Tag Archive: Science

  1. Monsters' Ink

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    I show up to “Teratology: The Science and History of Human Monstrosity” on a rainy afternoon, having done little research but expecting some sort of blown-up, fully-realized version of all those creepy Wikipedia pages I sometimes find myself reading at 3 a.m. Instead, I am greeted by a selection of prints, book illustrations and photographs — each object small enough to hold in one hand. At first, this is kind of a letdown: The exhibit seems to domesticate monsters, reducing them to two dimensions. But then I recognize that teratology itself has a similar goal — the classification of the abnormal and the monstrous.

    Meant as an accompaniment to the “Side Show” exhibit at the Yale School of Art, “Teratology” is a small affair, currently located in the rotunda of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. The exhibit dives into the methodology by which scientists, doctors and explorers categorized and sought to understand these so-called monsters. Each glass case houses about a century or so of the science’s history, with an accompanying dense text label.

    The boundaries of “nature” are a little nebulous for 15th century Western naturalists, or so the dense text label tells me. These collectors threw the monsters and the marvels together, along with plants and rocks and whatever else made the cut. Sometimes, your own limited experience blurs the distinctions: Sure, you are trying to keep your real animals and your fake animals separate, but if you are Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner, you might not know if that mermaid report is a lie or if those human-fish hybrids really do exist several thousand miles away! So you take the chance and include it in your book anyway.

    As I walk around the rotunda, I realize I was expecting a sense of discovery. I want to leaf through pages, squint at the obscure and the unrecognizable. But all the books are already open. An anatomical drawing of a rhinoceros, pulled from a Dürer woodcut, fits neatly in a box no bigger than a sheet of printer paper. (The dense text label tells me the rhino belongs to a larger “discourse” on unicorns, none of which I see.) The visual stunners are few: perhaps an illustration of a floating fetus, its limbs stick-straight? Or the engrossing representations of conjoined twins?

    Teratology — both the exhibit and the science itself — is sparing in its sympathy for the so-called monsters it depicts, opting for objectivity instead. I read about a 19th century woman named Julia Pastrana, a.k.a. “Baboon Lady” or “Bear Woman” (think excessive hair growth, face and body). Pastrana was purchased from her mother by a man named Theodore Lent, who became both her manager and her husband. When she and her young child died, Lent had them taxidermied and exhibited. (Something no good husband would do, you might think. But then again, Juan Perón had Evita embalmed, too.) Pastrana’s plight speaks to a common perception of abnormal bodies “as objects rather than subjects,” according to the curators. This is a succinct value judgment, breaking away from the science’s clinical remove.

    The last few display cases ease into modernity: I see neatly arranged lineups of human chromosomes, scientific studies in scientific journals, all in all the suggestion that we are finally dispelling the myths. That everything can be broken down into numbers and birth defects and drugs you shouldn’t take while pregnant. So I know all of this, but I still don’t know the name of the girl (photographed, 1960s) who is missing a couple of limbs due to a sleep aid her mother took while she was still in the womb. This bothers me.

    “Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power,” writes Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In naming the monsters, mapping out their origins in linear and categorical fashions, we’re looking for the power of knowing, an explanation for the unfamiliar. What I want, though, is really the comfort of knowing things turn out to be okay, even if you’re touring the country on view for sharing a hip or a skull with your brother, or for being a Living Skeleton. I want to know the girl’s name.

    In thirty minutes at the exhibit, I’ve drawn the stares of a few med students and a hasty conclusion on teratology itself. I understand the need to understand, but I’m looking for a little more compassion. The display can’t give me that, and maybe that’s the point.

  2. The Ever-changing Periodic Table

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    I entered the Yale Medical Historical Library with the smell of tert-butyl methyl ether still lingering, phantom-like, from the organic chemistry lab I had just left. Tucked away in my lab notebook somewhere was the universally recognized bible of chemistry — the periodic table.

    Anyone who paid a little bit of attention in chemistry can rattle off the layout of the periodic table for you. Metals on the left side, nonmetals on the right. A hard zigzag line dividing the two. Noble gases on the far right. Transition metals spanning the center. Rare earths — the lanthanide and actinide series — expanded below. But what I saw in the Medical Historical Library looked nothing like the simplified design we use today.

    “The History of the Periodic Table in the Twentieth Century,” curated by Charlotte Abney Salomon GRD ’19, is composed of fewer than twenty objects, and yet it succinctly illustrates the long, nonlinear path our current periodic table has taken in the past 150 years.  The small sample of items is part of graphic designer William Drenttel’s lifetime collection of over 200 English language books, pamphlets, advertisements, and collectibles.

    The first object in the display is not a depiction of the periodic table at all. Rather, it is a commemorative stamp honoring Dmitri Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table. Though others organized the elements in a table of rows and columns, Mendeleev was the first to order them by weight and reactivity, leaving blanks in order to maintain consistent trends. By doing so, he predicted the existence of elements that would not be discovered until later on.

    Farther down are open spreads of books from the 1900’s illustrating early attempts at periodic organization. As chemistry advanced, scientists looked for new ways to organize more complex knowledge. “Periodic triads” grouped three elements of similar reactivity together. Other items showed off more esoteric designs: One periodic table from the University of Minnesota in 1939 uses a branching design, starting with only hydrogen and helium at the top and widening as it progresses down the page, making room for the transition metals and the lanthanides and actinides. A French commemorative medallion has the elements etched in concentric circles.

    These designs first struck me as whimsical, but after a moment of thought, I started to see their logic. After all, one layout of the periodic table, as long as it is accurate, is not necessarily better or more scientific than the rest. I had never questioned how or why our periodic table looks the way it does until I was face to face with a host of equally valid designs.

    The periodic table finally began to coalesce into a standardized format around the 1960s, which the second display case illustrates. The black and white Welch Periodic Chart of the Atoms from 1959 depicts each element in an individual box, and the layout is more reminiscent of our modern day periodic tables. But the design is still not optimal: Rather than leaving a gap for the transition metals, however, the bottom rows wrap under themselves to accommodate all the elements.

    On a table, in a children’s book from the 1960s seems like the modern version, but upon closer inspection, I noticed that noble gases are placed on the left side instead of the right! But such a minor difference in the overall design set off a cascade of questions, “Why are our noble gases on the right side instead of the left? Or instead of the middle of the table, so that the elements increase in reactivity towards the edges?” It’s wonderful and a little sad to realize that even science, the bastion of objectivity and empiricism, is shaped by subjective cultural trends.

    Then, the exhibit abruptly leaps from historical periodic tables to today’s table, as seen in pop culture. All of a sudden, the books yellowed by age are replaced with a brightly colored assortment of everyday objects, including a mug, a tie and two recent magazine advertisements, all with the periodic table printed on them. The current version of the periodic table has become a cultural symbol of scientific thinking and an easily recognizable method of grouping items — from television to mixed drinks — by different criteria and breaking those groups down to their basic elements. Science, too, leaves its mark on popular culture.

    Though the exhibit does not demand to be noticed — indeed, it’s easy to miss unless you specifically peer down into the cases — it tells a powerful story with a small collection of carefully chosen pieces. Chemical knowledge has only appeared in this specific physical format for 50 years. And I didn’t realize it until now.

    It’s so easy to take our version of the table for granted when it’s all we have studied, but the theories and tools we have today came about through incremental changes over time. “The History of the Periodic Table” reminds us that science is a process, not a result.

  3. SCIENCE DISPATCH: How that whole Richard III thing really went down

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    This is the third article in a WEEKEND series by Aishwarya Vijay. Taking the time to read intense science magazines and research so that we don’t have to, Aishwarya will be giving our faithful readers regular updates on the field, so we aren’t all taken by surprise when, like, the sun melts.

    Now that the royal baby buzz has died down a bit, the English have found a new way to make the monarchy relevant. Except that this monarch has been somewhat irrelevant for more than 500 years now – talk about a comeback!

    A team of archaeologists has finally confirmed, as of Feb. 4, that they have found the true remains of Richard III. For those who aren’t well-versed on all their English monarchs, Richard was kind of an ass. After Kind Edward IV died, his young son Edward V, 12 at the time, succeeded him. Richard, a war hero and the young king’s uncle, was named lord protector of Edward and his younger brother, although protecting them wasn’t exactly high on his agenda.

    Instead, he locked them both in the Tower of London and, until this day, it is rumored that he ordered them executed as well. Richard did not live too long after that — he was killed by Henry Tudor’s forces in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry, the new king, quickly and quietly buried him around 1495 in Greyfriars friary.

    Due to massive development on the land and a lack of records, nobody knew exactly where this church was until now.

    Then, in August, a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester announced that they would search for Richard’s actual remains. By using a common technique called superimposition – basically, taking maps from subsequent historical periods and comparing fixed points – they found that the once-hallowed Greyfriars friary was now a gigantic mall parking lot.

    They then found a skull and some bones that revealed a violent battle death. The skeleton showed many injuries, including an arrowhead to the back and two potentially fatal skull wounds. The spine itself is badly curved and shows a condition known as scoliosis, which past historical records mentioned Richard as having. In many ways, the physical description matched that of contemporary records of Richard. But, then again, a lot of people in 15th century England died gruesome battle deaths – it wasn’t exactly the Enlightenment. How could they really prove this was Richard?

    That’s the interesting part. The thing is, though DNA is remarkably resistant to degradation and can survive under reasonable conditions for centuries or even millennia when other biological molecules have decayed away, even if there were a descendent of Richard III floating around, his or her genome would be so mixed with others by now that it would be hard to find the link.

    But, of course, the show must go on, especially if said show will put you on track for tenure. Instead of normal genomic DNA, the researchers used DNA from mitochondria, small organelles that provide cells with their energy. Unlike the main genome from the nucleus, which is mixed up when sperm fertilizes an egg, mitochondrial DNA passes without combination from mother to child. This meant that if researchers could find a direct line of females from Richard’s mother, the duchess of York, they could find a potential match even generations later.

    They managed to find a 17th generation descendant of Richard named Joy Ibsen in Canada. Ibsen had recently died, but her son was able to provide a DNA sample postmortem. Turns out they were extremely lucky, because Ibsen had only one daughter, who has no children, meaning the line would have ended pretty soon. By matching the DNA sample to that of the remains, scientist were finally able to confirm that the skeleton found in the Leicester parking lot was, without a doubt, the late and (not really) great Richard III. 

    So, Richard can finally be laid to rest, although some doubt that he deserves it. Others, such as Philipa Langley from the Richard III Support Society (yes, this is actually a thing), believe it is a chance to get rid of Tudor propaganda and clear the good name of her king. How much of a personality they can glean from a worn skeleton remains to be seen.

  4. ‘Hoodie Day’ brings engineering students together

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    Blinding snow and bitter winds could not dampen spirits inside the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design Wednesday evening as juniors and seniors gathered together for the School of Engineering’s “Hoodie Day.”

    In previous years, juniors received the traditional blue engineering sweaters from their department secretaries with little fanfare. But seniors Adam Goone ’13 and Lidiya Dervisheva ’13 said they wanted to turn the errand into a social event.

    “I don’t know a lot of junior chemical engineers, for example, so it’s a good opportunity for people to get together,” Goone said.

    “Gangnam Style” pulsed through the Center as dozens of juniors donned their new swag and chatted with seniors wearing their better-worn counterparts. Attendees also feasted on massive piles of falafel and baklava from Mamoun’s.

    Goone said part of the motivation for the event was to bring students from different majors and different extracurricular interests together. While engineering students often know their classmates, they might not know those in other departments, he said.

    Deputy Dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science Vincent Wilczynski, who attended the event, said the Center has helped contribute to a growing engineering culture at Yale.

    “It’s fitting that we could do [Hoodie Day] in the Center because the Center is really now the magnet for engineering,” Wilczynski said. “And part of that is community.”

    The Center for Engineering Innovation and Design opened in August.

  5. 68 Nobel laureates, including 7 Yalies, endorse Obama

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    Sixty-eight Nobel Laureates, including seven Yalies, have signed an open letter endorsing Barack Obama for president.

    In the letter, the scientists wrote that Obama has remained committed to relying on “science-based decision making and has championed investment in science and technology research.”

    In addition, the letter expresses concern about Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s candidacy, arguing that the governor has “taken positions that privilege ideology over clear scientific evidence on climate change.”

    Among those that signed the letter were 2012 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and School of Medicine graduate Brian Kobilka MED ’81, Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Sidney Altman, Murray Gell–Mann ’48, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Thomas Steitz and Eric Wieschaus GRD ’74 also signed the letter.

    Check out the current and former Nobel Prize-winning Yalies who signed the joint letter:

    Brian Kobilka MED ’81 — 2012 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, currently a professor in molecular and physiology at Stanford University.

    Murray Gell-Mann ’48 — 1969 Nobel Prize winner in physics, currently living in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Co-founded the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit research center for scientists.

    Eric Wieschaus GRD ’74 — 1995 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, currently a Squibb professor in molecular biology at Princeton University.

    Sidney Altman — 1989 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, currently a Sterling professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and professor of chemistry at Yale. Has been part of Yale’s faculty since 1971.

    Thomas Steitz — 2009 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, currently a Sterling professor of biophysics and biochemistry at Yale.

    Paul Greengard — 2000 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, currently the Vincent Astor Professor at Rockefeller University and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Former pharmacology professor at Yale.

    Elizabeth Blackburn — 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, currently the Morris Herzstein professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale.

  6. Lawsuit alleges age discrimination

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    A 63-year-old former Yale administrator at the Yale-New Haven Hospital is suing the University on the grounds of age discrimination, claiming that he was fired from his post after serving more than 30 years with the hospital and School of Medicine.

    Martin Donovan, 63, the former director of finance for the Yale Medical Group, is seeking an unspecified amount in damages and claims that he was gradually forced out of his position despite maintaining “excellent” work, according to the Hartford Courant.

    In his suit, Donovan claims that he had been asked spontaneously whether he was planning to retire in May 2010, and, even though he reaffirmed that he had no such plans, began to be “falsely and unfairly criticize[d] and scrutinize[d]” from that day onward. His lawsuit also states that before the “unlawful age based statements” about Donovan’s false plans to retire, his performance reviews had been excellent, but that this changed after rumors about his retirement began.

    “[Yale] cast aside this valuable employee and this invaluable resource,” said William Palmieri, Donovan’s New Haven-based attorney. “He clearly was an able employee. He clearly was an excellent employee and that leads to the conclusion that Yale discriminated against him because of age.”

    In August 2010, Donovan received a written warning and was demoted for a period of 90 days, after which his employment was to end. His termination date was then extended to March 2011, when he was then fired.

    Donovan claims that as a result of the sequence of events, he lost his job, money and personal and professional reputation.

    Before working for 20 years at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, Donovan served for 12 years at the medical school.

  7. Yale alum wins Nobel Prize

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    Earlier today, Brian Kobilka MED ’81 was one of two American scientists awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He will share the prize with his former mentor, Robert Lefkowitz, a professor of biochemistry at Duke University.

    Kobilka and Lefkowitz have made significant progress in unraveling the workings of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), a large family of trans-membrane proteins that play a crucial role in communication within the body, transferring chemical messages from the outside into the cell’s interior. GPCR proteins are involved in nearly every physiological process, from the beating of the heart to the operation of the brain. Understanding these proteins may be the key to developing better drugs, since nearly half of all medications act upon these receptors.

    In the 1980s, Kobilka and Lefkowitz were able to isolate the receptor gene for one G-protein-coupled family member, and in 2011, Kobilka and his team obtained the first three-dimensional image of another specific kind of GPCR bound to its signaling molecule.

    Kobilka currently serves as a professor and chair of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

    Correction: Oct. 10

    An earlier version of this article’s headline misstated Kobilka’s affiliation with Yale.

  8. University announces new fellowship for freshmen

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    A new summer fellowship program will allow more undergraduates to conduct research in science and engineering during the summer after freshman year.

    Freshman can already get support from Yale through the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program to spend the summer doing scientific research, but the new program will expand these numbers. At least 25 more fellowship slots will be available to freshmen by the summer of 2013, representing a 50 percent increase over the last five years in the number of research positions offered to freshmen, Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said in an email to the News.

    The summer fellowship will include “support for full-time research, new summer programmatic activities, and enhanced guidance and support for finding mentors, developing proposals, and making a successful entry into research,” Peart wrote.

    She added that in the last decade, Yale College has more than doubled its summer fellowship support for students who do research in the sciences and engineering under the direction of Yale faculty members. In the summer of 2013, Yale will make a total commitment of close to $500,000 to support at least 110 science and engineering freshmen.

  9. Yale doctors experiment with stem cells, succeed

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    A group of pediatric surgeons at the School of Medicine used a four-year-old girl’s bone marrow to repair her heart in what could be the newest advance in the field of regenerative medicine, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

    The patient, Angela Irizarry, was born with a single pumping chamber in her heart — a potentially lethal defect known as hypoplastic left heart syndorome.

    The Yale doctors trained Angela’s body to grow new cells that function like a normal blood vessel by implanting a bioabsorbable tube in her chest, which was seeded with stem cells from her bone marrow. Six months after Angela’s surgery, the tube disappeared with the cells, and her body induced regeneration.

    “We’re making a blood vessel where there wasn’t one,” Chris Breuer, an associate professor of surgery leading the operation, told the Wall Street Journal.

    Breuer said he expects to implant a tissue-engineered blood vessel in a second patient soon as part of a study to test the safety of the procedure and determine whether the blood vessels grow as the child gets older. He said he hopes that the procedure, if successful, will be available under a special U.S. Food and Drug Administration humanitarian device exemption.

    Irizarry’s heart defect affects about 3,000 newborns in the U.S. each year. Without surgery, seventy percent of these infants die before their first birthday.

  10. Two FES professors given named professorships

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    Two Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies faculty have been granted named professorships, the environment school announced in a press release on Friday.

    Xuhui Lee, whose research focuses on the “exchanges of radiation, heat, water, and trace gases between vegetation and the atmosphere,” will become the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of Meteorology. John Wargo GRD ’84, whose work focuses on environmental policy and risk analysis, is now the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Environmental Health and Politics.

    Lee, who studied at the Nanjing Institute of Meteorology and received a Ph.D. in soil science from the University of British Columbia, became an assistant professor at FES in 1994 and was promoted to professor in 2002. He is the editor in chief of the journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology.

    Wargo is the director of undergraduate studies for the environmental studies major. At Yale, he has taught courses in environmental policy, politics and law at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. He is currently researching the tension between more energy-efficient buildings and the increased concentration and variety of chemicals in indoor areas.

    “Xuhui and John have contributed immensely to the advancement of environmental scholarship, as well as to the life of the school,” Peter Crane, dean of the environment school, said in Friday’s press release. “They are richly deserving of this honor.”

  11. Yale researchers find Facebook addicting

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    Facebook addiction might soon be an official mental disorder.

    A group of Yale post-doctoral researchers have determined that Facebook acts as an increasingly common and addicting form of stress management, according to an article in the New Haven Register.

    According to the researchers, Facebook activates the body’s reward circuits and neural pathways in the same way drugs do for addicts. Using online social networking also causes certain chemicals — like dopamine — to spike in the brain, like when people interact face-to-face, or when they do drugs. And like people addicted to drugs, people suffering from Facebook addiction will need more and more to achieve the same effect.

    Let’s hope there’s a breakthrough soon, because we’re about seven weeks from finals.

  12. Office of Sustainability releases 2011 progress report

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    Yale is currently on track to meet the goals outlined in its 2010-2013 Sustainability Strategic Plan, according to an annual progress report released Monday by the Office of Sustainability.

    The report tracks progress made during the 2011 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, 2011. (Click here to read the report in full.) The University has made improvements in areas such as waste management and energy use, according to the report. But further developments are needed to achieve 100 percent Green certification among campus laboratories, as the University still needs to reduce use of single-occupancy vehicles and cut down on paper consumption.

    Julie Newman, director of the Office of Sustainability, said implementing new measures and collecting data to track progress is the result of “an ongoing engagement” of partnership and negotiation among various Yale departments, including Facilities, Transportation and Dining. The Office is currently collecting data for the 2012 fiscal year’s progress report.