Under the International Radar: Refugees and Restrooms

While going to the restroom is a fleeting thought in the daily lives of citizens in urban spaces, as mundane as breathing or walking — for refugees, deciding to use a restroom can be a costly consideration and mean putting their safety at risk.

By Jasmine Moheb

Staff Writer

For many of us living in the richest countries in the world, we do not experience the challenges of only having access to restrooms that are over capacity, lack proper safeguards such as doors and locks, and are exposed to outside dangers. However, this is a reality that is faced daily by communities that have been displaced from their homes and are facing uncertain living conditions. Refugees compose a substantial number of the 4.2 billion people in the world that do not have proper access to toilets, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Just one example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo shows that about 55 percent of the 7,217 refugees who arrived in Mulongwe since 2017 have constructed their own latrines due to insufficient facilities. Something that should be a basic necessity is severely limited among those who do not have permanent homes.

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Public Access Evolution: Global Action Needed to Maintain the Stability of The Human Genome

Photo Credit: NHGRI

By Bennett Batten
Contributing Writer

In November 2018 the scientific community was stunned when the guest speaker to the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, He Jiankui, decided to share a fun surprise. He had successfully edited the embryonic DNA of twin girls! He deactivated a gene called CCR5 with the goal of  decreasing the risk of acquiring HIV. In reaction to this event an international body of scientists called for a temporary global moratorium on heritable genome editing, and the World Health Organization (WHO) formed an advisory committee on “Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing”. While both of those developments are positive, they do not fix the problem that was highlighted.  

Advancements in genetic engineering have far surpassed our global institutions’ ability to regulate them. With the development of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR and gene drives, paired with the growing popularity of DIY labs, access to bioweapon creation or human enhancement has become open to the public.

Back in 2014 a scientist at Vanderbilt University stated that experiments that previously required 18 months and $20,000 now only take 3 weeks and $3,000. It’s been 6 years since that statement, so it’s safe to assume that prices have fallen farther. Entrepreneurs have met these falling prices with DIY biohacker labs. The first of their kind opened in 2010. By 2017 there were more than 50 in the USA alone. Lack of regulation and security at these private biolabs have concerned the FDA and FBI, but no cohesive protocol has been put in place by the federal government to address safety and ethical concerns. 

A vulnerability from open access genetic engineering is an inability to contain negative side effects. Most genes affect and are affected by others. When Jiankui “deleted” the gene CCR5 in the twin girls, he knowingly increased their likelihood of health complications from viral infections and improved their cognitive abilities. The study of how genes interact with one another is complex and incomplete. How these side effects will manifest in the twins is unknown. If a germline genetic alteration is made unbeknownst to governments or academia, a containment crisis to the alteration could occur.  

Unlike the threat of nuclearization, creating a bioweapon doesn’t have its own version of a radiation footprint. Even with detectable signs of nuclearization, misguided wars of suspicion have destabilized parts of the globe. “Gene editing could allow scientists to develop biological weapons capable of discriminating among target populations based on ethnic, racial, or other genetically defined characteristics.” Having the capacity to carry out genocide by use of bioweapns is a threat of equal concern to having nuclear capabilities. Since the creation process of bioweapons has no obvious tells built in, paranoia on the weapons capacity of enemy groups could rise.

So, what tools do we have to prevent illegal bioengineering? The Bioweapons Convention (BWC) of 1975 resulted in the multilateral disarmament of treaty member states. Members agreed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of these weapons. Currently the BWC holds a review conference every five years, and one annual week-long meeting of government experts. The annual meeting is intended to track progress and raise issues. Attendee, Malcolm Dando, and Professor of international security at the University  of Bradford, UK raised concerns that the goal of these meetings are not being accomplished. “In 2013, for example the experts’ meeting scheduled a mere six hours of discussions on science and technology — less than a day. That is not enough time for complex science to be presented, digested and discussed, and not enough to consider its implications and suggest revisions to the BWC.”  

The World Health Organization committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing has been actively responding to the problem. In March, 2019 they called for a temporary ban on clinical application of human germline genome editing (heritable changes to genes), while developing a mandatory registry for all planned and ongoing research relevant to gene editing. 

The main objectives of any new policy need to ensure global security by preventing unregistered experiments from contaminating the public gene pool, or privately used for human enhancement. Another objective is the protection of human rights. No unborn person should be subjected to genetic experimentation without the endorsement of the scientific community, its guardians, and society. This will ensure the safety of the child, and that social morality associated with editing human DNA is not violated.  

A focal concern about He Jiankui’s experiment on the twins is how easy it was for him to keep it under wraps. An international registry for all genome editing studies will serve as a deterrent to ambitious scientists, if unregistered studies are prohibited from accessing funding, and barred from publication. This does not deter private moneyed interests that have no desire in publication. Jiaunkui kept his experiment under wraps by lying to, and concealing information from staff, as well as exploiting “… loosely worded and irregularly enforced regulations…” in China. This is exemplary of how one person under current protocol has the ability to shirk regulations and laws by mislabeling actions, and misinforming staff. 

To prevent unsanctioned bioengineering, awareness of humanity’s growing ability to control the future of our species’ evolution needs to be raised. From as early as elementary school, we should instill in the coming generations a humble and almost sacred approach to gene editing. Requiring all DIY labs to host a security guard and in-house lab technician to monitor what is being conducted is low hanging fruit, but still impactful. 

All the necessary materials to perform genetic experiments is basic lab equipment, and since the Cas9 enzyme (the key tool used in CRISPR) is a protein, controlling distribution is not logical. Currently there is no way to detect at home laboratories.  Modifying a centrifuges energy footprint, or frequency discharge into a pattern that identifies itself could provide a way to locate unregistered experiments. 

The BWC has been successful so far in its mission of keeping bioweapons from being developed and utilized in warfare. For it to be successful in preventing the weaponization of gene editing, it should quadruple the time it’s experts and delegates meet yearly in order to dedicate adequate time to policy development. How the BWC evolves is up to debate. Two main paths are available: – one that prioritizes state sovereignty and holds that each state is responsible for all bioterrorism threats within its borders, and another that prioritizes the global genetic stability of the species over state sovereignty. However, many states do not have the capacity to fund programs of surveillance and security to prohibit extremist groups from using their territory

Article 39 in The Charter of the United Nations gives The Security Council (UNSC)  authority to label threats to international peace, and the duty of deciding what actions to take to restore/protect peace. Any action taken requires approval of all five permanent member states (US, GB, FR, CHN, RU). To facilitate productive policy development that would address ranking the priorities of sovereignty and genetic stability, the BWC should request annual discussions with the five permanent member states of the UNSC. 

It is the duty of our global institutions to be predictive of future threats to international peace. To minimize the occurrence of genetic crisis events, effective deterrents must be developed. It is time now to raise cultural awareness of this issue and to pressure our global institutions to take action. 

Is VR Right for Your Business During COVID-19?

Source: pxhere.com

By Priyanka Jhalani
Graduate Editor

Given the unexpected circumstances of the past few months, COVID-19 forced the corporate world to quickly adjust to a work-from-home model with little warning. Given the new normal, the technology that businesses choose to keep their teams connected and productive is becoming even more important. Remote work was already a rising trend before the pandemic began and is likely to remain intact, if not augmented, post-pandemic. In an era that is defined by its revolutionary technological advancements, organizations seeking to keep employees connected will need solutions that work both during and after COVID-19.

Virtual reality (VR) can be an effective way for companies to replicate the face-to-face communication and informal interactions that employees are currently missing out on while working from home. 

Many businesses have invested heavily in designing office spaces that encourage informal interactions and keep employees on-site for longer periods of time, a clear indication of how much corporations value face-to-face interaction. Therefore, not surprisingly, many businesses are looking for solutions to facilitate these in-person interactions without putting their employees at risk of contracting COVID-19. VR offers a better alternative to replicate a face-to-face work environment for employees than only using phone calls and video chats.

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Unlike a video chat or an augmented reality platform (think Snapchat), VR allows people to interact in shared virtual environments and provides the shared context that is a given in most in-person meetings. Sharing an environment creates an immersive experience for users which benefits team bonding. Since these environments are available across a range of VR technologies, including desktop and headset VR, companies with varying VR capabilities can still take advantage of this feature. 

Similarly, avatars and agents (users control avatars while agents are computer generated) give people the feeling that they are “really there” when interacting with others because they can use cues that they normally would in-person like body language and eye contact. One study even found that the presence of avatars made people less likely to behave aggressively and more willing to compromise, which can prove vital for companies with many virtual teams and negotiations. 

Additionally, VR that offers haptic feedback can allow people to shake each other’s hands when meeting for the first time or high-five after accomplishing a task. Although it may seem insignificant or frivolous, touch can be important when building trust and interpersonal relationships, even if it is virtual.  

Finally, VR can reintroduce eye contact and gaze in interpersonal communications, which helps establish and maintain trust. A lack of eye contact can be interpreted as an act of deception and lead to feelings of mistrust, ultimately hurting teams. It is often awkward and difficult to maintain eye contact during standard video conferencing because the user is either looking at the camera, missing the other person’s facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, or looking at the other person, appearing as if they are not making eye contact. 

VR even allows users to go beyond what would be physically possible if individuals were colocated. For example, employees can simultaneously make eye contact with two people, giving each the feeling of being heard and receiving their full attention at the same time. 

VR enables remote team members to form the interpersonal relationships that they normally would in the office by giving employees the opportunity to get to know each other in a way that seems somewhat natural. A likely result of these increased interactions will be that teams perform more effectively and therefore can better contribute to their company’s success.

Aside from strengthening teams, VR is a powerful tool for businesses looking to mitigate the loneliness and quarantine fatigue that their employees are feeling right now. Loneliness in the United States was a pre-pandemic health concern and this crisis has worsened that reality. VR’s immersive nature and ability to mimic in-person communication gives it the potential to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can help keep people inside and possibly produce a more emotionally fulfilling work experience. 

A feeling of connectedness is even more important in countries with collectivist cultures. For example, interpersonal relationships are central to many businesses in India, and therefore being able to maintain them while employees work remotely is a priority.

However, virtual reality is not right for all businesses and is not meant to replace all other forms of virtual communication.

VR is best-suited for companies with a highly collaborative, team-based culture and a digitally literate workforce capable of using the technology from home. For these situations in particular, it can be game-changing as companies virtually onboard new employees and form new teams.

Additionally, workforce demographics can heavily shape the context in which companies need to develop VR strategies. While countries like the United States and Japan have aging workforces that are less familiar with technologically-oriented workspaces, India has one of the largest youth populations entering the workforce which could help Indian companies adjust to online business faster. 

Another crucial consideration when constructing a VR strategy is a country’s or company’s digital infrastructure. While India has planned steps to advance digitally, including a government program to build infrastructure to support information and communication technology, Indian companies moving online now may still face issues supporting VR. Alternatively, countries with advanced digital infrastructures like the United States and South Korea are well positioned to implement VR now.
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The question of how best to use VR to connect people remains. Answering this question requires further experimentation on the part of researchers and companies. Hypothetically, short intervals of VR usage when employees have the opportunity to interact informally with one another is best. A team bonding event or a few minutes for colleagues to chat before a meeting begins are examples of useful test cases. 

Despite VR’s many pros, there are some cons worth examining. Employees experiencing motion-sickness after a VR experience is a possibility businesses should consider when thinking about using the technology. Unfortunately some VR headsets leave female users with more motion sickness than male users, which is thought to be a result of the interpupillary distance in the hardware being built for males rather than females. Businesses can use desktop VR for the time being to address this issue. As it is, VR headsets are sold out for months and the hardware presents significant initial costs. In the longer term, headset costs are predicted to fall as the technology improves, which would lower the barrier to entry for many firms.

It is worth noting that VR has the potential to “reduce appearance-based judgements” through the use of avatars and may be particularly beneficial for introverted users looking to build relationships. Although there is no consensus on which type of appearance based judgements VR can reduce and by what degree, the possibility of reducing bias in the workplace should be explored. Researchers may consider investigating how using VR affects biases based on beauty, race and/or ability. 

VR provides an excellent opportunity for businesses to recreate face-to-face experiences in the midst of a global pandemic that has left people more isolated. It has the potential to facilitate informal interactions and interpersonal relationships that help teams perform while also reducing social distancing fatigue. The technology is worth considering as firms wade into increasingly uncertain waters. For corporations around the world, VR might just become the new normal.