Posts about women

Fighting Superbugs with Superhero Bugs

As concerns over deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of ‘superbug’ bacteria grow, scientists at the Salk Institute are offering a possible solution to the problem: ‘superhero’ bacteria that live in the gut and move to other parts of the body to alleviate life-threatening side effects caused by infections.

Salk researchers reported finding a strain of microbiome Escherichia coli bacteria in mice capable of improving the animals’ tolerance to infections of the lungs and intestines by preventing wasting–a common and potentially deadly loss of muscle tissue that occurs in serious infections. If a similarly protective strain is found in humans, it could offer a new avenue for countering muscle wasting, which afflicts patients suffering from sepsis and hospital-acquired infections, many of which are now antibiotic resistant.

images of E. coli bacteria, salmonella typhimurium and burkholderia thailandensis

Salk scientists found a strain of E. coli bacteria (left) that were able to stop muscle wasting in mice infected with either Salmonella Typhimurium (center) and Burkholderia thailandensis (right). Image courtesy the Salk Institute.

“Treatments for infection have long focused on eradicating the offending microbe, but what actually kills people aren’t the bacteria themselves–it’s the collateral damage it does to the body,” says Janelle Ayres, a Salk assistant professor in the Nomis Foundation Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis and senior researcher on the study.

“Our findings suggest that preventing the damage–in this case muscle wasting–can stave off the most life-threatening aspects of an infection,” she adds. “And by not trying the kill the pathogen, you’re not encouraging the evolution of the deadly antibiotic-resistant strains that are killing people around the world. We might be able to fight superbugs with ‘superhero’ bugs.”

Once the most powerful and revolutionary of drugs, antibiotics appear to have reached their limits, due to the ability of bacteria to rapidly evolve resistance to the medicines. The rise of antibiotic resistance presents a grave threat to people around the world, as diseases once easily controlled repel all attempts at treatment. A recent study found that up to half of the bacteria that cause infections in US hospitals after a surgery are resistant to standard antibiotics.

In the United States alone, two million people annually become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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Youyou Tu: The First Chinese Woman to Win a Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 was divided, one half jointly to William C. Campbell (born Ireland, now USA) and Satoshi Ōmura (Japan) “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” and the other half to Youyou Tu (China) “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria”.

Youyou Tu is the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Diseases caused by parasites have plagued humankind for millennia and constitute a major global health problem. In particular, parasitic diseases affect the world’s poorest populations and represent a huge barrier to improving human health and wellbeing. This year’s Nobel Laureates have developed therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases.

William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a new drug, Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. Youyou Tu discovered Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria.

These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.

image of Artemisinin

via Noble Prize website

Malaria was traditionally treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success. By the late 1960s, efforts to eradicate Malaria had failed and the disease was on the rise. At that time, Youyou Tu in China turned to traditional herbal medicine to tackle the challenge of developing novel Malaria therapies. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in Malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate.

However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans. Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe Malaria.

Youyou Tu was born in 1930 in China and is a Chinese citizen. She graduated from the Pharmacy Department at Beijing Medical University in 1955. From 1965-1978 she was Assistant Professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, from 1979-1984 Associate Professor and from 1985 Professor at the same Institute. From 2000, Tu has been Chief Professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She doesn’t have a doctorate, very rare for a Nobel Prize winner in the sciences.

Read the full press release

Related: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 for Reprogramming Cells to be PluripotentNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008Parasites in the Gut Help Develop a Healthy Immune System2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or MedicineVideo showing malaria breaking into cell

Computer Code for NASA’s Apollo Guidance System

photo of Margaret Hamilton, NASA

Margaret Hamilton, NASA. Standing next to a printout of the source code she and her team wrote for the Apollo guidance computer that made the moon landings possible.

Meet Margaret Hamilton, the badass ’60s programmer who saved the moon landing

The software for the guidance computer was written by a team at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now the Draper Laboratory), headed up by Margaret Hamilton.

The guidance computer used something known as “core rope memory“: wires were roped through metal cores in a particular way to store code in binary. “If the wire goes through the core, it represents a one,” Hamilton explained in the documentary Moon Machines. “And around the core it represents a zero.” The programs were woven together by hand in factories. And because the factory workers were mostly women, core rope memory became known by engineers as “LOL memory,” LOL standing for “little old lady.”

Hamilton is now 78 and runs Hamilton Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company she founded in 1986. She’s lived to see “software engineering” — a term she coined — grow from a relative backwater in computing into a prestigious profession.

In the early days, women were often assigned software tasks because software just wasn’t viewed as very important. “It’s not that managers of yore respected women more than they do now,” Rose Eveleth writes in a great piece on early women programmers for Smithsonian magazine. “They simply saw computer programming as an easy job. It was like typing or filing to them and the development of software was less important than the development of hardware. So women wrote software, programmed and even told their male colleagues how to make the hardware better.”

My aunt was one of those early software engineers. She wrote a chapter for a book, Programming the IBM 360, in the 1960s. My uncle was one of the first employees at NASA and rose to be one of the senior administrators there over his career.

It is great when society is able to capture the value individuals are capable of providing. We need to make sure we allow everyone opportunities to contribute. We do well in many ways but we also do lose from discrimination and also just making it uncomfortable for people to contribute in certain roles when we need not do so.

We have accomplished great things with software in the last 40 years. We could have accomplished more if we had done a better job of allowing women to contribute to the efforts in this field.

Related: The Eagle Has LandedBarbara Liskov wins Turing AwardGreat Self Portrait by Astronaut with Earth Reflected in His Visor

STEM Graduates in the USA: 465,000 Women and 451,000 Men

STEM baccalaureate degrees in the USA in 2010 (reported by NSF in 2014):

Field Women
Science (including math) 442,000 343,000
Engineering 23,000 108,000
Health 193,000 36,000
Total 658,000 486,000

If you exclude health, women still lead 465,000 to 451,000.

The same data for master’s degrees:

Field Women
Science (including math) 86,000 72,000
Engineering 14,000 49,000
Health 97,000 22,000
Total 197,000 147,000

Excluding health the totals are: women 100,000, men 125,000.

In 2005, 235,197 women received undergraduate science and engineering degrees, compared to 230,806 for men. In 2005, 53,051 women received masters science and engineering degrees, compared to 66,974 men. All increased a large amount from 2005 to 2010 and degrees awarded to women increased much faster than the increase seen for men.

As I predicted in 2008 (Women Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and Math) the trends continued and resulted in large imbalances in favor of women at the undergraduate level for science related degrees.

At the masters level women continue to increase degrees (nearly doubling from 2005 to 2010 excluding health). The relative gains (compared to men) at the masters level are small in that 5 year period, but it seems to me the news is mainly good. I expect women will show relative gains at the masters and PhD levels going forward, though those gains may well be slower than they were at the undergraduate level.

STEM fields continue to show large gender imbalances (with women and men dominating certain fields and being relatively rare in others). Continuing to provide opportunities for talented and interested students to explore their field of choice is important for the students well being and for the well being of society. We want to take advantage of the great minds we have and not have people excluded from pursuing their dreams.

Related: Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science FieldsThe USA is Losing Scientists and Engineers Educated in the USA

Crows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

In Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher, a thirsty bird happens upon a vessel of water, but when he tries to drink from it, he finds the water level out of his reach. Not strong enough to knock over the pitcher, the bird drops pebbles into it — one at a time — until the water level rises enough for him to drink his fill.

Highlighting the value of ingenuity, the fable demonstrates that cognitive ability can often be more effective than brute force. It also characterizes crows as pretty resourceful problem solvers. New research conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s Corina Logan, with her collaborators at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, proves the birds’ intellectual prowess may be more fact than fiction. Her findings, supported by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, appear today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances.

photo of Corina Logan

Researcher Corina Logan with a great-tailed grackle and a night heron at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo is one of the sites where Logan is gathering data to compare and contrast the cognitive abilities of grackles and New Caledonian crows.
Photo Credit: Sonia Fernandez

Logan is lead author of the paper, which examines causal cognition using a water displacement paradigm. “We showed that crows can discriminate between different volumes of water and that they can pass a modified test that so far only 7- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully. We provide the strongest evidence so far that the birds attend to cause-and-effect relationships by choosing options that displace more water.”

Logan, a junior research fellow at UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, worked with New Caledonian crows in a set of small aviaries in New Caledonia run by the University of Auckland. “We caught the crows in the wild and brought them into the aviaries, where they habituated in about five days,” she said. Keeping families together, they housed the birds in separate areas of the aviaries for three to five months before releasing them back to the wild.

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Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science Fields

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.

There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections.

We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

The challenge of how to maximize the opportunities for those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math is important to all economies. There are difficulties in doing this and so continued focus on this area is good. My personal belief is we focus too much on the gender issue. Yes, we should reduce discrimination. I think we have done well but still have further to go.

Most of the suggested changes in how things should be done help women and also plenty of men that are turned off by the old way of doing things.

I also think we need to be careful in how we use data. Clamoring about discrepancies in a field with far more men (say physics) while not doing the same about a field with far more women (say psychology) is questionable to me. I don’t believe that any field that isn’t 50% male and 50% female is evidence that we need to fix the results so they are 50% each.

I believe we should provide everyone the opportunity to pursue the interests they have. They must perform to earn the right to continue. And we don’t want to waste potential with foolish barriers (for women, minorities or men). But if we do so and certain fields attract more women and others attract more men I think we can waste our effort by being too worried that certain fields are problematic.

If we are concerned it should be based on data and looking at the real world situation. In the coming decades my guess is women will exceed men in careers in many science disciplines (engineering still has fairly high male bias overall though some field, such as bio-engineering are already majority female graduates). It starts with education and women are already the majority of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering overall. And in many disciplines they dominate.

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Pedal Powered Washing Machine

It is very easy to forget billions of people alive today do not have access to electricity, clean water and things like washing machines at home. As I have said before I love appropriate technology. Even more than that I love to see successful deployments of appropriate technology that make people’s lives better.

It is also great to see kids with the perseverance to make these products to meet needs they see around them. We need to do what we can to encourage these types of kids. They are the future engineers and entrepreneurs that will make lives better for the rest of society.

Remya Jose, a 14 year school girl from Kerala, India created this wonderful machine. Another version of it, has the normal bike pedals (closer together, instead of spread out, on opposite sides of the machine, like in the video).

As far as I can tell the original video was from 2008 (and Remya created the machine in 2005). I haven’t been able to find the current status of the product, this is the best I could find (from 2008). Turning these innovations into products that succeed commercially is very hard.

If I had control of a national development program (or if I just become super rich and have millions to devote to making the world better, I think an effort like this would be something I would try) I would put working with these kids to make the products work very high on my list of priorities. The learning process and creation of engineers and entrepreneurs would be extremely valuable on top of any success the products had.

Related: Appropriate Technology: Washing Clothes by Machine Instead by HandWashing Machine Uses 90% Less WaterEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-Shelleranother bicycle washing machineAutomatic Dog Washing Machine

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Study After Study Find No Benefits to Multivitamins

The largest study of its kind concludes that long-term multivitamin use has no impact on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease or overall mortality in postmenopausal women.

“Dietary supplements are used by more than half of all Americans, who spend more than $20 billion on these products each year. However, scientific data are lacking on the long-term health benefits of supplements,” said lead author Marian L. Neuhouser, Ph.D., an associate member of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.

The study focused the effects of multivitamins because they are the most commonly used supplement. “To our surprise, we found that multivitamins did not lower the risk of the most common cancers and also had no impact on heart disease,” she said.

The study assessed multivitamin use among nearly 162,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind designed to address the most common causes of death, disability and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. The women were followed for about eight years.

Nearly half of the study participants – 41.5 percent – reported using multivitamins on a regular basis. Multivitamin users were more likely to be white, live in the western United States, have a lower body-mass index, be more physically active and have a college degree or higher as compared to non-users.

The study found no significant differences in risk of cancer, heart disease or death between the multivitamin users and non-users.

These findings are consistent with most previously published results regarding the lack of health benefits of multivitamins, Neuhouser said, but this study provides definitive evidence. Since the study did not include men, Neuhouser cautions that the results may not apply to them.

So what advice do Neuhouser and colleagues offer to women who want to make sure they’re getting optimal nutrition? “Get nutrients from food,” she said. “Whole foods are better than dietary supplements. Getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is particularly important.”

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Scientists Don’t Look Like They Do in Movies

The Myth of the Scientist: Crystal Dilworth at TEDxYouth@Caltech

Scientists don’t fit the stereotypical mold some people think they do. It doesn’t take much to replace those views. The main point, in my opinion, is to let kids know they can be a scientists even if they are not like the stereotypical examples – though it will take a lot of work.

Related: Movie Aims to Inspire College Students With Tales of Successful Minority ScientistsWomen Working in ScienceCitizen ScientistsScientists Singing About Science

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Virus Kills Breast Cancer Cells in Laboratory

Some very exciting and good news from Penn State. Researchers have found a virus that kills breast cancer cells. It is great to read about research breakthroughs like this. Of course, most of these announcements never become practical solutions, unfortunately. And if they do it is many many years later and almost always in much less exciting ways than the headlines. Still, the percentage that do make it through the process into workable solutions provide us great benefits.

Virus kills breast cancer cells in laboratory

Adeno-associated virus type 2 (AAV2) is a virus that regularly infects humans but causes no disease. Past studies by the same researchers show that it promotes tumor cell death in cervical cancer cells infected with human papillomavirus. Researchers used an unaltered, naturally occurring version of AAV2 on human breast cancer cells.

“Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the world and is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women,” said Samina Alam, research associate in microbiology and immunology. “It is also complex to treat.”

“We can see the virus is killing the cancer cells, but how is it doing it?” Alam said. “If we can determine which viral genes are being used, we may be able to introduce those genes into a therapeutic. If we can determine which pathways the virus is triggering, we can then screen new drugs that target those pathways. Or we may simply be able to use the virus itself.”

AAV2 does not affect healthy cells. However, if AAV2 were used in humans, the potential exists that the body’s immune system would fight to remove it from the body. Therefore, by learning how AAV2 targets the death pathways, researchers potentially can find ways to treat the cancer without using the actual virus.

In ongoing studies, the Penn State researchers also have shown AAV2 can kill cells derived from prostate cancer, mesothelioma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. A fourth line of breast cancer cells — representing the most aggressive form of the disease — also was studied in a mouse breast tumor model, followed by treatment with AAV2. Preliminary results show the destruction of the tumors in the mice, and researchers will report the findings of those mouse studies soon.

The fight against cancer has many promising breakthroughs. We have made some great progress. Still the fight is extremely difficult and we have many more frustrations than successes.

Related: Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellSynthetic Biologists Design a Gene that Forces Cancer Cells to Commit SuicideResearchers Find Switch That Allows Cancer Cells to Spread

Footballs Providing Light to Those Without Electricity at Home

This is an update on our previous post: sOccket: Power Through Play. This year, Soccket, 3,000 balls are scheduled to be put into use around the world. The college students (all women, by the way) that came up with this idea (harnessing the kenetic energy created while kicking a football [soccer ball] around to power a batter to use for lighting) are continuing to test and develop the product.

That ball has to be able to survive dusty, wet and harsh conditions and continue to provide power. The new, production version of the football powers a water sterilizer, fan, and provides up to 24 hours of LED light. It also can’t be deflated (a side affect of a design that is able to survive the rough environments, I believe).

I love to see engineers focusing on providing solutions for the billions of people that need simple solutions. Creating the next iPhone innovations is also cool, but the impact of meeting the needs of those largely ignored today, is often even greater.

The sOccket inventors also have a talent for publicity, which is always useful for entrepreneurs.

Related: Water Pump Merry-go-RoundWater and Electricity for AllHigh School Team Developing Clean Water SolutionsSmokeless Stove Uses 80% Less Fuel

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