Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill: a Scientist’s Perspective

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Author Christy Gaines (R) with a staff member from the Office of Senator Richard Burr (NC)

On April 26th, I had the privilege to attend STEM on the Hill Day with BPS. I had attended the March for Science the previous weekend, and I was ready to continue to advocate for science funding by speaking directly to the offices of my representatives. I had concerns about my ability to appeal to some offices, as I had commiserated with others at the march about how some elected officials viewed evidence-based policymaking with skepticism. With this in mind, I tailored my message to the offices I visited.

I went to my first appointment, expecting resistance from the staffer of my senator. I had prepared reasons why basic science funding economically helped my state, as well as a few appeals to national security, but expected to leave the meeting demoralized. I got my first, and largest, surprise of the morning: the staffer agreed with me and promised to commit to funding basic science as part of the upcoming omnibus spending bill. In this age political divisiveness, I had not expected it to be as easy as asking for funding. While we talked about a few of my points, we spent most of our meeting sharing our stories, as the Biophysical Society group spoke more about their individual concerns and how science funding affects us personally.

I assumed this meeting was a fluke, as one data point is not an adequate sample size. However, when I went to the next appointment, I was met with similar enthusiasm and attentiveness. As my sample size grew, I learned that this was the norm rather than the exception. I had few interactions that left me disheartened, as almost everyone I spoke to had broad support for basic science. I think due to the politicization of some aspects of science, we tend to think that all areas will become the same. We believe that denying climate research will automatically lead to slashing the NIH budget. However, I think we can use the broad support of biomedical research to validate other areas of science. Everyone I met believed that cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases are worth federal investment. That same belief that people deserve medical care could be used to protect them from Zika virus, pollution, and other climate-change related ailments. What I realized from meeting with the staffers of my congressmen and senators is that our representatives have to do the best they can with the resources they are given. They are constantly bombarded with requests from people with different priorities, and they must choose which ones are funded. It’s easier for elected officials to relate to the patients of cancer and other illnesses, as they have probably encountered similar issues in their own personal life. However, I got the impression that their interactions with scientists are less frequent. To the majority, what we do is an abstract concept, and the best way to advocate for science is to show them how their funding decisions directly affect our careers, and how our research affects others.

I am a young scientist, and my experience with funding only extends to the last decade. However, I remember when sequestration happened, and how it limited my cohort’s ability to choose labs when we started graduate school. I remember when budgets were slashed for universities, and my school opted to pass some of the costs to the undergrads because they couldn’t absorb all of it by changing the teaching labs. By going to my elected officials, I was able to share these stories and humanize the scientists doing this work. They got to meet someone whose graduate education has been fully funded by the NIH. They got to meet a young scientist that will rely on funding in order to get their next job. Importantly, I didn’t go alone, and others in my group could remind them of how mid- and late-career scientists rely on funding as well.

Overall I felt it was a great experience, and I hope to go again. At the very least, it opened up dialogue between my representatives’ offices and me, making it much easier for me to send an email in the future. It also allowed me to view my representatives as people, instead of political enemies or allies. When I write in the future, I am going to believe that they want to help me (and their other constituents) and that I need to give them a reason to prioritize my needs over other spending projects. While it’s easy to give in to skepticism and pessimism, I encourage others to communicate with their representatives. It might be easier than you think.

–Christy Gaines

UMBC Graduate Student

Nothing is Impossible

BPJ_112_10.c1.inddRecent work in molecular bioelectricity has demonstrated the ability to radically alter animals’ morphology despite a normal genomic sequence. Cells make decisions and cooperate towards complex anatomical goal states using bioelectric gradients that are only detectable in the living state and invisible to the mainstream protein or mRNA profiling approaches. The study of these non-neural bioelectrical networks have allowed us to create living “impossible objects” in the highly regenerative planarian flatworm system. For example, flatworms can be made permanently two-headed by a transient change of their bioelectrical circuit. A brief shift of their bioelectric network to a new attractor state permanently alters their pattern memory so that in the future, they will regenerate as two-headed forms out of middle fragments cut in plain water, despite their wild-type genomic sequence.  M. C. Escher was an artist with a keen appreciation of “impossible” or “undecidable” objects, drawing many two-dimensional forms (such as ever-descending staircases) that cannot exist in our three-dimensional world.

We drew inspiration for our image on the cover of the May 23 issue of Biophysical Journal from Escher’s visions, as the worms we report in our paper are in a sense “impossible objects,” whose target morphology does not match their current anatomy. They are also “undecidable objects” because each worm stochastically decides to be one or two-headed upon amputation, persisting in an undecided state. The image is specifically based on the M. C. Escher woodcut Another World II, a.k.a. Other World II, which masterfully depicts paradoxical views of an alien landscape, revealing different aspects of reality but not matching our expectations based on the perspective we take looking through each of the windows in the structure.

ImageThis image is a perfect complement to our work on the physiological determinants of patterning. These experiments revealed a new perspective on the control of biological anatomy, which exhibit rules and properties quite different from what is seen when the same object is viewed through the portal of genetic networks or biochemical gradients. To adapt the original woodcut for this image, the color was changed to the blue/red pseudocoloring used to image voltage gradients in the planaria, and the bird-like creature Escher used in the original has been changed to one- or two-headed planaria.

Interestingly, Escher was well aware of the remarkable properties of planaria, as shown  in his 1959 lithograph Planaria (Flatworms). However, the study of bioelectric regulation of growth and form applies well beyond planaria.  It is relevant to the detection and repair of birth defects (especially of the face, brain, and left-right axis), the induction of regeneration of limbs, and detection or reprogramming of cancer, as well as synthetic bioengineering. Much like neural networks in the brain, somatic bioelectric networks store pattern memories and process information that guide development, regeneration, and cancer suppression. Beyond biomedical applications in regenerative medicine and bioengineering, the study of bioelectric communication within tissues in vivo is a branch of the emerging field of primitive cognition.

Evolution takes advantage of biophysical processes to drive computation and decision-making in the brain and body; learning to manipulate this process may allow us to achieve currently impossible biological objects, with structure and function far beyond those we can envision today.

The cover image was created by Jeremy Guay, of Peregrine Creative.

– Fallon Durant, Junji Morokuma, Christopher Fields, Katherine Williams, Dany Adams, Michael Levin

Biophysicists Finding Balance: Mother’s Day 2017

May 14 is Mother’s Day in the US. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with Biophysical Society members Eva-Maria Collins, UC San Diego, and Sarah Veatch, University of Michigan, about what it is like to be a biophysicist and a parent, and how the two roles impact each other.

Eva-Maria Collins

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Collins speaking at the 2017 Biophysical Society Annual Meeting with daughter in tow.

How many children do you have? What are their ages?

We have a 3 year old boy and a 10 months old daughter.

At what stage of your career did you have your children? 

I am currently an Assistant Professor at UCSD and had both kids here while on tenure track.

Has your career been influenced or changed by your role as a parent? How?

Without a doubt! When pregnant with our son I started worrying about handling chemicals while doing experiments in the lab. Realizing that we know way too little about how different chemicals in our environment affect brain development, we started a new research direction in my group developing planarians for high-throughput developmental neurotoxicology screening. In addition, my priorities have shifted. While I still love my work, my kids always come first.

How has your career been influenced by your own parents?

My career has definitely been influenced by my parents in the sense that they were always supportive and encouraged me to follow my dreams. Although my mother was a housewife (I am one of 6 children) and my father worked in administration, they both supported me at every step along the way – and still do!

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a biophysicist and a parent?

Time balance between work and family life. Feeling guilty a lot for not spending enough quality time with either. I am sure a lot of parents feel this way and being in academia, we actually have it very good in the sense that our job is relatively flexible and allows us to take time off to take care of our family when we need it. I also was able to bring both kids to work with me the first 6-7 months of their lives. This was wonderful, because I could experience their every milestones and share videos of it with my husband who works in industry and did not have that opportunity.

Have there been any benefits to being both a mother and a scientist?

Yes! I have gotten more effective with my time, I had to learn to say NO more often, to prioritize my projects, and to let things go that are less important and know it’s OK to do so. I also think that I have become a better mentor for my students as a mother.

Would you encourage your children to be scientists?

I don’t really care what they’ll become as long as they are passionate about what they will be doing and help make this world a better place. I hope to follow in my parents’ footsteps in this respect to make sure we’re always there to support them while simultaneously giving them the freedom to shape their own lives.

How would your children describe your work?

The youngest doesn’t talk yet. Our 3 year old loves coming to work with me because he can ride an elevator and see some fork lifts or other big trucks. I don’t think he cares too much about what I actually do yet.

Any advice for other mothers or prospective mothers pursuing science careers?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to make a choice between having a family and having a career. One can do both and one does not have to wait until after tenure. It’s not easy to juggle both, but with a supportive partner and the right mindset (not everything has to be perfect all the time!), being a parent and a scientist may actually bring out the best in you for both worlds.

photoSarah Veatch

How many children do you have? What are their ages?

2 boys, they are 2 and 5.

At what stage of your career did you have your children? 

As an assistant professor — but a note that my partner carried and breast-fed both kids, so I’ve had it easier than many other mom scientists.

Has your career been influenced or changed by your role as a parent? How?

I don’t think so.  It is common in my university for Assistant Professors to have small children.  I think the biggest difference for me before and after kids is my shifting of priorities.  Family is now right up there with my work in terms of importance and time commitment, and before kids I could get away with prioritizing work over just about anything else. I think that the biggest changes are that I sleep less now and have less ‘down’ time with friends and my partner.

How has your career been influenced by your own parents?

A lot.  My father, who died when I was young, was a scientist.  My step-father is a scientist, and my mom is a medical doctor who is also very invested in science and the scientific method. Being a scientist is very valued in my immediate family, and I think that this made some of the sacrifices made to take this career path were easier to justify to them.

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a biophysicist and a parent?

I think that my biggest challenge both before and after kids is having only finite time and finite mental energy to accomplish all that needs to be done.  Including kids in the equation just makes my time doing science even more valuable and appreciated.

Have there been any benefits to being both a mother and a scientist?

My kids (and probably all kids) are amazing – they help me to see the world from different perspectives, they pick up on everything, and they demand my attention in a way that requires that I let go the problems of the day (being late on that review assignment, debugging code or troubleshooting that experiment, etc.).

Would you encourage your children to be scientists?

I want to foster critical thinking in my kids, and I think this naturally lends itself to scientific thinking.  I think that being a scientist is the best job in the world (for me at least), and I hope that they can be fortunate enough to find a career that brings them as much joy as I experience.

How would your children describe your work?

My 5 year old son said (roughly) that “momma learns by looking at cells with a microscope”

Any advice for other mothers or prospective mothers pursuing science careers?

I am not sure that the advice differs from people pursuing science careers – Find what you love, work hard to stand out, and tell people about your successes.  There are never enough hours in the day to do everything even without kids, so you always have to choose to focus on what matters most at the moment.

A Shape Shifting Surface Layer

BPJ_112_9.c1.inddSurface layers (S-layers) are shells of protein that surround many microbes. Most S-layers are made of one or two proteins that self-assemble into a very thin protein crystal. Crystalline S-layers serve many functions in prokaryotes, including protection and shape determination. In some cases, crystalline S-layers enable pathogenic bacteria to infect humans, either by making the bacterium sticky, or by helping it avoid detection by our immune system. Surprisingly, the S-layer protein from the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus is not always crystalline, and can form two different structures on the surface of the cell.

Caulobacter crescentus is a crescent-shaped bacterium that can be found in many freshwater environments. The cover image for the May 9th issue of the Biophysical Journal is an artistic rendering of Caulobacter crescentus cells swimming in their natural habitat. The left side of the image depicts the surface of a single Caulobacter cell. Caulobacter’s S-layer protein can assume two forms, shown in green and blue. The green form is crystallized S-layer protein, which makes a hexagonal pattern on the surface of the cell. The blue form is an amorphous aggregate of the S-layer protein. That is, the protein is jumbled up and can’t make a repeating pattern.

Most previous work on S-layers has suggested that S-layers are crystalline out of necessity. However, our work indicates that in at least one case, this is not true. This inspired the creation of this cover image, which shows a surface layer that consists of two structural states: crystalline and amorphous. With this study and image, we hope to inspire further investigation into the structural flexibility, rather than the crystallinity, of S-layers.

Artist: Greg Stewart/SLAC

– Fatemeh Jabbarpour, Paul Bargar, John Nomellini, Po-Nan Li, Thomas Lane, Thomas Weiss, John Smit, Lucy Shapiro, Soichi Wakatsuki, Jonathan Herrmann

Lipid vesicles on the beat

BPJ_112_8.c1.inddThe cell plasma membrane serves not only as a protective barrier but as the first responder to a changing environment. One environmental challenge these cells face is osmotic stress — where an imbalance of, for instance, ions or sugars, across the plasma membrane exerts osmotic pressure on the membrane. In order to deal with osmotic stress, mammalian cells have evolved complex protein machineries. But how do simpler cells respond to an osmotic onslaught? We answer this question by studying cell-sized lipid vesicles in osmotic stress. Surprisingly, they display a pulsatile behavior, swelling, bursting, and resealing their membrane cycle after cycle!

The cover image for the April 25 issue of the Biophysical Journal is an artistic rendering of the pulsatile dynamics of cell-sized vesicles in osmotic stress. The red fluorescent vesicles represent experimental observations of giant unilamellar vesicles at three stages of the osmotic swell-burst cycle: relaxed (left), swollen (middle), and ruptured with a burst of fluorescent green sucrose (right). On the piece of paper, the vesicles are projected onto corresponding schematics depicting the different stages of the cycle. The leading processes driving the pulsatile behavior, osmotic pressure, surface tension, and leak-out velocity, are defined in mathematical terms. On the top-right of the paper, is one of the key equations we proposed, representing the dynamics of a pore in the membrane taking into account stochastic pore nucleation induced by thermal fluctuations.

This cover was inspired by the combined experimental and theoretical approaches we embraced in this study. It shows how, from experimental observations (the red vesicles), a conceptual model can be built and formalized into mathematical terms (the schematics) to understand the underlying mechanisms of pulsatile vesicles. By mirroring “realistic” vesicles with “hand-drawn” schematics, the cover illustrates how the complexity of a real world process can be reduced to its essential features through modeling. This fundamental scientific approach allows us to build a testable hypothesis to unravel the biophysical principles behind experimental observations.

Through our study and this cover, we highlight how combining experimental and theoretical approaches can be a powerful way to tackle complex challenges, especially for fundamental problems at the frontier between biology, chemistry, and physics.

—Morgan Chabanon, James CS Ho, Bo Liedberg, Atul Parikh, Padmini Rangamani

Meet a Biophysicist Marching for Science

As an official partner of the March for Science, the Biophysical Society encourages members to participate in the event, in person or virtually, and speak up for science. Prior to taking to the streets on Saturday, April 22, in over 525 cities worldwide, meet a BPS member planning to March:  Connie Jeffery.  Connie is an
associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her lab works on protein structure and function using biochemistry, biophysics, and bioinformatics methods.  The lab has projects in basic science and also focused on diseases – cancer, tuberculosis, and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis).  She will be marching in Chicago, Illinois on April 22.

 

Dr. Constance Jeffery poses in front of a ribosome sculpture at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting.

 

Why did you sign up to march?

I’m concerned about the huge cuts in the proposed federal budget for NIH, NSF, and other parts of the government that fund scientific research.  I am also concerned about potential cuts to agencies that protect the public like the EPA and the FDA.  I am also concerned about so much “pseudoscience” that is misinforming the public, especially things like incorrect information about what to eat or not to eat, quack cures, anti-GMO activists, and anti-vaccination drives that can harm people.  On the more positive side, I would like to share information about the importance of science and what scientists do.

What do you hope to get out of the day personally?

I’d like to share my love of science and encourage young people to consider a job in science, help inform the public about the importance of science and what scientists do, and also learn from others interested in science, including other scientists, but also environmentalists and people with family members who are suffering from diseases that can be potentially cured in the near future (as long as funding is not cut).

What do you hope it will accomplish?

I hope we can better inform the public and our representatives at the local, state and federal level about the importance of science and that there are many American voters who care about science.  There have been such amazing breakthroughs in the past 15 years that we have the potential to find better treatments and ease a lot of suffering soon, but the opportunity will be missed and many people will continue to suffer needlessly if funding is cut.

What will your sign say?

I’m planning to make multiple signs, and to have messages on both sides – things like “Prevent suffering in children:  Fund Research on Childhood Arthritis”, “Fund Cancer Research”, “Fund Autism Research” and from growing up in Cleveland “Before the EPA the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it BURNED {picture of one of the fires}.  Not just once – THE RIVER BURNED MULTIPLE TIMES. Today with the EPA: {and then a picture of how clean and beautiful it looks today}”, “Vaccinations Save Lives”, etc.

Thanks to Connie and everyone else planning to celebrate science at the March!

How to Prepare for a Non-Bench Career

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Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

There is an increasing interest for science PhD students to pursue an “alternate” career beyond the traditional bench research followed by a tenure-track faculty position. The options include marketing, sales, intellectual property, policy, and writing, among others. This article highlights four important steps you can take to prepare for any of these non-bench careers.

  • Do your research: Do not go into another non-bench career just for the sake of it. The career sections of most societies, as well as top journals like Science and Nature have a treasure trove of information on various alternative careers. Reach out to alumni from your school or your lab, as well as to friends and family members, or use social media (Twitter/LinkedIN) to directly speak with people who have made the transition.
  • Along the same lines, make a list of your transferrable skills. These skills could have been built up either as part of your graduate research (e.g., data mining and analysis), or at home or through community work (e.g., did you demonstrate leadership skills through some sort of volunteer work?).  Then note how they align with the careers you are considering.
  • Work on your communication skills: Most non-bench careers involve effective communication, whether it is written or verbal. Two particular skills that will be useful to master include (a) the ”elevator pitch” — a quick summary of who you are and/or what you do and why it’s valuable, and (b) communicating technical information to a lay audience.
  • Gain experience outside of your work: It can be difficult to break into a new industry without prior experience. However, it is possible to gain experience in other ways. If you are interested in science writing, think of maintaining an active blog, or contribute to your school or society newsletters; see if you can volunteer at your institute’s technology commercialization office if you are interested in patent law. Employers also tend to look favorably upon those who have demonstrated a willingness to broaden their horizons beyond bench research.
  • Network: It’s gotten to be a cliché now, but the value of the mantra ”Network, network, network” cannot be overstated. Apart from helping you land that next job, networking will help all of the above — researching alternate careers, communicating, and broadening your horizons!