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Science and Activism – Why Can’t We Be Friends?

By: Rose Eveleth

As most of the bloggers here are future scientists, I thought it might be interesting to bring up an issue making headlines recently.  Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel explains in a short (albeit quite biased) blog post what Dr. Dario Ringach – formerly at UCLA – has had to endure recently as a researcher working on experiments that use animals.  In short, activists have come to his house, beat on his doors and windows, and intimidated his family and friends.  Dr. Ringach resigned from UCLA when they provided neither support, nor protection.  In the past few weeks, activists have adopted a new plan to attack Ringach’s family.

The LAist confirms that the animal rights activists plan to go to Dr. Ringach’s children’s school to protest and “educate fellow students what their classmate’s father does for a living.”  They have protested at his home before, and now they are going to his children’s school.  One activist writes, “we’ll just tally up the kids as collateral damage, a small price to pay for all the attention it’s getting now.”

Scientific research has long been viewed from afar by “everyday citizens” as suspicious, fraudulent, and perhaps immoral.  What those people in lab coats do is mysterious, confusing and sometimes scary.  This is the same sentiment that causes doubt of every scientific finding, from relativity, to climate change.

Citizens have the right to ask questions and demand transparency in science.  It has become increasingly clear that good science cannot be done without some kind of accountability and reporting mechanism to the people.  Animal rights activists have the right to demand structures in the scientific world that defend animals from misguided research, and yes, such research certainly does happen.  Does that mean they should terrorize a child’s school?  No.  But it does bring up some interesting questions, very salient to the writers here on this blog.

How much responsibility do scientists have to explain themselves to the public?  Is that what science journalists, public information officers, the Discovery Channel, or this blog is for, or is there more.  Many of the arguments that doctors and PhD’s are citing in response to Animal Rights groups is that if they knew how much good animal testing did for medicine they would surely think twice.  If they understood the science behind the experiments, the long term goals and the current success stories.  It is so easy for scientists to say “if only they understood the science, then they would understand.”  Yet none of these scientists appears ready to explain that science to the activists.  Is that not part of the scientist’s job description?

There are certainly bright spots.  At UCLA, they recently had a panel to discuss, civilly, the issue of Animal Research.  The sponsoring group, Bruins for Animals, is saddened to hear that some activists are harassing children and researchers, saying on their website “Some appear determined to continue with their attempts at interfering with this fresh direction the debate is taking.  In a move that defies logic, these activists are now suggesting that children are legitimate targets of their protests.”

It is my hope that the new generation of activists is more like Bruins for Animals, willing and ready to sit down and talk about what the problems are and how to fix them, and perhaps, in the end, realizing that differences of opinion are not just healthy, but important.  If no one questioned science, no good science would get done.  But please, stay away from the children.

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Rising Sea Levels and the Bengal Tiger

Endangered Species Case Study: Bengal Tiger
by Krista Bergesen

Tigers have long thrived in a variety of habitats across the Asian continent. Extremely adaptable, these solitary hunters have found their niche in extremely different climates: from the the frozen forests in Russia to the much hotter, tropical climates in India and Indonesia.

However, at this time, it seems that tigers are losing habitat at too quick of a pace to stay a viable species. Because of human activities, tigers have been pushed into a small portion, only 7%, of their historic habitat, leaving only around 3,200 tigers left in the wild.

The Bengal tiger has long occupied vast areas of Indonesia and India, and an especially large portion in what is called the Sundarbans. This large forest of mangroves provides food and shelter to many different species, including around 400 Bengal tigers, an extremely large number  given the already dwindling population as a whole. Although the numbers are not conclusive, it is estimated that around 10% of the entire tiger population lives in this large stretch of mangrove forest.

The controlled environment of the Sundarbans strongly promotes biodiversity. Fish use the area beneath the submerged mangrove roots to breed, while the trees shelter the coastal and intertidal zones from cyclones, wind damage, and storm surges. As many as 50 reptile species, 120 fish species, 45 mammal species, and 300 bird species call this forest their home. And tigers here play a very singular role in the ecosystem, swimming between the islands of this area and collecting food from the marine life in addition to spotted deer for their diet.

This area, unfortunately, is in danger. And not just from poachers or deforestation, but from rising sea levels. Global warming has done it yet again. By the year 2070, the sea levels around the Sundarbans are predicted to rise 11 inches. With this drastic rise, the environment will no longer adequately support the tigers or many other species that thrive within the mangroves. And with accelerating habitat destruction, this large forest may not even exist in 50 years at all.

The effects are projected to be devastating. From the estimated 400 tigers alive now, the population is predicted to sink to around 20 breeding tigers because of the 96% decrease in habitat. In addition to the continued effects of poaching and deforestation, the rising sea levels could lead this subspecies into extinction, joining the 2 tiger subspecies already extinct.

The situation seems hopeless. However, local governments have the chance to conserve the threatened mangrove forest as well as curtailing the rampant poaching problem. Also, the region can increase sediment delivery and freshwater flows to the Sundarbans for replenishment of the land. Although this is probably easier said than done, it is hopeful that the situation can be resolved through progressive laws and environmental protection efforts. But it doesn’t end there. The globe as a whole needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise the above efforts and changes will be ineffective in saving the Sundarbans, and with it, its rich biodiversity.

Sources:

Poston, Lee. “Climate Change Threatens to Wipe Out One of World’s Largest Tiger Populations this Century” <http://www.worldwildlife.org/who/media/press/2010/WWFPresitem14891.html&gt; 19 Jan. 2010. 22 Feb. 2010.

“New Study Shows Bengal Tiger’s Habitat in Danger.” <http://www.worldwildlife.org/who/media/press/2010/WWFPresitem14914.html&gt; 19 Jan. 2010. 22 Feb. 2010.

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Dying Coral Reefs

by Krista Bergesen

With the global climate changes going on right now, it may not be surprising to know that the aquatic life is also being affected. Displayed in every vacation resorts catalog and ocean documentary, coral reefs have formed an integral part of the planet’s oceans, providing a food supply, habitat, and protection for many other sea creatures.

Sometimes, it is easy to imagine coral as the dead, funny shaped rock that can be seen when you go scuba diving. Surprising as it may be, coral are actually living animals that eat, breathe, and reproduce.

Often mistaken for plants, coral use tentacles to sting and capture their prey of small fish and small animals. Hard to imagine, right?

It may be interesting to note that coral also located all across global waters. In colder northern waters, the coral don’t generally settle down into the picturesque colonies of the equatorial waters, but are still there floating aimlessly throughout the water. Large colonies are formed in the presence of algae, where the coral can feed off of the algae’s products of photosynthesis. At the same time, the coral produce CO2 to feed the algae. Not having to capture prey anymore because of this mutualistic relationship, the coral then produce the calcium carbonate exoskeletons that people usually identify with the species.

Coral reefs may look rock hard and impermeable, but they are surprisingly fragile.

Myriads of creatures graze on and make their homes in the coral. And the coral are always dying and re-growing their structures because of the constant attack they are under. A very delicate balance of destruction and growth has been maintained for millions of years between the coral and the rest of the ocean. It figures that humans would mess it up.

Instead of carrying fresh, clean water to the oceans, rivers now carry agricultural waste. Nitrates, phosphates, sewage, etc. now pollute the water. Recent evidence has found that coral now faces disease susceptibility from the sediment accumulation and increased exposure to land-based pathogens.

It doesn’t stop there, global warming has, not surprisingly, caused problems as well. As coral and algae colonies evolved together in a very narrow temperature range, the algae have begun to produce poisonous oxygen compounds called “superoxides” because of the higher oceanic temperatures. The coral will consequently expel the algae only to starve and turn a deathly white, giving the process the name of “bleaching.”

Coral reefs only form a small portion of the vast oceans, but their presence showcases the biodiversity and intricacy of the ocean’s natural systems. Widespread coral bleaching as well as pollution will change the face of the oceans as we know it through extinction. And this type of change cannot be undone.

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Cleft Lip and Palate Reconstruction

By: Sonya Chitra Subash

What is a cleft lip and palate? Most commonly signified by a ‘harelip’, or slight gaping holes in the roof of the mouth, cleft lip and palate is a benign genetic birth defect affecting approximately one in every seven hundred children born in accordance to the Cleft Lip and Palate Association. Asians are the most affected, while African- Americans are least affected. Research being conducted by the Cleft Lip and Palate Association is still in progress to understand the main underlying reasons. For the births occurring in developed countries, a simple set of procedures is enough to fix this nonfatal defect. However, in developing countries, a child born with such a minor disfigurement is subjected to life as an outcast without proper treatment. They are shunned from the community, subjected to taunting, rejected for job opportunities, abandoned by family members, subjected to witchcraft rituals, and sometimes attacked and killed.

How does this defect occur? Sometimes during embryonic development, the upper lip and the roof of the mouth do not fuse properly. This typically happens during the first six to ten weeks of gestation. The physical severity of this birth defect can range from a minuscule to notch in the upper lip to a large groove. The severity of the physical deformity can also lead to complications with the ears, nose, and mouth. Ear infections will occur more often (due to the inability of the muscles of the palate to open the Eustachian tubes that allow for the middle air to drain, causing a rapid collection of fluid), and speech pathologists are often needed to help the child with speech development.

What is the treatment? The treatment to cure and better the quality of life is simple. Surgery to close the lip and palate together is not life threatening, and oral maxillofacial surgeons provide surgeries to fix this.

One surgical technique used is ‘bone grafting’. A small portion of bone is extracted from the patient’s hip, ribs, leg, or head and is placed in the cleft area (the bone protected by the upper lip) to introduce great support for un-erupted teeth that will grow as the child’s mouth develops after the surgery. This is usually most effective if the patient is five to six years old during the treatment. The added bone will make the gum appear more natural, and help increase the strength of the pre-maxilla (the front part of the roof of the mouth).

Older people affected have a lesser chance of having a perfectly symmetrical gum, but dentists can perform procedures using prosthetic teeth. Metallic dental bone implants are also used-the proper treatment will vary per patient. However, the cost of these procedures can be expensive, especially for those afflicted in developing countries where resources are scarce.

How can I help? There are many specialists in the US available for help with cleft palate reconstruction, and many organizations that travel to developing countries are available to aid. One organization, Operation Smile does humanitarian work with volunteers and dental specialists every year. Mission trips continually leave from the US, and anyone can help in some way. Smile Train, another organization, is in constant need of donations to keep funding its mission trips as well. We often underestimate, or don’t necessarily think about, the value of a smile. In developing countries it is worth more than it is here in the US, and volunteers are always needed to help aid these missions.

Information regarding sources and organizations in this article can be found at the following websites:

Cleft Lip and Palate Association: http://www.clapa.com/

Operation Smile: http://www.operationsmile.org/

Smile Train: http://www.smiletrain.org/

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Dangerous Dioxins

By: Lizzie Caldwell

According to Chemical And Engineering News, the US Environmental Protection Agency(aka EPA, largest government agency in the US to protect human health and the environment) has recently proposed to tighten its guidelines for remediation dioxins and related chemicals in soils.


Dioxins are chemicals that are extremely dangerous for humans. The full name is “polychlorinated dibenzodioxins”. This name sounds long and complicated, but let’s break it down.

“Poly” means multiple. “Chlorinated” means it has chlorine, so we know that a typical dioxin molecule has multiple chlorines as a part of it. We’re halfway there!
“Di” means two. “Benzo” is the prefix for “benzene”, which is a 6 carbon ring:


Benzene molecule.

The C is carbon, the H is hydrogen, and the lines represent that the two atoms are connected. Two lines means the connection is “stronger” than one line, etc. Beside it is its shorthand version, which is what is commonly used.


Benzene is the simplest carbon ring ever, and it is everywhere. It is used to make plastics, rubber, drugs, and dyes. It used to be in our gasoline, until we realized that benzene causes cancer. Thus, from this name, we already know that the molecule is bad. For the last part, “di” means “two”, and “oxin” is the prefix for oxygen; thus, polychlorinated dibenzodioxin has two benzene rings, two oxygens, and a variable amount of chlorine atoms(which can be anywhere from 1 to 8). These molecules are generally referred to as “dioxin” for short.

PCDD, or polychlorinated dibenzodioxin. (The “n” and the “m” just symbolize that there are chlorines present, it just depends on the dioxin as to how many chlorine atoms on each benzene ring.)

How is dioxin worse than benzene? This rule can be applied to any molecule: organic molecules that occur in nature, like benzene, break down rather quickly. Organic molecules with chlorines attached to them, like most dioxins, make the molecule very stable. Thus, while benzene causes cancer, it only lasts from 3 – 10 days before it breaks down and is no longer dangerous. Dioxin, on the other hand, lasts from 7 – 10 years(Dioxinfacts.org). Imagine how many cancer-causing molecules one individual can accumulate if they lived near a place that produced dioxin molecules!


One type of dioxin, called “tetrachlorinated dibenzodioxin”(that means it has 4 chlorines. tetra = 4) is a powerful herbicide.

Picture of TCDD(tetrachlorinated dibenzodioxin).

It kills vegetation by making it grow uncontrollably until it dies. It is a byproduct of the molecules used to make Agent Orange. It was used during the Vietnam war, and the dioxins are still found in their soil today. The National Toxicology Program defined it as a cancer-causing molecule, and has been linked with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It has affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people; Europeans, veterans who were also exposed, and now, residents of the state of Michigan.

How did dioxins get to Lake Huron? Normally, dioxins are created in manufacturing plants. Manufacturing plants use a lot of fire and heat to make whatever they need; and when heat and chlorine are present around organic molecules(like benzene, a 6-carbon ring), a reaction happens that creates dioxins. Manufacturing plants don’t mean to make dioxins, it’s just a by-product of their process to make the chemicals and products they want to sell to you.


One of the unfortunate characteristics of dioxin is that it is aromatic – which means that it evaporates into thin air, there it can be easily distributed. This is how dioxin ends up in close lakes, and in the soil. Dioxin is a very expensive and inconvenient responsibility that EPA cleaned up for years. In 1998, the EPA made it the company’s responsibility to clean up the mess, and they set up guidelines. Now, with new reports claiming that dioxins are also present in soil, EPA wants to strengthen its guidelines to include soil. Dow Chemical’s spokeswoman criticizes the new guidelines, saying that “Soils aren’t really a primary route of exposure”(Chemical and Engineering News, Jan 2010). Luckily for Dow, the EPA cannot implement these new guidelines until it finishes reassessing health and environmental risks associated with dioxins; but we can all agree we don’t want dioxins around, isn’t that right, Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko?

Before dioxin poisoning                  After dioxin poisoning

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Too Cold for Turtles

By Kimmie Riskas

Florida wildlife authorities are reeling. The first two weeks of January
brought unseasonably cold water off the state’s coast, shocking a record
5,000 sea turtles into a catatonic, coma-like state. All seven species of
sea turtles are cold-blooded, tropically-distributed, and endangered.
Principally affected by the “cold-stun” were green turtles (Chelonia
mydas), which prefer warm, shallow water and are thought to be more
sensitive to changes in temperature. A number of loggerhead turtles
(Caretta caretta) were also rescued. Officials found the stunned turtles
floating in the water, unable to forage for food or move to avoid boat
collisions.

The coordinated rescue and rehabilitation effort combined six federal and state organizations, several non-profits, and innumerable volunteers in what is being called the “largest turtle rescue in history.”[1] One such organization, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, has treated more than 80 turtles since the crisis began—nearly double its annual amount. The turtles’ injuries range from hypothermia and starvation to trauma from boat collisions and dehydration. Even NASA is helping with the effort, reportedly loaning out heaters to a center run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Such an unexpected, massive influx of turtles is putting further stress on rescue centers that support long-term patients. To accommodate the victims of the cold-stun, Turtle Hospital flew five “permanent resident” turtles from their convalescent lodgings in the Florida Keys on a 4,700 mile flight to Weymouth Sea Life Park in Dorset, England. The turtles in question had sustained spinal injuries from boat accidents and require constant human care to survive.

Treatment centers from North Carolina to Texas have been working to revive the animals as well as release those that have been nursed back to health. With water temperatures climbing up from the frigid 30s, several groups of recovered turtles have been released near West Palm Beach since last Tuesday. The successful discharges are a welcome relief for the rescue centers, as more injured turtles are being brought in every day from all parts of the state.

The deaths of hundreds of juveniles could spell disaster for future populations of the critically endangered turtles, biologists warn. Largely due to vigilant conservation and improvements in fisheries regulation, Atlantic green turtle populations have been on the rise for the past twenty years. Loggerheads haven’t been so lucky; the number of loggerhead nests on Florida beaches has dropped by half after peaking in the mid 1990s[2]. Since sexual maturation takes between one to three decades, the consequences of these juvenile deaths may not be observable for a number of years, when those turtles’ absences in the breeding population pushes the species into further peril.

* * *

For news, photos, treatment centers, more information on the cold-stun and how you can help, please visit http://www.seaturtle.org/blog/mcoyne/000655.shtml


[1] DINAH VOYLES PULVER. News-JournalOnline, January 13 2010.

[2] OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON. Onearth.org, January 21 2010.

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