WELCOME TO “SCIENCE MATTERS”

Earth Exploration Hall in Science City, Kolkata

By David Dannecker
Senior Editor

Science has never been more pertinent to current events than it is today. Global climate change ushers in an increasing amount of news each year. Disease epidemics, such as the ongoing challenge of Ebola in West Africa, currently feature in breaking headlines on a weekly basis. New discoveries in astronomy, physics, oceanography, and many other exciting fields are being made regularly. With that being said, there is a troubling lack of clarity, and even outright misinformation, in the way that many media outlets report on scientific discoveries and the scientific aspects of broader news stories. It cannot be said that this is strictly the fault of the media; many scientific topics are not very approachable and can be difficult to summarize. However, with science becoming an increasingly relevant facet of so many of today’s news stories, improving the scientific understanding of the general public has never been more important.

As a student publication covering international affairs at one of the world’s leading universities for scientific fields, Prospect Journal is well-situated to delve into the scientific issues that are making news today. We are launching this Science Matters blog feature as a forum to explore some of the nuances of those issues, to talk about concepts that don’t always get attention in the media, and to actively work against the scientific illiteracy that tends to pervade certain topics in the public discourse.

My name is David Dannecker; I am an editor for Prospect, and a graduate student of biology at UC San Diego. I, along with several other scientifically-inclined writers here at Prospect, will be contributing to the Science Matters blog over the coming weeks and months. I look forward to exploring the oceans, the atmosphere, the workings of our world and beyond in the articles that we publish here. Please check back every other Wednesday to follow these explorations.

Image by Biswarup Ganguly

EBOLA VACCINE DEVELOPMENT PROVOKES STEM CELL CONTROVERSY

Stem Cell Research, Attempting to Cure Blindness

By Jubilee Cheung
Staff Writer

The Ebola scare currently sweeping across the United States is far from unfounded; the outbreak of the disease in West Africa is acknowledged as the most widespread to date, having now killed over 5,000 people. It recently threatened to spread across Mali, where it has already claimed the life of a nurse who had been treating an infected individual. Sierra Leone has also been hit particularly hard by the disease, as caregivers continue to test positive for Ebola. The remaining staff are understandably unnerved, and some have gone on strike in response to a lack of monetary compensation for the risky nature of their work.

American nurses and other volunteers appear to echo this sentiment, criticizing the inadequate protection provided to caregivers combating the illness overseas. Though the United States was recently declared free of Ebola, it had been viewed as a very real concern only a short time ago. The first case in the states occurred in September, where a man in Texas was diagnosed with Ebola and died eight days later; two of the nurses tasked with treating him were also infected, but survived. The most recent case manifested in the Oct. 23 diagnosis of a doctor who had been combating Ebola in Guinea, and has since been discharged.

Though the eradication of the disease in the United States does mark a celebratory milestone, the Ebola scare has certainly left its mark as steps have been taken to develop a functioning vaccine. A vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), as well as by the US National Institutes of Health, is expected to commence with human trials in West Africa as early as next month. These apparent medical strides in the fight against Ebola, however, have garnered a less than enthusiastic response among ardent pro-life groups. On group in particular, Children of God for Life, is opposing the vaccine on the grounds that it was developed through stem cell research. Working with stem cells often provides doctors with important insights regarding organismal development, and the practice has proven invaluable in its potential to fight disease. But there is a somewhat questionable means to that end – stem cells are primarily obtained through the destruction of human embryos. A member of Children of God for Life, Debi Vinnedge, has gone so far as to criticize the Obama administration as being “completely irresponsible” for approving the development of these vaccines, claiming that they cannot be “[used] in good conscience”. The group is currently pushing for “morally acceptable alternatives”.

Controversy surrounding stem cell research is not a new phenomenon – the two have coexisted since the inception of the latter. It is primarily the methods through which doctors and researchers obtain stem cells that occasionally incite public backlash, more so than the practice of working with these cells itself. One common way of acquiring stem cells is though the deliberate creation, and invariably subsequent destruction, of human embryos. Stem cells can also be harvested from “aborted fetal cell lines,” which is the practice that the Children of God for Life alleges is being employed in the development of Ebola vaccines. The potential benefits surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research are staggering. Observing stem cells allows an enriched understanding of how a disease first occurs, as well as the effects it has on the body. Stem cells are undifferentiated, unspecialized cells with the extraordinary capacity to later develop into different types of cells. They are highly regenerative, and have the potential to be manually developed into a particular variety of cell – the qualities most responsible for their appeal in drug and medicinal testing.

As complicated as it is to denounce the benefits derived from stem cell research, it is equally complicated to ignore the ethical issues that also concern it. Many of these problems find some overlap with those revolving around the concept of abortion; chief among said issues is the matter of human life, what defines it, and where it begins. There are some religions – namely Catholicism – that maintain that human life begins at fertilization; there also exist other parties that, speaking from what they refer to as a more scientific point of view, question this idea and propose that human life may begin farther along chronologically. Whatever one chooses to accept as true, it is probably with some measure of difficulty that they reconcile themselves to the use of human embryonic stem cells in such a manner, versus that of another animal species.

The central issue at hand concerning stem cell research involves the matter of their acquisition: the Children of God for Life group, is demonstratively opposing the development of the Ebola vaccine on the grounds that it is being tested on stem cells derived from aborted fetuses. The concept of using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), versus stem cells obtained from human fetuses, has the potential to eliminate such controversy. iPSCs are defined as adult cells, often taken from the blood or skin, that are then programmed to return to an embryonic state closely mirroring that of stem cells. In this regard, the iPSCs can act as a benignly obtained substitute for stem cells that ultimately serves the same purpose. While iPSCs have tremendous potential, as a newer scientific breakthrough further research is required before they can reach quite the same level of practical usefulness as traditional embryonic stem cells.

If the progress in the production of preventative vaccines as substantial as it promises to be, it would arguably be unethical not to pursue their development to the fullest extent. The current Ebola outbreak has afflicted 14,000 and killed over 5,000. The method in which the potential vaccines are tested might be morally troubling, but stem cell research is not a new concept. Stem cell research is being used in other studies at this very moment, in the search for cures to ailments such as Alzheimer’s among many others. It is the prevalent fear that the rigorous spread of Ebola has incited that has given a new face to an old controversy. If there are indeed economically feasible ethical alternatives to such testing, it is worth noting that they might merit trial in the future. The use of iPSCs, for example, shows great promise in the future of drug and medicinal testing. But as matters stand right now, pursuing a vaccine that combats an obviously very pervasive illness should be the world’s first priority. Tragic as it is, there are nearly always casualties where global advancement is concerned.

Image by Bryan Jones

SCIENCE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: WINTER IN ANTARCTICA

By Clifford Hoang
VP Finance and CEO

This summer, I was fortunate to be one of a small but growing number of international scientists to spend months at a stretch on the world’s most remote continent: Antarctica. As a science team member in NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD), our mission is to conduct research to fulfill NOAA’s mandate of providing scientific advice that supports interests related to resource management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), of which the U.S. is a key member.

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Illustration by Katie Peek

Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) 

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My journey to the bottom of the world began at one of the most southern cities in the world, Punta Arenas, Chile. It’s a small but cozy port city, with all points of interest within reasonable walking distance. At the entrance to the largest pier in Punta Arenas there hangs a banner around a humpback whale’s tail, which appropriately reads, “Gateway to Antarctica”. The far end of the pier docks the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 308-foot icebreaker-equipped research vessel that will carry the AMLR team across the treacherous Drake Passage to the research area along the West Antarctic Peninsula.  We are in search of a two-inch crustacean species called Euphasia superba, generally referred to as krill.

Why krill?

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Krill set up the marine Antarctic food web. They represent the primary food source for a wide variety of animals including penguins, seals, whales, fish, and sea birds. Humans, too, rely on this food source approximated to be between 100 and 500 million tons. More comprehensive regional studies reveal that the krill population is subject to considerable fluctuations from year to year, linked to changing climate. After three decades of study, the question of how krill behave in the winter remains largely unresolved. Our work will advance understandings of krill patterns during bleak winters and help the United States manage the Antarctic krill fisheries.

Crossing the Drake

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To those prone to motion sickness, the Drake Passage is unforgiving. The trek to the southern continent took approximately three days–sailing from Punta Arenas through the Strait of Magellan (Estrecho de Magallanes) to the tail of the South American continent takes a day alone. The Drake boasted waves that rocked our vessel upwards 20 degrees from normal. While crossing the Drake Passage, we deployed expendable Bathythemographs (XBT) and surface drifters, instruments that collect various kinds of oceanographic data including temperature and salinity. Data in this region is scarce, and understandably so. Researchers have developed a network of autonomous instruments (e.g. Argo Floats, Global Drifter Program) to sidestep the dangers involved with collecting data in such inaccessible regions.

Frozen Breakfast

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I captured this image on the first morning nearing the end of our long voyage across the Drake Passage. I was on the back deck, just beginning to drop an XBT into the ocean for a temperature profile when a single white conglomerate floats across my line of sight. Having just dropped the instrument into the water, I anxiously waited for the radio call that the instrument reached a depth of 750 meters before I could cut the copper wire and see what was happening at the front of the vessel.  As the vessel continued on its course, more clusters of these icy chunks appeared. When I finally received the signal to cut the line, I dashed directly towards the ship’s bridge and found myself mesmerized by a vast calm sea covered in pancake ice!

Tip of the Iceberg

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It’s difficult to imagine the entirety of these majestic figures. Mind-bending even. Only a small fraction of an iceberg’s mass protrudes from the sea surface. Unlike sea ice which originate from freezing seawater at the surface, icebergs are masses of ice that formed on land and are detached from the terminus of a glacier or ice shelf and float in the open water.

Sunrise in Admiralty Bay

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Working the graveyard shift (12 a.m. to 12 p.m.) certainly had its perks. While I wasn’t awake to catch a single sunset at the bottom of the world, the sunrises were more than enough to make up for them. The sky and ocean would emanate a flaring intensity of red from the rising sun. From the west coast, the sunrises I’ve witnessed always crept up from behind a range of mountains. Watching the sun appear as a yolk on one side of the ocean was a new experience to me.

Penguin Isle

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To map the distribution of krill–which like to hide under the sea ice–we employed acoustic sounding equipment. Like with most research equipment, the data collected is only as valid as what the instrument is calibrated to. On the morning of this sunrise, we positioned ourselves in the calm waters nearby Penguin Island to calibrate the acoustic gear. In sum, the process consumed five hours of our day. Believe me, time passed in a blink of an eye! To the surprise of many, there were, indeed, penguin colonies living around Penguin Island. These adorable flightless birds topped the lists of many for “sights to see in Antarctica”.

Breaking Ice

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Compared to previous AMLR research cruises, this cruise had gone absolutely flawlessly. We were reaching all of the stations on our grid in record time–the ice we encountered until this point was too young or thin to put up a fight against our mighty icebreaker. This was one of the rare instances where we were forced to break ice to arrive at our next net tow station. Forced to fire up all four of the vessel’s engines, the engineering crew couldn’t wait to get out of the ice. I quite enjoyed this new and exciting experience. The unfamiliar sounds of crushing ice effortlessly drowned out the groans resonating from the overworked diesel engines.

 

Aside from taking in the sights, there are plenty of other ways scientists and crew spent their time.

Ice hockey

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Leave it to the crew to make even the most menial, unimaginative tasks entertaining! Interested in a little exercise, beautiful views, and helping the crew clear the back deck of residual ice chunks? Look no further.

Disco party anyone?

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There’s a long-standing tradition on these research cruises where we celebrate Hump Day, the midpoint of the month-long cruise. Following the installment of the disco ball, the Zooplankton team held once-a-tow (every four hours) spontaneous dance parties to inspire a bit of fun and boost morale amidst long 12-hour shifts.

Antarctica was the last place on earth where I expected to spend my summer. It is undeniably one of the most remote and beautiful places in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world. However, this experience helped me put into perspective that winter is rapidly coming to an end in Antarctica. Summers are becoming longer and winters are more confined, threatening the seasonal cycles that these fragile ecosystems have grown accustomed to. Climate change is, by far, the most pressing issue facing the world today. It is not an issue pertaining to any one particular country but rather, it is an issue that transcends national borders and geographic boundaries. While the implications of warming oceans remain unclear, in the coming decades and century, sea ice is expected to continue rapidly changing. These alterations will have major impacts on both the physical and biological environment at the global and regional levels.

To view more photographs from his time in Antarctica, check out Clifford’s album.

All photographs by Clifford Hoang, VP Finance and CEO.