Publications

2020
Schmitt L. Genetics graduate student enhances science communication skills at regional conference. The Newstand of Clemson University [Internet]. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract

College of Science graduate student Rebecca MacPherson, a member of professor Trudy Mackay’s research group, conducts genetics-based research that could someday translate into new approaches for treating children born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She’s also an advocate for increasing science literacy and sharing her results with the public.

On March 12-13, MacPherson was among 50 graduate students from the Southeast region who participated in the invitation-only ComSciCon-Atlanta 2020 conference at the University of Georgia, where she polished her multimedia, writing, and oral communication skills through interactions with professional science communicators and like-minded graduate students.

Rose K. ComSciCon returns to Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech Daily [Internet]. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract

If you’ve ever seen the award-winning nature documentary called "Planet Earth," you have experienced science communication at its finest. With strong science communication, scientists are able to capture the imagination, re-establish trust with the public, and spark meaningful discussions that give science a stronger presence in our society.

On Feb. 27 and 28, graduate students and communicators came together to strengthen their science communication abilities at the second annual ComSciCon–Virginia Tech.

ComSciCon is a workshop series that gives young researchers the necessary skills to communicate their scientific research to broad and diverse audiences.

Padavic-Callaghan K. The Coolest Physics You’ve Ever Heard Of. Scientific American Observations [Internet]. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract

When it comes to furthering our overall understanding of the physical world, ultracold quantum gases are awfully promising. As the famous physicist Richard Feynman argued, to fully understand nature, we need quantum means of simulation and computation. Ultracold atomic systems have, in the last 30 years, proven to be amazing quantum simulators. The number of applications for these systems as such simulators is nothing short of overwhelming, ranging from engineering artificial crystals to providing new platforms for quantum computing. In its brief history, ultracold atomic experimental research has enhanced physicists’ understanding of a truly vast array of important phenomena.

One of the revelations of quantum mechanics is that any object can be seen as a wave (even you!) when an appropriate experimental test is used. Properties of these co-called “matter waves” depend on their temperature; at large temperatures they have short wavelengths and look and behave particlelike because all the peaks and valleys are so close together that they cannot be told apart. If we lower temperature to much less than a single kelvin, the wave nature of matter becomes more pronounced and wavelike behaviors more important. What happens then with a large collection of very cold atoms that behave like a large collection of waves? They can all align and overlap to form a single wave, something that was historically called a “macroscopic wave function.” Such a system—a condensate in physics parlance—is a fundamentally quantum state of matter.

Bretl B. Evolutionary explanation for unscientific beliefs Smith D. The Danielle Smith Show [Internet]. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Guest Brandon Bretl, research fellow and PhD candidate in the department of educational psychology at the University of Kansas
Bretl B. An Evolutionary Explanation for Unscientific Beliefs. Quillette [Internet]. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract
“Another theory is that humans were created by God,” announced my tenth-grade biology student as she clicked past PowerPoint slides of Darwin’s finches and on to images of a catastrophic flood. After her presentation, I carefully avoided inane debate and simply reiterated the unique ways in which science helps us make accurate predictions. I then prepared for pushback from parents and administrators. Sure enough, the next day the superintendent of the school district came to my classroom with some creationist literature that he was confident would change my mind on the whole theory of evolution by natural selection thing. It didn’t, but it did lead me to pursue a PhD in educational psychology in my search to explain how such beliefs could be maintained in modern times, particularly in the face of such strong counterevidence.
2019
Ayer A. The Secret in Your Veins: The History of Blood Transfusion. Illinois Science Council's Science Unsealed Blog [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Blood transfusions are an essential component of modern-day medicine, saving lives in a variety of situations, ranging from genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia to road accidents. But, the history of blood transfusion is a rocky one. For instance, did you know that a German physician founded the world’s first blood transfusion institute in 1926 because he believed blood transfusions led to immortality?

Dr. Alexander Bogdanov started some crude blood transfusion experiments on himself by injecting blood of other young men into his own system. After 11 such transfusion sessions, he claimed to have improved vision, arrest hair loss, and produce youthful skin. This led him to believe that blood transfusion was the path to immortality and eternal youth. But, as you can expect, this practice, combined with poor understanding of the blood transfusion process at that time, killed him years later.

Carnovale M. Science or science fiction? The still-open questions about the #CRISPRtwins story. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Kiran Musunuru was shocked. In a few days, on Nov. 27, 2018, scientists from all over the world would meet in Hong Kong to set standards for the use of the CRISPR gene-editing tool on human embryos. Yet the paper in front of him suggested that in China, gene-edited twins were already growing in their mother’s uterus, with the help of scientist He Jiankui.

“I was horrified,” Musunuru recalled as he spoke to science writers gathered in State College, Pa. 11 months later, for the ScienceWriters2019 conference. “This is an historic event, the first gene-edited babies. And this is a horror show.”

That day, Associated Press reporter Marilynn Marchione had requested the opinion of three experts in genetics on an unpublished paper. Musunuru, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was one of them. The claims made by He, the paper’s lead author, were grandiose and terrifying: he had implanted gene-edited embryos.

Albuquerque L. P-values and statistical significance: New ideas for interpreting scientific results. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

When statistician Nicole Lazar published an editorial in The American Statistician earlier this year advocating changes in the way scientists handle the troublesome issue of statistical significance, her father—who trained as a sociologist—asked her, "Are you getting death threats on Twitter?"

Lazar, a professor of statistics at the University of Georgia, doesn't use Twitter, but the question reveals how contentious the issue of statistical significance is. "You don't often think about statisticians getting emotional about things," Lazar told an audience of writers attending the Science Writers 2019 conference held in State College, Pa.,"but this is a topic that's been raising a lot of passion and discussion in our field.” Lazar spoke on Oct. 27 as part of the New Horizons in Science briefing organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW).

Many scientists determine whether the results of their experiments are “statistically significant” by using statistical tests that result in a number known as the “p-value.” A p-value of less than 0.05 is commonly considered significant, and often erroneously characterized as meaning the findings are not likely to be the result of chance. What the number actually reveals is less straightforward, and even scientists have trouble explaining the precise meaning of the p-value. Using the threshold of < 0.05 has been shown to be problematic, misleading, and even dangerous. Lazar’s editorial, “Moving to a World Beyond 'p < 0.05',” discusses several possibilities that will give researchers alternatives to an arbitrary p-value cut-off.

Tindell RK. Rising seas: Ice sheets pose uncertain, startling risks for the planet. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Beneath the ocean waters off Antartica, massive buried shelves of ice function like buttresses, supporting the continent’s massive ice sheets.

If those buttresses fail, Richard Alley told science writers at a recent conference in State College, Pa., global sea levels will not rise by inches, as predicted by recent climate reports—but instead by as much as 186 feet.

Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State University, discussed the perilous consequences of rising sea levels, and society's options in the face of an uncertain future, on Oct. 27 during the New Horizons in Science briefing organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, part of the ScienceWriters2019 conference.

“We can either treat climate change science like a tweet—pretending like it’s an evil liar—or we can use knowledge,” Alley said.

As climate changes, rising sea levels are a concern for countries that border the world’s oceans. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—also known as the IPCC—sea levels will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

Marvin C. Drug resistance: Can targeting evolution be the solution?. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Science has given doctors more and more powerful drugs to deploy against infectious diseases and cancers in recent decades, and yet many new therapies have failed to live up to their promise. Andrew Read has some ideas about how to change that. 

As an evolutionary biologist, Read views much drug therapy as an impossible game of "whack-a-mole," where microorganisms and cancer cells evolve and change to resist drugs and survive. Speaking to writers at the New Horizons in Science briefings presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing during the ScienceWriters2019 conference in State College, Pa., on Oct. 27, Read suggested that more and powerful drugs may not be the solution. Instead, he called for managing evolution to prevent the emergence of drug resistance in the first place.

Dulka BN. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence: A “neglected” quest no longer?. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

“I’m an observer,” said astronomer Jason Wright. “I’ve always enjoyed the little corners that are being neglected.” In recent years Wright has been exploring one such neglected corner—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. He is optimistic that it will soon be full of activity.

Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, expressed this hope to science writers visiting State College, Pa., for the ScienceWriters2019 conference. Speaking as part of the New Horizons in Science briefing organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing on Oct. 28, he shared a vision for SETI’s future.

That future, Wright pointed out, hasn’t always looked promising. The official SETI program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was frequently a target of congressional ridicule and was terminated in 1993. Since then, other branches of SETI have suffered and dwindled owing to a lack of federal grant funding. SETI research has survived thanks to philanthropic donations.

Kuei B. Fighting climate change with science (and poetry). CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Seven years ago, Rob Jackson and his graduate student drove around the city of Boston—back and forth, back and forth, up and down every block like a lawnmower. With a laser instrument in tow, the scientists mapped more than 3,000 natural gas leaks. This collaborative effort, involving Jackson’s Duke University team and a Boston University group led by Nathan Phillips, produced the first public map showing natural gas leaks in a city.

Two years later, the Massachusetts legislature passed a safety bill that included accelerated natural gas pipeline replacements and faster cost recovery for utility companies. It was a win-win.

This is one of the success stories that Jackson, now professor of earth system science at Stanford University, can claim for his research. He spoke Oct. 28 on climate change problems and solutions during a New Horizons in Science session organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writers at the ScienceWriters 2019 conference, and sat down to talk about his career. 

Moran S. The monkey in the mirror: Non-human primate brains offer a lens into human minds. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Bigger, slower-developing brains may distinguish humans from their non-human primate relatives, says George Washington University anthropologist Chet Sherwood, but these obvious brain differences are only the beginning of what we can learn about our evolution by studying our primate cousins.

Understanding how brain shape and function differ among primate groups could help answer many questions about the human brain, from the neurochemical controls of social behavior to the reasons people develop mental illness.

Reitz S. An upside-down jellyfish could help save coral reefs. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Upside-down jellyfish growing in a lab in Pennsylvania could help protect endangered coral reefs in the world’s oceans.

The creatures serve as a stand-in for corals off the southern coast of Florida that spawn once a year, seven days after a full moon, exactly three and a half hours after sunset — and at the height of Florida’s hurricane season.

For more than 10 years, Penn State University biologist Mónica Medina made hazardous annual pilgrimages to the Florida reefs to capture coral embryos during this narrow window of opportunity. Until she turned to a more accessible species — Cassiopea xamachana, the upside-down jellyfish, which can thrive in a lab — to provide a faster route to understanding and supporting coral reef health.

Crowe C. A controversial tactic against climate change. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

David Keith has a tool for fighting climate change, and a big challenge: convincing the rest of the world to use it. Speaking to science writers gathered in State College, Pa. on Oct. 28, Keith, a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University, said he understands why some are apprehensive about his approach.

“This topic is controversial,” Keith said, “and it should be.”

Keith spoke during the annual New Horizons in Science briefing presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing as part of ScienceWriters2019.

Limper CB. Patients’ waste is this scientist’s treasure. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

A newsmaker from an unexpected encounter has offered scientific news from an unexpected source—poop.

As I looked for stories at a science writers’ conference in State College, Pa., it was the fellow student scientist who sat down next to me who provided a rich story about the potential for pathogens called reoviruses—commonly found in human and other animal waste—to advance the control of cancer cell growth.

Hariharan J. Killer fungus could cause the next amphibian apocalypse. CASW Newsroom [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

A deadly fungus decimated populations of frogs and other amphibians around the globe in the late 20th century. Today a new, even more lethal one is on the march. Biologists are taking lessons from the previous “amphibian apocalypse” to try to hold off the next big wave of deaths and extinctions.

Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians might not stir warm thoughts, but their existence—and their decline—affects humans and other animals in critical ways. The global drop in amphibian populations has drastically affected ecosystems, lowering water quality, harming algae and water insects and destroying food webs critical for the preservation of a range of species.

Lewis B. Where Is Everyone? Technological adolescence and the Fermi paradox. Orbiter [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Imagine a world where a trip to the moon is as easy as running to the grocery store. Visiting nearby stars might be a routine cross-galaxy flight, and you may even have a layover at a galactic travel hub on a place like Batuu from Star Wars. In this imaginary universe, many stars and planets would be connected, and their societies could communicate as a part of a galactic civilization.

Given our limited spaceflight capabilities, it might seem obvious at first why this hasn’t happened. It took even one of our fastest small probes (New Horizons, which visited Pluto in 2015) almost 10 years to get to the outer solar system, and we haven’t yet sent humans any further than the moon (and that was back in the 1970s). With our current technology, it would take around 100 human lifetimes to cross the unimaginably large four light years to our nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri.

Palmer B. Restoration ecology: the study of applied optimism. Restoration Ecology [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's Version
Kulkarni S. Mind the [Mass] Gap. Scientific American Observations Blog [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Astronomers are getting closer to figuring out where the dividing line lies between neutron stars and black holes

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