Random Samples

Science  11 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5630, pp. 164

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  1. Big Apple BioBlitz

    “Don't forget your weight belt!” called Andrew Baker, a biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, as a team of eight divers from the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Israel, and the U.K. prepared to enter uncharted waters—the bottom of New York City's Central Park Lake.

    Divers in Central Park.


    The dive was part of the 24-hour Central Park BioBlitz, organized by the Explorers Club, that took place at the end of June. Inspired partly by the American Museum of Natural History's discovery, published last summer, of a Central Park centipede previously unknown to science, 350 scientists, naturalists, and volunteers spread out over the 341 hectares of Manhattan's famous park to identify as many species as possible.

    It was a sweltering day. “Very little is flying,” said Hymenoptera expert Parker Gambino, who nonetheless found a wasp and several kinds of bees in the Shakespeare Garden—infamous among ecologists as the spot where, in 1891, misguided poetry lovers hoping to stock America with all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare released 40 pairs of starlings that forever changed the ornithological landscape of North America.

    Over at Turtle Pond, herpetologists pulled a bucket of red-eared sliders, turtles native to the American Southeast that were probably abandoned pets. The most dramatic find was a 31.5-cm-long snapping turtle.

    According to the preliminary count (http://www.nycbioblitz.org/), the BioBlitz found 838 species, including 393 plants, 14 fungi, 78 moths, 46 birds, seven mammals, three turtles, and two tardigrades, the first-ever Central Park sighting of this microorganism. Says Gambino, “The value of the event is probably more educational than scientific.”

  2. When It Hurts

    Subjective experiences such as pain are notoriously difficult to study. Clinicians often give patients pain-rating scales, but it's never been clear whether they reflect different experiences or just varying degrees of stoicism. Now a study has demonstrated for the first time that individual differences in pain ratings are reflected in the way their brains are activated.

    More brain areas light up in high pain responders.


    Neuroscientist and psychologist Robert Coghill of Wake Forest University Baptist School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, scanned the brains of 17 people while heating a spot on their legs to 49°C (like a moderately hot cup of coffee) for several 30-second periods. Subjects rated the pain on a 10-point scale. The responses showed remarkable variability—from a low 1.5 by a male subject to 8.9 from a female who said the pain came close to driving her out of the study.

    The researchers then compared composites of the brain-scan data from the six highest and six lowest scorers. Both groups showed similar activation of the thalamus, which processes pain signals directly from the spinal cord and sends them on to higher brain centers, the researchers reported online last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the high-pain responders showed much more activation in other brain areas, including those involved in cognitive and emotional pain responses.

    The study has “big implications” both philosophically and medically, says pain researcher Donald Price, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. And he says it sends a strong message to clinicians, some of whom “don't really believe in pain measurement,” that such ratings are valid.

  3. Engineering With a Social Conscience

    Engineers are trained to build things. But Leah Jamieson's students are also learning to build communities.

    Jamieson, an electrical engineering professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is the principal architect of a nationwide program that puts engineering undergraduates to work on public service projects. Begun in 1995, Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) has spread to nine other universities. Now, thanks to a new $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and a growing list of corporate sponsors, the program is hoping to reach half a dozen more campuses by the end of next year.


    Students have designed shelters for the homeless, built office aids for workers with disabilities, and constructed a wetland to handle runoff from Purdue's research farms. Besides providing a social context for learning, such projects “allow students to step back and think about engineering's impact on the world,” says Jamieson. The work also offers a valuable contrast to “being caught up in the excitement of building cool technical systems.”

    Jamieson and colleagues William Oakes and Edward Coyle don't expect EPICS to change the career paths of most engineering students. But they hope that its graduates will be more likely to contribute to the well-being of society.

  4. Data Points

    Expanding universe. The gender imbalance in astronomy may be fading, according to new data presented at an American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Pasadena, California, last month. The ratio of women among AAS members in the 23 to 28 age bracket— primarily graduate students—stands at 42%, up from 28% in 1990, and the proportion aged 33 to 38 has risen from 14% to 26%.

    The 30-somethings may still face a glass ceiling, according to a 1999 study by Yale astrophysicist Meg Urry that found men more likely than women to do postdocs at prestigious institutions. But AAS deputy executive director Kevin Marvel says the latest membership data suggest that gender balance “may have begun to propagate from junior to senior levels.”

    Alone at the top. A new survey identifies Milton Brown of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as the first African American to be hired by a top-50 U.S. chemistry department in nearly a decade.

    Brown, 37, became an assistant professor in 2000, the base year for a new survey by chemist Donna Nelson of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, that documents the continuing underrepresentation of women and racial minorities (excluding Asian Americans) in academic science. Among her findings, which will be presented this fall at the American Chemical Society's national meeting, are the absence of any female minority professors within the nation's 50 top computer science departments and the disparity between the percentage of minorities hired by physical sciences departments in recent years and their share of the Ph.D. pool. Nelson also found that about 33% of recent hires are foreign-born scientists, twice the combined share going to U.S. female, Asian American, black, Hispanic, and Native American scientists.

    Brown, a medicinal chemist, already knew he was a rare bird, having followed up his 1995 Ph.D. with a medical degree in 1999 “so that I could understand what drug targets to go after, not just how to make them.” Now he's hoping to join another highly selective group—as principal investigator on a coveted R-01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. Failure, he worries, could knock him off the tenure track in 3 years despite a flourishing lab, a novel course in the chemistry of medicine, and a string of administrative duties demonstrating his “willingness to be a good academic citizen.”

  5. Mashed Bug Census

    Birders in the U.K. have hatched an oddball scheme to make use of the insect remains that accumulate on cars in summer. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is conducting pilot tests on equipping windshields with “splatometers” to estimate declining insect numbers.

    The society's Mark Avery says the group has been puzzling over Britain's plummeting bird populations, and some of its million-plus members have suggested that the problem is related to an apparent decline in flies, aphids, moths, and other insects. So the society wants bird lovers to attach postcard-sized plastic patches to their windshields to collect representative samples of battered insects. After 80 kilometers or so, the driver would rip off the patch, cover it with plastic to form a bug sandwich, and send it in for analysis. Society workers are adapting scanners and computers to tally the results.

    The data would provide a bug-death baseline for the future, says Avery, and could reveal regional variations linked to urbanization and type of agriculture. Distinguishing squashed species will be practically impossible, notes entomologist Clare Hughes of the University of York. But splatometers could nonetheless help contribute to the bigger picture of insect declines.

  6. If You Can Read This ...

    You won't find this tetrapeptide in nature, but it does appear in a poster designed to create some buzz among scientists for PLoS Biology, a free electronic journal due to debut in October. The image, developed by PLoS director and biologist Michael Eisen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, uses four amino acids—proline, leucine, ornithine, and serine—to spell out “PLoS.” Eisen notes that ornithine “is not normally incorporated in proteins,” but he took some chemo-poetic license in pursuit of a little PR.

  7. Jobs

    Pushing paper, writing papers. University of Chicago astrophysicist Michael Turner will come to Washington, D.C., this fall for a 2-year stint as head of the National Science Foundation's $1 billion math and physical sciences directorate. He succeeds Robert Eisenstein, who recently became director of the Sante Fe Institute.

    But since research remains his first love—“nobody wants to spend 100% of their time in administration,” he says—the 53-year-old Turner plans to spend 1 day a week back in his Chicago lab, where he will continue his work on dark energy.

    Making the cut. A metallurgist who helped rediscover a lost swordmaking art is the new head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, run by Battelle for the Department of Energy. Jeff Wadsworth, until recently a senior official at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, will take over from outgoing chief Bill Madia, who is leaving next month to take a top job at Battelle headquarters (Science, 9 May, p. 899). Wadsworth, 53, made a mark in the early 1980s as a member of a Stanford University team that resurrected techniques for making rugged and beautiful Damascus steel swords.