Archive for May, 2008

May 2008 Rap-Up


Each morning I wake, and turn on my side.
Reach for my laptop, hit power, and wait.
Which stories I’ll read, it’s then I decide
Oh look at the time, I’m ten minutes late.

In May, there were many options online:
Look here, frogs that lay eggs on sea and land.
Dirt on your elbow that isn’t just grime.
Platypus genes that roused public demand.

So much to e-mail, so much more to Digg:
The Stonehenge mystery now put to rest.
The polar bear’s threatened? That’s pretty big.
A broken toilet – NASA’s toughest test.

In minutes I’ve skimmed the day’s Boston Globe
In it, news of Bush’s climate change woes.
Here is the latest on the Mar’s space probe,
Wired reports, noise is nature’s new foe.

And so I complete, with no sign of grief,
My time with the press, my daily news brief.

Posted by Joseph, under science rap-up  |  Date: May 31, 2008
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Mass. Ocean Bill Signed With Little Controversy


Mass Ocean Act Poster

Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill yesterday that will push Massachusetts towards becoming the first state with a single management plan for its coastal waters. All proposed projects within 3 miles of the state’s coastline, from wind farms to aquaculture operations, will be put on hold until a 17 -member committee made up of scientists and lawmakers can devise the document, due out in late 2009. (The event was reported in detail by The Associated Press and Boston Globe.)

The bill is in everyone’s favor. Local businesses, wildlife conservationists, and lawmakers all benefit from these guidelines, which will be devised with sound science and economics in mind. It passed unanimously in the State Senate by July 2006. Even the Alliance to protect Nantucket Sound had positive comments on the bill.

“However, the compromise bill still opens the door to wind energy development close to shore in our state ocean sanctuaries including Nantucket Sound,” they said in a statement. ” This crack in the armor of preservation continues to loom large as an issue for the Alliance.” The bill does not cover the Cape Wind project, which the group strong opposes, because it is in federal waters.

For a bill that makes everyone happy, it still took over five years of hard work for it to pass. The Massachusetts Ocean Management Task Force was formed in June 2003 and has since lobbied for the bill under the name Mass Ocean Action Coalition. According to a letter to Environmental Affairs from the coalition, it is made up of representatives from state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, fishing organizations and academic institutions.

Although the effort to create an advisory group wasn’t controversial, the actual regulations the group proposes will most definitely stir debate. One touchy subject is the issue of whether or not to use the state coastline to host potential sources of renewable energy. As the Cape Wind project has demonstrated, many people are opposed. The committee has a tough job ahead of them.

Posted by Joseph, under environment, policy  |  Date: May 29, 2008
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MIT Scientists Watch Evolution of Marine Bacteria


Bacteria Habitats

This figure shows the likely habitats of vibrio bacteria found near Plum Island, Mass. Dot colors indicate the predicted habitat of the bacteria (red are believed to attach to zooplankton, yellow to large organic particles, green to small organic particles, and blue are free-floating). The outer ring indicates the microbe’s preference for warm weather (gray) or cold (black). The inner ring shows where the microbes were found (attached or free-floating). The 25 shaded bands within show the ecological populations based on habitat and genetic similarity. Credit: Lawrence David and Dana Hunt, MIT

For centuries, a species was defined by observation; you can see the similarities between wolves and dogs or cats and tigers. With the recent ability to compare genomes and trace evolutionary lineages, what makes a species is further defined by genetic code. But when it comes to bacteria, who share genes like humans share chips at a party, our concept of species is thrown out the window.

Researchers at MIT may have found a better way to classify the millions of bacteria that inhabit our oceans, bodies and homes. Using samples obtained from the waters off Plum Island, Massachusetts, they found that bacteria organize themselves into “professions” or “lifestyle groups,” which live off of distinct ecological niches. One example is V. splendidus, a common marine bacteria. Some of its members live off zooplankton, while others survive by attaching to small organic molecules.

“Most methods in use either over or underestimate greatly the number of microbial populations in a sample, leading either to a confusing array of populations, or a few large, but extremely diverse groups,” said Martin Polz, a microbiologist in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in a press release .

Polz and his colleague Eric Alm, an MIT biological engineering professor, published their results in the May 23, 2008 edition of Science Magazine.

To categorize the bacteria in their samples, they compared a protein-coding gene (hp60) that is quick to mutate under various environmental conditions. That allowed them to catch V. splendidus switching ecological niches, perhaps on its way to evolving into a new “profession.”

“What is really new about our approach is that we were able to combine both molecular data (DNA sequences) with ecological data in a single mathematical framework,” said Alm. “This allowed us to solve the inverse problem of taking samples of organisms from different environments and figuring out their underlying habitats. In essence, we modeled the evolution of a microbe’s lifestyle over millions of years.”

Posted by Joseph, under marine biology  |  Date: May 28, 2008
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BU Today Reports on the Roach-Asthma Link


Don Rivard explains Integrated Pest Management Earlier this month, I posted “Of Pests and Pesticides,” a video by me and my classmates on chemical-free pest control.

BU Today just posted their version of the story, which portrays the safer pest control movement, known as Integrated Pest Mangement or IPM, as an effort to prevent childhood asthma.

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Although research showing a link between childhood asthma and cockroaches does exist, it is still a theory. What researchers are finding is that harmful pesticide residues stick around in carpets and other fabrics for years after they are used. What could be causing the asthma, no one knows. Nor does anyone know whether better pest control can reduce asthma rates.

What Pest Consultant Don Rivard, (pictured above), does when he checks for roaches covers both possibilities. By using tactics such as sticky traps and gel baits to get pests, people use less pesticide sprays. At the same time, he kills more roaches.

Roaches and asthma are national issues, not just for low-income families in Boston Public Housing. Asthma has been linked to everything from smog to not going outdoors enough as a child. IPM keeps the possible connection in mind, but it is more about helping people live cleaner, healthier lives. It would have been nice to have seen the bigger picture rather than just the BU research connection. But that’s the difference between PR and journalism.

Posted by Joseph, under health, uncategorized  |  Date: May 27, 2008

Suggestions for Science Metropolis


Science Metropolis LogoDear readers,

When I started this site 5 months ago, I had a vision of creating something that Boston/Cambridge residents would find useful and contribute to their excitement over what’s going on in local science.

I attempted to do this with original reporting, contributions and articles, but am starting to see that this direction isn’t enough. Also, reporting on the city of Boston from Cape Cod has added another layer of difficulty.

I could really use your input on how to make this site a better resource. I’ve seen some very interesting blogs that are simply news aggregators and distributors, and think this might be an important component to add into the mix. In the past I’ve also reported to the beat of my own drum, but I see there is a news cycles and an online conversation about news items, so I may shift the site in that direction as well. If I combine this with the original reporting Science Metropolis is built from, stay tuned for more posts and a more dynamic site.

Please comment if you have ideas for what you’d like to see or how I can improve this site.


Posted by Joseph, under uncategorized  |  Date: May 26, 2008

Houseflies Inspire Rescue Robots


Engineers at the Harvard Microrobotics lab use insects as inspiration to build tiny robots that could one day help emergency rescue teams on the field.
Eva Zadeh has the story.

Posted by Joseph, under technology, video  |  Date: May 25, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Doesn’t Teach Photography


The 8th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

I had been looking forward to the pin-hole camera lesson for a while. The thought of making them with my students brought me back to a visual arts class I took my junior year at Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan. The teacher instructed us how to make our own cameras, and I waited patiently to take old-style pictures of the Hudson River.

But had I looked closer at my lesson plan, I would have realized that the pin-hole cameras my class and I were building were models. Everything you needed to take a picture but no film.

I watched as the news zapped the excitement from each of my student’s eyes. “So what do these do?” Asked one of the girls. “They demonstrate… cameras,” I responded pathetically. “I know how cameras work,” she zinged back, “you snap a picture and it shows up on the screen.”

This disappointment caused the kids to be uncharacteristically sassy. I did my best to get through my spiel and decided to just sit down and help them build their projects. Surprisingly, the disinterest in the day’s topic provided some interesting conversation.

“Why are my eyes brown?” asked a 7th-grader after I talked about red-eye in photos. I did a quick survey and none of the kids had discussed genetics or inheritance in their biology classes.

“Well, what color are your mom’s eyes?” I asked. No surprise, brown. “What about your dad’s?” Aha, they’re green. After an brief overview of chromosomes and gene expression, I explained that although both genes are active, the gene for brown eyes from mom is expressed more than the gene for green eyes from dad.

I may be biased, but shouldn’t genetics be introduced before high school? It is so crucial to understanding our bodies that it seems a crime to leave it out of the curriculum. Maybe it’s because genetics involves evolution and reproduction, two touchy-subjects for Americans, or that many elementary and middle school teachers don’t have a firm knowledge of the subject.

All I saw when we had out conversational tangent into chromosomes and genes was curiosity. The kids had questions about the difference between species, the X and Y chromosomes and how human beings are going to evolve.

Bringing genetics into the younger classroom would be easy. It could be done with a story. Some out there include “How the Y Makes the Guy” and “Amazing Schemes with Your Genes.” Class assignments can also include looking into certain family characteristics such as hair color or disease.

Although the pin-hole camera project was a bust, (the second worst after hot-air balloons, said a student), our fireside chat about genetics was kind of fun. I’m not suggesting build a life-size model of DNA, but a tree-of-life tour through a local zoo would be perfect. If only we had the time for a field trip.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: May 24, 2008
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Patients With Passports


Four years ago, Maggi Ann Grace’s partner, a building contractor, learned that he had a defective heart valve. The uninsured 50-something American did not have $200,000 for heart surgery, but the state medical system, with its strange logic, would let him deteriorate before it did anything for him. Grace’s son, a medical student, told them of quality healthcare facilities in India.

Soon, the proactive North Carolina couple were at the Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi. A team of doctors performed pre-op tests and then surgery-initially to repair the mitral valve, and then, when that didn’t work, replaced it. The fee for the successful surgery as well as the postoperative care and stay was less than $10,000. The hospital staff won the couple’s hearts with the quality of care they provided over an entire month.

Grace, author of State of the Heart: A Medical Tourist’s True Story of Lifesaving Surgery in India spoke of her experience at the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Medical Ethics last Wednesday. She was on a four-member panel to discuss medical tourism, the emerging trend of flying to developing countries for health care. While such travel is not a new phenomenon, its scope is new. Last year, some 150,000 Americans went abroad to receive medical care at a fraction of the cost they would have paid at home.

Global health care advocates say that services in at least 15 countries are equal or better to those offered in the United States. Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody’s Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism, said that these countries are not just in Asia, but in South America as well. Health travel organizations now link U.S. patients with out-of-country providers; the practice is a major revenue-earner for some developing countries.

“Call me ill-informed, call me a snob, but I did not really think that the quality of medical care in developing countries could be equal to what’s offered here in the United States,” said David Boucher, Assistant Vice President of Blue Cross Blue Shield South Carolina. He seemed to echo the sentiments of some in the audience, but fortunately Boucher had the opportunity to revise his opinion. After he traveled to verify the global healthcare researchers’ assertions, he became managing director of Companion Global Healthcare, a company that helps patients get treatment overseas.

But while medical tourism brings down health care costs for middle-class patients, who have the means to consider such an option, it does little for those at the very bottom of the system. More importantly, by skimming off the middle layer, medical tourism could take away some of the pressure that must be brought to bear on a morally bankrupt health care system, which an audience member said, is not above leaving its sick uncared for.

Indeed, medical tourism is rife with ethical questions. Harvard Law School Assistant Professor Glenn Cohen brought up some of these issues. This trend, for instance, could affect the quality of care offered to the poor in developing countries because the best physicians may end up catering exclusively to well-heeled foreign clientele. In certain countries, the medical “brain drain” could be exacerbated as U.S-trained physicians from the richer developing nations like India and Malaysia choose to go back home.

The panel raised a number of questions: Is it ethically appropriate for American insurance companies to provide international health care options and incentives to their customers? What are health care providers’ and insurers’ obligations to patients when they return to the United States and need follow-up care? How do American patients reconcile with the “so, sue me,” attitude of hospitals abroad when things do go wrong?

For me, a foreign national from the Third World, another question was foremost. How do we ensure that America doesn’t end up exporting its mucked-up medical system to these nations that now offer quality healthcare at affordable prices to a sizeable part of their population? In an era of globalization, we have to answer these questions collectively. Refreshingly, we are addressing the vital issue before the juggernaut of healthcare economics relegates all ethical considerations to the wayside.

Story by Vijaysree Venkatraman.

Posted by Joseph, under international  |  Date: May 23, 2008

How Not To Catch A Predator



Chemist Eric. M. Stroud demonstrates his shark repellent.Credit: Joseph Caputo/Science Metropolis

Eric. M. Stroud
Sharks didn’t become the terrors of the sea by looking cute. With a sixth sense to detect electrical signals, these creatures are natural hunting machines.

This evolutionary trademark may also be the key to keeping sharks safe from the fishing industry. According to, a marine advocacy group, 50-million sharks are unintentionally caught by commercial fishermen each year. While some survive, many die or are de-finned as a result.

The trouble is, both fishermen and sharks know where to find fish, so keeping sharks away from catch sites isn’t going to happen. The solution is to make a repellent, a chemical or bait that will keep sharks out of harm’s way.

SharkDefense, a six-year old organization of researchers that specializes in keeping sharks safe, now has evidence that certain kinds of metals and magnets may repel sharks by overloading their electricity-detecting sense.

“A magnet is all about electrons,” said Eric. M. Stroud, lead chemist and SharkDefense co-founder. The magnets he experiments with have thousands of times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. Put one near a human or fish – no effect. But place one near a shark and it can awaken from even the deepest rest. (See video below).

Stroud, also a Ph.D. student at Seton Hall University, discussed SharkDefense’s progress Tuesday night as part of the New England Aqiarium’s Free Lecture Series. In addition to magnets, sharks tend to avoid chemicals secreted by dead sharks as well as rare Earth metals.

The company’s goal is to apply this knowledge to baits that fishermen can purchase to avoid catching sharks, although the product has to be practical. One idea was to hang dozens of magnets from the side of a boat. The problem: Boats are made of metal. More promising is a hook that includes a small piece of magnet nudged between a sleeve and steel leader.

Although the technology is available, SharkDefense still needs to hook manufacturers. “As a small company, we can’t make the stuff,” said Stroud. He hopes to get the support of government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As far as keeping sharks away from humans. There is always a company like SharkShield, which sell electronic wave devices for “peace of mind.” Although, don’t spend too much – for every 50 million sharks captured by humans, only a dozen humans are caught by sharks.

Posted by Joseph, under business, environment  |  Date: May 21, 2008

Harvard Students Win Grant to Light up Africa


Team Lebônê

David Sengeh (Sierre Leone), Hugo Van Vuuren (South Africa), and Stephen Lwendo (Tanzania) of Lebônê Solutions,

When Harvard Professor David Edwards assigned students in his “Idea Translation” course the task of designing an attractive light display for the London Olympics, one group opted to light Africa instead.

With Dr. Edwards’ encouragement, the students looked for ways to address the need for low-cost energy in Africa. Nearly three-quarters of the continent is without electricity, so they needed a device that could be easily available and cheap. They found the answer down the street in the lab of Harvard biologist Peter Girguis. He developed microbial fuel cells, which harvest energy released by microbes as they break down food. The students proposed that the clean and cheap technology could be applied to African soil.

“Essentially all you do is dig a hole, layer an anode, some soil, sand and a cathode — and connect the anode and cathode to a circuit board to charge a battery that can power an LED light, run a radio or charge a mobile phone,” said Hugo Van Vuuren, a recent Harvard graduate, in an interview with

Nine months later, the students were on their way to the capital of Ghana to present their idea in the World Bank Group Development Marketplace Competition. What started as an undergraduate student mid-term presentation was selected from 52 finalists as one of 16 winners to receive $200,000 in grant money earlier this month. The group is now a social enterprise that goes by the name Lebônê Solutions, Inc., which means “light stick” in Northen Sotho, a language spoken in South Africa.

According to Van Vuuren, the concept is already tested and works. Over the summer, members of the Lebônê team will travel to Tanzania to run field tests. If successful, they will bring the technology to entrepreneurs in Namibia for local distribution.

“It will be interesting to see how this works scientifically and culturally,” says Van Vuuren. “Scientifically, we want to use materials already in Africa, such as graphite, chicken wire or whatever else is freely available. Culturally, we want to test how people use the devices, adapt to the technology and benefit from the harvested energy.”

Van Vuuren is one of four students in the group from Africa, and as a recent economics graduate, he recognizes the value of innovation.

“As Africans privileged to study in Cambridge, we feel very fortunate for the opportunity to use technology to potentially affect society, culture, and local socio-economic circumstances,” says Van Vuuren. “We are grateful for the support of Harvard, our professors, and of course the World Bank. It is not often that students get to work on a project that might one day change conditions back home in Africa.”

For more information, visit the Lebônê Solutions, Inc. Website.

Posted by Joseph, under international  |  Date: May 19, 2008