The following blog was written on April 22, 2017 after my trip to the Naval Research Lab and the March for Science in Washington, DC (scroll down for March for Science!). Due to internet access restrictions and a nine week road trip across the USA, updating my blog has been postponed until now. In the coming weeks, expect posts from New Zealand and South America including: the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Colombia, and Costa Rica!
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory
The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is the corporate laboratory of United States Navy. This being the case, a background check was performed on me prior to my arrival (I was informed of this upon my arrival). When I got there, I filled out a sheet of paper which informed me that enforcement on base is pretty much anything goes, so don’t mess around. Having been to places like Israel, Pakistan, and having visited over thirty countries in less than a year, I expected to raise a few eyebrows. Much to my delight, not a word was spoken or asked about my travels and I was granted access with no issues. I was also requested to minimize photographs taken on base. As a result, I have only the four photographs for my visit to NRL which are shown in the first picture box. My visit to the NRL included a talk about my travels via ScienceTheEarth and a tour of the lab.
My main contacts here are Lenny Tender and Sarah Strycharz-Glaven two friends in the field of microbial electrochemistry. Lenny Tender is one of the progenitors of the benthic fuel cell (shown in the video above). A benthic fuel cell is an enlarged microbial fuel cell that sits in the sediment of water bodies and generates the energy required to power naval devices like remote sensors. This is accomplished when the anode respiring bacteria present in the sediment are capable of generating a power by eating organics in the sediment and ‘breathing’ an anode on the benthic fuel cell. Since the anode is in the sediment, it is in a low oxygen, or anoxic, environment. The cathode of the benthic fuel cells is exposed to the water above the sediment. Since the water above the sediment has a higher oxygen concentration than below the sediment it has a higher redox potential. The benthic fuel cell is able to use this potential gradient to drive the production of power using anode respiring bacteria as a catalyst! The end goal is to have long lasting remote sensors that do not require batteries or materials that corrode or are potentially toxic.
Sarah Strycharz-Glaven is taking the lead on a new project at NRL in the field of bacterial systems and synthetic biology. (You may remember Sarah from the trip to AP-ISMET in Busan, South Korea.) Recently, the lab received a large endowment from the federal government to start a new research focus in the lab. Because of this, Sarah and Lenny’s team has increased by about 50% in 2017. A research assistant in the lab, Lina Bird, is introducing new enzymatic pathways to anode respiring bacteria to see if current production in microbial electrochemical cells increases. The purpose of her research is to gain a fundamental understanding of how anode respiring bacteria send electrons outside their cell; how it is they ‘breathe’ metal. In addition, Lina hopes to use the power of synthetic biology to one day grow bacteria that can ‘switch-on’ certain enzymatic pathways in the presence of contaminants so that they can clean up polluted sites using bioremediation (see Shaily Mahendra explain bioremediation in the video below). Imagine bacteria around an oil rig that lay dormant and can eat an oil spill immediately after it starts to happen!
Matthew Yates, another research assistant and former student of Bruce Logan, is looking for microorganisms that are able to oxidize an electrode. In other words, he is interested in finding microbes that ‘eat’ cathodes instead of ‘breathing’ anodes. Even better, the microbes can ‘eat’, or obtain energy from, the cathodes do so without degrading the cathode material! With the discovery of microbes that can eat metals and use carbon dioxide as a carbon source, Matthew, like Korneel Rabaey and others in the field, hopes to inexpensively synthesize value added materials in microbial fuel cells (electrosythesis).
"The Central Dogma of Microbiology" DNA must first be transcribed into RNA before it is translated into proteins. This is why merely having a gene in your DNA (genomic information) is not always useful for scientists. It is often more important to know which genes are 'turned-on', or being transcribed into RNA. This gives scientists a better picture of which proteins the cell is trying to make.
Brian Eddie, the last researcher I had the opportunity to interview, is investigating how a neurotoxin called conotoxin affects bacterial cells. This is performed by looking at the change in genes which are converted from DNA to RNA in a process called transcription. The study of changes in these transcription factors, or transcriptomics, provides insights into how the genes in the enzymatic pathways of the bacteria are impacted by the neurotoxin. This is important because, generally, genes in DNA must first by transcribed to RNA and the translated to protein before they can perform a function in the cell (this is not always the cast since there are functional RNA molecules). Interestingly, although these bacteria do not have a nervous system, they do have similar, or homologous, genes to the ones found in human nervous systems. His hope is that by exploring the changes in transcription for enzymatic pathways after exposure to the toxin in bacteria, we can gain insights intohow it impacts humans and ultimately develop a prophylactic to defend people from the neurotoxin in the future.
March for Science
The current political struggles that we confront are not new struggles, but rather are the same struggles which we have been fighting to overcome since the inception of the United States. The time for passing blame to baby boomers or millennials is behind us. We can no longer afford to convince ourselves that we are divided ideologically when our beliefs are one in the same. We must recognize that neither generation is entitled to the greatness that we have as a nation and that both generations are laying the groundwork for and writing the narrative of America’s story.
The gross overreach of the NSA, revealed by the Snowden leaks, is very much the same narrative as John Raines and Bonnie Raines of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI in the 1971 which revealed the corruption of the government sponsored COINTELPRO- an organization which attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. and assassinated Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panthers. Black Lives Matter, the preeminent civil rights movement of the 21st century is fighting for the same rights and freedoms for people of color that did the Black Panthers when our parents were our age- and they are facing the same governmental counter tactics from the Department of Homeland Security that were imposed by COINTELPRO. We see women marching in Washington DC and all around the world in support of their right to exist with equal rights to men. Women remain marginalized in our society and are without equal wage, even after our great-grandmothers and grandfathers fought for women’s suffrage that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment nearly one hundred years ago. And the same as Catholics were marginalized by the Klu Klux Klan leading up to and during the era of JFK, as immigration limits have been set on blacks, Asians (Page Act of 1875 continuing into the mid 20th century), Chinese (Chinese Exclusion Act), the handicapped (Immigration Act of 1907), women marrying foreigners (Expatriation Act of 1907), Arabs, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Jews, Italians, and all other non-US citizens (the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924), and the Japanese with the Executive Order 9066 of 1942; so now are Muslims marginalized by the same governmental institutions in Executive Order 13769. (And this is only a short list.)
These are not new struggles. Neither baby boomers nor millennials are entitled to a free and just society. Both generations have fought, and continue fighting, for the freedoms and liberties we appreciate. And, as always has been, those freedoms and liberties are at stake. And to preserve those freedoms, and to progress our American experiment, it is necessary that we continue to fight, to struggle, for the preservation and expansion of those freedoms. We must not only wish, but insist on the equal treatment of individuals based on our constitutional guarantee of these freedoms. This must be achieved via non-violent ends and not remain ignorant to the dire consequences of violent actions in our nation's past. As citizens of Earth, we must respect, acknowledge, appreciate, and gain insight from what our generations have done before us and confront old struggles in a new framework.
Although our history books may be told from the perspective of world leaders, history is written by the actions of citizens. And the citizens of the United States always have and always will band together to bring about social change. We are more than a vote on Election Day, we are a force that will influence our neighborhoods today and motivate voters during the election cycle tomorrow. As positive actors and as self-actualized beings, it would be simple to ‘Go Galt’- particularly as individuals that are educated in scientific and engineering fields. The inventors of the world and progenitors of ideas that produce our economy and keep America a major driving force- we could easily pack our bags and go. But the confrontation that we put off today is a larger confrontation that we will inevitably face tomorrow.
Therefore, it is paramount that we use our energy to come together now. To ensure that those who are not privileged enough to have the opportunities to ‘earn’ a place at the bargaining table are granted those opportunities. My method for supporting the underserved and the underrepresented is granting them access to science, discovery, logic, ego, empathy, and understanding. Not to give them the Earth- but to empower them with the opportunity to discover and define it for themselves. And we cannot do this as scientists or artists or engineers alone- we can only accomplish this as a collective. Thus, the incorporation of non-scientists into the narrative of science is essential. Our citizens must understand what it is we do and why it is important or else they will continue to be coerced by phonies selling snake oils and ‘get-great-again-quick’ schemes. Science must be as easy to consume as a cheeseburger; a vote at the polling booth which is supported by scientific fact needs to be as simple as ordering a supersized Big-Mac. Let’s consume science and get fat on facts!
Earth Day is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States which was enacted through the efforts of our parents when they took to the streets in protest. On April 22, 1970, the United States commemorated the first Earth Day, founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson (although a separate one was held on March 21, 1970 by John McConnell before it was officially recognized). Influenced by the massive destruction of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill and inspired by the anti-war movement at the time- a 24 hour ‘national teach-in on the environment’ was organized via peaceful promotion and demonstration. The collaboration of the scientific and political community brought forth an event which encouraged 20 million Americans to fill the streets and demonstrate for policies to encourage a healthy and sustainable environment based on observable scientific facts. This event brought together many environmental advocacy groups that although were fighting for different environmental causes, shared many similar environmental ideologies. The collective peaceful action of farmers, scientists, college students, artists, activists, politicians, labor unions, and business alike led to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts during the Nixon Administration.
This is one example of the triumph of the will of the people over the tyranny of alternative facts. Science has no patience for alternative facts and excludes them by virtue of its method. The Earth has no time for alternative facts as each day the facts are ignored; the solutions to effects of massive global climate change grow direr and increasingly expensive. And with legislation like HR 637, much of the protections we earned by fighting for a clean environment are at stake. We have the facts and solutions to write a better future! On an Earth where scientific facts are perceived as political statements, what choice do we have? Now is the time to band together; now is the time to take a stand for science!
Take Action for Science!
The end of this blog is an excerpt from a blog titled "Peace Out and Empowerment to Say Farewell to 2016" written by Christine Lewis of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University.
"If you feel passionate about the political climate we find ourselves in—TAKE ACTION. I have compiled a list of different ways to understand what you can do and how you can contribute. I have focused on environmental links, since this is a major focus of this group, in addition to broad based activist ideas
1. Revisit your US Bill of Rights. (www.billofrightsinstitute.org)
2. Join groups working collectively for causes. Here are some examples:
3. Join a cause via social network such as:
4. Mentor youth, or do community service. Take your pick, there is a plethora of areas to contribute in this way including:
5. Write your own petition directly to the executive branch. You can be the initiator of action to start a cause (Note: 100, 000 signatures are necessary for a response). The White House initiated it in 2011 as tech savvy method of voicing issues that are of concern to the general public. (www.petitions.whitehouse.gov) Note: This website is valid, but all petitions that you see online may not be, check validity of prepared petitions that you find, if they are encumbered with ads it may be a scam to collect spam emails.
6. We also have representation in the legislative branch House and the Senate. So, get your stationary out, and send a letter. You can also directly call to voice concern to your local representatives. Emails are accepted but I found that many people stated that emails are so plentiful that they are sometimes overlooked. To know where you want to send your letter to, you must decide between the House and the Senate. Here is a brief rundown of the two parts of congress. The House of Representatives is more focused on economically based issues and has the ability to impeach. They make decisions with the majority vote. We have nine representatives for Arizona. The senate is composed of a smaller more prestigious group, with only two senators per state and vote individually. They have ability to appoint the cabinet members for the executive branch and act as senior advisers to the federal government. Remember, letters are read, but some will be disregarded if not properly filled out. Make a clear and concise one page letter that is free of insulting rhetoric. Have a point to your letter, using facts as evidence. Do not send the letter anonymously, they will not be read without name, address and contact information. I have included the contact information for the two senators for Arizona:
Above all, stay educated while educating others along your journey. Voice concerns where problems are obvious. “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”—Elie Weisel."