Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Max G. Levy

Science and Health Journalism and Chemical Engineering

The latest Mars rover, Perseverance, launched today. The rover aims to land at Jezero Crater, on February 18th, 2021. This specific site was chosen because scientists believe it was once an enormous crater lake. Soil near the crater’s rim may contain minerals that preserve ancient microbial life. 

Jezero Crater

Jezero Crater, the Perseverance landing site


As with previous Mars missions, Perseverance is basically a state-of-the-art lab on four wheels.

The planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, will beam X-rays at rocks to quickly profile the chemical elements within them. For scientists, understanding that chemistry helps piece together how Mars’ rock features formed, and whether microbes were involved. And another instrument, the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) works by beaming UV light on soil and rocks to find minerals and carbon-rich organic molecules.

Another experiment launching with Perseverance getting a ton of attention is Ingenuity – the first controlled flight on another planet: a Mars helicopter. Ingenuity will test our ability to design aircrafts in otherworldly conditions – Mars’ atmosphere is thinner than Earth’s, so Ingenuity’s two four-foot blades will spin eight times faster than conventional helicopters. 

Over 10 million people signed up to send their names to Mars. The names are stenciled on chips onboard the rover, and "passengers" received souvenir boarding passes. Of course, no humans are onboard this time around.

But other experiments will test important technology for future human missions. One will monitor weather, and another make oxygen, an important step to enable round-trip visits.

Female capybaras control their own mating destinies

New research shows that they are more choosy about which males they mate with than previously thought

Jazmin Murphy

Ecology and Science Journalism

The long list of non-human species where females reign supreme when it comes to choosing a mate is getting a new entry: the capybara. Scientists have just discovered prevailing female choice in what was once thought to be a male-dominated mating system. 

The capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, is a semiaquatic rodent that can weigh up to 200 lbs. It has long been known for its mating system that prioritizes male access to large groups of females (like a harem, of sorts) over female preference. This new finding upends what scientists previously thought.  

To figure this out, three researchers, led by biologist Miguel A Bedoya-Pérez, packed their bags and set out for Venezuela during the mating season. The three observed capybaras at Hato El Cedral, a massive cattle ranch found in the country's Llanos (huge grasslands that experience intermittent flooding). 

Due to the previously mentioned semiaquatic ecology of the capybara, the researchers couldn’t use traditional methods of capture to collect data on the capybaras. Instead, they chose the next best thing, riding horseback and lassoing the giant rodents.  

After tagging 26 individual capybaras, the team observed the groups. They watched female behavior very carefully over several months, noting when they were cooperative to mating advances and when they avoided them.

They found that females rejected dominant male capybaras' sexual advances just 1.8% of the time,  but rejected subordinate males 41.7% of the time. This discovery has shed the first rays of light on cryptic female choice in the capybara world. 

"Sizzling sticks of molecular dynamite" can cause Parkinson's from inside the body

When our body's repair mechanisms aren't working properly, these molecules roam free and wreak havoc

Adithi Ramakrishnan

Developmental Neuroscience

College of William and Mary

Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects 1 percent of the population over 65, and the question of how it develops still remains unanswered. One of the more recently studied risk factors for Parkinson’s comes from inside the body.

As we age, our genetic material is harmed by molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Think of them as sizzling sticks of dynamite with a short fuse, latching onto strands of DNA and damaging them with a chemical reaction. One of the only ways to thwart their plot is with the body’s disaster response team: proteins that repair broken DNA before it causes any additional damage to our body. Mutations in these proteins mean that damaged DNA goes unfixed, and that ROS are free to wreak havoc on the brain and body — leading to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

A recent study looked at three different mutations in DNA repair proteins to see if these mutations were linked with a higher PD risk. The researchers isolated DNA from 97 Parkinson’s patients and 102 healthy controls to see if there was a relationship between the mutations they had and their health status. They found no relationship between two of the mutations and Parkinson’s, but a mutation in the XRCC1 gene made it two to three times more likely that a patient would have PD. The higher incidence of XRCC1 mutations in Parkinson’s patients compared to controls indicates that this mutation could be a risk factor for PD, and if studied further, could provide more information about how dysfunctional DNA repair can lead to brain damage and disease.

Parkinson’s has several potential risk factors, and many of them are extrinsic: cigarette smoke, heavy metal exposure, or pesticides. The study of DNA damage and repair reveals that PD risk factors can have a significant impact even at the molecular level. Understanding the deadly dance between ROS, DNA, and repair mechanisms may reveal more about how Parkinson’s gets its hooks into the brain and body.

A promising Alzheimer's treatment comes from the red maple tree

The red maple is the only known natural source of compounds called ginnalins

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

If you've been to Canada or eastern North America, chances are you've seen a maple tree. And if you were there long enough, you might also have found out that there are several types of maple, one of which is the red maple.

It might not surprise you that the red maple is one of the commercial sources of maple syrup. What's more surprising is that scientists believe red maples' leaves might help treat Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 

Studies revealed that red maple’s leaves abound with polyphenols, compounds known for their health benefits, Including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When polyphenolic leaf extract from maples was analyzed, it contained ginnalin A, ginnalin B, and ginnalin C. The red maple is the only known natural source of these ginnalins to date.

Acer rubrum, the red maple

Clarissa Munger Badger / Public domain

Many studies have looked at ginnalins as anticancers. But in early January, Researchers published a study looking into the potential of ginnalin A to treat Alzheimer's. They did this because they realized that the molecular scaffold of ginnalin A and that of other polyphenols previously tested for AD treatment were similar. They thought that this structural resemblance might lead to similar performance.

In their study, ginnalin A stopped and reverse the aggregation of amyloid-beta (Aβ) proteins found in AD. Results also suggested that the potency of ginnalin A was even better than any other polyphenol investigated so far.

Had the red maple's leaves not been analyzed, we likely wouldn’t be talking about ginnalin A. That is the beauty of science: what we know today is built upon the past. While these results encourage more research on ginnalin A, we must wait for more studies to develop.

Have you been getting less sleep than usual? Check in with your gut!

A new study in fruit flies reveals lethal links between sleep deprivation and the gut

Samuel J Walker


Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The average person sleeps for about a third of their life. There must be something really important about sleeping - but just what is sleep good for?

One approach scientists take to understand why sleep is so important is to prevent animals sleeping for long periods of time. But this is challenging because sleep deprivation promotes “rebound sleep” – the powerful urge to sleep that hits you after an all-nighter. So, the authors of a recent study, published in the journal Cell, devised an ingenious method to bypass rebound sleep in fruit flies: they activated specific neurons in the flies' brains to keep them awake.

The researchers discovered that preventing these flies from sleeping by manipulating these neurons caused death after 10-15 days. Then they tackled the question of where in the body one might see changes or damage after 10 days of sleep deprivation? Surprisingly, they did not find any obvious changes in the brain. Instead, sleep deprivation caused a huge buildup of specific toxins, called “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) in the flies' guts. ROS are a normal byproduct of cell activity, but excessive ROS production causes cell damage. The scientists discovered damage throughout the flies' guts due to ROS accumulation.

Now they knew that sleep deprivation caused gut damage. But did it prematurely kill the flies? To test this, the researchers fed flies a variety of antioxidants, substances which protect against ROS. Adding these antioxidants to flies’ diets didn’t reduce sleep loss, but it did prevent the accumulation of ROS in the intestine. Crucially, it allowed flies to survive as long as they usually would despite the loss of sleep. In fact, by expressing enzymes that break down ROS just within cells of the gut, the authors were able to protect flies from death by sleep deprivation.

This study suggests that one essential function of sleep might be to prevent damage to the gut. How sleep loss causes ROS buildup remains unclear. But the authors show that similar damage occurs in the intestines of mice when they lose sleep – indicating that sleep may protect the guts of many species, not just flies. In the modern world, many of us live with chronic insufficient sleep, and it remains to be seen how this affects the health of our guts. But perhaps the next time your eyes start to droop, you will think of your gut and head to bed!

Monkeys can predict human behavior

The ability to perceive and understand how others might react to a situation is not unique to humans

Meredith Schmehl


Duke University

You’ve just finished cooking dinner when your roommate enters the kitchen. Suspecting that she doesn’t know the stove is still hot, you warn her before she gets too close.

We can often recognize the differences between what we know and what others know, allowing us to predict what others might think and do. Most humans demonstrate this ability by the age of four. But is this ability unique to humans, or could other animals also predict others’ beliefs?

In a recent study led by Isao Hasegawa, a physiologist at Niigata University School of Medicine in Japan, researchers tested whether a monkey could guess what a human believes. They tracked the monkey’s eyes to infer its expectations. When monkeys (and people) expect someone to take a particular action, they tend to look toward relevant objects or locations in the environment. Where a monkey looks can reveal what it expects someone else to do.

The researchers took advantage of this behavior while a monkey watched videos involving unexpected actions. In the videos, a human actor (the “opponent”) hides a toy under an overturned box in the presence of another actor (the “searcher”). The searcher then leaves the room. While the searcher is absent, the opponent moves the toy to a new hiding place under a second overturned box, and then removes the toy entirely while running away. Finally, the searcher returns to the room to retrieve the hidden toy. The searcher doesn’t know that the opponent has removed the toy. But the monkey, having seen the entire video, knows that the toy is gone.

The researchers wanted to know if the monkey would understand that the searcher’s beliefs differ from reality. They tracked the monkey’s eyes to determine where the monkey believed the searcher would look for the toy. If the monkey tended to look at the original hiding place, this would suggest that it understood the searcher’s false beliefs about the toy’s location. However, if the monkey tended to look at the second box or elsewhere in the scene, this would suggest that the monkey did not fully grasp that the searcher’s beliefs are different from its own.

They found that monkeys were likely to look at the first box, where the searcher believed the toy was still hidden, indicating that monkeys expected the searcher to look for the toy under that box. These results suggest that monkeys can understand others’ false beliefs and predict their actions accordingly, just like humans. Perhaps humans have more in common with other animals than we think.

Flip the light on and hide your cashmere — it's Moth Week

Join a popular new community science project

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

This week the spotlight- or porch light- is on moths.

It's National Moth Week. And the main event, started by a non-profit began with a local moth night and has quickly grown into a large community science effort. Over 800 people have registered in over 50 different countries, which the organization reports is a record-breaker. With this many moth-er's, or people who search for moths, this year's Moth Week is sure to capture even a slice of the diversity of moths.

Moths, often overlooked nocturnal pollinators, are some of the most diverse species with estimates up to 160,000 different species. Moths are largely nocturnal, and the best way to see them is to turn on your light around dusk and watch them flock towards the light

They can camouflage to avoid predators like the great oak beauty, while others are showy like the rosy maple moth.

Moths are also bioindicators, which means they can tell scientists about the health of an ecosystem. More moths can mean there are more plant species, which generally indicates a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Many species, such as bats and birds, rely on moths for their food source as well. 

You have until July 26th to get "mothing", or moth-searching. Join a moth event and take a picture of your backyard moth and upload it to the Flickr site. Ready, set, MOTH!

Matthew Vandermeulen


University at Buffalo

With us all spending a lot of time at home recently, many have picked up new hobbies, like cooking and baking. This has led to some of us becoming friends with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a single-celled fungus known as baker’s yeast. This new friend may be tiny, but baker’s yeast arguably contends with dogs for the title of man’s best friend. 

S. cerevisiae has been associated with human culture for thousands of years for its use in fermentation, a process used in making alcoholic beverages and baking. Biological research has progressed in many areas because this organism is so commonly used to understand cellular and molecular biology. For all that society uses S. cerevisiae, you have to wonder, where did the yeast come from?

Originally, researchers hypothesized its origin to be from China/Far East Asia after discovering wild yeast in primeval forests from that area. In a more recent study, researchers found more evidence supporting that origin story comparing the genome of the discovered wild yeast and known domesticated yeast.

The researchers compared 106 wild and 260 domesticated yeast strains by phylogenetic analysis, or comparing family trees based on DNA sequence. They saw evidence of reduced genetic diversity in the domesticated yeast compared to the wild lineages. This suggests a founder effect — when an entire population descends from only a few individuals of an original population. Finding this founder effect implies that originally yeast were domesticated in China/Far East Asia. After early domestication, the dispersal and diversification of those yeasts is hypothesized to have led to the massive global collection of all other domesticated strains that we use today. Further analysis with even more domesticated and wild yeast from all over the globe will help further support this hypothesis.

So the next time you’re in the kitchen with your new friend, let them know they have a place to call home.

Raj Rajeshwar Malinda

Cell Biology and Developmental Biology

We've probably all been flooded with information about COVID-19 transmission, and scientists are still learning details about how it is spread. One thing is for certain: the virus is transmitted through tiny droplets from people's mouths, expelled when they talk, cough, sing, and sneeze. This is why mask-wearing is so important. A recent, fascinating Twitter post by researcher Rich Davis at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center drives the point home:

Davis demonstrated how many bacteria were spread onto culture plates by daily interactions with and without a mask. After 24 hours of incubation, the results showed that minimal bacterial colonies were produced when he wore a mask while talking, coughing, singing and sneezing, but this was not true when he performed those same actions without a mask. The culture plates were covered with bacteria, particularly those populated when Davis sneezed or coughed. Want to protect others from your exhalations, and the viruses and bacteria particles they carry? Properly wearing masks and social distancing can reduce the burden of infections. 

In some places, planting trees doesn't help store any more carbon

New research adds to evidence that simply planting trees won't stop climate change

Hannah Thomasy


University of Washington

All over the world, people are engaging in massive tree-planting campaigns to help stop climate change — but will it do any good? Previous research has emphasized that planting trees can’t be our only climate change mitigation strategy, but a new study from researchers at the University of Exeter paints an even bleaker picture.

Historically, scientists have believed that tress can slow climate change by sequestering carbon, removing it from the air and storing it in their wood. While the ability of trees to store carbon is helpful, ecologists say that it’s the carbon storage of the entire ecosystem is important too.

These ecologists measured stored carbon in a Northern Scotland ecosystem — both above and below ground — in experimental areas where trees had been planted either 12 or 39 years previously. They then compared this ecosystem to nearby control areas where the natural heather moorland had been left undisturbed.

Surprisingly, researchers found that plots with trees did not have greater ecosystem carbon storage than the undisturbed sections. Even though the trees themselves stored carbon, this was counter-acted by a decrease in the organic carbon present in the soils where the trees were growing.

This doesn’t mean that planting trees can’t be helpful in certain cases — reforesting areas that once had trees could have many benefits. But this study stresses that planting trees is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that it shouldn’t be done indiscriminately. In areas that haven’t historically had trees, or in places with large amounts of organic carbon present in the soil, planting trees might not be beneficial at all.

Can men be bisexual?


Dan Samorodnitsky

Senior Editor


But PNAS published a bad and stupid paper just to make sure.

Senior author, J. Michael Bailey, has a record of transphobia and terrible research practices, including using off-the-record conversations in studies. Steven Pinker, academia's enfant connard, who for some reason was allowed to be the paper's editor, has a history of supporting Bailey.

Anyway this is stupid and ludicrous. It's bad science to strip away social context from the questions you want to ask. It's straight up hateful to look at obviously common human behavior, test whether it exists, and treat it like a pathology. It's not for a laboratory scientist to say whether the way a human behaves is real. Take the very first sentence from the abstract as an example: 

The question whether some men have a bisexual orientation—that is, whether they are substantially sexually aroused and attracted to both sexes—has remained controversial among both scientists and laypersons.

That's not true at all! This is just making up out of thin air a reason to subject people to invasive and personal questioning. Why is getting a statistically significant erection the standard for whether something can be said to exist? Bisexual men exist because there are men who are bisexual.

Social scientist Dan Simpson said it best:

Imagine saying “the indium/gallium strain gauge I hooked up to this  man’s penis didn’t show consistent arousal as I Clockwork Orange’d him with gender-spanning porn, so male bisexuality does not exist”.

A new bird song has spread all over in North America

Nearly all the white-throated sparrows are singing a new tune

Amanda Rossillo

Evolutionary Anthropology

Duke University

Bird songs often create pleasant background noise for us humans. But for the birds, these songs are full of crucial information that helps them attract mates and mark their territory. While it’s not uncommon for individual birds to develop new endings to their songs, these changes are rarely picked up by other birds.

If you’ve ever spent time in North America, you’ve probably heard the male white-throated sparrow’s distinctive song, which sounds like Oh-my-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada. In the last few decades, however, scientists have noticed that these birds are changing their tune.

Canadian ornithologists first noticed the change in the late 1990s while doing fieldwork in British Columbia, Canada. The new songs had a different beat, sounding instead like Oh-my-sweet-Cana-Cana-Cana-Canada. And it didn’t take long for this new trend to catch on.

In 2004, about half of the sparrows in Alberta were singing the new version of the song. But when the same area was sampled ten years later, every single sparrow sampled had made the switch. To get a sense of how the new version was spreading, the Canadian team turned to community science for help. They used recordings of 1,785 male sparrows across North America that were collected by the public through popular apps like eBird, as well as geolocators to track the birds’ seasonal migrations.

Rather than flying directly south to California as expected, the results showed that sparrows in western Canada were actually crossing the Rocky Mountains, heading as far east as Arkansas. This suggests that these birds bring the new version east during the winter, most likely teaching it to local younger males. As of 2019, the East Coast appears to be the last stronghold for the original song.

It’s still unclear why this new beat took off so quickly and comprehensively. It’s possible that an updated song serves keeps females interested, who may otherwise get bored of the same song after a while. Such a major change in the sparrow’s song highlights how strongly migration and breeding can influence bird behavior across vast geographical expanses.

An artificial intelligence algorithm designed to beat a video game takes on ecology and evolution

The algorithm Alphastar was originally developed to play Starcraft II

Ashley Marranzino

Marine Biology

University of Rhode Island

An artificial intelligence (AI) system programmed to play the popular online strategy game StarCraft II may be able to help scientists answer some pressing questions in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

The AI system, named AlphaStar, was originally designed to beat top-ranking StarCraft II players. After being fed data from millions of StarCraft II matches, AlphaStar had accumulated experience equivalent to 200 years of continually playing the game and was able to annihilate human opponents, outperforming 99.8% of ranked players. Now, scientists think the algorithm that made AlphaStar into an effective StarCraft II competitor may be able to help answer complicated ecological and evolutionary questions. 

StarCraft II requires players to strategically compete for access to habitats and resources in a way that mimics a number of ecological and evolutionary strategies. As players compete for a finite amount of resources, they make trade-offs between colonizing new habitats and competing with opponents. As the game progresses, players end up following strategies that mirror those exhibited in nature such as producing numerous, inexpensive materials versus a few expensive materials (R vs. K strategies), developing specialized traits (leading to resource partitioning), or escalating competition with opponents (evolutionary arms race, for example how predators and prey continually evolve traits and skills to beat each other). 

All of these scenarios simulate ecological and evolutionary scenarios, so by learning how to strategically play StarCraft II, AlphaStar inadvertently became well-versed in ecological and evolutionary theories. AlphaStar’s algorithm even usedd unconventional, aggressive, and sometimes apparently counter-intuitive strategies that allowed the AI system to manage resources more effectively and become a stronger competitor than the human players. 

While StarCraft II is arguably a simplified model of real ecosystem-level interactions, scientists think they could learn a lot from AlphaStar’s algorithm by changing the starting conditions of the game and seeing what strategies the AI system uses to gain competitive advantage in the landscape. If they are correct, this video game-playing AI system could help scientists predict how ecosystems respond to environmental changes or how personality (meaning how likely an animal is to take a risk) drives evolution. 

Male mosaic canaries are more colorful than their female counterparts thanks to one gene

Researchers found that carotenoid pigments in female canaries' feathers break down faster than in males

Rita Ponce

Evolutionary Biology

Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal

Peacock feathers are iridescent and colorful, but peahen (female peacock) feathers are not. Such visual differences between the sexes occur in many species, and several studies have addressed its evolution, yet the genetic basis of the differences is largely unknown. 

A new research study may have cracked the code. Scientists found that in a hybrid breed of canaries, differences in the expression of a single gene responsible for the degradation of pigments can account for why the feathers of the male birds are brighter than those of the females.

In the common domestic breed of canary (Serinus canaria), females and males have identical colors. But there exists a hybrid breed called mosaic, which have patches of colored feathers, and male and female mosaic birds do have color differences. Males' patches are brighter due to more carotenoid pigment in the feathers. 

The scientists, led by Miguel Carneiro of Portugal's Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources found that the differences they observed between male and female birds could be explained by the expression of one single gene called BCO2. It encodes an enzyme involved in breaking down carotenoids. Females have a higher expression of this gene in the skin, which leads to more degradation of their carotenoids and the faded colors of their feathers. The team also found evidence that this mechanism may be widespread in nature, corroborating reasoning set forth by Charles Darwin himself. 

Soap bubbles are better than robotic drones for pollination

But there's no ecological substitute for real bees

Fanni Daniella Szakal

Marine Biology and Science Journalism

Three-quarters of crop species globally require pollination, and bees and other insect pollinators are disappearing. We cannot sustain the world’s population without them. 

Or can we? A new study by Eijiro Miyako and Xi Yang from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has come up with a curious solution to the problem: soap bubbles.

Miyako has been working on artificial pollination methods, including using robotic drones, for some time. After a few missteps in robotic pollination that resulted in damaged flowers, he turned towards soap bubbles with embedded pollen, a gentler method. After experimenting with several different chemical compositions, he and Yang settled on one that produced the best performance of the pollen. 

To test this invention in the field, the pair loaded the pollen solution in a bubble gun and pollinated three trees in a pear orchard. Sixteen days later, the trees bore fruit, which were the same as the pears that were pollinated via a traditional manual pollination method, using a feather brush. As their next step, Miyako and Yang placed an automatic bubble blower on a small drone, making the pollination process faster and more efficient.

There are still several details that need to be worked out before drones can rain bubbles over vast fields and orchards. For example, we need to make sure that the chemical components of the bubbles do not harm local wildlife. Nonetheless, this charming invention could be the one that finally gives honey bees a well-deserved rest.

Heavy metals from open-pit mining can spread up to 30 kilometers

Residents of Cerro de Pasco, Peru, teamed up with scientists to monitor pollution in their city

Rebecca Dzombak


University of Michigan

We all need clean, safe drinking water to survive. But access to it remains tenuous is many parts of the world, with an estimated 780 million people without it. Unpolluted soils are essential for growing nontoxic crops and raising healthy livestock. Pollution from mining can leave water sources non-potable for decades, and heavy metals (like lead and arsenic) can seep into the soil. Heavy metal accumulation in our bodies can cause circulation problems, organ and nerve damage, and cancer.

Cerro de Pasco is a heavily-mined area in central Peru; based on lead deposits in lakes, we know it's been mined since the Tiwanaku and Wari empires, between about 400 and 1000 A.D. Today, open-pit mining activity continues, leaving a legacy of tailings ponds (a sort of rock-acid slurry) and discarded heaps of metal-rich rock. As rain and groundwater chemically react with these materials, metals dissolve and make their way into the groundwater and soils. They build up in crops and livestock, and ultimately are ingested by people living in the area. 

An open pit mine in Cerro de Pasco

Ottocarotto on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As soils degrade with agricultural use and climate change, those heavy metals get blown around as dust, redistributing the pollutants far and wide. It can be difficult to trace where these hazardous metals end up accumulating. This is where citizen- scientists stepped in.

Coordinated by the Universidad Nacional del Centro del Perú, residents around Cerro de Pasco and the surrounding Junín Plain mobilized to collect nearly 400 soil and plant samples to be tested for heavy metals. Their goal was to help determine how widespread pollution from the mine is in the area.  

After testing the samples, the researchers found contamination as far as 30 km away. As suspected, heavy metals like lead, copper, and arsenic had been blown along with the dust, then taken up by grasses growing in the plains. Thanks to a dedicated local community, the mine at Cerro de Pasco should have its wake-up call: the mine needs to dispose of its waste in a safer and more secure way.

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

Theoretical Physics

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In college, I was amazed to learn that physicists can use lasers and magnets to cool atoms close to absolute zero. In graduate school, I was even more amazed to learn that this can be done in space, aboard the International Space Station.

When some atoms are cooled to ultracold temperatures they behave as quantum mechanical waves. Individual waves can combine to produce one grand quantum wave describing behavior of thousands of atoms. 

If the atoms are a type of particle referred to as a boson, this process is a quantum phase transition called Bose-Einstein condensation. The same way water vapor condenses to liquid water when cooled, bosonic atoms condense when made ultracold. They can also form different shapes, like solid spheres and hollow bubbles.

On Earth, gravity is a big obstacle to cooling atoms. It competes with other forces trying to cool the atoms and hold them in place. But this doesn't happen on the ISS. In May of 2018, the Cold Atom Lab was launched onto the ISS and has since successfully produced Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) in space. A new report outlines how this instrument, installed by astronauts, has shown that BECs made in ISS’s microgravity have some novel features. For example, they can be three times as large as their terrestrial counterparts!

My research relates to experiments that will also take advantage of microgravity. In my doctoral work, I was interested in BECs that form hollow bubbles or shells. On Earth, gravity pulls the atoms from the tops of BECs towards their bottoms, creating a shape more like a salad bowl than a closed bubble. This should not be an issue on the International Space Station where this pull is weak. But does the shape of these molecules matter in quantum physics? Theoretical work by me and my collaborators shows that it does, and experiments in space should give us the answer.

Why is this nebula shaped like a butterfly?

A physicist dives into the science behind a new Hubble photo

Katherine McCormick

Quantum Physics

University of Washington

Hubble recently released a breathtaking new photo of the Butterfly Nebula. Its delicate clouds of gas stretch outward like wings, in a perfect embodiment of the form and spirit of its eponym. But being a physicist, of course I couldn't just appreciate the picture. I had to ask, "Why is it shaped that way?"

Some scientists believe that before the Butterfly Nebula was a nebula, at its center was a binary star system, orbiting in the plane that is now viewed as the body of the butterfly. A thick, oblate cloud of dust orbited with the stars on this central plane.

Butterfly Nebula

Butterfly Nebula


At some point, the larger of the two stars ran out of fuel. No longer able to support its own weight with the outward pressure created during fusion, the core of the star collapsed in on itself. As it became smaller, the pressure and temperature at its center grew larger — the heat suddenly reigniting the fusion. The outer layers of the star were flung outward at the sudden return of the push-back from the core. They blasted away from the star in all directions, but the thick disk of dust slowed the gas traveling along the orbital plane. The result was two opposing jets of hot gas racing away from the star at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour, creating the wings of the butterfly.

In the newest photo, they’ve looked at radiation all the way from UV wavelengths to infrared, learning more about this mysterious object than ever before. The new picture reveals streaks of ionized iron across the bottom of the left wing and top of the right wing. Scientists aren’t sure yet why it doesn’t have the same symmetry as the wings, but it could be a clue about more complexities inside the butterfly yet undiscovered.

A number of mysteries about the Butterfly Nebula remain hidden: for example, scientists still aren’t positive their binary star theory is correct. But there is little doubt that the impetus of the huge ejection of gas into the wings of this nebula was the dramatic death of a star. Just as the butterfly is a universal symbol of transformation, the Butterfly Nebula's story, too, is a tale of rebirth.

It's past time to treat international students as more than just money makers for universities

While the #StudentBan is not a threat right now, the shortcomings that it exposed still are

Adriana Romero-Olivares


University of New Hampshire

Eight years ago, I was packing my home and entire life in Mexico to move to the US to pursue a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Irvine. Those were easier times, although it did not seem like it at the time. I spent a few months worth of income to pay for paperwork to apply for an F-1 student visa, and to pay for other documents to enroll as a graduate student. This was after I dedicated months to emailing professors everywhere in the US, hoping that one of them would reply to my email and would invite me to apply to join their lab. It was also after spending time and money paying for standardized tests, official document translations, and application fees. It was a one-and-a-half-year process but in July 2012, I was finally moving to the USA to pursue my PhD. It was a dream come true. 

It was also a dream come true for the University of California because I had a full scholarship from my home country that paid for the entirety of my international tuition and fees, which were around $35,000 per year. My scholarship allowed me to pursue my PhD in the USA, and to UC Irvine it provided basically “free labor” as well as prestige. 

I paid taxes and did all of the typical graduate student responsibilities. I also dedicated a lot of my time to doing outreach to bring science to underserved communities around Orange County and Southern California. By the time I graduated in 2017, I was a stellar student, with three publications with UC Irvine's name on them. I co-organized summer science camps for middle school girls that brought money and a good reputation to my university and program. I mentored students of all ages. I was a good “citizen” of my program, of my university, and of Orange County. 

Like me, most international students leave their families and everything that they are comfortable with to pursue the dream of graduate school. They bring with them the hope of being welcomed and treated fairly by their American peers. I have experienced this, but I am one of the lucky ones. 

It is no secret that international students and postdocs will withstand abuse and other injustices just so they can keep their visa, which is always tied to their university. Many universities receive international students without having a system to deal with the unique challenges that international students face, such as having no credit history, which complicates finding a place to live and leaves international students vulnerable to landlord abuse. Many international students are people of color, and universities, especially predominantly white institutions, do not have resources to ensure safety of these students within the university and in the community at large. 

These challenges are further complicated due to a lack of community and support. Making friends in the US, especially if you are coming from Global South countries and/or non-Westernized countries, is extremely challenging. Many times, I have seen how western Europeans, Australians, and Canadians are rapidly accepted in the local community, while many Latinx, Asians, and Middle-Easterners are not. 

There are over one million international students in the US. The ICE Student Ban may no longer be a threat, but universities still need to change how they handle international students. We are people too, but many universities have historically valued us only by the amount of money we bring. We improve higher education not only by the money that we bring, but by our unique perspectives, our research productivity, and our willingness to give back to American society.  

Traditional Chinese medicine could help treat COVID-19

Chinese doctors took this approach with SARS in 2003, and are hoping it could work again

Vivian Su


University of Southern California

Over the last couple of months, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread from China to the rest of the world at an unprecedented rate. In China, over 85% of COVID-19 patients have undergone Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment, which utilizes herbal products and mind and body practices to promote health. While it is difficult to imagine how these mysterious mixtures of herbs may be capable of fighting powerful pathogens, we must remember that plants have unique chemical properties, just like pills and vaccines, that allow them to do so.

In 2015, Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the compound artemisinin, a component of anti-malarial drugs. Instead of being created synthetically in a lab, artemisinin was isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, an herb already widely used in TCM. This remarkable discovery showed that there were scientific explanations for how these mystifying TCM remedies healed the body, and that they had true clinical significance.

Because TCM had already been used to combat the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002 and SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 are very similar, researchers at the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences and the University of Macau assessed the overall effectiveness of TCM in treating SARS-CoV symptoms by conducting a literature review. By doing so, they hoped to gain a better understanding of how the specific chemical compounds present in TCM herbal formulas can be used to combat the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers started by analyzing clinical research that had been done previously during the SARS-CoV outbreak. Chest X-rays were taken periodically for both a control group receiving only Western treatment and experimental groups receiving both Western and TCM treatments. The X-rays for both of the experimental groups showed that the patients' lungs were clearing up faster than those in the control group. Ingredients in various TCM herbal formulas were also found to have effects on coronaviruses. 

For example, the active compound glycyrrhizin in licorice root was found to potentially inhibit replication of the SARS virus, as well as ginseng and eucalyptus extracts. Rhubarb and lychee extracts inhibited activity of an enzyme vital to viral reproduction. Shuang Huang Lian, an herbal formula prepared from multiple flowers, reduces inflammation by inhibiting cytokines, or signaling proteins that help regulate immune responses. 

As of now, the Chinese government has wholeheartedly embraced TCM as an effective treatment for COVID-19. There are currently more than 300 ongoing clinical trials examining the effects of TCM herbal treatments on patients. However, more rigorous scientific research and clinical trials are definitely needed to determine the efficacy of TCM in treating COVID-19.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the research on TCM has reminded us that no matter how technologically advanced we become, we are still products of nature. When vaccines aren’t available or our technology fails us, we should not hesitate to turn over every rock to treat this disease.

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

COVID-19 está afectando actualmente a más de 8 millones de personas en todo el mundo. Si bien la propagación se ha contenido en algunos países, la falta de un tratamiento real pone a muchos pacientes en riesgo de muerte y daños a largo plazo. Aunque las personas infectadas pueden desarrollar anticuerpos y superar esta enfermedad, muchos jóvenes y mayores de edad no son capaces de defenderse.

Dado que el desarrollo de un fármaco eficaz puede tomar varios años, los científicos han estado examinando medicamentos actualmente en el mercado que podrían ser reutilizados para tratar a los pacientes de COVID-19. ¿Hay alguno que haya tenido éxito o al menos muestre potencial?

La respuesta es sí y no. En sólo una semana, tres fármacos propuestos para el tratamiento del nuevo coronavirus han cambiado de camino. La primera, la hidroxicloroquina, es un medicamento antimalárico. Fue inicialmente autorizado para el uso de emergencia por la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos de Estados Unidos (FDA), este medicamento ahora ha sido revocado como un tratamiento para COVID-19. La FDA ha dicho que no hay evidencia que garantice que la administración oral de hidroxicloroquina o cloroquina puede ser eficaz en el tratamiento de la enfermedad. Por otro lado, hay evidencia de que en su lugar podría plantear riesgos cardíacos para algunos pacientes.

El segundo es remdesivir, un medicamento antiviral. Este medicamento, actualmente aprobado para uso de emergencia por la FDA, ha demostrado sólo potencia moderada sin efecto estadísticamente significativo en reducir el número de muertes. Sin embargo, estudios detallados han revelado un mecanismo de acción muy específico mediante el bloqueo de la maquinaria viral a cargo de su replicación. Gilead Sciences, la empresa que hace este medicamento, está buscando maneras de hacer un version del fármaco que podría ser inhalado como un polvo o inyectado por vía subcutánea. Remdesivir se administra actualmente por vía intravenosa, ya que no se puede degradar en el hígado.

Por último, a partir del 16 de junio, la dexametasona, un medicamento corticoide, ha demostrado salvar vidas de pacientes gravemente enfermos. Esta droga ampliamente disponible y barata fue la única en un grupo de cinco tratamientos incluidos en el ensayo RECOVERY que muestran una disminución estadística del número de muertes en uno de los ensayos aleatorios más grandes del mundo. Este nuevo hallazgo se considera un gran avance y ofrece cierta esperanza, ya que este medicamento está ampliamente disponible en los estantes farmacéuticos en todo el mundo.

Historical paintings can tell us how our food evolved

#ArtGenetics is a new project that aims to let us see through premodern artists' eyes

Maddie Bender

Microbial Disease Epidemiology

Yale University

Today's watermelon isn't what it used to be — literally. Tomatoes, wheat, corn, and most other crops grown now have been domesticated by humans over tens of thousands of years. We have artificially selected the plants we eat to taste milder and be more bountiful. 

A textbook example is Brassica oleracea, a single species that includes kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, all through artificial selection.

The rapid domestication of crops poses a problem for people who want to understand pre-modern societies. If the Romans weren't talking about our kind of wheat when they used a word for wheat, what were they talking about? A paper published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Plant Science suggests that biologists should start looking in a surprising place: artwork.

"Garland of Fruit and Flowers," Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1650-1660

The two Belgian co-authors argue that artwork depicting food can augment the picture that traditional methods like literature analysis and paleobotany create of past societies' diets. They term their project #ArtGenetics, and they propose that biologists, art historians, and museum-goers team up to catalogue foods spotted in artwork and compare their morphologies to what we see today.

Not every artist has embraced naturalism — recording things as they appear in front of you, true to form — so the co-authors suggest that roses be used as positive, non-food controls. We've kept good track of how they've been domesticated, and many varieties that were grown hundreds of years ago are still grown today. This way, a rose depicted naturalistically can add credibility that another plant featured in the artwork was represented as the artist saw it. Through #ArtGenetics, the co-authors hope that we can catch glimpses of premodern societies through their artists' eyes.

Dogs appear to navigate using Earth's magnetic field

New research shows this remarkable ability is not so far-fetched

Jaime Chambers


Washington State University

Life is full of tales of dogs’ remarkable homing abilities: from the movies, to books, to real-life examples such as Bobbie the Wonder Dog, who traveled 2,800 miles to reunite with his family. According to new research published in eLife, a dog's navigation isn’t just led by their nose and heart — but by Earth’s geomagnetic fields. 

A team of researchers let dogs do what they do best: run to their heart’s content, then return to their favorite human. Scientists set a couple dozen dogs loose in the woods over 600 times — rigged with GPS collars and cameras — and mapped their journeys out and back.

Dogs use a variety of navigation styles on their return trip, researchers found. Over half of the dogs “tracked,” opting to follow the same path outward and homeward, while about one-third “scouted,” blazing a new trail on their way back. 

The “scouts” took seemingly haphazard routes, but their journeys shared an interesting common feature. They all began with a brief “compass run” — a short dash along the north-south geomagnetic axis. 

This sprint didn’t last long — about 65 feet or so — but it was consistent across the tests. The amount of sun and the wind’s direction didn’t alter the pattern, ruling out the hypothesis that sight or smell were at play. Dogs’ breed, sex, size, and familiarity with the location didn’t have an effect either.

What’s up with this north-south oriented dash? It could signify how dogs calibrate their inner navigation system, researchers suggest. They posit it’s a canine orienteering starting point — dogs' way of comparing their mental map with Earth’s geomagnetic fields.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider the mounting evidence for canines’ magnetic sensitivities. Dogs possess a light-sensing molecule called cryptochrome 1, associated with magnetic sensing abilities. Canines even prefer to poop and mark their territory along a north-south axis.

It’s likely dogs lean on other senses to navigate, including that remarkable nose. But their sensory universe might be more multidimensional than we can fathom -- rippling with odors that tell stories, and magnetic fields that tug them home. 

Eating more fiber feeds whipworm parasites in our guts

New research shows that interactions between diet and parasites might make people with whipworm infection sicker

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

Has your doctor ever advised you to increase your fiber intake to improve your overall health? Well, if you've got a parasite, it turns out that is terrible advice! Researchers at University of Copenhagen have discovered that parasitic gut worms (in particular, Trichuris muris, a whipworm) survive and reproduce easier in mouse gut tracts that have higher levels of fermentable dietary fiber. 

Trichuris muris is a mouse parasite that is used as a model to study human T. trichiura infections. T. trichiura is a roundworm humans can catch via ingestion of soil, like on our hands or food, that has been in contact with infected feces containing eggs or larvae. While these parasites can be a problem anywhere, they are most prevalent in warm or humid climates

Reseachers fed mice inulin and T. muris eggs in their food to understand how they interacted in the gut

Tiia Monto [CC BY-SA 3.0]

These researchers were interested in the correlation between lack of dietary fiber and chronic intestinal inflammation. They decided in particular to study inulin, a soluble fiber derived from plants that is also a prebiotic. Prebiotics feed your "good" gut bacteria, stimulating their reproduction and ultimately leading to a healthy gut microbiome. 

They fed mice a high or low dose of T. muris eggs in addition to inulin in varying doses in their food, and observed the result. They saw that some of the mice had showed an immune response related to gut inflammation (similar to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in humans). Normally, these responses are good for eliminating bad bacteria or food contaminants. But in this case, the immune response did not eliminate the parasites. They actually stayed in mice guts up to 35 days post-infection! This is because inulin caused the growth of Proteobacteria, a gut bacteria that happens to be T. muris' favorite snack. 

It turns out dietary inulin and high doses of T. muris parasites together caused severe inflammation and gut microbiome imbalance that made the perfect environment for parasitic persistence. This study points scientists toward studies on the interactions between inflammation, diet, and parasite load to help people affected with parasites. 

Pancreatic cancer hides from the immune system by destroying the cell’s danger signal

Stopping the cancer cells from degrading the signal shrunk the tumors

Allison J Matthews


Tufts University

There is an entire branch of our immune system that has evolved to recognize when something is wrong inside a cell, and it revolves around a group of proteins called MHC-I.

MHC-I is a little pedestal that cells use to display their proteins for immune cells called T-cells to inspect. If everything is normal and healthy, the proteins on the MHC-I pedestal won’t cause any alarm, and the cell is allowed to continue happily growing and dividing. However, if something in the cell has gone awry – whether that is viral infection, bacterial infection, or cancer – what gets displayed on the MHC-I can signal a problem. In that case, a T-cell will immediately kill the cell to nip the problem in the bud.

In a perfect world, this would work every time and our immune system could always stop cancer in its tracks. But some cancers are able to avoid detection by the immune system by not producing MHC-I at all.

A recent paper led by scientists at the NYU School of Medicine and the University of California - San Francisco showed that pancreatic cancer cells recycle and degrade MHC-I complexes so fast that there are almost none on the cell surface to signal that something is wrong.

To try to increase the amount of MHC-I present on the surface of cancerous cells, the researchers treated pancreatic cancers of mice with chloroquine, which prevents the cells from degrading MHC-I complexes. When this was combined with immunotherapy, they saw that more T-cells flooded the area around the tumor, and that this was correlated with a significant decrease in tumor size and weight. This discovery has the potential to improve treatment for cancers that were previously resistant to immunotherapy, making it a promising new strategy to combat them.