zoo. “Do you think he’s going to allow a little whipper-snapper who doesn’t even have a degree to tell him he’s in the wrong?” Goodall recalls MacDonald telling her. “You’ll make an enemy for life, and you don’t want an enemy like that.”

Instead, Goodall suggested several simple changes to the chimps’ enclosure that would improve their welfare, and MacDonald worked behind the scenes to see them implemented. “What I learned then is: don’t let people lose face, don’t try to do something publicly until you’ve tried every which way to do it quietly. I’ve found that so helpful to me,” she says, particularly in places like Africa and China.

Naturally, Zuckerman took the credit for the improvements to the chimps’ enclosure. “I don’t mind two hoots as long as it gets done,” Goodall says.

A capacity for seeing the bigger picture may go some way to explaining her success as an activist. She pinpoints her transformation to 1986, and a chimpanzee conference organised by the Chicago Academy of Sciences to coincide with the publication of The Chimpanzees of Gombe. By then, she’d spent more than 25 years in the field, completed her PhD, established the Gombe Stream Research Center, got married, raised a son and made further groundbreaking observations on chimpanzee society – including insights into chimp communication, sex, mother–infant bonding, inter-community warfare and cannibalism. But at the age of 52, she walked away from the field and turned to a life on the road. “How ridiculous, really, when you think about it,” she says. “What did I think I could do, trotting around Africa with an exhibit of old pictures blown up, and bits of rock and stick?”

Her initial focus – facilitated by the Jane Goodall Institute she’d established almost a decade earlier to support her chimp research at Gombe – was to draw attention to the plight of chimpanzees more generally. In the wild, habitat destruction, the bushmeat trade and animal trafficking all posed significant threats to the species’ future – and they still do. “It is horrendous.”

Even now, China is asking African governments for chimpanzees and gorillas for entertainment, Goodall tells me. “We feel our sanctuaries, which cost us so much money, aren’t safe any more.”

I find myself being sucked into a vortex of gloom, but Goodall is always ready to offer a reason for hope – a word that crops up time and again in the titles of her many books. One reason is what she calls “the resilience of nature”; by way of illustration, she tells me about land reforms in Tanzania in the 1970s that resulted in widespread deforestation around the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve.

“When I looked down,” she recalls of one visit, “it was so totally shocking to see our little oasis of Gombe… It looked like a dust bowl: completely bare hills, overfarmed, more people living there than the land could support.”

Today, however, as a result of the Lake Tanganyika Catchment, Reforestation and Education Project, which her Institute began in 1994, the Gombe chimps now have “three to four times more forest than they had ten years ago. It’s regenerated so quickly. So we have 30-foot-high trees.” I feel better already.

More than half a century since she first engineered improvements to the conditions of the chimpanzees at London Zoo, Goodall is still fighting hard on behalf of captive chimps too. In the 1980s, she raised ethical concerns about their use in xenotransplanation, which led the medical community to steer away from this practice. More recently, she has worked with Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US, to phase out their use of captive chimpanzees in medical research; she is delighted the US Senate voted to increase the budget available for retirement of these chimps. “We are beginning to win,” she says.

I ask Goodall if she is in favour of a blanket ban on the use of chimpanzees in medical research. “I can’t quite say that. But what I can say is that, ethically and morally, I feel it’s wrong to use them, and it’s absolutely wrong to put them in five-foot by five-foot cages.”

Goodall puts chimps at the forefront of the wider debate about the use of experimental animals. “At one time, the scientists said we’ll always need animals for this – and now we don’t,” she says. “If science really puts its mind to getting alternatives… once they do, they’re cheaper and usually safer.”

§

With our time almost up, I realise I haven’t asked after Mr H, the toy monkey who famously travels with her from one venue to the next. Somehow Goodall the activist doesn’t seem complete without him, and I wonder if he might join us.

Mr H stands for Mr Gary Haun, a US marine who lost his eyesight in a helicopter crash at the age of 21, then went on to became a professional magician, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba, sky-dive, and much else besides. “He thought he was giving me a stuffed chimp for my birthday,” Goodall recalls – but the soft toy has a tail, so is clearly a monkey. “Gary,” she told him, as she guided his hand towards the evidence of his mistake, “I know you can’t see it… but you have no excuse.”

For the last 20 years, Goodall has kept Mr H close as a reminder of another of her reasons for hope: “The indomitable human spirit… He’s been to at least 60 countries with me, he’s been touched by at least four million people. I say that when you touch him, the inspiration rubs off.”

Goodall invites me to touch Mr H – but instead of inspiration, I have a sudden, parental panic that he might one day go missing. “I’ve nearly lost him several times but that’s the original,” she says, stroking him gently. Once, she left him on the top of a telephone kiosk in an airport and had boarded her plane before she realised. “I’ll have to get off the plane,” she explained to the attendant, adding: “You’ll have to bolt me in to keep me because I’ve left my most precious object outside.”

Still clutching Mr H, Goodall reaches into her bag and another soft toy peeps out. “This is Cow” – a gift handed to her during a recent visit to the dairyland state of Wisconsin. “I was going to give Cow to the next deserving child,” she explains, but instead she has turned her into “a spokesperson” for abused farm animals. She looks at the toy and then talks about it as if she’s giving it praise. “Cow has worked really hard – she has created I don’t know how many vegetarians, even in places like Argentina where they live on meat.”

I am reminded of something I’ve read: how Goodall, as a child, loved to arrange tea parties for her soft toys. I wonder if there are others who would like to join us – but it turns out that Jubilee, her childhood chimpanzee, is in Germany, being fitted for a jumpsuit to hold his failing stitching in place.

Goodall herself is flying to Germany in a few hours. “I’m going to Düsseldorf, then Vienna, then back to Munich… It still amazes me. Children write to me and say, ‘You taught me, you did it, I can do it too.’ So this is why I have to go on going around. Because it’s making a difference.”

When not on the move, she concentrates on her writing. In her latest book, Seeds of Hope, she and journalist Gail Hudson champion plants. But the first edition, published last year, was troubled by allegations of plagiarism, with the Washington Post identifying “at least a dozen passages borrowed without attribution, or footnotes, from a variety of websites”.

Goodall accounts for these lapses by citing her hectic work schedule and her chaotic method of note-taking: “I am not methodical enough, I guess,” she says. “In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there’s no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the internet.”

I ask if there was any naivety on her part. “Yes, there must be… I have learned. In the future, I shall be more organised even if I don’t have time,” she says. “I shall certainly make sure I know who said something or what I read or where I read it.” Goodall, though, is adamant that she did not intentionally try to pass off anyone else’s words as her own. “I don’t think anybody who knows me would accuse me of deliberate plagiarism.”

In a revised edition of Seeds of Hope, to be published this month, Goodall and Hudson have made minor changes to the text to address their critics and added a lengthy notes section. “I don’t think a book has ever been more researched than this one. The notes at the end are about as long as the book.”

I ask if she’s concerned that attention will focus on what she’s changed, rather than on the subject matter. “Looking back, it has been a godsend,” she says. “I am really happy for the sake of the plants that we’ve got it right now. I feel this is a book we can really be proud of now.”

And then she adds, “Honestly, Henry, who is going to deliberately go out to give me a bad time?” We both know it will probably happen.

Before I go, Goodall wants to show me some drawings she made as a child. They are reproduced in Me… Jane, a children’s book by Patrick McDonnell. She finds a copy amid piles of books by or about her, and flips to the relevant page. There, across a double spread, are several meticulous sketches of animals. The wing of a pterodactyl above the wing of an eagle; profiles of a cat, horse, crocodile, dog, chimpanzee and human – all to scale with their brains neatly coloured in pink pencil. “They are not very good,” she says.

I have spent the last two hours in the polite, inspiring company of a woman precisely twice my age. But as she shows me her drawings, I get the feeling I am talking to the 12-year-old Goodall. Finally, when I hold out my hand for her to shake, she spurns it and offers me something far more rewarding: a chimpanzee embrace. Her delicate arms envelop me, slowly, widely, deliberately. There is something categorically different about this hug; something that will stay with me for ever.

“Chimpanzees don’t say goodbye,” she says. I walk to the door, trying to fathom what to make of this. I turn and call out another farewell, but Goodall doesn’t reply. She has turned away from me and doesn’t look back.

In February 1935, the year of King George V’s silver jubilee, a chimpanzee at London Zoo called Boo-Boo gave birth to a baby daughter. A couple of months later, a little blonde-haired girl was given a soft-toy replica of the zoo’s new arrival to mark her first birthday. This was Jane Goodall’s first recorded encounter with a chimp.

Goodall turns 80 this week. In the intervening years, her research on a community of chimpanzees in Tanzania revolutionised our understanding of these primates, our closest living relatives, and challenged deepset ideas of what it means to be human. She then packed in her fieldwork to become an activist, campaigning tirelessly for a more enlightened attitude towards animals and the environment. Along the way she has received nearly 50 honorary degrees, and became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002 and Dame Jane in 2004.

Though I have only crossed London to meet her, I am struck by the sudden feeling that I have reached the end of some epic, Henry Stanley-like quest… “Dr Goodall?” As I reach out to shake a slender hand, the words “I presume” pop into my head. I suppress them.

I follow her into the front room and she politely offers me tea or coffee. There is a sofa beneath the bay window and next to it – as if only just put aside – a large book. I pick up The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of behavior, Goodall’s magnum opus published in 1986. I flip through its characterful portraits of the Gombe chimps, many of them – like David Greybeard – now household names.

Goodall sits down neatly on the sofa with her back to the bright sun. This is a brief pause in her whirlwind travel schedule of more than 300 days a year, but she displays few signs of weariness – worldly or otherwise. She has just been going through proofs of her updated book Seeds of Hope, the first edition of which was troubled by allegations of plagiarism. I don’t want to broach the subject so early in the interview, so I ask instead about her childhood, which I sense is of great importance to understanding Goodall.

§

Having seen a photograph of that doting little girl clutching Jubilee, her somewhat scruffy birthday chimp, I love the idea that this fluffy character influenced what Goodall would go on to achieve. On this, however, she sets me straight. When she first ventured to Africa in 1957, Goodall says, it had never occurred to her to work with chimpanzees. Rather, she had a far less specific and more romantic dream inspired by fictional characters from the books she had read as a child, notably Dr Dolittle and Tarzan. “I never wanted to be a scientist per se,” she says. “I wanted to be a naturalist.”

Goodall tells a story from her childhood that demonstrates how fixated she was by the Africa of her imagination. As a special treat, her mother, Vanne, had taken her to the cinema to see her first Tarzan film. When the curtains drew back to reveal Johnny Weissmuller in the starring role, however, the young Goodall burst into a fit of hysterical tears. In the quiet of the foyer, she composed herself and told her mother firmly: “That is not Tarzan.”

When she describes her earliest experiences of Africa, however, they don’t sound all that different from the jungles of her dreams. Not long after arriving in Kenya, Goodall captured the attention of Louis Leakey, the eminent palaeoanthropologist and curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi. Within hours of meeting, she had so impressed him with her knowledge of natural history that he had offered her a job. Within months, Leakey and his wife, Mary, set out on an expedition to Olduvai Gorge in what is now northern Tanzania, and Goodall went too. The place was teeming with wildlife.

“There were lions and rhinos and giraffes – I mean, everything was there,” she recalls with a flash of excitement. “I often think that’s one of the most magical times of my whole life.”

It was while scouring this ancient landscape for evidence of early humans and other hominids that Leakey first mentioned the idea of establishing a complementary study on wild chimpanzees to the west, at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. Three years later, in 1960, Goodall entered the reserve to begin her research.

There had only ever been one concerted attempt to study chimps in the wild – and that scientist “had a trail of 22 porters”, Goodall says with a hint of pride in her voice. For the first few months in Gombe, it was just her, her mother and a single hired assistant. “I wanted to be alone,” she says, “but I wasn’t allowed.”
Audio titled jane-goodall-arrival-in-gombe

Goodall pauses, revisiting that period in her mind. “I’ll never forget going along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, then looking up…”

Up there, in the densely forested valleys that funnel streams off steep hills to the water’s edge, were the chimpanzees she had come to study. With the assistance of a game warden who acted as escort, Goodall and her mother put up their ex-army tent. “If you wanted air to come in, you just rolled up the sides and tied them with tape,” she says. “Well, the air came in, but the spiders, scorpions and snakes came in as well.”

Although her mother was terrified – “You know I’m afraid of spiders!” – Goodall was apparently fearless, setting off up the slopes to explore her new home. “I sat up there and just couldn’t imagine I was there. It seemed absolutely unreal.”

The picture Goodall paints – a folding camp bed beside a palm tree in a forest clearing beneath a bright moon, the sound of baboons barking in the distance – could have come straight from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I wonder if the realisation of so fantastical a childhood dream has helped her stay connected to her youth – but again she sets me straight. Rather it is The Birches, the home near Bournemouth in which she grew up: when not travelling, this is where Goodall still returns, to “all my childhood books, the trees I climbed as a child, the cliffs where I walked… I am blessed in this way.”

During her first stint in the field, Goodall struggled to get close to the chimps. However, the individual she named David Greybeard proved a particular inspiration, showing her a side to chimpanzees nobody had ever documented before. In late October 1960, she watched David from a distance as he gnawed away at the freshly killed corpse of what was probably a baby bush pig – an observation that ran counter to the then-widespread assumption that chimps were strict vegetarians.

A few days later, Goodall witnessed David making and using a tool to feed on ants. I ask her to describe this moment in detail: “There was vegetation in the way and David had his back to me… so what I saw was the hand picking up the tool. I saw the movements. And I saw it was obvious he was eating…”
Audio titled jane-goodall-chimpanzee-tools

Once David had moved off, Goodall went to investigate and discovered long stalks of grass lying around. Picking a stalk up, she pushed it into one of the narrow entrance holes to the ant colony. The disturbance caused ants to emerge. The chimps, presumably, would then lick them off the grass. After subsequent, clearer sightings of this behaviour, Goodall went to Leakey with the discovery.

“I knew it was very important because I’d been around Leakey long enough,” she says. At that point, most people believed humans were the only species capable of making and using tools. In response to Goodall’s observations of David and others, Leakey famously declared: “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine ‘man’, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

I am suddenly aware that Goodall is watching me, back perfectly upright, hands in her lap. She keeps very still, her soft green eyes studying my face as she waits patiently for my next question. I feel a peculiar, strangely comforting empathy with David Greybeard and the other Gombe chimps.

§

Despite Leakey’s excitement over Goodall’s early findings, not everyone was ready to embrace them. In late 1961, she arrived in Cambridge, where Leakey had used his connections to enrol her for a doctorate – not something Goodall wanted to do. “I was only doing this thesis for Leakey’s sake. I’d never had an ambition to be a scientist and be part of academia.”

The patronising treatment Goodall received at the hands of her mainly male colleagues can hardly have endeared her to the academic lifestyle. She was criticised for giving her study-animals names and personalities. “I didn’t give them personalities, I merely described their personalities,” she counters. As for Goodall’s reported discovery that chimps used tools: “Some scientists actually said I must have taught them.” She laughs. “That would have been fabulous if I could have done that.”

I try to imagine receiving this kind of dismissive treatment, and suspect I would have been infuriated, then crushed. Not Goodall. She says she simply knew that she was right and her critics were wrong. I ask where this conviction came from and, as an explanation, she returns to her youth.

“My mother always taught us that if people don’t agree with you, the important thing is to listen to them. But if you’ve listened to them carefully and you still think that you’re right, then you must have the courage of your convictions.”

So when her Cambridge colleagues told her she couldn’t talk about chimps having personality, mind and emotion, she begged to differ – because of Rusty the black mongrel. “Rusty had taught me otherwise. If you spend time with animals, you’re not going to betray them by taking away something which is theirs.”

Rusty, I discover, was one of two dogs with whom Goodall became friendly in her early teens at The Birches. The other, Budleigh, was a beautiful long-haired collie belonging to the owner of the local sweetshop. “Collies are meant to be bright but he wasn’t,” Goodall says, recalling how Budleigh proved incapable of learning to shake hands.

One day, though, as Goodall continued her efforts to train “Buds”, Rusty the mongrel (watching at a distance) raised his paw. “From that moment I realised Rusty was brilliantly intelligent because, even though I wasn’t teaching him, he’d learned by observing my teaching of Buds.”

I am struck by what Goodall did next. The young teenager imagined herself inside Rusty’s mind, she says, in an effort to see the world from his perspective and relive the intellectual feat he’d just performed. There are not many children I know who’d do this, I suggest. She considers for a moment: “Probably not.”

If her Cambridge colleagues had been patronising, it was nothing compared to the treatment she received at a symposium on primates held at the Zoological Society of London in April 1962. “I gave my first scientific presentation and was terrified, says Goodall. “I practised for hours,” she says. “I was determined not to read and not to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. I have remained true to that ever since.”

After three days of talks, the meeting came to a close with a speech by Sir Solly Zuckerman, an anatomist who had studied monkeys in Africa, and gone on to become secretary of the Society and chief science adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Although Goodall had been well received, Zuckerman took the opportunity to fire a volley of pointed comments at the twentysomething newcomer.

“There are those who are here and who prefer anecdote – and what I must confess I regard as sometimes unbounded speculation,” he told his audience, as recounted in Dale Peterson’s biography of Goodall, The Woman Who Redefined Man. “In scientific work it is far safer to base one’s major conclusions and generalisations on a concordant and large body of data than on a few contradictory and isolated observations, the explanation of which sometimes leaves a little to be desired.”

At the mention of Zuckerman, Goodall’s features sharpen slightly, and the pace of her speech quickens. She dismisses his monkey work as “rubbish”. It is the only bad word she has to say about anyone, and even then she controls the emotion almost before it has appeared.

This was not Goodall’s first run-in with Zuckerman. At the end of 1961, there had been a press conference at London Zoo to announce her preliminary findings – and she had hatched a plan to use this public platform to call for an improvement in the conditions of the captive chimps at the zoo. “There was a bare cage with a cement floor,” she explains. During the summer months, the chimps had no shade: “It got boiling hot and there was only one platform, the other had broken, so the male got that and the female had to sit on the floor. It was horrible.”

Before the meeting, over dinner with the diplomat Malcolm MacDonald (who had visited her briefly in Gombe and would become Governor-General of Kenya in 1963), Goodall shared her intention to champion the welfare of the captive chimps: “I was really excited.”

But MacDonald, with his experience as a politician, could see a flaw. Speaking out on behalf of the chimps to a packed auditorium would be a direct criticism of Zuckerman’s leadership of the zoo. “Do you think he’s going to allow a little whipper-snapper who doesn’t even have a degree to tell him he’s in the wrong?” Goodall recalls MacDonald telling her. “You’ll make an enemy for life, and you don’t want an enemy like that.”

Instead, Goodall suggested several simple changes to the chimps’ enclosure that would improve their welfare, and MacDonald worked behind the scenes to see them implemented. “What I learned then is: don’t let people lose face, don’t try to do something publicly until you’ve tried every which way to do it quietly. I’ve found that so helpful to me,” she says, particularly in places like Africa and China.

Naturally, Zuckerman took the credit for the improvements to the chimps’ enclosure. “I don’t mind two hoots as long as it gets done,” Goodall says.

Jane Goodall studies an African baboon, 1974.

© Fotos International/Getty Images

A capacity for seeing the bigger picture may go some way to explaining her success as an activist. She pinpoints her transformation to 1986, and a chimpanzee conference organised by the Chicago Academy of Sciences to coincide with the publication of The Chimpanzees of Gombe. By then, she’d spent more than 25 years in the field, completed her PhD, established the Gombe Stream Research Center, got married, raised a son and made further groundbreaking observations on chimpanzee society – including insights into chimp communication, sex, mother–infant bonding, inter-community warfare and cannibalism. But at the age of 52, she walked away from the field and turned to a life on the road. “How ridiculous, really, when you think about it,” she says. “What did I think I could do, trotting around Africa with an exhibit of old pictures blown up, and bits of rock and stick?”

Her initial focus – facilitated by the Jane Goodall Institute she’d established almost a decade earlier to support her chimp research at Gombe – was to draw attention to the plight of chimpanzees more generally. In the wild, habitat destruction, the bushmeat trade and animal trafficking all posed significant threats to the species’ future – and they still do. “It is horrendous.”

Even now, China is asking African governments for chimpanzees and gorillas for entertainment, Goodall tells me. “We feel our sanctuaries, which cost us so much money, aren’t safe any more.”

I find myself being sucked into a vortex of gloom, but Goodall is always ready to offer a reason for hope – a word that crops up time and again in the titles of her many books. One reason is what she calls “the resilience of nature”; by way of illustration, she tells me about land reforms in Tanzania in the 1970s that resulted in widespread deforestation around the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve.

“When I looked down,” she recalls of one visit, “it was so totally shocking to see our little oasis of Gombe… It looked like a dust bowl: completely bare hills, overfarmed, more people living there than the land could support.”

Today, however, as a result of the Lake Tanganyika Catchment, Reforestation and Education Project, which her Institute began in 1994, the Gombe chimps now have “three to four times more forest than they had ten years ago. It’s regenerated so quickly. So we have 30-foot-high trees.” I feel better already.

More than half a century since she first engineered improvements to the conditions of the chimpanzees at London Zoo, Goodall is still fighting hard on behalf of captive chimps too. In the 1980s, she raised ethical concerns about their use in xenotransplanation, which led the medical community to steer away from this practice. More recently, she has worked with Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US, to phase out their use of captive chimpanzees in medical research; she is delighted the US Senate voted to increase the budget available for retirement of these chimps. “We are beginning to win,” she says.

I ask Goodall if she is in favour of a blanket ban on the use of chimpanzees in medical research. “I can’t quite say that. But what I can say is that, ethically and morally, I feel it’s wrong to use them, and it’s absolutely wrong to put them in five-foot by five-foot cages.”

Goodall puts chimps at the forefront of the wider debate about the use of experimental animals. “At one time, the scientists said we’ll always need animals for this – and now we don’t,” she says. “If science really puts its mind to getting alternatives… once they do, they’re cheaper and usually safer.”

§

With our time almost up, I realise I haven’t asked after Mr H, the toy monkey who famously travels with her from one venue to the next. Somehow Goodall the activist doesn’t seem complete without him, and I wonder if he might join us.

Mr H stands for Mr Gary Haun, a US marine who lost his eyesight in a helicopter crash at the age of 21, then went on to became a professional magician, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba, sky-dive, and much else besides. “He thought he was giving me a stuffed chimp for my birthday,” Goodall recalls – but the soft toy has a tail, so is clearly a monkey. “Gary,” she told him, as she guided his hand towards the evidence of his mistake, “I know you can’t see it… but you have no excuse.”

For the last 20 years, Goodall has kept Mr H close as a reminder of another of her reasons for hope: “The indomitable human spirit… He’s been to at least 60 countries with me, he’s been touched by at least four million people. I say that when you touch him, the inspiration rubs off.”

Goodall invites me to touch Mr H – but instead of inspiration, I have a sudden, parental panic that he might one day go missing. “I’ve nearly lost him several times but that’s the original,” she says, stroking him gently. Once, she left him on the top of a telephone kiosk in an airport and had boarded her plane before she realised. “I’ll have to get off the plane,” she explained to the attendant, adding: “You’ll have to bolt me in to keep me because I’ve left my most precious object outside.”

Still clutching Mr H, Goodall reaches into her bag and another soft toy peeps out. “This is Cow” – a gift handed to her during a recent visit to the dairyland state of Wisconsin. “I was going to give Cow to the next deserving child,” she explains, but instead she has turned her into “a spokesperson” for abused farm animals. She looks at the toy and then talks about it as if she’s giving it praise. “Cow has worked really hard – she has created I don’t know how many vegetarians, even in places like Argentina where they live on meat.”

I am reminded of something I’ve read: how Goodall, as a child, loved to arrange tea parties for her soft toys. I wonder if there are others who would like to join us – but it turns out that Jubilee, her childhood chimpanzee, is in Germany, being fitted for a jumpsuit to hold his failing stitching in place.

Goodall herself is flying to Germany in a few hours. “I’m going to Düsseldorf, then Vienna, then back to Munich… It still amazes me. Children write to me and say, ‘You taught me, you did it, I can do it too.’ So this is why I have to go on going around. Because it’s making a difference.”

When not on the move, she concentrates on her writing. In her latest book, Seeds of Hope, she and journalist Gail Hudson champion plants. But the first edition, published last year, was troubled by allegations of plagiarism, with the Washington Post identifying “at least a dozen passages borrowed without attribution, or footnotes, from a variety of websites”.

Goodall accounts for these lapses by citing her hectic work schedule and her chaotic method of note-taking: “I am not methodical enough, I guess,” she says. “In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there’s no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the internet.”

I ask if there was any naivety on her part. “Yes, there must be… I have learned. In the future, I shall be more organised even if I don’t have time,” she says. “I shall certainly make sure I know who said something or what I read or where I read it.” Goodall, though, is adamant that she did not intentionally try to pass off anyone else’s words as her own. “I don’t think anybody who knows me would accuse me of deliberate plagiarism.”

In a revised edition of Seeds of Hope, to be published this month, Goodall and Hudson have made minor changes to the text to address their critics and added a lengthy notes section. “I don’t think a book has ever been more researched than this one. The notes at the end are about as long as the book.”

I ask if she’s concerned that attention will focus on what she’s changed, rather than on the subject matter. “Looking back, it has been a godsend,” she says. “I am really happy for the sake of the plants that we’ve got it right now. I feel this is a book we can really be proud of now.”

And then she adds, “Honestly, Henry, who is going to deliberately go out to give me a bad time?” We both know it will probably happen.

Before I go, Goodall wants to show me some drawings she made as a child. They are reproduced in Me… Jane, a children’s book by Patrick McDonnell. She finds a copy amid piles of books by or about her, and flips to the relevant page. There, across a double spread, are several meticulous sketches of animals. The wing of a pterodactyl above the wing of an eagle; profiles of a cat, horse, crocodile, dog, chimpanzee and human – all to scale with their brains neatly coloured in pink pencil. “They are not very good,” she says.

I have spent the last two hours in the polite, inspiring company of a woman precisely twice my age. But as she shows me her drawings, I get the feeling I am talking to the 12-year-old Goodall. Finally, when I hold out my hand for her to shake, she spurns it and offers me something far more rewarding: a chimpanzee embrace. Her delicate arms envelop me, slowly, widely, deliberately. There is something categorically different about this hug; something that will stay with me for ever.

“Chimpanzees don’t say goodbye,” she says. I walk to the door, trying to fathom what to make of this. I turn and call out another farewell, but Goodall doesn’t reply. She has turned away from me and doesn’t look back.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Mouse Mazes and Cutting Edge Science: A Discussion with Harvard’s Shuhan He

Shuhan He is a Resident Physician at Harvard Emergency Medicine. He’s a neuroscientist interested in neurocritical care and improving neurobehavioral testing in laboratory animals and humans. He also believes mouse mazes can be a key part of that. We sat down with him (through the wonders of the internet) and asked him a few questions about this challenging field.

Andrei Mihai, ZME Science: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I was curious what drew you to this intricate field of research? How did you start working with mice, and subsequently, with mazes?

Shuhan He.

Shuhan He: One of the things that pushed me into this field has been the lack of an effective set of tools to carry out more comprehensive experiments in the lab. While working in the lab, it became evident there wasn’t a way to gather big amounts of data from the research and repeat the experiments based on this evidence. Most lab equipment companies are still failing to provide the devices needed for this, which is why it was a good time to step forward.

AM: As in all fields of science, replicability is vital. How much of an issue is this with mouse studies in general, and with mazes in particular? 

SH: It’s not much of an issue as long as all the conditions are met and repeated in the same manner every time. Even though there are small factors that could influence the experiments such as the ambient light or the fragrance you are wearing, all of these should be noted with anticipation.

Most mice experiments can be repeated and it’s even easier when you have automated devices that can do most of the job for you and decrease the differences between the studies to a minimum.

AM: We often read about mouse studies, but we rarely get a chance to see how they actually take place. Could you describe how such a study would take place, what are the stages, and how long does it take? Is there a great variability between different types of studies?

SH: Let’s take the Morris Water Maze task as an example [a behavioral procedure widely used in behavioral neuroscience]. This experiment is carried out with the objective of measuring mice’s memory and learning capabilities.

Schematic drawing of the Morris water navigation test for rats. Image credits: Samuel John.

First, the water pool needs to be prepared. There’s a platform at the center of this pool which the rodent should reach each time it is put to test. The test basically consists in placing the mice inside the pool and teaching it to reach this safe platform instead of trying to escape the water pool.

We eventually change the position of this platform for each trial once the subject learns the route to safety, and then we measure how long does the rat take to reach the target in addition to tracking its movements. The result of this particular test lets us know how fast the rat can learn a task and it’s also a good indicator of their ability to recall past experiences. The successful application of the morris water maze is what led researchers to this fantastic claim that they could engineer smarter mice.

As for the different types of studies, there are different devices and mazes depending on the case. For example, the previously mentioned Morris Water Maze is usually used for memory and learning tests and then there is also the Automated 8 Arm Radial Maze that helps a similar purpose, with the difference that the latter is more focused on short-term memory. Another example would be the Treadmill, which can be used for resilience tests and sleep deprivation studies but it’s important to mention that many of these devices can be combined with others to create new trial environments.

AM: What’s the process you go through when designing a maze? Are there basic principles, do you make different types of mazes for different types of studies? Can you show us some of your coolest projects? 

SH: We have a different purpose in mind each time we design a maze or any other research device. Some of them are old mazes that we brought back to life by adding new technologies, features and quality components that were not previously found in the market, a good example of this would be the Automated T Maze or the MWM (Morris Water Maze).

If there’s anything that all of these devices have in common is that they are created with the highest quality pieces but not a single one of them is the same as the other. 

Our latest creation is the Labyrinth. This device acts as a housing system for rodents that is completely automated and can be customized for different purpose, it also includes the latest technologies available and we are very proud to present it. Other mazes worth mentioning here are the Automated 8 Arm Radial Maze and the Automated T Maze.

Here is a demonstration of the Automated 8 Arm Radial Maze in action:

 

AM: How has the development of neuropsychiatric drugs changed in recent years, with the development of so many new technologies (i.e. 3D printing, more powerful computing)? How do you see the field evolving in the next few years? 

SH:This is a really exciting time for behavioral neuroscience. Modern computational tools are making it possible to take complex data sets of behavior and tease out subtle findings of intelligence, learning, motor function and even social dynamics patterns. This would have never been possible before with manual interventions.
The biggest advantage of behavioral work in rodents is that we can fully control their environment. Closed arenas where the machines take live data and control the experiments are definitely the future. We can even see the brain firing as it functions right now, so imagine taking that data live and having the machine modify the environment to try entirely new categories of experiments. That’s the exciting future in front of us.

AM: Lastly, what motivated you to start Maze Engineers? Where do you see this going in the future, and what is the role you hope to play? 

SH: Maze Engineers has been created because mazes are an underappreciated technology. Behavior is fundamentally a combination of all of the components, and they can’t be broken down into something more basic. Mazes are the only thing that can really tell us how the brain as a whole is functioning.

We have a bright future ahead, especially with the inevitable advancement and application of artificial intelligence in the automation of processes and in making complex analysis much faster than any team of scientists could ever do manually. I am certain AI is going to play a huge role in the scientific field for the upcoming times and we hope to be at the forefront of this thrilling period.

 

Snakes and other beasts: A “How-to” chat with wildlife photographer Marius Iancu

You never know how long a chat with Marius is going to take. Now you’re talking about photographing animals, and three hours later you’re discussing politics and protests. But no matter what he’s going on about, one thing’s for sure: passion flows through his every word.

Nikolsky’s adder. All image credits: Marius Iancu.

A geologist by training, Marius never gave up on photography, and it’s a good thing he didn’t. He’s managed to shoot some of Europe’s most beautiful herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) as well as the occasional bird. We’ve convinced him to share some of his tips and tells us what it’s like to look a snake in the eyes.

Andrei ZME: Hey Marius, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. You’ve been photographing things for many years but I’m curious, how did you get started with wildlife photography?

Marius: This was my original interest. When I was still in highschool, I used to roam around the city and take photos of everything I could see: ducks, lizards, everything. Now, after 8-9 years I’ve gone through several styles and focuses — including villages, natural landscapes, portraits. I didn’t think about it too much. Then, one day in 2016, I was going outside Bucharest to photograph the sunset. Along the way, I saw pheasants, little owls, rabbits, all sorts of animals. Next day I woke up, I was thinking about seeing more and more wildlife. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The sunset Marius was referring to.

A: Do you find many subjects in cities?

M: When I started out, I didn’t really see that much. But when I paid more attention to it, there it was. You know, in cities you can find all sorts of wildlife — amphibians, birds, even very rare birds. I’d say photography opened my eyes, I was just passing by all this wildlife and didn’t even realize how cool it was.

Oh, and it all changed when I got in contact with a scientist, Vlad Cioflec [a herpetologist from Bucharest, website not in English]. He started to explain some things about biodiversity to me, he told me about some neat places where you can find lizards and birds, and of course — snakes. After finding a few common snakes I really got hooked. I just love finding and photographing snakes.

The Caspius whipsnake – Dolichophis caspius.

Bufo bufo – the common toad.

A: Tell me more about your love of snakes. It’s certainly not a common thing, what drew you to them?

M: Uhm, that’s pretty hard to say. I don’t know, it’s just what I like. I’ve always liked snakes, they’ve fascinated me ever since I was a child. I was quite afraid back them, but the more I learn about them, the more I cherish them. Learning is an important part of photographing.

Also, I enjoy the fact that you’re much closer to them than birds or mammals. It can be very nice to wait for that good bird photo, but I enjoy the closeness you have with snakes.

A: So you’re not afraid anymore? Isn’t it a bit dangerous to get so close to snakes? [Note: in his reply, he is specifically referring to European snakes]

Vipera berus.

M: I’m really not afraid because generally, snakes are not aggressive. They’re only aggressive when they feel threatened. You know, they never jump on you, on the contrary. They feel vibrations with their lower jaw, they send the signal to their internal ear, and they just back away if they sense you coming. I try not to scare them, but I always have protection equipment as well. I also have backup plan if something goes wrong, there’s a procedure I follow.

The man behind the camera.

A: What’s the procedure? [Again, note that this might vary for different parts of the world. His answer focuses on Europe]

M: If a potentially venomous snake would bite me, I’d just call 112 [the emergency number]. There are all sorts of myths around, but the reality is you shouldn’t be nervous, you should try to stay calm. Don’t try to suck the venom, don’t do a tourniquet, don’t take any medication or alcohol. Just call the emergency number and they’ll advise you and come to pick you up.

The landscapes are diverse, and sometimes — wild.

A: OK, let’s go with the ‘we don’t get bitten’ plan for now. How difficult is it to find the snakes you’re looking for?

M: Honestly, I’ve had more than 20 trips for a snake. Sometimes it’s really easy, sometimes it’s very difficult. There’s also some luck involved, I’ve found snakes 10 minutes after stopping the car, and I mean rare snakes I wasn’t even hoping to find. Then other times, you’ll find them right away. You have to know what you’re looking for, you have to be perseverant, but luck is also a factor.

A: So when you’ll go on an expedition, do you have a specific goal in mind?

M: Yes, I always have a goal in mind. I do my homework, I read about the habitat, the species I’m looking for, and I seek advice from biologists. I also look at the weather, which is very important. It’s good to be there very early in the morning. The snakes go out to draw heat from the first sun rays, but they often retreat when it gets too hot. You know, I always try to think like a snake. Where could I enjoy the sun the most, without being too visible for my predators? So I look for places in the sun, but not too exposed.

The blotched snake is one of Marius’ proudest finds.

A: What’s your proudest adventure?

M: Oh that’s hard to say… I’ve had a few very nice ones, and all of them with snakes. The most special moment was when I found the Blotched snake. It’s a nonvenomous snake I came across last year. It was the third time I was looking for it and I wasn’t expecting to find it there, I was just passing by. I found one behind a limestone, and I was extremely nervous. I stuttered for a few good seconds, trying to tell someone I found it.

There’s also the time I found the Vipera nikolskii, a venomous snake endemic to Eastern Europe. I was looking for it for a long time, I’ve had over 20 expeditions before I found it. I lost my car keys, I found a wild boar, it was quite an adventure.

A: So, is it something that anyone can do? I think most photographers aren’t really interested in wildlife, is it because it’s so difficult or is there some other reason?

M: I think most photographers feel that animals are boring, mundane — not real art. They’d say that running after animals is not art. I don’t know how hard it is per se, I think for people who love nature and love being in nature, it’s not so difficult. If you love the comfort and easy life, you’re not going to be chasing after snakes. If you love nature, it’s rough in the beginning but it grows on you very fast.

It’s also much easier to get started today than it was some years ago. When I was 18, I was looking for long-eared owls. I had no idea where to find them, I’d just read that they sometimes spend winters in parks. So I was just spending winter days walking around the parks, looking for long-eared owls. It took me two years to find them! Now, there’s all sorts of birding and herping [herpetology] forums and websites, there’s people sharing and recommending locations… access to this kind of information has increased dramatically.

A: What do you need to get started, as an amateur?

M: Not too much. When you’re doing it as a hobby, you can make use with a basic photography kit. I have a friend with a pretty cheap camera and lens, he does a great job. Of course, photography is usually not cheap, and equipment matters a lot. It can get expensive, but I’d advise people to start with cheaper cameras, and if you want to invest, go for the lenses. You can make do with an older camera if you have a good lens.

The long eared owl can sometimes be found in urban parks.

A: Lastly, I want to talk about biodiversity promotion and conservation. Photographers play a key role here, everyone loves the National Geographic photos, everyone loves to put an image on a species or a habitat. How do you see the role of photographers in this case?

M: It’s all about how you present things. If you make it about yourself and you don’t focus on the animals, you’re not helping anyone. It’s important to tell people how things really are, which is often different from what people think. It’s important to tell them that animals are generally pretty calm and not violent.

I’ve seen, in my experience, that photographers can make a big difference, even amateur photographers. Without even trying to do this, I’ve changed the views of the people around me and made them cherish biodiversity. I never told anyone ‘Hey snakes aren’t so bad’ or ‘Owls are cute, they’re not a bad omen’ [a Romanian folk superstition] but I see that the people around me have been very curious. They wanted to learn more and more, and they too became fond of animals. So now I’ve got 20-30 people in my group of friends who have become animal lovers. Even my sister now loves joining me on photography trips, and she loves seeing animals. It’s all about perspective and how you present your work. The power of personal example also matters a lot.

Cyrtopodion kotschyi.

A: Brilliant! Any closing words?

M: Yes, you can probably find a lot of biodiversity in your city or village. There’s this lake in my home town which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods — yet you can find numerous birds and reptiles there, even a few harmless snakes. Every once in a while I visit it to see what’s lurking around, and you can probably find places like this near you. It’s a lot of fun!

You can likely find a lot of wildlife in your own town! The European shag — Phalacrocorax aristotelis.

All image credits: Marius Iancu.

Credit: Frank Glaw.

Interview with Mark Scherz, the discoverer of the gecko that sheds its scales

Mark Scherz’s discovery of a gecko with huge scales that detach to escape predators made it on all of the major news sources last week, including BBC, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and ZMEScience. We managed to pin him down to discuss this unique little gecko from Madagascar. It turns out that sexy isn’t always the most interesting, other geckos also lose their scales, and these particular geckos live in a very unique habitat.

ZME: When did you first see the gecko and what did you think when you saw it?

Mark Scherz: Well I first saw the gecko in preservative in the Bavarian State Collection for Zoology in Munich because I had just finished the first semester of my Master’s program with required classes and on the side I’d been doing this description project with Frank [Glaw] and I went to him and said now we can work together; I’d originally come to Munich to work with him. I wanted to describe a Uroplatus; they are these leaf-tail geckos that are just totally bizarre. They’re super sexy animals; many people want to work on them so it’s very competitive. Basically, I wanted to work on them but Frank said that’s not an option. So he suggested this species of gecko.

ZME: So you got the less sexy gecko?

MS: I got the less sexy gecko, which obviously turned out to be a better story because it is getting a lot of press. But the big advantage was that I was already using microCT and for this genus in particular, microCT was going to play a big role, that was clear.

Credit: Frank Glaw.

The memorable gecko, with shed scales. Credit: Frank Glaw.

ZME: Because the species were very similar looking?

MS: Because the species are very similar and because you can’t trust the scales; the scales come off and then grow in a different pattern. So by looking at the bones you have something that is solid and more permanent. When they are adults it should be relatively consistent within a species.

ZME: This species, Geckolepis megalepis, is so similar to the other gecko species Geckolepis maculata that they were confused for a long time. Do they also shed their scales?

MS: All of them. The whole genus. That includes all of the described and all of the undescribed species.

ZME: So it’s not so unique?

MS: Exactly, it’s five species. Well there are probably around eleven or twelve species in total, but that is small in terms of the thousands of species of geckos that exist. There’s a group of geckos from the Middle East called Teratoscincus that also shed their scales but not in exactly the same way. Nobody has really looked at the skin, but apparently it is quite similar. There are several other groups of geckos that can lose their skin, like Gehyra. They have fragile skin that rips if you grab them too hard but it hasn’t evolved for this purpose. Nothing does it to the level of Geckolepis, certainly not. And in Geckolepis we know from studies of histology that the skin or actually the entire integument has a special layer at the bottom of it that’s made of myofibroblasts, the cells that are in muscles, and those split the connection between the integument and the underlying tissue so they contract and break as if they are, if you pardon the word, “designed” to break off from the underlying lying tissue and slip off. It’s a really unique evolutionary trait of the whole genus.

Teratoscincus geckos from the Middle East can also shed their scales. Image credits: Kvak

ZME: If you could give it a common name what would it be?

MS: I already did that on Wikipedia, it’s the large-scaled fish scale gecko.

ZME: Here at ZME, we are interested in hearing about your expeditions to Madagascar, can you tell me a bit about them?

MS: I was not involved in the actually finding of this gecko, it was found by Frank and several other members of the team. In general, I go to Madagascar roughly once a year for anywhere from one month to three months, because three months is the limit for a visa without having to apply through an official process. Most of the work that we do on our expeditions is biodiversity surveying. On one hand, we are trying to get an idea of what the amphibian and reptile biodiversity is. On the other hand, we are doing targeted searches to try to discover new species every time.

A campsite from fieldwork in Madagascar. Image credits: Mark Scherz

ZME: How many do you find on average?

MS: I would say each survey yields between three and twelve properly new species to science depending on where it is and who’s on the team.

A photo from one of Mark’s expeditions. Image credits: Mark Scherz

ZME: Is there anyone who you would like to acknowledge who played a key role in this research? Your name has been all over the press but you must have had a team too.

MS: That is really important. Frank is the last author, he collected the first specimen and he’s been my advisor for the past three and a half years. All of the coauthors have been very important. I had done a detailed osteological description of these animals but I had no experience with reptiles so I wanted to bring on the best expert I could get for gecko skulls. Juan [Daza] has a great body of work on gecko skulls in particular. I reached out and he came on very happily and he found the good characters in the skull that are very reliable. He was really helpful, but they all were great to work with. As you said, they have not gotten nearly enough credit for their role in the paper.

ZME: One last question, is there anything that you felt that was left out of the press that you think is important?

MS: I don’t that people have thought about the other species that are found in the same habitat. This gecko is only from one small area in Madagascar. The whole park that it’s found in is 182 km2. So it’s a very little area. Within that area there is at least one endemic genus of frogs that’s only found inside the park. There are at least two more reptiles, there’s a snake and a gecko that are found there, and two more frogs that I know about. So there is this whole biodiversity hotspot in this small, small area, which is cool.

A different species of Geckolepis, from fieldwork in Madagascar. Image credits: Mark Scherz

ZME: What makes the area so special, that there are so many endemic species?

MS: Well, it’s this limestone karst called “tsingy”. That’s the malagasy word. And this tsingy forms these gullies and canyons and caves which creates more substrate for selection and for genetic drift. My pet theory is that because of the automatic isolation that comes from an animal colonizing this habitat they increase the genetic structure that they have which allows them to diverge very very quickly even in the absence of normal selective pressures. But there definitely are strong selective pressures that are associated with the habitat because it is quite different than the forest around. There are even lemurs that are micro-endemic to this habitat.

Tsingy in Ankarana National Park In Madagascar. Image credits: Frank Glaw

ZME: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MS: One of the things that people have been talking about is how the scales are so big. I have repeatedly tried to impress on people that maybe this isn’t selected for. It’s hard to imagine, once you have this mechanism, why would you need it any bigger if it works even with the small scales. I think that it may be happening just because of genetic drift. You have these strongly isolated specimens and the functional population size is probably small so any mutation that comes up would probably be fixed very quickly whether it is deleterious or not. Maybe we have these large size changes just by chance. One corollary of that theory is that other species from the same habitat might not exhibit the same traits. There’s another Geckolepis found side-by-side with this one; it’s very common for two of these species to be found together. Going back to genetic drift, why would it be that one is selected to have big scales and the other is not? They have the same predators, they have the same ecology in every respect so the only factors that can drive this divergence in their morphology is drift or sexual selection. I don’t think that anyone has ever observed them mating. We don’t even know which sex they are so it’s hard to keep them in captivity and breed them if you don’t know what you have. So I can’t explain what’s causing some of these geckos to have massive scales and some to have small scales, but I think it may be drift.

Explosives scientists answer questions in online interview

Los Alamos is always blowing stuff up. The Lab burst into the public consciousness 70 years ago with the biggest explosion known to humanity—the world’s first atomic bomb. Since then, Los Alamos has continued to lead the nation in explosives science and engineering. Now, some of the researchers working there went to answer questions on Reddit. Here are some of the most interesting ones:

What’s the biggest boom you’ve ever seen/created?

The largest “shot” that I’ve seen was on a tour of an open pit copper mine, when I was an undergraduate student taking explosives engineering. It was 60,000 lb of an ammonium nitrate based explosive. It certainly was earth-shattering, but not the loudest that I’ve heard, as it was timed to not fire all at once and it was deep underground. Being inside a bunker very close to an open-air, yet smaller shot is more impressive.

Is there a “holy grail” of explosives?

The explosives community and National Laboratories have always sought safer explosives that are higher “performing.” By that, we refer to explosives that have high detonation velocities, detonation pressures, and temporal energy release matched to the application (weapons, mining, etc.). Novel concepts to provide higher performance is an active area of research.

My question is, do you have any moral or ethical qualms about the nature of your work? I imagine that most of the end goal for explosives research is for military applications: portable explosives, bombs, other ordnance. Does any of that ever give you any pause?

Actually, much of our explosives research is based on explosives detection and defeat, or finding ways to make explosives safer to handle. These are the projects that I am most proud of working on.

Many people associate explosives with weapons. While a lot of the work at LANL is weapons related, what are your favorite examples of explosives being used for non-weapons related applications? i.e. pyrotechnics, propellants, tools for scientific understanding.

The vast majority of explosives are used by the mining industry, millions of pounds per year. Other interesting examples included the use of explosives to stimulate oil wells to be more productive, the use of explosives for welding, bolt cutting, pilot ejections mechanisms, etc.

Hi, single dad here – How can I get my daughter (13) more interested in science / chemistry / physics? What was it that interested you (ladies) to get involved with science(s)?

Expose her to science through lab or industry tours, university programs or other middle/high school programs, and great role models. As she gets older, encourage her to get involved in class or individual science research projects. It is usually the small interactions or experiences that make a difference. I personally loved the problem solving aspects of science, and learning something new by research that could benefit our world (such as solar/energy research, new materials research, etc.).

What is your favourite explosive?

Nitromethane of course.

Alan Alda’s important message for science communication

Most of us know Alan Alda for his iconic portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce, the sharp-tongued but kind-hearted field doctor from the series M.A.S.H. But Alda is increasingly involved in science communication, being a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University in New York. This is a recent interview with him, about science communication.

The cast of MASH, second season.

This interview was conducted by Will J Grant and Rod Lamberts from the Australian National University, and was originally published by The Conversation.

Will: Why are you keen to get into the world of science and science communication?

Alan: I think I’ve been interested in science, like all humans I think, since I was a little boy. I think we all start out as little scientists trying to figure out how things work and how we fit in and what we can do with the things around us.

When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time doing what I thought were experiments. I would mix things I found around the house to see if I could get something to blow up.

Rod: Did you succeed?

Alan: Thank god, no.

Rod: Did you study much science?

Alan: No, I didn’t. My father wanted me to be a doctor because he had always wanted to be a doctor but then went into show business at an early age because of the Depression.

Oddly enough, he could make a living as an entertainer rather than as something more stable. Nowadays, it’s the other way round. You have to be a waiter so you can afford to be an actor.

He went into show business and didn’t become a doctor, as he had always wanted, so he wanted me to be a doctor. And when I was in college he pled with me to take a pre-med course in chemistry to see if I would be interested in following through and becoming a doctor, and I really didn’t want to do well in the course.

Will: Deliberate sabotage?

Alan: I was afraid it would lead to a life of blood-spattered clothes, talking to sick people. This scared me and I didn’t want to do it.

I partly purposely did poorly in the course, and partly it was my own natural incompetence that allowed me to get a final grade of, on the final exam, I got a score of ten out of a hundred.

I had a very shaky start with science education. It wasn’t until after college that my curiosity kicked back in again. Since then, most of the things I read have to do with science because I find it so fascinating.

Will: You’re meant to inspire people to want to become a scientist or move into this career but you’re saying it’s only after college that you developed that interest, that’s a failing from our profession really.

Alan: One of the things that I’m lucky that I have is curiosity plus a healthy dose of ignorance.

Rod: You can’t underestimate the power of ignorance.

Alan: It’s really wonderful if it’s combined with curiosity it’s perfect because then you have this empty hole to fill and your curiosity keeps urging you to pile it in.

I just love to find out what new things scientists are discovering and, when I find out, I love to tell my friends what I just found out: “Can you believe this microbe they’ve found?” But I’m so enthused about it, their eyes don’t glaze over so I’m happy about that.

Do you know about that microbe? They’ve got a bunch of microbes that expand or contract, depending on whether or not they’re wet. And if you have a couple of pounds of them, they’re so strong when you wet them they’d lift the back end of a car. So these microbes could change your tyre for you. I think that’s just wonderful.

Photo by runneralan2004.

Rod: When did you make the transition to say “I’m involved in science communication” rather than just science in general?

Alan: That grew out of the television show I did on public television in the United States for 11 years, a show called Scientific American Frontiers. I don’t know if it was shown in Australia or not.

Will: I think there were individual episodes that came up and were cut into other shows.

Alan: It was wonderful. I counted once, I think, I interviewed about 700 scientists. And I realised that what we were doing was a different way of interviewing about science. It was just a pure conversation like the conversation we’re having now.

It was freewheeling, I didn’t have a list of questions. I just wanted to understand them and there was something about that that was so personal, that it brought out the personality of the scientists and they were real people, they weren’t lecturing.

When the show was over, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists could do that naturally without somebody next to them like me, drawing it out of them? How could we get them into that conversational tone?

Whenever I would be at a university where they taught science, I would try to talk the president of the university into the idea of teaching communication while they taught science, because if you can graduate experienced scientists, capable scientists who are also capable communicators, then the public has a chance to learn something from them.

Rod: Did you experience any particular kinds of resistance to try to sell this message that scientists should communicate more?

Alan: Ten or 15 years ago, when I began trying to sell this idea, I did get plenty of resistance. I don’t know how many universities I talked to, it was just a handful, but I didn’t get any enthusiasm until I talked to Stony Brook University in New York, and they started the Centre for Communicating Science there, which I’m so thrilled is now collaborating with the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. It’s like a dream come true, you’re our first international affiliation.

Rod: You’re welcome. Obviously there’s nothing in it for us, we’re just doing this out of the kindness of our hearts (laughs).

Alan: Ha ha ha, well you’ve got all this experience. We’ve got some pretty innovative ideas that we’ve been working on. We kind of use the Stony Brook University setting as our laboratory and we then spread what we’ve learned around the States.

Now we will be sharing it with you and we hope to get your innovations and ideas, and help to share them because we now have the network that’s growing. Every month, it gets a little larger.

We have 17 universities and medical schools and institutions in America that are hooked into this network. We’re going to be sharing all the things, all the creative ideas that come out of each of these places.

That really appeals to me because the people who really want to see communication thrive, the communication of science, they get so enthused about it. It’s hard to get them to stop working night and day on it because you see the results blooming and it makes me very happy.

Will: Do you think you can go too far, where the scientist gets so enthusiastic that people start to run away or turn away or indeed trivialise the communication enterprise?

Alan: What we try to teach is, first of all, not dumbing down the science. Science is exciting and it doesn’t need to be dumbed down, I’m sure you agree with that.

Rod: Yup!

Alan: What we really look for is clarity and vividness.

Will: Vividness, it’s a great term. I mean clarity comes up a lot in these circles but vivid!

Alan: And to be vivid, to me, is to show us how it affects our daily lives, what the stories are that led to these discoveries.

There’s a very interesting example of that.

There’s a scientist in the States who discovered the world’s thinnest glass. It was only one atom thick and it was referred to as two-dimensional glass because the top layer of it is the same atom as the bottom layer of it, so it’s, in a way, two dimensional. It had never been seen before.

So he wrote about it, he and his graduate student who discovered it together, wrote about it in a science journal and it got a little attention.

Then he took our communication course, he did a workshop with us, and in the course of that, he reminded me later – I don’t remember saying this to him – but he reminded me that I said to him: “Wait a minute, you just said that you discovered this by accident, that’s a fascinating thing for lay people to hear.”

The story is the important thing. We need to hear stories.

He then started, when he talked about it to the press, he led with that story and it turns out news of his work started to spread in newspapers and blog posts all across the United States and the United Kingdom. And it was because he used a story.

Rod: I think that it’s kind of frightening, the idea that they have to somehow be able to tell a story. And coming from someone with your background that can be quite confronting I imagine?

Alan: One of the things that I try to do is, try to spread the idea of what a story is. If you’re not accustomed to telling stories, sometimes you can reduce everything to the final, the bottom line thing, there’s not much of a story in that.

Will: I’ve always thought, everyone is used to stories in the sense that everyone hears stories all the time. We watch TV, we read books, those kinds of things, so we’ve got an implicit understanding of it but it’s a very different to tell the story.

Alan: Yes. An example is what we’re doing at the World Science Festival in Brisbane. We combine art and science as much as we can, including story telling.Brian Greene, the physicist, is doing a show that tells stories of Einstein and I’ve written a theatre piece that covers Einstein’s letters to his two wives. It shows him as a human.

I think when we see scientists as human beings, the door is open for us a little bit, we can go into their lives. They’re not the white-coated gurus on the mountaintop.

Why are women written out of history? An interview with historian Bettany Hughes

“Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths [..] but when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk.” Dr Bettany Hughes argues that women have been largely written out of history and this seems to be a recurring theme. Bettany Hughes, an English historian and author discussed with English Heritage about how women are misrepresented in history, and why this happens:

DO YOU THINK WOMEN HAVE FEATURED LESS IN HISTORY THAN MEN HAVE?

Absolutely, it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history. Clearly something has gone wrong here, the maths just doesn’t work.

WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS?

To solve that particular problem I think we need to go right back to pre-history. When we go back into the pre-historic world, we see the polar opposite.

If you look at all the figurines made between about 40,000 BC, until around 5,000 BC – a period which really sees the flourishing of the modern mind- at that time around 90% of all these figurines are of women. So women are very present in the archaeological record, but then start to disappear once pre-history turns into history.

Maori woman statue. Photo by Graham Crumb.

WHAT HAPPENS?

At the birth of civilised society, you have these very highly productive and sophisticated, settlements, with women having great status; they are high priestesses, they have property rights and own land, they write poetry- but these new civilisations want to expand. So – broadly speaking – when that happens, what you need is muscle power, and society becomes more militarised. The balance of power shifts.

It really is quantum shift in the story of the world, we start to find these powerful warrior gods appearing in the archaeology as well as in epics; The Epic of Gilgamesh; The Iliad and the Odyssey; and this represents a gear change in how we are told the story of humanity.

BUT WHY DOES THIS SHIFT IN SOCIETY THEN BECOME AN ENDEMIC THROUGHOUT HISTORY?

We retain this status quo; we keep what we have by growth and military means; muscle still matters. This becomes a base note in society, where as previously a measure of achievement might have been the physical survival of the community, and of quality of life, it is now expansion and success. Women’s roles remain diminished.

SO DO WOMEN CONTINUE TO IMPACT HISTORY?

Yes. There are brilliantly feisty women from history who have made an impact, and whose stories need to be told. For historians it’s our job to fill in the gaps in history. We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t.

Photo by Oke.

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS THEN, THAT WE KNOW OF SOME WOMEN BUT NOT OTHERS?

A lot of the women that we think of, like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, one of the reasons their stories have lasted is that they are portrayed as highly sexualised. They are exciting, but the danger of their influence has also become a warped morality tale; we remember them as creatures who draw men towards their beds and towards their death.

ARGUABLY WE CAN BE SEEN TO CATEGORISE WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY

Definitely, often women aren’t allowed to be characters in history, they have to be stereotypes. Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths; she wasn’t that much of a looker. But when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk. Often, even when women have made their mark and they are remembered by history, we are offered a fantasy version of their lives.

SO IS THIS WHY, EVEN NOW, WE DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE WOMEN’S ROLE IN HISTORY AS MUCH AS WE DO MEN’S?

I don’t think there are malign forces at work here; it’s just a practical issue. Physically the stories of women have been written out of history, rather than written in. But times are changing; we’re getting more interested in the story of what it means to be human, as opposed to being a man or a woman.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP THIS CHANGE HAPPEN?

Whenever I feel sad about how systematically women vanished from history, I take the long view, and say, there has been a problem here for at least 3,500 years, so it’s no surprise that we have some catching up to do! But that in itself is quite empowering, because we know what we are up against.

This is an issue that has very deep roots, and we can see how and why that plays out, and therefore what we can do to start to change things. What we need to do is make sure that collectively we are known as the generation that opened rather than closed minds, and who opened these stories up, and put them back onto the page and into our collective memory.

Dr Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. For more on her work, visit www.bettanyhughes.co.uk

Interview with Dr. Thomas Watters, from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

We recently got the chance to talk to Dr. Thomas Watters from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Watters is a Co-Investigator on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and discussing lunar tectonics with him was highly insightful:

ZME: Your background is in geology and tectonics, how was the transition to planetary sciences? How is studying geology on extraterrestrial bodies different?

Thomas Watters: Although my education was in traditional terrestrial geology and tectonics, I was always interested in the Moon and the terrestrial planets. With terrestrial geology, you have the great advantage of field work. With planetary studies, you’re of course limited to remote sensing data. However, field study of analog landforms is very important.

Artistic representation of the LRO. Image via Wikipedia.

ZME: It just seems like astro-geology (I’m not really sure if that’s the proper name) has developed so much in recent years. What were the most exciting findings in the field, in your opinion?

TW: We are really privileged to live in this era of exploration of the solar system! I’ve also had the good fortune to be on the science teams of planetary missions to the Moon, Mercury, and Mars. What has surprised me is that in spite of the similarities, we’ve discovered that every object in the solar system is unique in its own way.

ZME: About your recent research about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Moon has no proper tectonic activity [edit: I’m wrong], but there are still some tectonic features. Do you suspect that Earth’s gravity actually caused the fault scarps during the Moon’s formation, or did it simply activate them? What other features could Earth’s gravity cause on the Moon?

TW: One of the exciting outcomes of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has been the discovery that the Moon is still a dynamic world. We’ve found evidence of young volcanic features and well as the very young faults. The faults are so young that they are very likely still active today. So our view of the Moon as a body that has not been geologically active for billions of years has completely changed. Our modeling suggests that Earth’s tidal forces have contributed to the formation of the faults. Tidal stresses alone would not be expected to form the faults (tidal stresses are too small), but when combined with stresses from global contraction due to cooling of the Moon’s still hot interior tidal stresses have influenced the orientations of the faults.

ZME: I know that the discovery of moonquakes was quite a surprise, because the Moon has no tectonics. Do we know what causes them? Could it be the same gravitational pull?

TW: Actually the Apollo seismic network while it was operating recorded thousands of moonquakes. Only about 30 quakes were determined to be shallow (near surface). These shallow moonquakes could be due to slip events on the young faults. Tidal forces from Earth’s gravitational pull may not have been large enough to cause the shallow moonquakes, but the combination of tidal stress and stresses from global contraction particularly at apogee (when the Earth-Moon distance is greatest) could be responsible for many of these quakes.

ZME: What is the current progress for the LRO mission? Have you gone through most of the data, or is there still more to analyze? Do you expect more exciting findings in the future?

TW: The LRO mission is in its second extended mission and we will be proposing to NASA for a third extended mission. We have only imaged about three-quarters of the lunar surface with the high resolution Narrow Angle Camera, so we have yet to map the entire population of young faults. During the next extended mission, we will be looking for visual evidence of current activity on the young faults.

ZME: Some plans were recently announced by Russia and the EU for establishing a permanent settlement on the Moon. What do you think about this perspective?

TW: A permanent base on the Moon is a logical first step to reaching the goal of human exploration of Mars. It would be good to avoid locating a lunar base close to one of the young faults.

ZME: In the end, what do you think is the future for astrogeology/geophysics? How well can we know the geology of other celestial body?

TW: Continued planetary exploration and investigation is not only critically important to understanding our solar system, it is critical to understanding the emerging population of extrasolar planets.

Thank you so much for taking the time, and good luck in your future endeavors!

Interview with Christopher Russell, principal investigator of NASA’s Dawn Mission

Christopher Russell is the head of the Space Physics Center at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at UCLA, and he also leads the NASA’s Dawn Mission team. Dawn orbited Vesta in 2011 and 2012, offering valuable insight not only about the two minor planets, but about the solar system itself. Professor Russell took the time to discuss some of these findings with us.

Q: Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us! I see that you’ve started your studies in geophysics, then planetary science, and then moved on to the study of asteroids. Was the transition difficult, is there anything fundamentally different in studying the two?

Christopher Russell: There are underlying disciplines such as space plasma physics, tectophysics, oceanography, seismology, atmospheric science, aeronomy etc. There are places where we practice these disciplines: the sun; the planets; comets; asteroids; moons and everywhere in between. So while i transitioned objects this spread in underlying disciplines was conquered by learning slowly .

Q: The main (or one of the main) developments that enabled Dawn to have this kind of success was the ion propulsion. Could this be used in other missions as well or is it something about it that makes it particularly suitable for studying the asteroid belt?

C.R.: Yes ion propulsion can be used in other applications. The energy source we use is the Sun and so that limits its use (with solar arrays of well inside the orbit of Jupiter). But nuclear engince could take it anywhere. Ion engines are good when it is ok to accelerate slowly [you are not in a hurry] or if you are carrying something heavy like a year’s supply of drinking water or heating fuel. It would be ideal for ferrying supplies to Mars orbit for example.

Q: So, Dawn’s initial major achievement was to orbit Vesta and report back information about it. What were, in your opinion, the most important findings from Vesta?

C.R.: As non-revolutionary as it was, the discovery that our model of Vesta based on meteorite data was correct was really important as it validated our model of solar system formation and evolution. We also obtained surprises such as frozen soil showing a small amount of water remained on Vesta.

Q: Have you gone through all the data, or are you still receiving or > analyzing more? If yes, do you expect to make any other important discoveries?

C.R.: We are still working on the data but now with less horsepower since many of our horses moved on to Ceres.

Q: About Ceres, if I understand correctly, one of the things you are looking for is water. How could water have formed and maintained through all the chaos in the asteroid belt?

C.R.: Ceres has serious gravity and very cold frozen water sublimates very very slowly. So it can stay around a solar system lifetime if buried and out of the sun.

Q: What about those bright spots on Ceres? The last theory I read was that they were some kind of salt. Does Dawn have the capacity to clarify this issue?

 

C.R.: Many salts have similar spectra so it is going to be difficult. We have taken spectra. Theory may have to guide us by telling us what is expected.

Q: What do you expect the mission’s legacy and aftermath to be?

C.R.: Dawn was the first to interview two of the oldest intact objects in the solar system. These data are very important to understanding who we are and how we got here. We hope that these data lead to new missions, but since the time between visits to the same body is generally many decades these days dawn’s data may be the only data we have for some time.

Q: Dawn will stay in orbit through June 2016. What will happen after that?

C.R.: Eventually we will not be able to point the spacecraft- no gas. Then we cannot take data and cannot sen data to earth. We will then orbit Ceres forever.

Well… that’s quite a poetic fate! Thank you so much Professor Russell, we truly appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions. Best of luck in your future endeavors!

 

 

Ijad-Madisch

Q&A with Dr. Ijad Madisch (ResearchGate founder)

Ijad-Madisch

Photo: Andy Kaczé

Ijad Madisch a Harvard trained virologist and computer scientist was on his way to becoming a medical professor, but in 2008 he put a halt to his career as a medical researcher to embark on an even greater challenge: changing the way scientists connect. To this end, he co-founded ResearchGate, an online platform where scientists can upload and share papers, connect with their peers and ask questions. Today, some six million researchers use ResearchGate, and by 2016 every scientists in the world could be a member of the social network.

ResearchGate (RG) is atypical, as far as social networks go. It aims to effectively change the way science is being disseminated and usher in a new age of digital communications among scientists. For instance, one big hurdle in the way of scientific progress is the bias towards positive results in published papers, something ZME Science highlighted previously. Some 90% of data created in scientific experiments are negative results, and these rarely get published. ResearchGate can be a home for negative results, alongside the positive findings of course. Where it shines, however, is in its ability to connect scientists. For instance, an Italian researcher got connected with a Nigerian researcher on RG. When a child died of an unknown cause in a Nigerian hospital, the researcher sent the Italian professor a sample. Together they found a new type of yeast which only infects plants. This was the first documented case of the yeast infecting a human, and since then they’ve published a paper. Other examples are plentiful.

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Connecting with other researchers online has never been more easy. Image: Research Gate

Having received  a $35 million Series C round led by Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital, ResearchGate is now ready to grow even more and improve their technology. Most recently, the company unveiled a new format for reading science papers online, one that Madisch hopes will finally file the PDF in the drawer for good. The new RG Format illustrates why this is a social network in the first place. When reading science papers, other researchers can now share feedback publicly with authors and peers, and highlight what’s interesting, right on the page. The split-screen design also makes findings references or read graphs and tables easier than ever.

In light of all these extraordinary developments, I caught with Dr. Madisch for a quick Q&A.

Tibi Puiu: There’s a distinct correlation between scientific advances and communication technologies. Everybody seems to agree that collaboration between scientists is paramount, but since the first peer-reviewed journal was published 350 years ago, things haven’t changed that much.Of course, there’s a reason for this – peer-review, with all its flaws, is a proven system. I think you agree, however, that there are some problems in the way journals distribute their content. Paywalls come to mind.
How is ResearchGate addressing science papers and open access? And, more in general, where do you see the peer-review system going in the future – business as usual or a paradigm shift?

Ijad Madisch: Our approach to scientific publishing is new and goes a step further than open access. We call it open science. Open access makes research more open – which is good – but largely sticks to old publishing formats, making it slow and expensive for the researchers.

Scientific articles printed on paper have a very formal structure, which helps researchers put what they’re reading into context. On the web however, you have other, more efficient ways to do that. In a network like ours you could publish your research as it happens and draw the big picture using links. You could even present different versions of your work to show progress.

With a network of researchers, you can then get feedback from peers much earlier in the process in an open and transparent way. This also changes how peer review works. I wish I would have been able to do it like this when I was still researching!

Tibi Puiu: ResearchGate  is essentially a social network for scientists, first and foremost. How would you explain the way it works to someone who’s used only to twitter or facebook? Secondly, what’s the added benefit ResearchGate poses to scientists versus private communication (email), let’s say?

Ijad Madisch: ResearchGate is a network for scientists and researchers. Here they present their research on their profile and are connected with the people and the research that matters to them. This in turn helps them advance their research.
What it all boils down to is making the right connections at the right time. This is the added benefit ResearchGate offers. On the network you have six million researchers and their research at your fingertips. And they are sharing more and more of their research every day. In the first four years after we founded the network, our members uploaded two million publications in total. Today they upload two million publications every month. In our Q&As, they ask hundreds of questions and get thousands of answers every week.
It’s a sophisticated scattershot approach at accessing knowledge, and it’s successful. The geologist Bill Andrews for example found his research partner through a Q&A on ResearchGate. Together the team found a way to clean a Superfund site in the Tri-State mining area for a profit. Private companies are now investigating their solution.
There are many more examples from many more fields. All of them have in common that these researchers made the right connection at the right time on the network.

Tibi Puiu: The latest update makes sharing papers, connecting with scientists and managing citations (just to name a few) easier than ever.
Congratulations! How important are social interactions over the web as far as science publishing is concerned?

Ijad Madisch: The most important social interaction the web offers for researchers is quick feedback. With our new RG Format researchers can comment and highlight research directly on the page, for everyone to see. This way authors get immediate feedback, and readers see at a glance what others thought of the work at hand.
Feedback today is otherwise hard to come by for scientists. They rely heavily on citations but these are often delayed. For instance, I wrote most of my publications in the year 2007 and I stopped publishing in 2010, but I didn’t receive the majority of my citations until 2011.
Even when you finally get cited, you still don’t know what exactly you were cited for because it’s just a number. You don’t know which parts of your work really helped the other researcher, or what in particular they are criticizing about your work. With our new format, readers comment directly on the page, authors and other readers can react and drive the discussion – and the research – forward.

Tibi Puiu: Right now, ResearchGate is only available to scientists. You sort of need to prove you’re a scientist and only then can you upload papers or request papers from users. Makes sense, but what about non-scientist folks? Will ResearchGate accommodate those people who aren’t scientists, but are genuinely interested in the latest science (passionate people, inventors, do it yourself engineers, entrepreneurs
etc) ?

Ijad Madisch: At the moment ResearchGate is only available to scientists and researchers who sign up with an accredited email address or who go through an individual sign-up process. We do this in order for our members to get the most out of their conversations with each other on the network. On the other hand, everything that’s on the network (except for things researchers have chosen to keep private) is publicly accessible for non-researchers in the spirit of open science.
That being said, I understand that we’re missing out on many people who do science without being professional scientists. It’s a fine line, and we’re looking for a solution to integrate them, too.

Tibi Puiu: What’s next for ResearchGate?

Ijad Madisch: We’re still in the process of rolling out the RG Format to our 19 million publications. As I said, two million are also added every month, so there’s a lot to do! Apart from that we want to further develop the product, and make it possible for researchers to upload several versions of their work to show the progress they’re making.

Scientist interview: Michael Mann [meteorology / climate change]

A few days ago, we wrote an article about our featured researchers – outstanding men and women in their field, who recently published highly interesting studies. Today, we’re talking to Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). His voice is one of the loudest and clearest when it comes to climate change and he shared his thoughts with us:

michael mann fixed

Andrei Mihai: Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us – we greatly appreciate it! About this study – I’ve been reading an increasing number of studies indicating that the so-called “global warming hiatus” is actually the deep oceans absorbing the heat [1, 2, 3]. Can we talk about a consensus on this issue? Is there still scientific merit to claiming that there is a global warming hiatus?

Michael Mann: In my view “hiatus” is a misleading term, because warming has not stopped, either at the surface or in the ocean sub-surface. There has been a temporary slowdown in surface warming, which is what our study seeks to understand and explain. We conclude that the temporary slowdown is due to internal climate variability related to the Pacific ocean, and that is consistent with other studies arguing that there has been increased ocean heat burial in the tropical Pacific over that timeframe. So I think there is an emerging scientific consensus here, though the language that has been used is sometimes inconsistent and even misleading. It is indeed critical to distinguish between warming at the surface, and the warming of the climate system overall (as much of the heating is contained within the oceans).

AM: Indeed, there seems to be this wrong idea that global warming is only affecting our atmosphere. But as you also pointed out at one time, it’s not the the actual temperature of the world today that’s worrying, but rather the rate at which is changing. Do we have a rate of warming for the deep oceans, something that might be correlated to atmospheric heating? Do you agree with the idea that we are altering the climate so much we’re basically living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene?

MM: Yes—interestingly, there is a study just out within the past couple days (Nature Climate Change) concluding that the rate of warming we are seeing may be without precedent in at least a thousand years.I’m quoted about that study here: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/warming-rates-unseen-in-1000-years-18745

It is really the rate of warming that is the greatest cause for worry, as the rates of change in climate we are seeing may well challenge the adaptive capacity not just of ecosystems but of human civilization itself.
AM: It does seem like quite a dire picture, but even though climate change is one of the hottest topics (heh) right now, it’s in quite a peculiar situation; while the science seems to be pretty clear, the public is heavily divided. Why do you think this happens?
MM: Well, I wrote a book about that question, entitled “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” [link]. It is about my experiences in the center of the climate change debate, and about the powerful vested interests that have spent tens of millions of dollars in the most expensive disinformation campaign in human history, the campaign by fossil fuel interests to confuse the public and policymakers about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change.
AM: Perhaps on a related note, what do you think about the recent scandal around Willie Soon? Is this type of funding acceptable? Is everybody just making too much fuss, or is he actually guilty of unethical behavior?
MM: Well, as scientists we are expected to disclose conflicts of interest when we publish studies. In Soons case, we’ve learned that his publications were being provided as “deliverables” to fossil fuel interests funding his campaigns. Yet he did not disclose that funding in the manuscripts. That’s a no-no. It gives against not just the ethical guidelines of journals and institutions, but against the ethical bind we have with the public as scientists.
AM: I read on your page that you’ve studied, at least to some extent, the connection between malaria and global warming. With the temperature continuing to rise, should we expect the potential range of malaria to increase, as the mosquitoes become adapted to broader habitats?
MM: As our study concludes, the situation is somewhat complicated. Because of the temperature thresholds involved in the processes that govern the Malaria parasite development, it is possible that currently very warm regions could actually see declines in Malaria transmission. But of perhaps greatest concern, many highly populated regions like Nairob that have historically not been prone to Malaria because of cool temperatures could see very large increases in Malaria transmission with even modest additional warming. It is these sorts of “non-linearities” as we term them, that cause scientists the greatest concern when it comes to human-caused climate change.
AM: In another study, you looked at the reliability of tree rings as proxies for climate change. Did you find an unreliability in using tree rings as climate proxies?
MM: No—our studies have just shown that you have to understand the limitations of any types of proxy information you are using (whether tree-rings, ice cores, corals, etc.). And there is more robustness in reconstructing past patterns of climate change when you incorporate as many types of complementary information as possible.
AM: In the end, what is your future research direction? What would you like to figure out next?
MM: I’m working on a number of issues right now. Some of them involving paleoclimate—understanding past climates better as a way of better informing our understanding of human-caused climate change. Other projects deal with estimating the impacts of projected climate change on water, food, land, the health of ecosystems. Other projects I’m involved in are aimed at better understanding natural climate variability and distinguishing natural and human impacts on climate.

Scientist interview: Dirk Lachenmeier [negative effects of food, tobacco and alcohol]

A few days ago, we wrote an article about our featured researchers – outstanding men and women in their field, who recently published highly interesting studies. Today, we’re talking to Dirk Lachenmeier, a certified food chemist, toxicologist, head of the official alcohol control laboratory and co-head of the nuclear magnetic resonance laboratory at Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Agency, Karlsruhe, Germany. Here’s his valuable insight:

Andrei Mihai: First of all thank you for taking the time to answer our questions – we greatly appreciate it. I’m really curious, how well do we understand the risks posed by substances like alcohol, coffee or cigarettes? Is it something we have a firm understanding of, or are we just starting to figure things out? What about marijuana?

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“We have generally detected that the risk of alcohol may be underestimated compared to other things such as pesticides in fruit”

 

Dirk Lachenmeier: The risks of alcohol and cigarettes are probably best understood and researched, and there is ample human epidemiological data for these compounds available. Strangely, coffee and specifically caffeine has been less researched, probably because the risk is obviously much lower than the one of alcohol or tobacco. The interest in caffeine has only recently increased when some people formed lifestyle habits that included over-ingestion of caffeine (in the form of energy drinks), sometimes in combination with alcohol. There is currently an interesting controversy going on surrounding the new EFSA draft opinion about the risk of caffeine (see e.g. http://www.nutraingredients.com/Regulation-Policy/Caffeine-alcohol-adverse-effects-can-t-be-ruled-out-EFSA). Finally, we have even less data on the illegal drugs including cannabis. For most of which we do not even have reliable dose-response-data in experimental animals, and human epidemiological data (in comparison to alcohol and tobacco) are scarce.

AM: I see that in 2014, you conducted a study on tobacco liqueurs – I wasn’t even aware that something like this exists to be honest. How does it compare, in terms of health risks, to other drinks, or to tobacco in smoked form?

DL: This is a niche product that used tobacco leaves for flavouring the spirit (tobacco leaves are also sometimes applied in high-end gastronomy for flavouring purposes). We did not found specific health risks (for example, nicotine was not detectable in the spirit), but judged that the spirit has the same risk as any other alcohol. Obviously, the tobacco leaves soaked in alcohol will not form the combustion products that are connected with health risks of smoking tobacco.

AM: What are some things most people don’t know about alcohol or cosmetics (or other products) that they really should?

DL:We have generally detected that the risk of alcohol may be underestimated compared to other things such as pesticides in fruit. People might also tend to even accept a higher risk for alcohol (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/12/189). Less known is also the fact that alcohol causes cancer and has been set into the highest cancer group by WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (similar to benzene for example). An area where we also see large problems is the internet sale of food supplements, medicines or cosmetics from countries outside the EU, where many products are regularly found that are not in compliance with laws. The consumer is often unaware that such direct importations do not have the same level of safety as normal products from the local market.

AM: What are some products (or types of products) that pose a significant enough risk that we should avoid them?

DL: DMAA in sports nutrition and supplements would be such a case that comes to mind (link). We have also detected illegal colouring agents in some cosmetics (link).

AM: Coming from a country with a rich tradition in home-made alcohol, I have to ask: what are the health effects of this type of unrecorded alcohol compared to commercial alcohol? Many people here believe that it is more healthy because it’s made without artificial flavors. Is this actually the case?

DL: There is as few evidence that it is more healthy than that it is less healthy. In our studies of unrecorded alcohol, we have generally found that the major effect comes from ethanol and is independent of alcohol type. The effects are purely mediated by amount and patterns of drinking. The only exception can be criminal cases of addition of pure methanol to alcoholic beverages, which might cause high morbidity and mortality (e.g. there was a methanol poisoning outbreak in the Czech republic some years ago).

Scientist interview: Culum Brown [biology/fish]

A couple of weeks ago we were telling you about a study which showed that not only do fish feel pain, but they also multi task and even have cultural traditions. We liked it so much, that we included Culum Brown, the study leader, in our list of featured researchers. He was kind enough to take the time and talk a bit with us, answering some questions about his research and how intelligent fish are.
ZME: In your recent study, you wrote that fish not only feel pain, but they also multi task and have cultural traditions. I’m not very familiar with this topic, but was there really a scientific dilemma on whether or not fish feel pain, or is it just a popular misbelief?

CB: Its an odd thing. The fact that fish feel pain is generally accepted by most neuroscientists, but there are always those out there who deny it.  For the most part they are either 1) old school or 2) have a conflict of interest (eg they work for/funded by fisheries). A neuroscientist once compared them to the Flat Earth Society. So i guess in that sense its like climate change; a few deniers puts doubt into the minds of the general public.

ZME: What about cultural traditions? What kind of cultural traditions to fish exhibit? Is this something exhibited by many/species?

CB: So social learning is wide spread in fishes. We have shown in the lab that information can also move between generations. In the wild there is evidence that migration pathways are heavily influenced by cultural traditions.  For example the failure of the North Atlantic cod fishery is partly due to us fishing all the older knowledgeable individuals.

ZME: I feel that fish are not given enough attention in terms of conservation because they are not as lovable or “cute”, or because they are dismissed as non-intelligent. What is your general opinion on this? Are people’s misconceptions about fish having a detrimental effect on conservation efforts?

CB: Yes we often refer to this as the “cute and fury” factor.  Fish lack it and that is why most conservation societies use pandas or koalas as their logo.  Because of this people often lack empathy for fish.

ZME: What do you think about the general status of fish stocks? It seems pretty clear that we are exploiting them at an unsustainable rate (to say the least). How will the fish stocks likely look like in 10-20 years?

CB: Fish stocks are in dire-straits. There is no doubt. Fisheries scientists have been saying this for 200 years. But rules are not made by scientists they are made by politicians. Politicians listen to the loudest voices (in this case fishermen). Its pretty sad, because this instant satisfaction of greed will destroy the worlds fish stocks for future generations. There will be no fishing industry if they keep it up.

ZME: What’s something about your area of study (or biology in general) that you think most people don’t know (and should), or think they know but are wrong?

CB: Obviously for me the no 1 theme is that fish are not stupid. In many aspects they are just as clever as us, and certainly just as clever as most other vertebrates.  That is my take home message.

A bit of background: Culum Brown is currently associated with Macquarie University, and he describes his interests as follows:

I’m primarily interested in Behavioural Ecology and in particular predator avoidance behaviour, learning and memory in freshwater fishes. I have conducted comparative research on the behavioural ecology of predator avoidance in Austalian freshwater fishes (Uni. Queensland) as well as examining social learning in guppies and salmon at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge. I also have an interest in the evolution of cognition and worked at the University of Edinburgh and the Smithsonian Institute on tropical poeciliids. In addition to this theoretical work, I have interests in applied research in conservation biology and fisheries management. These interests include conducting research aimed improving life skills in hatchery reared fishes utilising social learning protocols and environmental enrichment.

Scientist Interviews: Marie-Eve Naud [Astrobiology]

A while ago, we were telling you about the discovery of a huge exoplanet – a gas giant, found just 155 light years away from Earth. The head researcher behind that study was Marie-Eve Naud. Her main research field is the detection and characterization of exoplanets, with a focus on astrobiology. She was kind enough to talk to us and shed some light on what she studies, and what’s it like to be in such an exciting field! You can read the interview below:

ZME Science (Andrei): I read that you directly imaged the planet in infrared. How did you find it, is it like looking for a needle in a hay stack, or are there certain clues for finding planets? Do you have certain clusters of stars which are more likely to host planets?


unnamedMarie-Eve Naud
: With the technique that we use, which is called “Direct Imaging”, it’s much easier to find planets around young stars, i.e. stars that are only a few dozen to ~100-200Myr (in comparison, our Sun is ~4.6Gyr). This is the case because young stars harbour young planets, which are still contracting, and thus hotter and bigger, so more luminous. We were thus searching around a sample of stars which we knew were quite young because they were recently identified as members of Young Moving Groups, i.e. groups of young stars that were formed “together”, at a similar point in space and time. Just to be clear, though, it’s not necessarily that these young stars are more likely to harbour planets, it’s just that we are more likely to be able to find them there with the technique we used.

A: Could this technique have worked if the planet was smaller or closer to its star?

M: Very good good question. To a certain extent, no. It is really hard to find planets the way we do, i.e. by seeing “directly” the light of the planet. If the planet is too close or too faint (which is the case if it is smaller – or older, like I said earlier), it’s hard harder to disentangle its light from that, much more intense, of the parent star. However, some instruments like the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile were specifically built to detect smaller and closer planets (still giants and still quite far from their stars, but smaller and closer than GU Psc b).

A: I read that your co-author René Doyon said that “the great distance that separates it from its star makes possible a thorough study with a variety of instruments” – what instruments are we talking about? What kind of information can we derive from studying it with different instruments?

M: For example, we were able to get a spectrum of the planet using a spectrograph called GNIRS on Gemini North telescope, located in Hawaii, which gave us information about the temperature, and from which we were able to estimate that the mass is between 9 and 13 times that of Jupiter.

A: Wow, that’s amazing! Speaking of temperature, the surface of the planet is 800 °C (1472 °F) – almost twice as hot as Mercury, even though it’s incredibly far from its star. Is this because the planet is young and hasn’t had a chance to cool down, or is it something else?

M: Exactly as you say ;) The planet does not receive a significant amount of heating from its star, which is too far and too faint (only about 1/3 of the mass of the Sun).

A: Are planets like this common in the galaxy/universe?

M: We still have to figure this out, but we don’t think so. Out of the 90 stars we surveyed, GU Psc was the only one around which we detected a planetary-mass companion that far.

A: What will your future research focus on?

M:I’ll first try to assess more quantitatively the occurrence of these very wide, giant companions by doing a statistical study of our results. Also, I will continue to study GU Psc b to learn more about this fascinating object!

A: Keep up the good work!Again, thank you for taking the time to write to me.

M: My pleasure!

 

Scientists interview: Rainer Krähenmann

Dr. Rainer Krähenmann is a Project Leader at the Neuropsycho-pharmacology and Brain Imaging Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital for Psychiatry in Zürich, Switzerland. He is interested in researching the neural correlates of both altered and pathological states of consciousness. Currently, he is involved in an fMRI study investigating the functional networks of hallucinogen-induced states of consciousness.

His research team recently showed psilocybin found in “magic mushrooms” inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain. He was kind enough to briefly answer a few of our questions regarding his study:

Q: If I understood correctly, you found that a moderate amount of psilocybin eliminates the processing of negative visual stimuli. How exactly would you define “negative visual stimuli” ? Does the psilocybin also have an effect on neutral and positive stimuli processing (if you also followed this in the study)?

Thank you for your post. We used threat-related stimuli, like danger-signalling animals, car accidents, etc. Our group has investigated the effects of psilocybin on positive stimuli previously- we found that psilocybin reduced processing of negative, but not of positive stimuli- leading to a positive processing bias.

Q: Was there any boomerang effects when the subjects recovered from the effects of the substance? Were there any other positive/negative effects of the substance intake?

 No, there were no boomerang effects.

Q: Was it difficult to do this study – obtain approval for usage of psilocybin on humans? I know some countries have it tougher than others, what’s your experience working with otherwise illegal substances?

Because our group led by Franz Vollenweider has over 20 years of experience with research on hallucinogenic substances, approval here in Switzerland was obtained as with previous studies.

Q: judging by your experience, what do you think the legal status of psilocybin “magic mushrooms” should be – both in terms of medical and recreational consumption?

Regarding magic mushrooms, I strongly advise guidance by professional staff, as set and setting are important issues here.