News this Week

Science  16 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5989, pp. 262
  1. Forensics

    Familial DNA Testing Scores a Win in Serial Killer Case

    1. Greg Miller

    A quarter-century of conventional detective work failed to track down the killer responsible for the deaths of at least 10 young women in south Los Angeles dating back to the mid-1980s. But a discarded piece of pizza and a relatively new method of DNA testing has finally cracked the case, police announced last week. On 7 July, L.A. police arrested Lonnie Franklin Jr., 57, a former garage attendant and sanitation worker they suspect is the serial killer nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper.”

    Since 2008, California has allowed so-called familial DNA searches, in which investigators look for close but not exact matches between DNA evidence collected at crime scenes and the state's data bank of DNA collected from 1.3 million convicted felons. The method has a longer history in the United Kingdom, where it led to a conviction in a murder case in 2004. In Colorado, the method led to a guilty plea in a car-theft case in Denver last year.

    Proud of their work.

    A familial DNA search by forensic scientists in California led to the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, the suspected Grim Sleeper killer.


    The high-profile Grim Sleeper case may encourage other states to adopt familial DNA searches, but the method raises concerns about privacy and ethics, say some legal scholars. “It's hard not to celebrate when an alleged serial killer is caught, but getting carried away based on glamorous cases like this one is a real mistake,” says Erin Murphy of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

    Last week, Science spoke with two scientists involved with the DNA search, senior criminalist Steven Myers and case-work laboratory manager Gary Sims, both based at the Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory in Richmond, California. They explained that the searches initially focus on 15 regions of DNA on 13 chromosomes. These regions contain genetic stutters called short tandem repeats, in which a pattern of base pairs repeats itself over and over. The number of repeats varies from person to person, and two people who are related are likely to have the same number of repeats at more of these sites. The lab's analysis also considers how frequently a given variation occurs in the general population: two people who share a rare variation are more likely to be related than are two people who share a common one.

    Sims and Myers explained that the lab's software uses this information to generate a ranked list of the convicted felons in the DNA database who are most likely to be first-order relatives—parents, children, or full siblings—of the person a DNA sample came from. (They say the statistics aren't strong enough to identify more distant relatives, who share a quarter or less of their DNA.) When both individuals in question are male, the lab also looks at a similar number of short tandem repeats on the Y chromosome, which should be an exact match between fathers and sons and between full brothers.

    A 2008 search with DNA evidence from the Grim Sleeper crime scene came up empty. But a second search in April 2010 did turn up a potential match: a young man named Christopher Franklin who was convicted last year on a felony weapons charge. The DNA search along with the dates of the murders cast suspicion on Christopher Franklin's father. After an internal review of the overall case, investigators at the Bashinski lab notified the L.A. police, who followed the elder Franklin and eventually got a DNA sample from a discarded piece of pizza. Lonnie Franklin's DNA matched DNA from the crime scenes, and police arrested him at his home last week. Sims says the lab is proud of its work. “To put this whole thing together … and see it pay off is very gratifying,” he says. “Nobody popped champagne bottles or anything like that, but we all feel like we earned our pay.”

    “I think it's great that this tool was used to catch this defendant,” says Hank Greely of Stanford Law School. But he cautions that the method does have downsides. His research suggests that in a database with DNA from a million individuals, hundreds or even thousands of people might have a close enough match to suggest a blood relationship, depending on the strictness of the test and the rarity of the genotypes being tested. If those matches cast suspicion on innocent people, the burden would fall disproportionately on African Americans, who are overrepresented in the U.S. prison population. “It does raise some concerns about discrimination,” he says.

    For Murphy, these and other costs outweigh the benefits. “We in a free society work on the premise that you have a right to go about your business without answering questions from the government unless they have reason to suspect you of an offense,” she says. In her view, familial DNA testing upends that assumption because people can become the target of an investigation solely by virtue of sharing DNA with someone in the database.

    Privacy and fairness are also concerns, she says. “It's sending a message to the relatives of convicted people that their privacy is less valuable somehow than that of other law-abiding citizens,” Murphy says. “That, to me, is not worth the price.”

  2. Genetics

    Kidney Disease Is Parasite-Slaying Protein's Downside

    1. Mitch Leslie

    Kidney disease could be the price of resistance to a virulent parasite. Researchers describe two Jekyll-and-Hyde genetic variations online in Science this week ( that can lead to kidney shutdown but may also fend off a microorganism that causes sleeping sickness in thousands of people in Africa.

    “This is perhaps the best example, except for sickle cell anemia, of a common disease being caused by genetic variants that also play a role in resistance to infectious disease,” says human geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania. Similar findings may soon follow, researchers predict. The study “offers a lot of encouragement that we are going to find more cases where there are genetic bases for human adaptations,” says evolutionary biologist Gregory Wray of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    For a long time, the prime example of how natural selection can favor “harmful” mutations if they also confer pathogen protection has been sickle cell disease. A mutation in the gene for hemoglobin produces deformed red blood cells and can lead to an early death in severe cases. But it also enhances resistance to the most serious variety of malaria. The sickle cell mutation is so prevalent where this type of malaria is rife—particularly sub-Saharan Africa—that researchers have concluded that, despite its lethal downside, the mutated gene evolved to higher frequencies in these areas because of its malaria-stopping benefits.

    Africa's parasites may also explain the new kidney disease–promoting gene variants. Martin Pollak, a nephrologist and human geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues were searching for genetic risk factors for two renal conditions—focal segmental glomerulosclerosis and hypertension-attributed end-stage kidney disease—that are four to five times more common among African Americans than among people of European ancestry. Previous studies had homed in on a stretch of chromosome 22 but couldn't pinpoint the culprits.

    Pollak and colleagues expanded the search to nearby DNA, including the APOL1 gene, which codes for the blood protein apolipoprotein L-1 (ApoL1). The researchers used data from the 1000 Genomes Project—which is sequencing DNA of people from around the world—and scoured this chromosome region for mutations that were much more common in Africans than in Europeans. Then by statistically analyzing the gene variants in African Americans who had either of the kidney diseases, the team identified two alterations in the APOL1 gene that correlated with illness. The G1 variant, for example, turned up in 52% of glomerulosclerosis patients, versus 18% of controls. And the G2 variant was about 50% more common in patients with either kidney disease than it was in healthy people.

    Good gene, bad gene.

    The same gene variants that promote destruction of the kidney's filtration units (above) also combat Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense parasites (left).


    The power of these gene alterations surprised the team, Pollak says. The researchers calculated that if both of a person's APOL1 genes have one of the illness-causing mutations (no gene carries both), the risk of developing hypertension-attributed end-stage kidney disease shoots up more than seven times.

    Given this impact, it is surprising how common G1 and G2 are in Africa. Among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, G2's frequency was 8%, and G1's was a whopping 38%. What's more, when the researchers applied a statistical technique that can discern the effects of natural selection, they found that G1's prevalence in Africa had surged within the past 10,000 years. “The variants must have positive effects in order to balance out kidney disease,” Pollak says.

    He and his colleagues hypothesized that the G1 and G2 versions of ApoL1 better protect against Trypanosoma brucei, a microscopic parasite spread in Africa by tsetse flies. The standard version of ApoL1 slays one subspecies of the parasite, T. brucei brucei, but not another subspecies, T. brucei rhodesiense, which makes a protein called SRA that neutralizes the blood defender.

    But G1 and G2 reconfigure ApoL1, restoring its potency. Blood plasma from people who carried G1 or G2 killed the rhodesiense version of the parasite, as did lab-made copies of the altered proteins. “The effect was really dramatic,” Pollak says.

    Parasitologist Jayne Raper of New York University says the new study illustrates the ongoing “molecular arms race between host and pathogen.” However, the study isn't conclusive, the authors and outside experts agree. The Yoruba people hail from West Africa, whereas the altered ApoL1 proteins were effective against the subspecies of T. brucei that lives in East Africa. The G1 and G2 variants didn't kill T. brucei gambiense, which causes sleeping sickness in West Africa. “That discrepancy needs to be resolved,” Wray says.

    Pollak and his colleagues plan to determine if the variants are common elsewhere in Africa, including East Africa. They also suggest that synthetic versions of the more effective ApoL1 proteins, or even plasma from people who carry G1 or G2, could provide a new treatment for African sleeping sickness. The work doesn't yet offer such clear direction for helping people who get kidney disease because of the mutations. But discovering that APOL1 has a role in renal illness is valuable, Pollak says: “Now we know the biological pathways we should be trying to understand.”

  3. Biosecurity

    New Biosecurity Rules to Target the Riskiest Pathogens

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Ever since the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) implicated U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, U.S. scientists have been nervously anticipating tighter regulations for research involving dangerous pathogens and toxins. But an executive order issued by President Barack Obama earlier this month indicates that the regulations on these so-called select agents may actually end up more streamlined and less burdensome.

    The 2 July order from the White House says that the government will put the most dangerous of the 82 items currently on the select-agent list into a high-risk category and consider reducing the number of agents on the overall list. The high-risk category, Tier 1, would potentially be subject to tougher security standards than before, including greater physical security and more rigorous screening of researchers. The remaining select agents could require lesser security measures than now. The government will also harmonize rules across funding agencies.

    The move is “the result of an effort to strike a balance between security and science,” says Peter Emanuel, who helped draft the order as assistant director of chemical and biological countermeasures at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The order is consistent with what the scientific community has been calling for all along,” says Kavita Berger of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

    Grading by risk.

    The government will require tougher security measures for a select group of bioagents.


    The two departments responsible for oversight of the select-agent program—Health and Human Services and Agriculture—will decide over the next 18 months which items end up in Tier 1. “Right now, for something to be considered a select agent, its impact on public health is the primary determinant,” says Emanuel. Several additional factors will now be taken into account, he says, such as the ease with which an agent could be turned into a weapon, how quickly medical counter measures could be implemented, and available intelligence on whether terrorist organizations might be actively pursuing that particular pathogen or toxin. For example, the lack of effective countermeasures against the Marburg virus would make it a higher security risk than unmodified anthrax, for which vaccines and treatments are available, according to a government report that helped inform the executive order.

    As for enhancing physical security for Tier 1 agents, “many labs already have very sophisticated security systems like biometric devices for allowing access,” says Carol Linden, principal deputy director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and co-chair of the report that the executive order is based on. What's needed now are uniform standards, she says.

    The screening and monitoring of researchers working with Tier 1 agents may be a trickier issue. The report issued by Linden's panel recommends enhancing the vetting process for all researchers who work with select agents, including a security check every 3 years instead of the current five. Another recommendation is to do a better job of checking the criminal histories of foreign nationals through cooperation with police agencies overseas. Yet another is to clarify how to identify mental health problems that could lead to potentially criminal or unsafe behavior in the lab.

    Researchers have long noted that the select-agent rules have proved a barrier in certain key sectors of public health research such as vaccine development; if the list is shortened, as the executive order suggests, more talent may be attracted to these fields, says David Relman, a biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

  4. Bioethics

    U.S. Panel Weighs Guidelines for Synthetic Biology

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Last week, the United States began the highest review to date—in the president's bioethics commission—of problems that could come out of the young field of synthetic biology. Some scientists who spoke at the meeting in Washington, D.C., on 8 to 9 July warned that the growing ease of manipulating DNA in living organisms could spawn new pathogens and ramp up the risks of bioterrorism. Close oversight is needed, they said; others worried that new rules could stifle research. The commission will take a “deep dive” into the subject before coming back with advice by the end of this year, said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who co-chairs the panel with Emory University President James Wagner.

    The impetus for the meeting was a May report in Science in which researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute added a synthetic genome to a bacterial cell and got the cell to replicate using the new DNA (Science, 21 May, p. 958; 2 July, p. 52). The day the paper was published, President Barack Obama asked his new bioethics commission to spend 6 months examining the implications of this and other kinds of synthetic biology. The decade-old field includes less controversial efforts, for example, tinkering with combinations of genes in cells to create biological circuits (Science, 9 January 2004, p. 158).

    The 13 panelists struggled to grasp what is new about synthetic biology. Witness Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, claimed to see only a “slight” novelty compared with what researchers have been doing for 50 years. She decried the hype, especially Venter's “misleading title claiming creation of a bacterial cell,” which she said has “unnecessarily alarmed people.”

    Total immersion.

    Bioethics panel co-chairs Amy Gutmann and James Wagner are leading a 6-month review of potential future biohazards.


    But Venter himself told the commission that synthetic biology is “very different from what's happened before” because it is now relatively easy to build large pieces of DNA from digital code and a DNA synthesizer. This changes the rules, Venter and other witnesses said, because it puts the ability to make the DNA of dangerous (but not replicating) microbes within the reach of students and amateurs.

    The discussion was murky on whether synthetic biology requires a new oversight framework. As many noted, existing guidelines cover federally funded research on recombinant DNA, and strict laws control research on select agents, or pathogens that could potentially be used as bioweapons. These rules are being extended to synthetic biology. But Venter and others advocate at least one major change—to make mandatory a voluntary program in which companies now screen DNA orders for sequences of select agents to spot potential bioterrorists.

    There is a gap in the system, however: Researchers with no federal funding, called “garage” biologists or “do-it-yourselfers” by several witnesses, aren't necessarily covered. Stanford University engineer Drew Endy proposed a citizen biosafety review process, comparing the situation to self-regulation by amateur radio operators. Harvard University synthetic biologist George Church argued for “licensing and surveillance” of synthetic biology labs.

    At several points, Harvard Medical School geneticist and panel member Raju Kucherlapati noted the “déjà vu” tenor of concerns, similar to those first aired about recombinant DNA technology 35 years ago. Indeed, the ground seemed very well-worn in discussions of the ecological risks of releasing a synthetic organism into the environment.

    The panelists heard a variety of recommendations: for a moratorium on deliberate releases, for a White House–level office to oversee synthetic biology, and for more funding for the field.

    The commission will hold two more meetings in September and November, said Gutmann. She told Science that any suggestion that the panel favors new regulations is “totally unfounded.”

  5. Stem Cell Research

    Scientists Eulogize Center—And Prepare for Stiff Competition

    1. Elizabeth Finkel*

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—The death knell has rung for the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC). Without fanfare, the Australian government has omitted the embattled outfit from its 2011 budget, which will force ASCC to close next June. The center's federally-funded budget of $9.7 million per year will be replaced with two programs that together will spend about $3 million a year on stem cell projects.

    The moves will hamper Australia's ability to compete in a hot research field, some scientists claim. “It's a step backwards. Internationally, we're falling further behind,” says Melissa Little, a former ASCC chief scientific officer now at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia.

    A consortium led by Alan Trounson, now president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, founded ASCC in 2002. Trounson left ASCC the next year amid disagreements over the center's emphasis on commercialization. Tensions culminated in 2008 with the dismissal of CEO Stephen Livesey and the resignation of the entire governing board (Science, 24 October 2008, p. 524). In July 2009, ASCC released a new business plan with a more academic bent and last month showcased fresh results at a conference in New South Wales. “Some really great research programs have emerged,” says Martin Pera, a former chief of embryonic stem cell research at ASCC who is now director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

    Scientific legacy.

    Collaborations forged by ASCC produced this tiny stem cell bioreactor.


    The turnaround was not enough to repair ASCC's tarnished image in the government's eyes. Government funding “was always intended to conclude in June 2011,” science minister Kim Carr told Science. With ASCC's funding slated to run out in June 2011, the government has unveiled two programs intended to throw researchers a lifeline. The Australian Research Council will offer a 7-year stem cell research initiative funded at $2.6 million a year. And the National Health and Medical Research Council will kick in $400,000 a year for 5 years for a regenerative medicine program that will target translational research.

    One big criticism of the new programs is that only university scientists are eligible to apply. That cuts out of the action two leading stem cell centers: the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) of Medical Research here and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney. “We're not likely to get all the skills we need if half the people are disenfranchised,” laments WEHI Director Douglas Hilton. Another concern is that there may be little left over from the new funds to support ASCC-style patient outreach. It would be a “tragedy” to let ASCC “die on the vine,” says Humphrey Firkins, a Queensland-based patients' advocate who suffers from inclusion body myositis, a rare muscle disorder. ASCC's outreach, he says, enabled patients to avoid expensive trips abroad.

    Scientists are hoping that state governments, universities, and CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, will ride to the rescue with additional stem cell funds. In the meantime, researchers have begun assembling grant proposals—and eulogizing ASCC. “The ASCC brought engineers and biologists together,” says Peter Gray, director of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland. His group teamed up with ASCC's Susie Nilsson and David Haylock, now at CSIRO, to create miniature stem cell bioreactors. This kind of collaboration, says Haylock, “is the legacy of the ASCC.”

    • * Elizabeth Finkel is a writer in Melbourne.

  6. Anthropology

    Probing Culture's Secrets, From Capuchins to Children

    1. Michael Balter
    Love hurts.

    Some capuchin monkeys may test their social bonds by poking each other in the eye.


    LONDON—Scientists once designated culture as the exclusive province of humans. But that elitist attitude is long gone, as evidenced by a recent meeting* here on how culture, usually defined as the passing on of traditions by learning from others, arises and changes. The 700 attendees, a mixture of researchers and members of the public, heard talks on cultural transmission in fish, meerkats, birds, and monkeys, as well as in extinct and living humans. Researchers probed questions such as what sparks cultural trends and how complex traditions are transmitted, and most agreed that studies of both animals and children will provide important clues. “The field of cultural evolution ranges from fish to humans and includes child development,” says meeting co-organizer Andrew Whiten, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

    But why do certain cultural trends, such as fashions, begin and catch on? Even science finds it hard to answer that question. At the meeting, anthropologist Susan Perry of the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, described her team's work observing white-faced capuchin monkeys since the early 1990s at several sites in Costa Rica. The monkeys have adopted a number of local traditions, some directly related to foraging for food, such as either cracking or rubbing woody capsules of Luehea fruits to get out their seeds. But other traditions have no clear survival purpose, such as sniffing each other's fingers and inserting them into a companion's nose, or biting off a big chunk of another monkey's fur and holding it in the mouth while he or she playfully tries to get it back. Although foraging traditions tend to be long-lasting, Perry has found that, perhaps like some human fashions, these more mysterious capuchin trends tend to last only about 10 years or so before fading.

    In one group of capuchins, the team's long-term observations have allowed them to witness a rare event: the emergence of a new tradition. In what Perry calls a “bizarre” and “high-risk” ritual, the monkeys poke each other's eyeballs. One monkey will insert his or her long, sharp, dirty fingernail deep into the eye socket of another animal, between the eyelid and the eyeball, up to the first knuckle. In videos Perry played for the meeting, the monkeys on the receiving end of the fingernail, typically social allies, could be seen to grimace and bat their eyelids furiously (as did many members of the audience) but did not attempt to remove the finger or otherwise object to the treatment. Indeed, during these eye-poking sessions, which last up to an hour, monkeys insisted on the finger being reinserted if it popped out of the eye socket.

    Why would the monkeys do something potentially dangerous? Perry suggests that capuchins, which, like humans, are highly cooperative and live in large groups, use this apparently pain-inflicting behavior to test the strength of their social bonds. Back in the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi of Tel Aviv University in Israel suggested that some animals engage in certain behaviors to solidify alliances, and researchers have observed some examples. For example, some male baboons will hold each other's testicles before teaming up to fight higher-ranking individuals, apparently to establish trust before going into battle.

    When it comes to the capuchins, “this is a plausible hypothesis,” Whiten says, especially because more functional explanations do not seem to explain the eye poking. Nevertheless, Whiten adds, “it is difficult to test directly.”

    Perry notes that capuchin behaviors such as eye poking and cracking fruit capsules are true traditions, but they don't ratchet up into the kinds of complex culture prevalent in every human society, from language to literature to sophisticated technology. Animal traditions lack this cumulative cultural evolution.

    How do humans wind up the cultural ratchet? At the meeting, Derek Lyons, a developmental psychologist at UC Irvine, presented new data on a phenomenon in young children that he and others think may be key to humans' faithful transmission of complex culture: “overimitation,” or the tendency to copy the actions of an adult even when they are unnecessary for achieving a goal. No other animal has been shown to copy in this way, Lyons and others say.

    False moves.

    Young children trying to get a toy out of this box will “overimitate” adults.


    Lyons's work builds on a landmark 2005 study by Whiten and primatologist Victoria Horner, now at Emory University in Atlanta. They demonstrated that when young chimpanzees and children are shown how to retrieve a reward from a box using a series of both relevant and irrelevant steps, the chimps skipped the unnecessary steps, whereas children tended to imitate everything. Recent work by another team suggests that overimitation is universal in human children ( Lyons and his co-workers reported further work in 3- to 5-year-old children in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For example, children were shown how to retrieve toy turtles from transparent plastic containers using irrelevant steps such as tapping the container with a feather and relevant steps such as opening the container's door. The children continued to overimitate even when they were led to believe that the experiment was over or when they were explicitly told to avoid “silly” extra steps.

    Why do children do this? In London, Lyons played a new series of videotaped experiments with children of the same ages in which he attempted to, as he put it, “snap them out of ” their overimitative tendencies. In one experiment, a puppet orangutan named Felix, stationed at an opening on the other end of the box, competed with the children to see who could get the toy turtle out of the box first. Again, Lyons showed each child how to get the turtle while mixing in irrelevant actions such as tapping the box and pushing unnecessary levers. The children, who could not see what Felix was doing, continued to perform most of Lyons's irrelevant actions, even when Felix kept winning and getting the turtle.

    The only way to avoid overimitation, Lyons found, was to convey that one of his actions was unintentional. When he pretended to get a call from his mother on his cell phone and “accidentally” flipped a useless lever while gesturing during the supposed conversation, the children did not flip that lever.

    These findings are inconsistent with earlier hypotheses that children overimitate to please adults, Lyons said. Rather, he concluded, they support something he called “automatic causal encoding” (ACE), in which a child assumes that the adult knows what he or she is doing and that each step in the procedure is necessary. “ACE is an important mechanism kids use to bootstrap their knowledge of complex artifacts,” he says. Archaeologist Dietrich Stout of Emory University, who studies prehistoric tool making, says ACE may have been important for the cultural transmission of stone-tool technologies in early hominins. “Certain things, like the internal workings of the plastic box or the precise force with which to hit a stone core, are not directly available to the observer,” Stout says. He agrees with Lyons that such a strategy is “a logical approach when confronted with a complicated, unfamiliar artifact.”

    Uta Frith, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, concurs. “This is an example of actions for which we cannot see rhyme or reason but which we believe are important and relevant to us,” Frith says. “I am persuaded that this is the secret of the evolution of human culture.”

    • * Culture Evolves, 28–30 June, London, sponsored by the Royal Society and the British Academy. See

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog


    In one of the final chapters of the controversy over the stolen e-mails from climate scientists, an independent panel has mostly cleared researchers at the U.K.'s University of East Anglia (UEA) of scientific malfeasance. The panel, led by Muir Russell (right), declared their “rigour and honesty as scientists … not in doubt.”

    Even so, the panel criticized the climate scientists for failing to show sufficient openness in their dealings with outside critics. The researchers had complained that it took too much time to respond to requests for information, official or otherwise, and that the results, in most cases, were used to misrepresent their work. But one scientist told ScienceInsider that researchers should have regular, “built-in transparency” to their data, which could “actually save time” by making responding to requests easier. “That comes with the added benefit of retaining [public] trust in the science of climate change,” he said.

    Meanwhile, the report came under fire by scientists on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Respected climate scientist John Christy, who questions humanity's role in climate change, said the panel erred by not interviewing leading skeptic blogger Steven McIntyre. And Kevin Trenberth, a stalwart among the climate mainstream, said the report, ordered by UEA, should have had a broader mandate to criticize how quotes from the e-mails were taken out of context.

    The European Union's 27 member states were poised to decline a request from the European Commission, the union's executive body, to provide extra money to cover cost overruns for the €16 billion ITER fusion reactor project. The commission must now figure out how to find the extra money, a tall order in a region already reeling from the global financial crisis.

    After getting spurned in its controversial effort to offer a science prize, the regime controlling Equatorial Guinea has inked a deal to host an African Union science observatory.”

    In an effort to boost climate science, the Chinese government has announced funding for 19 major projects to develop China's earth system models, an investment of roughly $82 million.

    For more science policy news, visit

  8. Ecology

    How a Little Fish Keeps Overfished Ecosystem Productive

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From a food-web perspective, jellyfish are typically considered a dead end. Few organisms are thought to eat them, so they tend to sink to the ocean bottom, where they slowly decay, their carbon and energy wasted. But off the coast of southwest Africa, researchers have discovered that a small fish called the bearded goby feasts on jellies, and in doing so, helps to sustain seabirds, mammals, and larger fish in that ecosystem. On page 333, they describe this fish's unusual lifestyle, which includes hiding out on the muddy sea floor in water toxic to other fish. “An interesting and counterintuitive new food web [was] created by the [recent] jellyfish bloom,” says Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic University of Marche in Ancona, Italy. “Certainly similar mechanisms are happening in many places, likely as a result of the ecosystem shift[s] related to global change and direct anthropogenic impacts.”

    Caught together.

    Most fish avoid jellyfish, but not the bearded goby, which hides in and eats them.


    Until the 1970s, this 9000-square-kilometer region off the coast of Namibia was a rich fishery, particularly for sardines. It's the site of the northern Benguela upwelling, where deeper, nutrient-rich water periodically flows coastward, promoting the growth of plankton. Filter-feeding sardines kept the plankton under control, but as overfishing depleted the sardine stocks, dying plankton sank to the bottom and decayed, using up almost all of the oxygen in the water and creating a so-called dead zone. Jellyfish gorged on the now-abundant plankton, and their numbers exploded.

    At the same time, the numbers of bearded goby, Sufflogobius bibarbatus, a big-headed fish that grows to about 13 centimeters, increased. With sardines gone, the goby became the main prey of the hake and horse mackerel, as well as food for seabirds, penguins, and seals. Mark Gibbons of the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, and his colleagues were curious about how the goby is able to thrive in such an inhospitable ecosystem. They recruited two goby experts, Anne Utne-Palm and Anne G. V. Salvanes of the University of Bergen in Norway, to help make sense of this little fish.

    Gibbons, Utne-Palm, Salvanes, and a cadre of students did a series of field and lab studies of the goby's habits and habitat. They also characterized the water column, assessing the oxygen content and amount of hydrogen sulfide at various depths. “The various elements combine to tell a compelling story,” says Andrew Brierley, a marine ecologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

    Most of the region's sea bottom is covered by a thick mud rich in hydrogen sulfide and the bacteria that utilize this toxic gas. Little life exists in the bottom 20 to 60 meters of water, where oxygen levels are less than 10% of the expected level. The goby's predators, for example, can't survive there.

    But echo soundings and trawling over a 24-hour period indicated that's where the gobies hang out during the day, Gibbons, Utne-Palm, Salvanes, and their colleagues report. Tests in aquaria with low levels of oxygen showed that these fish stop pumping water and oxygen over their gills in this hostile environment, in a sense holding their breath. Then at night, they ascend to where oxygen levels are higher, catch up on their breathing, and spend time with jellyfish and other organisms.

    Many fish, including one of the goby's predators, the horse mackerel, avoid jellyfish. But fishers find jellyfish associated with bearded goby six times more frequently than other fish, says Utne-Palm, and in the lab, gobies frequently hang out among a jellyfish's tentacles or on its bell. She thinks by swimming among the jellyfish, the goby shields itself from potential predators. Its thick, slimy skin may protect it against jellyfish stings.

    The jellyfish apparently provide more than shelter: When the researchers examined the stomach contents of gobies and the stable isotope ratios of their tissue—which mimics that of the food they consume—they found that jellyfish represent up to 60% of the goby's diet. Up to a third of the rest comes from sulfur-containing bacterial mats on the sea floor or other components of the mud: The stomachs were often full of diatoms and worms called polychaetes. “It's feeding on things that usually fish don't feed on,” says Utne-Palm. “They are bringing dead-end products back into the ecosystem, making the ecosystem more productive than it would be otherwise.”

    What gets eaten on the bottom gets digested later on, when fish then reoxygenate their tissues. Fish caught at the bottom had undigested stomach contents, whereas those caught at night had begun to process what they had eaten.

    Lab experiments also showed that a low oxygen level doesn't impair gobies' behavior or damage their heart the way it does their predators. These fish can also survive what for other organisms are intolerable concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, perhaps by not breathing at all in its presence. “This goby can deal with both low oxygen and with jellies and hence loves the new environment we have created for it, by fishing the heck out of everything else,” says Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada.

    Utne-Palm thinks this new food web is fairly stable and that sardines will not make a comeback anytime soon. But at least the goby is helping to keep the new ecosystem productive. “Nobody could have predicted,” says Gibbons, “that an insignificant little fish could have turned out to save the day—or at least stabilized the day for us.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Face to Face With Human Mobility Research The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic kept scores of virologists busy, but it also attracted interest from the growing number of scientists studying how people move and interact with one another.

    At a session last week at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, Alain Barrat of the Center of Theoretical Physics in Marseille, France, presented his work using radio-frequency identification tags to monitor interactions in schools, hospitals, museums, and academic conferences. The tags register when another RFID tag is within 1 or 2 meters, thus recording face-to-face contact. (The tag's radio signal can't travel through a person's body.)

    Barrat and colleagues monitored how long contacts last and documented networks of contacts for each venue. (A paper will soon appear in PLoS ONE, he says.) In the hospital setting, for example, patients rarely meet other patients, which is good, he says, as that should stymie the spread of communicable diseases.

    Read more coverage of this year's ESOF at

    Can a Stimulating Life Ward Off Cancer? A provocative new study suggests that leading slightly stressful lives makes mice more resistant to cancer.

    Neuroscientists Matthew During and Lei Cao, both of Ohio State University and Cornell University, injected melanoma cells into two sets of young male mice—groups of five animals that had been housed in a bread box–size standard cage with food but nothing else, and groups of 18 to 20 mice that had been raised in a crib-size cage with food, toys, a maze, running wheels, and places to hide.


    Mice that had spent 3 weeks in the enriched cage developed tumors that were 43% smaller in volume than the tumors of those raised in standard cages. The difference in tumor mass was 77% when the mice had spent 6 weeks in the special cages. And unlike mice raised in standard cages, a few of those in the enriched cages developed no tumors at all, the researchers reported in Cell.

    Exercise alone didn't explain the effect. Mice raised in a typical cage connected to a running wheel developed tumors just as massive as those of the mice that did no cardio. But the enriched-cage mice had much lower blood levels of leptin, a hormone linked to obesity and cancer. And their hypothalamuses had higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that the researchers suggest inhibits leptin production. The mild stress of living in a larger space with more fellows signals the brain to produce more BDNF, During speculates.

    The Vaccine That Came In From the Cold Scientists say they have discovered a way to develop cool new vaccines—and they mean that literally. Francis Nano of the University of Victoria, Canada, and colleagues studied a bacterium called Francisella novicida, an innocuous cousin of a dangerous human pathogen called F. tularensis, which is high up on the list of potential bioterror agents. One at a time, the team swapped out nine essential genes in F. novicida for genes from Arctic bacteria, such as Colwellia psychrerythraea, a marine microbe that only survives at low temperatures. Francisella normally dies at 45°C, but introducing the temperature-sensitive genes lowered that threshold by up to 12°C.

    When the team injected these altered strains into the tails of rats, they found that the microbes reproduced locally but didn't spread to the warmer spleen and lungs, as they would normally do. When the researchers injected them into mice, the animals didn't get sick—and they were protected from an otherwise fatal dose of the unaltered F. novicida given 3 weeks later. The method, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, might be used to develop a better vaccine for TB, Nano says.


    Meerkats Have Their Own Traditions In January, the height of summer in the Kalahari Desert, some meerkats poke their noses out of their burrows as early as 5 a.m. Other groups sleep up to an hour later. Over 11 years of observations, researchers found that each group stuck to its schedule, even when the original members of the population had all died. Meerkats move between groups, so the differences aren't genetic, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Instead, the immigrants adapt to the group's customs, and pups learn wake-up time from adults—further evidence, the team says, that nonhumans can have traditions, too.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at

  10. Education

    From the Outside Looking In

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    A new push to get scientists into the classroom began with the best of intentions. But that's not always enough, say those involved with the D.C. public schools.


    Michael Kaspar thought he had everything lined up for a special “Celebration of Science” this spring in Washington, D.C. The 6 May event would combine the annual citywide elementary school science fair with the official launch of National Lab Day, an awkward name for an ongoing nationwide effort to link teachers with science professionals in their area via an interactive Web site ( Officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF), based in nearby suburban Virginia, saw the event as another way to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History had agreed to host the affair, and Kaspar's organization, the DC STEM Alliance, would supply the judges and provide logistical support.

    The event was meant to funnel some of the thousands of area scientists working at government agencies, professional organizations, and other scientific institutions into the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), a beleaguered urban system with low student test scores and chronic management problems. Teaching science in the public schools is a hard and lonely job under the best of circumstances. Tapping the skills of outside scientists and engineers can be one way to reduce that isolation—and improve the quality of instruction.

    But D.C. school administrators were not ready to take on National Lab Day (Science, 4 December 2009, p. 1332), and they said they needed more time to organize the citywide science fair. Smithsonian officials didn't want to proceed without a commitment from DCPS. And NSF had its hands full scheduling visits by federal officials to local schools. So the May event was scrapped.

    Initiatives such as National Lab Day assume that school systems are eager and able to make use of offers of outside help. Kaspar's experience suggests it's not that simple. To find out, Science examined some of those collaborative activities within the D.C. public school system.

    Without exception, the outsiders say they welcome the chance to support their local schools. But effective partnerships require a lot more than good intentions and eager volunteers. They also hinge on how much time teachers spend on science, their knowledge of the subject, and the institutional support they receive. What the volunteers bring to the table matters, too. Here are some of their stories.

    Does anybody care?

    Scientists hoping to partner with D.C. public schools will find a system in the midst of sweeping changes instigated by Michelle Rhee, hired as chancellor by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty after the mayor gained control of the system. A national advocate for school reform, Rhee has pushed to improve the quality of the DCPS teaching staff and strengthen its curriculum. Rhee likes to cite gains in student test scores in reading and math, especially in the lower grades, as an early validation of her efforts. There are no comparable results for science, however, and some observers say her impact on science to date has not been so positive.

    Hearty science.

    National Lab Day at Bell Multicultural High School brought together scientists from Walter Reed Army Institute for Research and students in Kristy Sundberg's (above) physiology and anatomy classes.


    It's certainly disrupted Kaspar's life. Trained as a plant biologist with a Ph.D. in science education, Kaspar was DCPS's director of science for 3 years until he lost his job in July 2009 as part of a downsizing of administrative staff and a reshuffling of responsibilities. His office was eliminated, and the responsibility for science was parceled out to school principals. (Kaspar has remained active in science education through the nonprofit DC STEM Alliance, which he founded.) “I came to DCPS to get a bird's-eye view of what science education was like in an urban district,” says James Rountree, a former high school science teacher in a neighboring district whom Kaspar hired. “I had that chance for a few months under Mike. But we don't have a science department anymore,” adds Rountree, now a curriculum specialist with no formal responsibilities for science.

    Kaspar was responsible for the care and feeding of science teachers throughout the district. His duties included facilitating outside collaborations on citywide science fairs, supplementing the regular curriculum, and helping classroom teachers improve their skills. The elimination of the science department, says one D.C. science teacher, sends a message that “there's no one looking out for science, which means that it's not important and that nobody cares.” Not so, says Jennifer Calloway, a DCPS spokesperson. The move was part of a broader effort “to serve teachers in a more coherent way,” she says. “General education teachers now coordinate daily science instruction with support from knowledgeable staff in the central office.”

    Elementary school teachers are in dire need of such support, say science educators. For starters, science plays second fiddle to reading and mathematics, which are the chief metrics for student achievement under the existing federal education laws. Its place on the daily schedule is determined by the school principal, who also decides whether to designate a staff position for a science teacher. As a result, science may be taught for 45 minutes once or twice a week—or not at all.

    “We don't do any science because we don't have room for it in the schedule,” says Nina Fernandez, a rookie second-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast D.C., which last year was designated a STEM catalyst school as part of an attempt to use science to lift some of the district's lowest-performing schools. At best, she adds, “we try to squeeze science and social studies into reading and math lessons.”

    On a hot Saturday in early May, Fernandez is making bird feeders as part of a series of workshops run by the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE), which has a contract to train teachers at the six STEM catalyst schools. CASE's parent organization—the Washington, D.C.–based Carnegie Institution for Science—began working with D.C. schools on a voluntary basis in 1989. Instead of sending its scientists into the regular classroom, the institution invited students to a Saturday science program called First Light. CASE was created 5 years later to improve the skills of their teachers. “First Light made a huge difference in how the kids did in school,” says Toby Horn, who co-directs CASE. “So the teachers and principals asked us to help them, too.”

    One of the goals of the CASE training is to give Fernandez and her colleagues at the STEM catalyst schools the content knowledge they need to feel comfortable teaching the subject. “I didn't take any science courses in college,” Fernandez admits. “I was prelaw, and the closest thing, I guess, was an environmental law class.”

    Until then, the burden for teaching science rests on teachers like Melvina Jones, who for the past dozen years has been a science specialist at Burroughs Elementary, a K–8 school near Catholic University in Northeast Washington. “Students could get science from their classroom teachers,” Jones says, “but a lot of them shy away from it.” She enjoys the challenge: Despite holding an undergraduate degree in biology and a master's in education, Jones says she is now pursuing a second master's degree in physics education “because I wanted to learn more content.” And that's notwithstanding a presidential award for science teaching she received in 2004.

    But Jones is part of a vanishing breed. There are only about 10 such specialists across the school system's 88 public elementary schools. Their number has shrunk by almost half in the past few years as principals have chosen to put resources elsewhere. And even designated science teachers don't always teach science full-time. Daniel Markus, a science teacher at John W. Ross Elementary in Northwest D.C., taught 10 science classes in 2008–09, allowing him to see most students twice a week. This past academic year, however, the number shrank to seven so that he could help out with math. “I could teach more science,” he says, “but my principal decides how much I'll do.”

    Lighting a fire

    For all those reasons, elementary school teachers could use outside help. As head of science, Kaspar organized monthly meetings so that science teachers could swap information about potential partnerships and other ways to improve instruction. But those meetings stopped after he was let go, and his departure has left a void.

    “If the teachers aren't plugged in,” says Mary Lord, a member of the D.C. state school board and a strong advocate for STEM education, “then how do they find out about opportunities that may arise? It's hard for outsiders to hook up with the school system.” With regard to National Lab Day, for example, Lord says one of the organizers told her that, at one point this spring, more teachers from Alaska than from D.C. had signed up for lab day events.

    A leading figure in bringing the event into D.C. schools is Netosh Jones, a third-grade teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Southeast D.C. Three years ago, after a decade in the classroom, Jones responded to Kaspar's suggestion and applied for a new teaching fellowship program at NASA to earn a master's degree in science education. Winning it lit a fire under her that continues to burn brightly. “I'm not really a science teacher,” she confesses, “but I know that science is important. And after I became an Endeavor fellow, my principal made me the science coach.”

    Jones has embraced her new role. She has helped Kaspar revive a state chapter of the National Science Teachers Association and has been active in the DC STEM Alliance. And it was no accident that Education Secretary Arne Duncan chose to visit her classroom on 12 May as part of the school's all-day celebration of National Lab Day, a festive event that included dozens of educators, environmentalists, and even a trio of 20-something Hollywood entertainers.

    “She's a force of nature,” says Horn about Jones. “Even in suburban schools with a lot more resources, you don't see teachers like Netosh.” Jones's enthusiasm, backed by a willing principal, has attracted a flood of scientific and engineering talent to the school on an ongoing basis.

    Bringing together classroom teachers and scientists is only the first step in improving STEM education. What happens next depends on many factors, including the commitment of the volunteers and the type of encouragement they receive.

    Race to the top?

    Education Secretary Arne Duncan inspects battery-powered cars built by third-grade students at Martin Luther King Elementary School as their teacher, Netosh Jones, looks on.


    Two years ago, for example, Kaspar helped arrange a meeting between the new principal of Stanton Elementary School, who Kaspar had heard was interested in strengthening STEM instruction at the low-performing school, and Donald Messer, a former aerospace engineer and business executive. Now retired from the federal government, Messer had recruited a half-dozen or so fellow Rotary Club members to volunteer at a school located in a violence-prone neighborhood of Southeast D.C. far removed from where they live and where tourists visit.

    Messer, who holds a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and physics, believes that the twice-a-week math tutoring is making a difference. He points to higher scores on the citywide standardized test administered in spring 2009, and he's anxiously awaiting this year's results. But he acknowledges that the attrition rate among Rotarians has been high. “Some volunteers came once and refused to go back because they were afraid of the neighborhood,” he says. He understands their concern but sees no alternative. “There's no point doing this in the nicer parts of town,” he says. “Those kids are already doing well, and they have everything they need. Giving money is easy. Volunteering is not easy.”

    In addition to tutoring math, Messer this year worked with three students on their science-fair projects. One of them even managed to measure the force of gravity by throwing a golf ball in the school gym, timing its ascent and descent with a stopwatch, and then plugging the numbers into an equation Messer provided. “We were pretty close,” Messer says about the student's answer, “although I don't think he understood the concept of acceleration.”

    But the fair itself left a bitter taste in his mouth. Absent any grand “celebration,” the citywide fair, hastily organized and barely publicized, was held last month in the basement of an elementary school. It drew students from only 12 of D.C.'s 88 public schools (one-quarter the usual number), and there were so few volunteers that many students had to wait hours to explain their project to a judge. “We made do, but it would have been nice to see more support,” says Rountree. Messer was particularly incensed by the school system's decision to shrink the winner's circle for each grade from four in each of 15 categories to three grand-prize winners. The Stanton students were shut out. To compensate for what he calls “their disappointment over total nonrecognition,” Messer gave each student a “certificate of achievement”—and a $40 cash prize that came from his own pocket.

    A GEM of an idea

    What happens at science fairs may seem like small potatoes, but science educators say that fairs, when done properly, give students a rare opportunity to get their hands dirty doing real science. For scientists like Marti Jett, chief of molecular pathology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, the fairs can also serve as a recruiting tool for her ever-expanding outreach program.

    Jett leads a team at Walter Reed that for 2 decades has handled the judging for the annual D.C. secondary school science fair—“We started doing it because everybody else seemed to have abandoned them,” she explains. She's also involved in the annual Intel Science Talent Search, arguably the country's most prestigious science fair.

    But a science fair is not a static, 1-day event for Jett. For the past few years, she and her colleagues have been helping D.C. students conceive and carry out science-rich projects that they will present at the fair. “We tell them, ‘Think of something that interests you, research it on the Web, come up with a hypothesis, and then design an experiment to test it.’ I refuse to judge a project comparing Tide and Era [laundry detergents],” she says.

    That effort is part of a larger internship program that Jett began as a way to diversity the pool of summer students working at Walter Reed. Subsidized initially from her own research funds, the program is called Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science (GEMS). It has grown beyond her wildest dreams, with support from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other organizations. GEMS provides “a different perspective” from what students usually get in the classroom, Jett says: “We don't talk about teaching science or math or engineering. Instead, we say, ‘Here's the problem. And here's what you need to know to solve it.”

    Most of the GEMS instructors are undergraduate or graduate students; some are themselves former interns. Jett says these “near peers” are not only more approachable than senior scientists like herself but also role models for students who may have never seen a scientist “who looks like them” and who have lots of questions about what it's like to attend college and major in a STEM field.

    To celebrate National Lab Day in May, Jett sent part of her team to Bell Multicultural High School on the Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Northwest D.C. Bell is one of the schools participating in the GEMS program, and the teacher whose class they visited, Kristy Sundberg, is someone who knows from personal experience how outside scientists can improve classroom instruction.

    Poster children.

    This spring's citywide elementary school science fair drew many fewer participants and judges than in past years.


    Sundberg earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University before deciding last year to become a high school science teacher. At UCSD she so enjoyed teaching a Saturday neuroscience course to preteen students—“It was definitely not for superbright kids trying to accelerate”—that she tapped into the university's outreach program to help start a student group, then won a $1500 grant from the Dana Foundation to buy supplies, including animal brains. In 2007, she took the idea with her to New Haven, Connecticut, planting a seed that has grown into an even larger enterprise. “Now I'm on the other side,” she laughs about her decision to become a high school teacher.

    Despite being a rookie, Sandberg has designed her own curriculum. “Each unit is a disease,” she explains, “and I cover what students need to know to understand the basic physiology of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS, and so on.” Accordingly, the National Lab Day activity in her classroom focused on the cardiovascular system. Rotating from station to station, Bell students hooked themselves up to blood pressure cuffs and electrocardiogram kits that the GEMS instructors had brought and carved up the sheep hearts that the mentors fished out of buckets. It was the first time that most of her students had seen such equipment, much less had the chance to use it. Students also worked out with a personal trainer and then measured the effect of exercise on their heart rates.

    Jett acknowledges what she calls the “wowie” factor of such 1-day visits. But her team also hoped to recruit some students to its summer internships. “We're trying to establish a true mentoring experience,” she says, “in which kids come back year after year.”

    Building bridges

    Outsiders can also help teachers add a fresh twist to the regular curriculum. But it's difficult to know how much students actually retain.

    William Stafford wanted to give his 10th-grade geometry students at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Northwest D.C. a reward for completing the citywide testing regimen in late April. A second-year teacher who majored in math and is now completing his master's degree in education as a Teach for America fellow, Stafford thought that building a 30-centimeter-long model bridge would give students a chance to apply what they had just learned about angles, proportions, and ratios. And he knew they'd get a kick out of testing its strength.

    Stafford teamed up with Sheri Wallach, another Roosevelt math teacher. With $600 from, a Web site to help urban teachers, they were able to buy a 2-year supply of kits first developed 30 years ago by physicists at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The kits come with background information on bridge design and the rules for what has grown into an international competition ( For technical expertise, he turned to the National Lab Day site and found Andrew Heier, a 25-year-old engineer who worked at SAIC, a large defense contractor with an office in nearby Arlington, Virginia.

    Heier visited Roosevelt a half-dozen times during the 2-week unit and even gave a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation, titled “Sensor Boresight Optimization,” on the geometry of tracking a missile launched from Florida at a target in Texas. “I practiced it ahead of time,” he confessed. Even so, his talk may have been a bit hard for most of the students to follow. One student, after choosing a bridge type that would divide the span into thirds, couldn't figure out the correct length of each segment, even with a calculator. A reminder from Stafford about the Pythagorean theorem evoked little recognition. The characteristics of isosceles and equilateral triangles seemed a mystery to much of the class.

    On “breaking day,” students watched intently as Stafford and Wallach piled weights, books, and other objects into the cardboard box dangling from a hook on the underside of each bridge. As each model creaked toward its demise, the teachers would point out what the student might have done to make it sturdier. The project was so popular that two teachers even sacrificed a subsequent lunch period to accommodate students who hadn't finished on time. But there were limits to their generosity. “They get to do it, but they won't get credit,” says Stafford, munching on his sandwich. “They need to learn to meet deadlines.”

    Stafford's rules for the bridge-building unit are a reminder that whatever contribution scientists make to improving STEM education must fit within the parameters of the regular classroom. In the end, it's the classroom teachers who will ultimately determine the success or failure of efforts aimed at bringing scientists into the schools.

  11. A Song of Science

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Thomas Nassif, a former science teacher who's now finishing his Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, uses a story about migrating birds to help elementary school teachers improve their content knowledge.

    "How many birds can you name?" Thomas Nassif asks a small group of second- and third-grade teachers assembled on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in May in a second-floor classroom of a Washington, D.C., public elementary school. The teachers are attending the fourth in a series of workshops designed to improve their science skills. The theme for the day is "Patterns of change over time," and the focus of the lesson is birds—their habitat, migration patterns, sources of food, and other aspects of their lives that can vary over periods ranging from days to years. "Patterns of change" is a concept embedded in District of Columbia Public Schools' science standards. But many of these teachers have never had the opportunity—or the desire—to teach the subject in their classrooms. Nassif has spent the past 10 summers as a mentor teacher for the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE). Today, he's at Beers Elementary School in southeast Washington because the school system has hired CASE to provide professional development to all the teachers at six elementary schools, including Beers, which have been designated science, technology, engineering, and math catalyst schools.

    His goal is to demonstrate that teaching science isn't as hard as they think—and that it also can be fun. Learning enough about the subject will allow the teachers to convey both information and excitement to their students. But Nassif, a former science teacher in Washington-area private schools who's now finishing his Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, isn't there yet.

    A book about a wood thrush helped elementary school teachers learn about patterns of change over time in a workshop led by the Carnegie Academy for Science Education.

    Credit:Flute's Journey, the Life of a Wood Thrush, written and illustrated by Lynne Cherry; © Harcourt Brace, all rights reserved

    After getting a tepid response to his question, Nassif jogs the teachers' memories by passing out a color brochure displaying dozens and dozens of native birds. Next, he pops in a tape of bird calls—Nassif co-majored in music and biology at the University of Virginia, and music was the first subject he taught—pointing out distinctive features and asking them to imagine the reasons behind such a rich diversity of sounds. Then he asks the teachers to read aloud from Flute's Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush. The wood thrush is the D.C. state bird, a fact that surprises the assembled educators.

    Nassif and Julie Edmonds, co-director of CASE, end the session by turning the teachers loose to make bird feeders. There's a table overflowing with plastic soda bottles, aluminum pie pans, wire, and other inexpensive household materials, along with instructions on how to build several simple designs. It's more than an exercise in manual labor, however. Their handiwork will be assessed by other teachers who have spent the past 2 hours working on similar hands-on projects that correlate with other science standards.

    Quite deliberately, Nassif has been modeling the features of high-quality science instruction at the same time he delivers it. But does he have the right audience, and is his message getting through?

    Although CASE is supposed to train all the teachers at each school, school principals actually decide who should attend. Large schools have to be selective. (At one catalyst school, there are 10 slots for 35 teachers.) Some teachers had already made other plans before learning about a 3-week summer session that's part of the training. And teachers can't be forced to participate.

    "The thing that's tough is getting the ones who really need it the most," says Nassif. "They are paid to attend, but it's voluntary. I think we provide solid content to those without much background in science, as well as showing them how to do inquiry-based science. But how far they take it is up to them."

    Given those intangibles, Nassif chooses to be optimistic. "My guess is that, once they've completed the course, at least 90% will at least teach more science than in the past," he says.

  12. When Lightning Strikes

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Lessons about lightning, composting, and how to build battery-powered cars were among the activities at an event organized for National Lab Day, an ongoing, computer-based, nationwide effort to link teachers with local science professionals.

    STEM education rules during National Lab Day at Martin Luther King Elementary School.

    Credit: Photography by Paul Graves, at

    Jack Hidary was a neuroscientist before he became a successful serial entrepreneur of Internet companies. That gave him the means to create a foundation and bankroll the Web site for National Lab Day. As he works the banner-festooned all-purpose room at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., however, he's taken on a third role, that of Mr. Entertainment. His shtick is science—in this case, how students can use it to avoid injury during a thunderstorm.

    To appeal to his audience, he's paired student volunteers with three television celebrities who flew overnight from Hollywood to participate in this 12 May National Lab Day event. He's asked each group to assume different poses—running away, standing around, and crouching. And his opening line to the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students sitting at the lunch tables is compelling: "Who do you think will get electrocuted? Which group will be safe, and which group will fry?"

    Jason Kyson Lee of the TV show "Heroes" helps students learn that running away from lightning isn't a good strategy.

    Credit: Photography by Paul Graves, at

    Hidary gets a shock himself when a student correctly answers his question about what happens when lightning strikes—"The electricity goes through the ground." He's pleased because the answer sets up the next segment of his narrative, which describes how an electrical current passes through objects differently depending on how they are grounded. A person whose legs are far apart, that is, a runner, is doomed, he announces. In contrast, someone in a compact stance has a pretty good chance of surviving the storm.

    But before Hidary drives home that safety message, he pauses to reinforce the reason that he's come to this low-performing school in a violence-prone section of the city. "Wow, who is your teacher?" he asks, congratulating the student who answered correctly. "There must be some great teachers in this school. Let's give them a round of applause."

    The idea that teachers are an essential component in learning about science might seem obvious to educators and scientists. But when science is absent from the curriculum, teachers don't have much of a chance to shine. National Lab Day is designed to inject more science into the classroom, using outside scientists as a vehicle.

    Education Secretary Arne Duncan teams with electrical engineer Joe Haralson to help students build battery-powered cars.

    Credit: Photography by Paul Graves, at

    Standing in the back, Netosh Jones, a third-grade teacher at King who organized the assembly, is beaming. In addition to the celebrity visitors—including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association—she's lined up a full day of activities led by representatives from all corners of science.

    Fifth-graders are learning micropipetting from staffers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in nearby Rockville, Maryland. "It's just a fancy eyedropper," Crystal Snowden assures them, although she later warns, "Don't go too fast, or you'll contaminate the sample!" Brenna Holzhauer of the Earth Day Network has brought worms for second-graders to do composting and gardening.

    Joseph Haralson, an electrical engineer who's between jobs, has spent the past few days helping Jones's students build battery-powered cars using simple parts such as straws, spools of thread, and rubber bands. "Why do you think the wheels aren't turning?" he asks gently when one student's car refuses to budge. Later in the day he'll join up with Njema Frazier of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a former graduate school classmate and fellow member of the National Society of Black Engineers, to lead a discussion on careers in nuclear physics and engineering.

    A week later, Jones will preside over a 3-day science fair that culminates in another assembly studded with scientists. But the true test will come after the banners are rolled up and the hoopla subsides. "We're going to make science part of everything we do," Jones promises. "That's the only way to have a real impact."

  13. Rolling the Dice

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Retired statistician Eva Jacobs uses dice to show a sixth-grade math class that what they are learning about probability has real-world applications--and also that math can be fun.

    ReSET volunteer Eva Jacobs records student data on distribution of M&M candies by color.

    Credit: Photo by Lyndi Schrecengost of Fluent Communications, provided by ReSET

    Eva Jacobs brought along three pairs of dice this spring when she visited a sixth-grade math class at the Shaw campus of the Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. She wanted students to know that what they were learning about probability has real-world applications—and also that math can be fun.

    Long retired from a 40-year career as a statistician with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jacobs has volunteered for the past decade with ReSET (Retired Scientists, Engineers and Technicians), an organization that sends members to Washington-area schools. At the age of 89, she still drives downtown once a week from her home just across the D.C. border in suburban Maryland, parks her car in the shadow of the city's massive, new downtown convention center, and climbs the steep steps of the renovated Catholic school that houses the K–6 charter school, lugging a tote bag filled with materials from sources that range from daily newspapers to a Web site from the American Statistical Association, of which she remains a member. Her only concession to age is taking the elevator to Donald Campbell's classroom on the fourth floor.

    Jacobs is brimming with ideas about translating her expertise in statistical analysis and survey research to Campbell's 18 students, who are prone to do even the simplest calculations on their hands and whose grasp of the multiplication tables is tenuous. Barely 4.5 feet tall, Jacobs nevertheless commands their respect as she leads a lesson sprinkled with asides about their chances of winning at the casino and in the daily lottery. "The point of gathering statistics is to use the data," she explains at the end of the hour-long lesson. "I also want them to know that being a statistician is a wonderful career. These kids may have met lawyers and preachers and teachers, but they don't know what a scientist does."

    Campbell, a 10-year veteran of private and charter schools, says Jacobs reinforces what he tells his students every day. "I like having another voice in the classroom talking about how math is important, from someone who's used it on a day-to-day basis," he says. "That's especially useful when they complain that they won't need to know this stuff once they grow up and get a job." In fact, one of Jacobs's lessons on understanding statistics includes a graph showing how lifetime earnings rise in step with a person's level of education. To make sure nobody misses the message, Jacobs gives them an assignment: "Take that chart home and show it to your parents and siblings so they can see how much more you'll earn with a college degree." She pauses, then adds quickly, "Of course, that's not the only reason to go to school. There's also the pleasure of learning."

    Jacobs's presentation on the odds of coming up with a particular number from a pair of dice shows that learning can go both ways. It begins with a class consensus that there is a zero chance of rolling a one. Then she invites the class to yell out the combinations that produce a particular number, writing them down on butcher paper. When she gets to eight, she leads the way with "one and seven, two and six, three and five, four and four, … ." At nine she begins again with "one and seven. …" At that point Campbell intervenes. "Mrs. Jacobs?" he queries her gently. "How high a number can we get on a die?"

    After class, Campbell explains that even a teacher's gaffe can be turned into a teachable moment. "When you're an expert, you're allowed to make mistakes," he says. "I try to have them notice what's wrong and say how to correct it. They certainly try to catch my mistakes."

  14. Let's Have the Kids Judge

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Kids Judge! is a science fair that goes the other way: Researchers explain their work to fourth-grade students.

    Kids Judge! is a science fair that goes the other way: Researchers explain their work to fourth-grade students. Advocates say the approach, if done properly, can strengthen instruction and open the door to further collaborations between scientists and classroom teachers. But getting the academic community to embrace the concept on a national scale has been a hard sell.

    In 1992, neuroscientist Deborah Colbern was looking for a better way to teach her graduate students how to explain their research to the public. What better audience than children, she figured. So Colbern, then at the University of Illinois, Chicago, bused in kids from a nearby elementary school, gave them clipboards, and asked them to rate her students on factors such as whether they enjoyed the presentation, what they learned, and how the talk could have been improved.

    Irina Topchiy, an assistant professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, was grilled at a Kids Judge neuroscience fair in 2005 while a graduate student at Washington State University.

    Credit: Henry Moore/WSU Vet School

    The activity requires scientists to explain their work in a 15-minute show-and-tell. "In academia, there's too much invested in showing how much smarter you are than someone else," says Colbern. "With Kids Judge!, you don't get any extra points for talking over the head of a kid. If you do, they'll just ignore you."

    The graduate students "were humbled" by the experience, Colbern recalls. But teachers also learned an important lesson. "The idea is to have the teachers see what fun the kids are having and then say to themselves, 'Hey, if my kids are this excited about science, then maybe I should start teaching it.' "

    Colbern brought the idea with her when she moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). David Rector was a graduate student in neuroscience at UCLA in 1995 when he realized its potential. "I had been a judge at the California science fair and most of the projects seemed pretty boring and unnatural," he recalls. "I thought, 'There must be a better way to expose children to cutting-edge science.' "

    Rector was so impressed by Colbern's approach that he implemented it after moving to Washington State University, Pullman, where he's an associate professor in the department of veterinary medicine. Rector has made the event a requirement for his undergraduate neuroscience course, in which students come up with a hypothesis, test it in the lab, write up a lesson plan for presenting the results, and then submit a paper afterward on how the kids react to their presentation. "I go into schools, too, bringing [animal] brains to the classroom," says Rector. "But I don't think the kids get as much from it as from coming onto campus and seeing what we do here. As a judge, they feel a responsibility to pay attention to each presentation."

    Over the years, Rector's students have spread the idea to other campuses, which have adapted it to fit their own circumstances. The goal, he says, is getting students to explain what they do "on a level that an elementary school kid can understand." But he's struck out in repeated attempts to win funding for a formal assessment of the program because, he says, "most organizations seem to prefer supporting more traditional programs that send scientists into the classroom."

    Colbern has left academia and now runs a small company in southern California called the Brain Exchange that fosters collaborations between scientists and schools. Although she thinks the concept of Kids Judge! can work anywhere, she's not aware of any Kids Judge!-type events in the Washington, D.C., area. And she acknowledges that the activity clashes with the reward structure of most academic departments, which favors research over educational outreach.

    "When scientists see the video, they usually want to start their own program," she says. "They find it so compelling. But if they're a young faculty member, they quickly realize that [spending time on Kids Judge!] is a fast trip out of academic science."

  15. Anatomy

    Confronting Anatomy's Nazi Past

    1. Heather Pringle*

    Studies are uncovering a symbiosis between the Nazi regime, which needed to dispose of executed prisoners, and anatomical institutes, which sought bodies for study.

    In 1938, senior anatomists at the University of Vienna began an unusual arrangement: They worked closely with local Nazi officials to obtain corpses for teaching and research, receiving the bodies of prisoners shot in the Gestapo rifle range or guillotined in Vienna's assize court building. So many corpses were transferred that Viennese authorities ran a special streetcar, dubbed the “Death Transport,” between the court and the medical school in the early morning. If the medical school morgue was full, court officials postponed the executions. Viennese physicians secured at least 1337 bodies of Nazi victims this way, according to a report issued by the University of Vienna in 1998.

    The Viennese tram is just one example of the systemic relationship that arose between medical schools and executioners across Nazi-controlled Europe. Although other aspects of Nazi science have been explored previously, such as the role of psychiatrists in selecting mentally ill patients for euthanasia, anatomists' broad complicity in Nazi injustices has emerged mostly in papers published in the past year or so.

    These studies document the grim symbiosis that arose between anatomists who wanted human bodies for teaching and research and a criminal regime that wanted to dispose quietly of the corpses of large numbers of executed prisoners. Medical schools were assigned particular prisons from which to receive corpses and accepted extra bodies for incineration. One leading Berlin anatomist manipulated the timing of executions and used the terror that female prisoners experienced as they waited to die as a scientific variable in a study, according to research published in Clinical Anatomy last year. “The picture is one of a very gradual slippage in moral values among anatomists,” says Christoph Redies, a professor of anatomy at the Jena University Hospital in Germany, “to clear outrages and injustices.”

    The research is prompting German anatomists to acknowledge publicly for the first time the extent of their field's involvement in Nazi abuses. And it raises ethical questions about the continuing use of research and illustrations based on dissections of Nazi victims (see sidebar). Spurred by the new findings, Germany's Anatomical Society is holding its first symposium on “Anatomy in the Third Reich” on 29 September at the University of Würzburg. “We hope that this will contribute to a global debate on ethical standards for the use of human cadavers in research and teaching,” says Andreas Winkelmann, an anatomist at Charité Medical University in Berlin.

    The symposium is likely to spark intense discussion, for anatomists continue to grapple with the ethics of using bodies from state-sanctioned executions. In 2008, New York state's Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigated allegations that a touring museum show of plastinated bodies put on by Premier Exhibitions Inc. had displayed the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners who may not have consented to the display. Cuomo could not confirm the allegations, although the company admitted that some remains came from the Chinese Bureau of Police. The company's current show displays only “individuals known to have died of natural causes,” says the chief medical director of the show, Roy Glover.

    The abundance of new historical data from the Third Reich is bound to fuel a fresh round of debate on such issues. A series of three studies published last fall in Clinical Anatomy by anatomist Sabine Hildebrandt of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, traces the evolution of practices of German anatomists before and during the Third Reich.

    Before the Third Reich, German anatomists used unclaimed corpses from hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and prisons, but the latter was a minor source because Germany executed fewer than 20 civilians a year between 1907 and 1932. After 1933, notes Hildebrandt, the Nazi government meted out death sentences for even minor infractions, such as telling political jokes. So between 1933 and 1945, German prisons executed at least 16,000 civilians. (Only a few of these were members of minorities such as Jews, who were usually transported to concentration or death camps.) By 1942, the corpses of all prisoners convicted of high treason were automatically handed over to anatomists.

    Grim records.

    A 1943 register from Jena shows cadavers' cause of death, including execution (underlined in red); in Berlin, anatomist Hermann Stieve gathered data on women facing execution.


    Thus, as Hildebrandt's research shows, anatomists became an integral part of the system of capital punishment. Each anatomical institute was assigned to a prison facility that possessed an execution chamber, and anatomists received advance notice of executions. What was then the Berlin Institute of Anatomy, for example, was assigned to Plötzensee Prison, 6 kilometers away, and on an execution day the institute sent an assistant there in a van. “He arrived there before the execution started. Then he waited for the bodies,” says Winkelmann. In her study, Hildebrandt determined that 10 German anatomical institutes received a minimum of 3228 such cadavers; data were missing for the remaining 21 institutes. Many anatomists believed that they were doing nothing wrong. “It was all legal,” Hildebrandt says.

    Studying cadavers that were beheaded or bore clear signs of other abuse may have traumatized some students, says Hildebrandt: “There was no way that [the students] couldn't have seen where the bodies came from.” In one case traced by Winkelmann and Udo Schagen, a historian at Charité Medical University, a young Berlin Institute of Anatomy researcher named Charlotte Pommer abandoned anatomy after witnessing the dissection of an executed political prisoner whom Pommer had known personally.

    In 1999, William Seidelman, now a professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Toronto in Canada, raised serious questions about the activities of a respected German researcher, Hermann Stieve, director of the Berlin Institute of Anatomy from 1935 to 1952. Over the next decade, Winkelmann and Schagen explored Stieve's work, publishing their findings last year.

    By poring over old scientific papers and other records, they found that Stieve was interested in the effects of stress on reproductive systems. In the 1920s, he dissected chickens stressed by the presence of a caged fox. After the Nazis came to power, Stieve examined the effects of stress on the timing of human ovulation. He collected data on 200 female prisoners who were stressed by learning the date of their execution, and he dissected them after their deaths.

    Stieve worked closely with prison authorities, Winkelmann and Schagen found. He sent an assistant to Plötzensee to obtain from prison doctors the women's medical histories, as well as data on their menstrual cycles and reactions to the announcement of their execution date. He also persuaded Plötzensee's director to continue conducting executions in the morning, despite the daylight air attacks in Berlin, so tissue samples could be processed the day of the execution. Moreover, Stieve agreed to take the corpses of all the prison's 2915 executed inmates, far more than the institute needed, and burned the excess bodies in the crematory.

    Stieve suspended his personal feelings to such a degree, says Winkelmann, that he saw little difference between designing a study on caged chickens and women on death row. Today, some scientists still quote results from Stieve's human studies in their papers, he notes. “What the best and brightest did was see the imprisonment and beheading of human beings as opportunities,” Seidelman says.

    In 2003, the German Medical Council recommended that German universities remove from their anatomical collections all specimens, including histological slides and human bones, originating from Nazi victims. After investigating their collections, many German universities buried all the Naziera human remains in places of honor. But Hildebrandt and other researchers believe that this is only a first step in righting a major historical wrong. They would like to see researchers identify the Nazi victims used by anatomists so that a modern generation can honor their memory today.

    • * Heather Pringle is the author of The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (2005).

  16. Anatomy

    The Dilemma of Pernkopf's Atlas

    1. Heather Pringle

    A University of Vienna investigation determined in 1998 that Eduard Pernkopf's anatomy department used bodies of executed prisoners from the Gestapo and from Vienna's assize court to produce the illustrations in his Topographical Anatomy of Man. What should anatomists in 2010 do with an atlas that is both scientifically valuable and morally tainted? Researchers remain deeply divided.

    For more than 2 decades beginning in 1933, University of Vienna anatomist Eduard Pernkopf labored on his anatomical atlas, which he published as the Topographical Anatomy of Man. He put in 18-hour days dissecting human bodies and supervising a team of artists who painted what he revealed in intricate detail. The resulting four-volume anatomical atlas was described by The New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 as “an outstanding book of great value to anatomists and surgeons,” and its anatomical illustrations remain unsurpassed even today.

    But Pernkopf and several of his artists were avid Nazis, as revealed in a 1988 study by David Williams of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. A University of Vienna investigation determined in 1998 that Pernkopf's anatomy department received bodies of executed prisoners from the Gestapo and from Vienna's assize court (see main text). “Some of these bodies were certainly used for Pernkopf's atlas,” says Williams.

    Nazi victims?

    Eduard Pernkopf's anatomy atlas was a triumph of illustration but included images from the bodies of executed Nazi prisoners.


    What should anatomists in 2010 do with an atlas that is both scientifically valuable and morally tainted? Researchers remain deeply divided. Williams, a professor of medical illustration, thinks the injustices recorded in the paintings far outweigh their scientific value and refuses to use the illustrations he once held up as a standard of excellence to his students.

    Others, however, think that the atlas can be used if researchers approach the illustrations' subjects in a respectful manner. “As long as you talk about the history of the atlas and the people involved, I think you can keep it and use it as a teaching tool for anatomy as well as for medical ethics,” says anatomist Sabine Hildebrandt of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has also investigated abuses of Nazi-era anatomists.

    Pernkopf's sullied masterpiece is not the only troubling scientific legacy of Nazi injustices. For example, the Clara cell, a structure in the human airway, honors Max Clara, an anatomist at the University of Leipzig during the Nazi era. Clara described the cell in 1937 after working on the bodies of executed prisoners, as anatomist Andreas Winkelmann of Charité Medical University in Berlin and medical historian Thorsten Noack of Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf revealed in the European Respiratory Journal Express in March. “A different term would be preferable,” says Winkelmann.

    But such eponyms serve an important purpose as testaments to a time when medicine crossed an ethical line, says William Seidelman, professor emeritus of family medicine at the University of Toronto in Canada: “I don't think we should revise history.”

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