Science for Societal Progress

A Science and Medicine podcast featuring Dennis Eckmeier, PhD and Dennis Eckmeier
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because science is fundamental in the 21st century

Recent Episodes

18 B&D Animal Use and Statistics of Equivalence
18 B&D Animal Use and Statistics of Equivalence
In the light of the latest animal use numbers in Germany (2017), Bart and I are having a conversation about animal use in fundamental research. We then move on to talk about a new statistical method that might help researchers get some of their data out of their drawers and into an article! Animal Use in Germany 2017 Numbers in short (as presented by Total: > 2 Million 1.37 Million Mice 255.000 rats 240.000 fish 3300 dogs 718 cats 3472 monkeys 50% for fundamental research 27% drug production and testing 15% for disease research 740.000 animals were killed for organ examination Bart and I regularly discuss the merit of animal research on social media, and we also had a podcast episode on animal wellfare in science. Our conversation mostly is about fundamental scientific research – which is what we do. We talk about how scientists don’t prefer animal experiments, if there are better ways to answer the research question. But we also mention how difficult it is to know in advance what the outcomes of a study will be good for, particularly in fundamental research. We then address the ethical considerations of the value we assign to different animals. Testing your data for equivalence The statistical tests usually applied in scientific studies look at the data of two or more groups and check whether they are different enough to say that there is an effect between them. It appears that often lack of such differences is used as an argument against publishing the data at all. Because of this, experiments may be repeated unnecessarily by different groups, simply because they don’t know about the results. The paper that Bart highlights is “A new statistical method to test equivalence: an application in male and female eastern bluebird song” by Rose et al, 2018 (link below). In order to show that the songs of male and female Eastern Bluebirds are not just not significantly different, but identical, they applied this new statistical method. This may allow scientists to pick up some of their old studies and publish them! Do you have questions, comments or suggestion? Email, write us on facebook or twitter, or leave us a video message on Skype for dennis.eckmeier. Become a Patron! sources: • Figures of animals used for scientific purposes in Germany • FORSCHUNG MIT TIEREN IMMER EFFIZIENTER (“research on animals is becoming more efficient”) • PRESSEKONFERENZ DER INITIATIVE TIERVERSUCHE VERSTEHEN (press conference of the initiative “understanding animal experiments” • Verwendung von Versuchstieren im Jahr 2017 (Use of laboratory animals in 2017 – official website of the German Federal Ministry for Agriculture and Nutrition) new statistical method: • A new statistical method to test equivalence: an application in male and female eastern bluebird song
17 From PhD to SciComm via BookTube – with Deboki Chakravarti
17 From PhD to SciComm via BookTube – with Deboki Chakravarti
Science Communication is one way academics can apply themselves outside of academia. But how does one transition between careers? I talked with Dr. Deboki Chakravarti, a biomedical engineer who worked on cancer treatments. She graduated in 2018 and then did an internship with Scientific American, a leading brand in Science Communication in the USA. First we learn a little bit about her scientific work, and her personal experiences in graduate school. Already during graduate school she began a YouTube channel about books and life as a graduate student. She then shares why she decided to leave academia, and she explains how she managed to find an internship with Scientific American. And finally, she explains what the internship looks like. Using the Immune System to Fight Cancer Dr. Deboki Chakravarti worked on ways to increase the control practitioners have over so called “CAR t-cells”. T-cells are immune cells that use receptor molecules to detect specific proteins on the surface of unwanted cells.  CAR stands for “chimeric antigen receptors”, receptor molecules that were designed by scientists to recognize specific cells. When scientists equip t-cells with these special “CAR” molecules, they can detect cancer cells. Specifically engineered immune cells are necessary, because the patient’s immune system has a hard time recognizing cancer cells. This is because cancer grows out of the patient’s own body cells and tumors carry much of the same markers as healthy body cells. PhD and “BookTube” Channel “okidokiboki” Deboki uses her YouTube Channel to talk about books, but also about her experience as a PhD student. The friends Deboki made in grad school have been some of the most supportive people she met. She experienced grad school as very isolating experience, and she realized that her friends felt the same way. Sharing their feelings and experiences helped Deboki and her friends deal with the stress in graduate school. On YouTube Deboki realized that the people who followed her for her book reviews, also became interested in her personal life. So, when she began to add videos talking about her PhD experience, these were greeted with interest, too. And other PhDs and PhD students related greatly with these videos. Leaving Academia Deboki comes from a family of academics and going to some kind of extra school after college seemed the normal thing to do. She also wanted to do research. However, during her PhD she realized that she did not want to follow an academic career. She began to apply for jobs and internships in Science Communication for almost a year before she graduated. This way she had time to learn how this process works in this area. She sent applications for a wide range of jobs at first, and through this process learned enough to narrow her search down and go specifically for an internship. After sending in her cover letters, resumes and portfolio to many places, she was invited to interviews by some of them. These interviews were all by phone or video conferencing. The interviews were focused on why Deboki was interested in doing science communication with video. Deboki’s portfolio only consisted of her videos. She worried her videos weren’t professional enough, but this was unwarranted. The technical quality of  her work wasn’t the main focus for her interviewers. They were more interested in the combination of skills, being a PhD on one side, and communicating with video on the other side. Internship with Scientific American She was accepted for an internship with Scientific American where she got to do exciting work. She made explainer videos, helped interview a nobel prize laureate, worked on a podcast for “60 seconds science”, and she learned to do animations. Deboki had no experience with creating animations prior to this internship. But she found that learning to create animations wasn’t much different from learning to code. Once you have the most basic principles down, the rest is searching for tutorials on the internet. Another skill she has been honing is writing. While in the past she mostly enjoyed writing essays, she now writes scripts that are supposed to be read out loud and sound natural. For her YouTube videos she can write more freely as her talking is the focus of the video. But for explainer videos, the narration must fit an existing animation. Diversity in SciComm and Harassment on YouTube Deboki addressed diversity issues of academia in one of her videos. She says she doesn’t have enough of an overview, yet, to know whether SciComm was a more diverse community. However, although her YouTube channel is small and doesn’t usually catch the attention of the typical troll, she did already have negative encounters. She fears that when her channel grows she may face the same harassment that other female science YouTubers are already dealing with. Finding and Growing an Audience In Science Communication the most important part of being successful is, of course, having and growing an audience. Typically the first people interested in a new science show are other scientists. But Deboki finds that already having an active audience in the book community allowed her to reach non-scientists more easily. She recommends branching out into other communities like this in order to find a wider audience. resume I think the most important tips for transitioning from science to science communication were: You should begin searching for the next job early You should be open to a wide spectrum of jobs. Your portfolio should show your willingness and ability to learn new skills but it doesn’t have to be perfect. PhDs who also know their ways around media may have an edge if you are already active within a community outside Academia maybe they’re interested in what you have to say simply because they already know you! A great way to “break in” to the general public Do you have questions, comments or suggestions? Email, write us on facebook or twitter, or leave us a video message on Skype for dennis.eckmeier. Become a Patron! sources: • YouTube Channel Okidokiboki • Press release: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 • Women Making Science Videos on YouTube Face Hostile Comments • Deboki looks back on her internship with Scientific American on Twitter work Deboki did at Scientific American: • Video-Stiglitz Interview • Video-What do honeybees do in winter? • Podcast-Computerized Chemical Toxicity Prediction Beats Animal Testing
16 B&D: CRISPR Babies
16 B&D: CRISPR Babies
At the end of November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had genetically modified human embryos which were then brought to term. The resulting twin sisters appear to be healthy. But this experiment was not greeted with enthusiasm by the scientific community. The critique attacks every aspect of the experiment: the treatment’s medical necessity, the reasoning behind the treatment approach, the way it was conducted, the ethical implications, and it also wasn’t legal. He Jiankui was aware that he was doing something the public and the scientific community would not agree with. In order to dampen the fall, He announced his experiments in a series of YouTube videos in which he also attempts an ethical justification. He addressed the public in this way before the scientific community could comment, to frame the following discussion in his favor. Possibly also to force Chinese authorities to act cautiously with the eyes of the world resting on He Jiankui. After an appearance at a conference in Hong Kong, He Jiankui went missing, and it still seems to be unclear where he is. Some news outlets reported the Dr. He was put under house arrest. In this episode, Bart Geurten (@BartGeurten) and I (Dennis Eckmeier, @DennisEckmeier) have a conversation about what we understand about what happened. (Recorded Dec 16th, 2018) What Happened? He Jiankui is a geneticist who works on genetic alteration of human embryos. In some countries, scientists can get permission to experiment on human embryos when the embryos are just a few cells big. Such embryos, however, may not be allowed to develop into full human beings. The goal of such experiments is, for example, to establish safer methods for gene therapies. The embryos are created through in-vitro-fertilization, an established practice for couples who are having trouble having healthy babies. Eggs and sperms are brought together outside the woman’s body, and the growing embryos can be tested for possible gene defects. Healthy embryos can then be implanted in the becoming mother’s womb. But He implanted genetically modified embryos in the womb of a woman, which the scientific community has many problems with. The two embryos have become babies and were born several months before the announcement. What exactly did He Jiankui try to achieve? He Jiankui wants to protect children of HIV infected parents from infection, AIDS, and social discrimination that comes with HIV infection. The medical community, however, does not agree that gene modification would be an appropriate method to accomplish this. There are numerous ways to protect yourself from infection with HIV by following simple rules of caution. He chose couples where the father is HIV positive, while the mother is not. To protect the mother, such couples can use in vitro fertilization, if they want a child. In the process of IVF, the HIV is removed. Was the treatment well designed? So there was no medical necessity for this treatment. But let’s say there would have been. To genetically protect the children from HIV, He Jiankui attempted to change a gene (CCR5) to a specific variant (delta32) that is believed to play a role in HIV resilience. But the scientific community agrees that they don’t know enough about the gene’s function. Genes code for proteins, and the same protein may play different roles in different bodily functions. Besides it’s implication in HIV resilience, the delta32 variant of CCR5 seems to be just as likely to increase vulnerability to influenza and the West Nile virus. There seems to be one study that even claims it might play a role in increasing cognitive ability. If the experiment worked, He may have introduced human enhancement which he himself says would be unethical. Or he may have put the girls at an increased risk to die from the flu. This means that this was a highly risky experiment and He may have done more harm than good to the children. Did He Jiankui make the alterations he wanted? No, the experiment wasn’t successful. Genes occur several times in the genome. In order for the genetic modifications to be effective, all these copies need to be changed. But this doesn’t seem to have worked. Instead one of the twins will have both variants of the protein expressed in all her cells. The other twin will have cells that will produce either one or the other protein variant. On top of it, He wasn’t successful in recreating the delta32 version of the gene. He created completely new mutations of the CCR5 gene, and we have no idea what this will mean for the twin girls. Did the parents know what they signed up for? We don’t know. Consent is not a simple issue. There are many ways to nudge someone into signing something. Especially if you are promising future parents a better life for their children while downplaying the risks and experimental nature of an untested therapy. Since He Jiankui went behind the backs of his own institute, and everybody else, really, nobody was there to ensure proper protocol was followed. B&D conversation Bart and Dennis further share their thoughts about human gene modification in more general terms. Do you have questions, comments or suggestion? Email, write us on facebook or twitter, or leave us a video message on Skype for dennis.eckmeier. Become a Patron! sources: • Ed Yong, The Atlantic • Hank Green, SciShow • He Jiankui at Human Genome Editing Sumit • He Lab YouTube videos • Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell: Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever – CRISPR

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Feb 20th, 2018
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Jan 6th, 2019
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