Evolution Education in Texas

March 27th, 2009

What is in a word?

Weakness.

What does it signify?

Well, to the debate taking place across the United States over science education standards it has come to mean much more than it should. Weakness is the word that is used to instill uncertainty in the minds of people. Because science is unable to know everything, then how could it know how we humans came to be? How can science have discovered the links from more primitive organisms to the complexity that makes us who we are? Uncertainty is a weakness in the minds of some people, and they would like an alternative view discussed.

The problem is that the science of evolution is not uncertain about the general process anymore. Over 100 years of scientific investigation have built the theory. There have been no studies that negate the process of evolution. Each study that brings new knowledge to the workings of the evolutionary process just make the theory richer.

What is viewed as weakness by some is actually a strength of science. Science has the capacity as a tool to make new discoveries.

The language intended to bring Creationism into the Texas classrooms will only serve to bring uncertainty about the scientific process. That is its intent — to undermine knowledge in favor of dogma.

If the intent of the Creationist members of the Texas school board is to allow critical thinking and knowledge seeking to thrive in the classroom, they should have accepted a motion to change the language from “teach the strengths and weaknesses” to “including discussing what is not fully understood in all fields of science.” But, they didn‘t.

So far, knowledge survives. But, just barely… with a vote of 7-7 yesterday, the language is supported by half of the Texas school board. That in itself is too much. The board is voting again today. Fingers crossed.

Update: The evolution specific amendment passed, 13 - 2, with the following wording: “In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.”

For up to the minute blogging from the Texas school board meeting check out the Texas Freedom Network.

Making Stem Cells Virus-Free

March 26th, 2009

A report out today from the University of Wisconsin - Madison suggests that the first virus-free human induced pluripotent stem cells have been created. This is significant in the search for alternatives to embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell type.

To date, one major stumbling block to the use of adult stem cells induced to be pluripotent has been the use of viral vectors. Foreign genetic material from the viral vectors can integrate itself into the host cell DNA and have negative consequences on cell processes and experimental results.

From the press releaese:

The new work was accomplished using a plasmid, a circle of DNA, and cells from the foreskins of newborns. “The plasmids carry all the needed transgenes, but don’t integrate into the host DNA, they just float around as episomes” in the cell, Thomson says.

The plasmids replicate, but they do so somewhat inefficiently, Thomson explains, so that after they perform the job of reprogramming, they can subsequently be weeded out, leaving the induced cells free of any exotic genetic material. “Once the transgenes have done their job and are no longer needed, one can merely recover induced pluripotent stem cells that have lost their episomes.”

The resulting cells, says Thomson, are remarkably similar to embryonic stem cells and show the same capacity to proliferate indefinitely in culture and diversify into all the cell types of the human body.

The fact that these induced cells are so similar to embryonic cells suggests that the research is on the right track. However, there are several possible methods of reprogramming adult cells under investigation. Another method might turn out to be more efficient or successful at reaching the end goal of turning back the clock on adult cells.

I am waiting for the press releases to fill my inbox suggesting that science has solved all the problems with adult stem cell research, and that we no longer need embryonic stem cells. This is one more step in the process of understanding how our cells work, but it by no means has answered all the questions.

Should Newspapers Be Non-Profit?

March 25th, 2009

This article in ZDNet suggests that it might not be such a bad idea. Says Mr. Diaz,

“What we’re not doing is sitting in on city council meetings on the lookout for changes to the zoning ordinances or hikes to property taxes. We’re not investigating environmental impacts from the new airport expansion or looking into motives of a developer who’s suddenly hanging around city hall regularly. That’s local stuff that should be covered at the local level and offered to local citizens. I imagine there are probably potential donors in cities and regions that would be willing to invest in local “journalism,” instead of “newspapers.””

Newspapers could subsist on donations rather than advertising. It’s an interesting idea, and there are some groups delving into the idea of donation based journalism.

However, the political biases of some newspapers are so obvious, it is hard to imagine them as non-profits. I can’t help but equate this idea to allowing churches to have non-profit status and promote political agendas.

Oh, wait. We already do that.

Stem Cell Town Hall Fails Web 2.0

March 19th, 2009

Last night, I attended the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) San Francisco Town Hall for stem cell science. In their words:

“The Town Forums provide an interactive opportunity for people to learn how CIRM is investing
Proposition 71 funds to improve human health and about advances in stem cell science from some of the
most distinguished researchers in the field.”

CIRM manages the public money that was allotted for stem cell research through the passage of Prop. 71. Part of their mandate is to inform the public of the state of the research. They have a vested interest in doing a good job at the public outreach: future funding depends on it.

I went with great hopes for a well-attended, message driven, engaging experience.

They did have the numbers. It’s estimated by the CIRM chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, that 275 people came to the event, which is 75 more than had RSVP’d. So, in terms of feet in the meeting room, the people came.

Needless to say, there were event posters plastered all over SF Muni’s buses and trains for a month prior. But, the fact that so many people had RSVP’d makes me wonder how successful the print ad campaign actually was. I don’t know how many people would write down the email address in order to reply once in front of a computer. Yes, in San Francisco, many people could have used their mobile devices to respond on route, but I still wonder. I know I never RSVP’d. I just showed up.

An RSVP is most likely to come from someone who receives an email communication, an invitation, or… a press release. And, those people are going to be somehow linked to the organization through some kind of list. So, how many of the attendees were citizens of this California locality with no link to CIRM? Probably not as many as they hoped to attract.

But, what about people who might have been interested, but unable to make it to the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco? What about Californians in Redding, Stockton, Humboldt, Fresno? That’s a long drive to make for a lecture on stem cells. This is where CIRM fails in its mandate to inform the public of its activities, and where it fails at basic Web 2.0.

With today’s internet capabilities, there is no excuse for relying on outreach techniques of yesterday. They have a mandate to reach the public. I don’t think 275 attendees cuts the mustard. So, where could they have improved?

1.Interact with the audience

If it’s supposed to be interactive, make it interactive.

Sure, the q and a after the lectures was interactive for the people in attendance, but they could do so much better. There are web companies that make it easy to set up a simple camera and stream events live to people around the world. Not only does the video reach a wider audience, the platforms make interactive chat between people hosting and viewing an event possible. Both the informational lectures and the question and answer session could have been made richer by the parallel discussion. I had the only video camera at the town hall, and I wasn’t streaming.

2. Engage the audience

Who did CIRM have presenting to the audience? Scientists. And, while scientists are smart and everything, they don’t always do a good job of conveying information to a lay audience. The lectures last night were academic, textbook, and DRY. If it weren’t for the fact that I think 2/3 of the people in the room had a science background, the lectures would have been over the heads of the average person. Add to the lecture content the fact that the visual presentations were abysmal. The slides were consistently over-stuffed with text or overly-complicated graphics. However, there were two bright spots. Tamara Alliston, who lectured on cartilage, did an excellent job of using cartilage as the main character in her story, and Bruce Conklin, who lectured on heart muscle, effectively used humor to his benefit (not to mention that he also had cool videos). Both of these techniques are extremely effective in getting an audience to engage with a topic.

3. Don’t forget the audience

It seemed as though, as well-intentioned as the speakers were, the purpose of the event was muddled. They forgot the concerns of the audience.

The entire series of three lectures needed to be message driven rather than driven by scientific jargon and research techniques. For future events, I suggest enlisting a public relations expert to train the speakers and help craft a series of engaging lectures with hooks to draw the audience in, stories to keep them engaged, and simple bottom-lines. What is the take home message? Drive it home.

4. Get the audience to spread the word

I’m spreading the word because that was my goal in attending. I wanted to see how this town hall was produced, and then talk about it. CIRM needs to get their audience to advertise for them, to pass their messages along for them. Where are those opportunities? Their website is devoid of ways to interact, communicate, and share. I did hear last night that part of the reason the website is suffering is that it is managed by the state, and has to deal with a lot of internal beaurocracy. Fair enough, but it is easy to become involved in non-state-managed web communities like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Stumble Upon, or even Flickr. What about Seesmic? I can imagine some interesting discussions taking place there. To CIRM’s credit, they do have both a YouTube site and a Flickr account.

5. Give the audience what they want

Some of the most effective campaigns to get the public interested in science are being run by NASA and the California Academy of Sciences. They are taking advantage of all the data available to them, and creating fascinating new ways to interact with their respective audiences in just the way the audience wants. NASA’s recent Twitter accounts have had amazing success, especially @MarsPhoenix. Then there is NASA.tv where I watched the recent shuttle docking with the International Space Station. Here in San Francisco, the Cal Academy recently began a Thursday night, adults-only event with top djs and alcohol. So far, it has been a raging success.

These examples aren’t necessarily exactly what CIRM should do, but they should learn the lesson of giving the audience what they want.

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I’ve been a bit harsh on CIRM for its inaugural public outreach event, but I think it is deserved. Science media is lacking, and every organization that is trying to share scientific information with the public needs to do their absolute best to step it up. Science needs to use PR and web 2.0 techniques just like everyone else.

I will admit that the whole town hall left me feeling as if CIRM was only just going through the motions of fulfilling its mandate for public outreach rather than truly making an effort to reach out and educate the people of California and beyond. I hope they do better next time.

ScienceBlogs Brazil Launches!

March 18th, 2009

Seed Magazine and ScienceBlogs have embarked on a new endeavor of opening up science discussions in South America.


ScienceBlogs Brazil brings together the most original and influential voices within the Brazilian science community, some of whom have already won accolades for their blogging. Edited from São Paulo by Carlos Hotta and Atila Iamarino, ScienceBlogs Brazil launches today with 23 Portuguese-language blogs on topics ranging from genetics to the environment. “I think we need people committed to raising scientific awareness in Brazil,” said Carlos Hotta, “and I am certain that ScienceBlogs Brazil will turn our local voices into global ones.”

With its growing science community and emphasis on science as a cornerstone of economic growth under a multi-year, multi-billion dollar Science, Technology and Innovation Plan of Action for National Development, Brazil is emerging as a vital player in global science culture. The country is the fifth most populous in the world and has over 67 million Internet users.

If you are so inclined, check out ScienceBlogs Brazil, and definitely spread the word.

How Science Got Its Groove Back

March 9th, 2009

Today’s declaration by President Obama makes me very happy. Not only did he reverse the Bush administration’s limits on federal funding for stem cell research, but he made the statement that science is valuable.

“This [Stem Cell] Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient - especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda  -  and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”By doing this, we will ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.”That is why today, I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals — to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.”

Today marks a very public and official change for the relationship between science and politics in the United States government. This makes me very, very happy.

Twitter Word Association

March 2nd, 2009

This is what people on Twitter think when they hear the word ’science’:

created at TagCrowd.com

A Brief History of Stem Cells

March 2nd, 2009

A recent scientific report marks a landmark in stem cell research. Scientists writing in the journal Development described their successful creation of induced pluripotent stem cells from skin cells. The mouse-derived skin cells Epi-stem cells (as in epidermal) have the ability to continually divide, but are specialized to create only skin.

This in itself is not new, but the researchers were able to complete their experiments without the use of viruses. Until now, viral vectors have been the only method  capable of inserting the necessary pluripotency inducing genes into animal cells. Because the viruses are made up of foreign DNA, their use adds a level of uncertainty to the potential therapeutic use of induced stem cells.

Nobody wants to see potentially deadly effects occur as the result of the foreign DNA — being foreign it is uncertain what kind of things could happen. So, getting rid of the viruses is essential if we are going to see induced stem cells move beyond the realm of the theoretical and into application.

This is a big step. Next we will have to see the methodology repeated in primates and then in humans. And, from there we will have to wait and see if the virus-free induced human stem cells of the future are really capable of becoming any type of tissue. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the required evidence appearing in the news within the next year.

It was just 2006 when Japanese researchers used viruses to induce the first pluripotent stem cells from mouse cells. It took another year for them to reduce the errors present in the methodology, and get induced stem cells that could produce viable chimeras.

In November of 2007,  the first human induced pluripotent stem cells were created. The teams working on the problem felt that the use of viruses was still too dangerous as the viral DNA often led to the development of tumors.

Late in 2008, the news broke that induced pluripotent stem cells had been created with an adenovirus instead of a retrovirus, and later with the use of a plasmid. Neither of these new vectors are known to integrate foreign DNA into the target genome.

In December of 2008, skin cells from primates were induced to become pluripotent stem cells capable of becoming a number of different cell types. And, just two weeks ago researchers reported inducing human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells.

The most recent study uses a piece of DNA called a transposon to insert the critical DNA for creating pluripotent stem cells into target regions of the genome. This is an exciting development since the transposon used can be species specific, and take us far away from the use of foreign viral bits.

I’m excited to see where the future of this research will take us.