Random Samples

Science  03 Oct 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5642, pp. 49

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  1. Posttrauma Counseling Questioned

    What usually happens after a school shooting, a plane crash, an earthquake? The grief counselors are sent in. It's commonly accepted in the United States that immediate counseling and “psychological debriefing” about a traumatic experience will speed recovery. But a review of the literature, triggered by the events of 11 September, shows that such debriefing does not necessarily help defuse posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—and instead sometimes has the opposite effect.

    Can recounting it make it worse?


    “There is no convincing evidence that debriefing reduces the incidence of PTSD, and some controlled studies suggest that it may impede natural recovery from trauma,” concludes the review, published in the November issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The lead author, Harvard University psychologist Richard J. McNally, found from a survey of the literature that most people recover on their own. “The vast majority do not require counseling,” McNally says. And group counseling can actually be harmful— “Some people are too raw [and] get vicariously traumatized again by hearing others' stories in a public forum. Rehearsing a traumatic memory right after it occurred might consolidate it,” he says.

    David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University who studies stress reactions to traumatic events, agrees that debriefing has been “oversold.” But he says McNally et al. have oversimplified the picture. In cases where trauma victims suffer from dissociation, for example, there is a strong likelihood of developing PTSD in the absence of intervention, he says.

  2. Opposites Attract

    After a century-long hunt, biologists have finally spotted the elusive and ugly bride of one of the world's weirdest insects.

    The 108 known species of myrmecolacid strepsipterans live by parasitizing other insects. But they exhibit unusually huge sexual differences. In one species, Caenocholax fenyesi, the males infect fire ant abdomens, eventually bursting out to seek a mate. At 1.5 mm, they are dwarfed by the females, who are five times larger, look like fat, eyeless grubs, and spend their lives inside crickets, mantids, and grasshoppers.

    Bug-eyed male has eyeless mate.


    Entomologists Jeyaraney Kathirithamby of the University of Oxford, U.K., and J. Spencer Johnson of Texas A&M University in College Station have now finally paired the two with the aid of genetic tests. They were clued in by the identical hard cuticles left behind in host body cavities by both male and female larvae, says Kathirithamby.

    This is the first confirmed link between any odd couple in the myrmecolacid group, according to the 17 September issue of Biology Letters. Now that scientists have a female to fertilize, “it might be possible to breed the species as a biological control agent” to temper the invasive fire ant's devastating rampage, says Kathirithamby. As soon as the parasite settles in, it sterilizes its ant host and makes it less aggressive.

  3. Thompson Rattles the Corps

    Researchers in the Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps are in a tizzy over a draft plan that would require every member to be on call for emergency duty. Concerns that active researchers would have to pull up roots and pass physical fitness tests have even provoked the ire of one agency chief and a member of Congress.

    Time to shape up?


    The 6000-member Corps includes more than 1200 epidemiologists and other researchers in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They have uniforms, and one-third are on “active duty” for needs such as medical treatment during natural disasters.

    In July, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson issued a “transformation” plan for the Corps that would require all members to be ready for emergency deployment. Corps members are upset that the plan was sprung on them without prior consultation. “We feel betrayed,” says one scientist.

    Some worry that physician-researchers who haven't worked with patients for years will be expected to drop everything to treat hurricane victims. Also daunting is the prospect of having to pass Navy running, swimming, pushup, and sit-up tests. “It's not the easiest thing for someone who sits at a desk all day or in front of a lecture hall,” says Donald Mattison, a Corps captain at the National Institutes of Health.

    Concerns about the plan—which also cover proposed changes in management and promotions policies—prompted Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan to write Thompson in August, stating that “morale” and “effectiveness could be seriously negatively affected.” Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) has also protested to Thompson and is planning a hearing on the proposal later this fall.

  4. Awards

    Inward gaze. Cell biologist Shinya Inoué, who pioneered microscopy techniques to enable the detailed study of intracellular structures, is the winner of the $85,000 International Prize for Biology from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

    A scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Inoué is best known for his 1951 discovery of the spindle-shaped fibers that pull chromosomes apart during cell division. His innovations in microscopy, including the addition of a video camera to observe cellular processes in real time and the more recent development of the centrifuge polarizing microscope, have led to fundamental advances in cell biology.

    Inoué, who left his native Japan for Princeton in 1948, attributes part of his success to the “culture of individual freedom in American science.” In Japan, he says, “the individual scientist is often overshadowed by the group.”

  5. Performers

    Money talks. The topic was particle physics. But Nobelist Leon Lederman (below) also delivered a civics lesson last week during the launch of a nationwide science education initiative in Washington, D.C.


    Lederman, emeritus director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, was showing middle school students how particle physicists explore the subatomic world to kick off Extreme Science, an educational initiative sponsored by the NEC Foundation. As part of the demonstration, Lederman gave each student a plasticine ball and asked them to guess what was hidden inside by probing the material with an unfolded paper clip. One student concluded that his ball contained a steel nut and proceeded to dig it out of the plasticine, prompting a delighted “that's right!” from Lederman.

    Then John Marburger, the president's science adviser, had a question. “How do you do that part at Fermilab?” he asked Lederman, referring to the challenge of interpreting the high-powered collisions from the lab's Tevatron accelerator. “Well, we can't do everything,” Lederman replied with a smile. “There just isn't enough money.”

  6. On Campus

    Name that discipline. “Systems biology” is racing through universities like wildfire. Last week it engulfed Harvard Medical School, which made the field its first new department in 20 years and put its star cell biologist, Marc Kirschner, in charge.

    Kirschner was recruited a decade ago from the University of California, San Francisco, to forge a cell biology department. Now he's forging again—but this time the goal is to combine physics, computer science, biology, and physiology using a quantitative approach. The new department, to include up to 20 outside recruits, follows in the footsteps of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and others. But Kirschner has his own ideas, starting with a name change. “If you can think of a better one [than systems biology],” he says, “please tell me.”

  7. In The Workplace

    Money savers. The National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) $22 billion grants-making machine couldn't function without its administrative staff. And last week they proved their worth in a contest designed to give taxpayers the biggest bang for the buck.

    NIH Director Elias Zerhouni says he's “delighted” that an in-house proposal beat out a private company's bid to serve as support staff for reviewing grant proposals. The competition was one of two this year being held by NIH following the Bush Administration's mandate to give outside contractors a shot at handling part of the federal workload. The agency has also decided against having a contractor compete to manage its 942 research fellows working on campus because, says NIH's Tim Wheeles, “we need to have a greater role” in hiring and supervising them.

    The victory comes at a price, however: NIH plans to reduce the number of grants administration positions from 750 to 677. But everyone squeezed out will be offered another government job.

  8. Two Cultures

    Mind's eye. Neurologist Audrius Plioplys overlays neural images on photographs of real objects to create “visual metaphors of the thought process.” His “Thoughtful Sphinx” (below), for example, is an abstract painting that incorporates a rear view of Egypt's legendary sculpture.

    Plioplys, who practices child neurology at Chicago's Mercy Hospital, began drawing during medical school in the 1970s and has gradually reduced his research in neurobiology and autism to devote more time to art. His work has been shown in, most recently, Eugene, Oregon; Cleveland, Ohio; and Marquette, Michigan, and is available through Chicago's Flatfile Galleries.