The scene of the science fair wouldn’t
be complete without the paper mâché volcano, the gymnasium full of colorful
display boards set up across a floor and the voices of students each giving
their own presentations to their parents.
For Janlo Robil — a Ph.D. candidate in plant development genetics who works in the Paula McSteen lab at Bond LSC — his excitement for science and creativity was born in this mix of dioramas, experiments and hypotheses.
That passion has led Robil to a
place where his science and art can interact. While his experiments focus on
how the plant hormone auxin affects growth, he uses his artistic skills to
create figures and translate that science to his editors.
Robil started out as a freelance graphic artist in the Philippines where he’s from — creating logos and company designs. His inspiration comes from “natural things” and “creating shapes from what we already see as natural.”
“What’s nice about being a scientist and an artist is
that I always look for art in everything I do in my science,” Robil said.
Using Adobe Illustrator as his
medium, Robil translates the science he sees onto the screen. Recently, he
submitted a piece entitled, “Auxin Motherboard” to the Kemper Museum of
Contemporary Art in Kansas City in October 2019.
Even though Robil isn’t creating
art now, he sees methods of art come up during his work in the lab.
“When I look at things in the microscope, I
pay so much attention to detail that it slows me down,” Robil said. “The same
is true when I am working in Adobe. I am very systematic about it. I feel like,
in my head, I have an assembly line on how things are going to be done. I know
a lot of artists are a lot like that. They are very organized, and they are
very systematic…. Some of the technical stuff I bring to art, while I also
bring some of my creative stuff to my science. So, there is a very good
symbiotic relationship between the two.”
According to David Epstein, science journalist and
author, scientists in general are no more likely to have artistic hobbies than
the general public, but researchers at UCLA continue to be intrigued by the parallels and
intersections of art and science.
“I see evidence of the interdependency of art and science
every day. Just last week I had a wonderful conversation about a symposium on
the physics of music,” said Pat Okker, the dean of the College of Arts and
Carlos Rivera — a fourth-year graduate student who studies brain biology in Tucker Hall — is similar to Robil in his love for both art and science. In high school, one of Rivera’s drawings was chosen for the Missouri Fine Arts Academy.
always like to incorporate art into all the things I can do,” Rivera said. “I
haven’t done it in a while, but when I first started off here at Mizzou I was
taking pictures of brains, and in order to get good quality pictures you kind
of have to know how things contrast against each other.”
would take pictures of fly brains, which required special instruments and
precision. Now, Rivera is working on a mural of R2D2 shooting glial cells
instead of lasers. A glial cell is a part of a neuron that provides support for
the neuron, and scientists are still figuring out the intricacies of their
order for scientists to make more discoveries, they need to tap into their
in general, when you’re an artist you have to learn how to think creatively and
a lot of scientists think that just comes with learning science, but you have
to learn how to be creative sometimes,” said Katherine Guthrie, a graduate
student working in the McSteen lab at Bond LSC. “So, when you have an art
background, it’s a lot easier to think outside the box when you’re thinking
about experiments or thinking about possible outcomes or planning for the
with Robil in plant development genetics where they study how interrupting the
auxin hormone pathway affects development. By understanding what it looks like
when it’s broken, they can figure out how to make sure the pathway works best.
On and off for the past 10 years, Guthrie has also been teaching art classes of
every medium in school and studios.
reason I’ve always loved art is because most people feel like they can’t do it
and when they find out they can, it’s like this glorious epiphany like, ‘Wow!
This is cool. I just made that.’” Guthrie said. “The reason I like science is
because you get that epiphany, and the reason I like art is because you get to
share that often.”
art and science get the opportunity to interact, those outside of the
scientific community are given a bridge to see what’s so exciting.
now realizing the reason I am excited about science fairs is that it’s also an
opportunity for me to show my creativity,” Robil said. “You see these kids
making volcanoes like every time in the science fair, and I think one of the
reasons why they’re so keen to make these things is that they can also show how
creative they are and also show the scientific aspect of it. So, there are
people who are really really technical, but then I think when you add
creativity to the technicality of science, that’s when it gets really
interesting for me.”
It was an entirely new process for Henry (XiuFeng) Wan as he spent part of last weekend wooing potential graduate students at the 11th annual Graduate Life Sciences Joint Recruitment Weekend at the Bond Life Sciences Center.
As a relatively new faculty member, Wan took his first stab at recruiting in a way he’s never had to before. Previously having worked for years at Mississippi State University, he has never had to actively recruit students for his lab before but sees it as an exciting challenge.
“I want to really connect with the students personally,” he said. “It will be exciting to see what experiences the students bring to the table.”
About 57 prospective students from across the country and all walks of life traveled to Columbia to vet different graduate programs across MU’s campus. The event equally offers potential Tigers a look at their future departments — specifically biochemistry, biological sciences, genetics area program, informatics institute, molecular pathogenesis and therapeutics, the interdisciplinary plant group, plant sciences and the life sciences fellowship program — and offers labs the chance to recruit for assistantships and the positions necessary to keep research running smoothly and productively at Mizzou.
Amid words from Debbie Allen, coordinator of graduate initiatives, and Jeni Hart, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate studies, potential recruits heard a glimpse of what can be possible from George Smith.
Smith, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at MU, went on to become a Nobel laureate in Chemistry in 2018. In his brief remarks, Smith emphasized the collaborative nature of research.
“As scientists, we should not take pride in our individual accomplishments,” he said. “Instead, the greatest satisfaction we should have as scientists is that we are respected members of the research community, because we all depend a great deal on each other to correct our mistakes and carry on where another one of us left off. Without that community, we can only accomplish so much on our own.”
He also argued that present day discoveries are hugely indebted to those who came before in the research process. On the same token, Smith said we also owe appreciation to those in the future who go on to do things we could only imagine.
It was in that spirit that the attendees mingled over refreshments and discuss their research interests with each other and Mizzou faculty. According to Wan, this personal interaction with prospective students is what made him so excited about this weekend.
“There are a lot of great candidates out there, but you can only learn so much about them from a transcript or letter of recommendation,” he said. “By talking with prospective students one-on-one, you can get a much better sense of what kinds of research they’re passionate about, and just get them to open up a lot more about their experiences.”
While this is Wan’s first go-round at this type of recruitment event, he is not nervous about the recruiting aspect of it. His approach is to let students’ intellectual curiosity fuel the conversation.
“I would imagine time goes by quickly at this sort of event, so I want to encourage all of the students — especially the ones who can sometimes be more shy — to really open up about their specific interests,” Wan said. “It’s really exciting from my perspective to see where their minds are at, and I think Friday night’s event would be a good time to see that.”
The event reconvened Saturday morning as each lab displayed posters with work they are currently doing. Wan’s two posters showcased his growing lab’s work, which focuses on improving the effectiveness of influenza vaccines. Two of Wan’s current Ph.D. students —one who handles the bench research and the other who does computer science-related work — joined him to add more perspective.
Wan’s presentation was a big hit with prospective students. Lynden Voth, a May 2019 graduate of the University of Kansas, was very impressed with the relevance of his work.
“He’s doing really important work, because influenza affects such a huge subset of the population every year,” he said.
Voth, who works full time in a lab now on a slightly different type of virus, sees a lot of overlap between his work and Wan’s.
“I really appreciate not just the content of his work, but also how many different projects he’s working on at one time,” Voth said. “The collaborations he has with other agencies really impressed me as well. I could definitely see myself fitting in nicely here.”
According to Wan, who is looking to fill four spots in his lab next fall, prior research experience only means so much.
“One of my current students actually had no prior research experience at all,” he said. “She hadn’t done so much as hold a pipette, but I could tell right away that she had curiosity and passion for research. That’s what matters most, and that’s what really excites me about this weekend-getting to see that passion on display.”
By Roger Meissen | Bond LSC
Kristal Gant is a long way from the student she was when she donned a lab coat and wielded a pipette in labs at Bond Life Sciences Center nearly four years ago.
As she stood in front of a group of MU students hoping to one day follow their own routes to graduate school, Gant recounted her long and winding path to her Ph.D. program at University of Wisconsin-Madison and how MU’s Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) Scholars helped her get there.
“I’m really passionate about wanting to give back and be kind of like a mentor, but also a motivational, navigational tool for these students,” Gant said. “In undergrad, I didn’t have any idea about research and I feel like it’s my duty to come back and talk about my experience. Most of these students have not seen people that look like them in graduate school, as Ph.D. candidates or doctors. They don’t even know that’s possible for themselves.”
Gant didn’t attend Mizzou for her undergraduate degree, but as a PREP Scholar here she gained the chance to hone her skills. It gives underrepresented groups opportunities for individual academic and professional development that range from mentoring and GRE preparation to mini courses and research experience. The end goal is to prepare them for applying to Ph.D. programs. Those in PREP spend one or two years refining their skills and knowledge.
Gant greatly expanded her experience in research during that time. She spent a year alternating between the labs of Cheryl Rosenfeld and Mike Roberts in Bond LSC, learning the ins and outs of research on reproduction and environmental chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA).
“It gave me a preview of what you go through in your first year of grad school. I knew I wanted to study reproduction, reproductive deficiency and disease, and was also interested in environmental and reproductive toxicology, initially,” Gant said. “When I came here, I had the best of both worlds; I had the BPA aspect with Dr. Rosenfeld looking at mouse models and how that affected their behaviors and I had the reproduction area where Dr. Roberts looks at placental development by converting embryonic stem cells to trophoblasts, the main cells responsible for placental function. The project was essentially perfect in accommodating both of my interests.”
Gant had a unique, sometimes turbulent path to her interest in science. She grew up and went to school on the Westbank of New Orleans, until ninth grade. She remembers first getting an interest in science in junior high when her teacher showed a time-lapse video about pregnancy and the development of a baby.
“I was really interested in like how the woman’s body knew to accommodate the baby and how it adapted to having another human inside of it. That really intrigued me, so I was like, ‘I want to do reproduction,’” Gant said. “That combined with “The Cosby Show” made me want to be a neonatal nurse or obstetrician. I pursued that initially, but then I was like, oh, whoa, I didn’t know you could actually research these things, and I was introduced to research careers and grad school in college and realized this could be a thing. So, yeah, I’m a nerd like that.”
Before she got there, life got a little derailed. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the 15-year-old girl got separated from her mother who was visiting her sister in Virginia, causing her to have to relocate to Texas with a family friend to avoid the storm. What started out as a few days of inconvenience quickly turned into a bigger situation.
“We saw on the news that there was extensive flooding and people were stuck on the roads, and our apartment was flooded out, so we lost everything,” Gant said. “My mom didn’t know if I had made it out or anything because the phone lines were down and we were separated two weeks before the family I was staying with in Texas flew me to Virginia where I ended up finishing high school.”
Gant completed a year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University before she moved to North Carolina to help her mother escape a domestic violence situation. They were left living in a shelter for abused women and children for a year before getting their own apartment, and Gant worked at McDonalds until she started college again at Elizabeth City State University. She graduated in 2014 and followed up with a couple internships before ending up in a customer service job.
“And I hated it because it was, like, I have a whole degree that I’m doing nothing with and I’m in debt from it and I need to do something with,” she said.
A former adviser recommended Gant apply for PREP Scholars to improve her chances of getting into grad school.
Gant said her struggles helped her figure out what she wanted to do and shaped how she saw her future. Understanding it also aided her in writing personal statements for graduate school applications. She related that insight to those current PREP students looking to her for advice.
“It requires a lot of self-reflection to understand how your struggle got you to where you are. It doesn’t have to be family or a natural disaster or relationship troubles or whatever. It could be something within you that you yourself struggle with internally, whether it be confidence or fear or a feeling of not being good enough to do something,” Gant said. “It could be something so small that you struggled with, overcame and still, you pursued something you were deathly afraid to do. That shows that no matter what is supposed to stop you, you’re not gonna allow it.”
But her parting advice was some of the best.
“It really takes a passion, knowing what you’re trying to answer and putting in the work to figure it out. If you’re not passionate then you will be miserable and feel like you’re trapped in a prison,” she said. “But if you want the answers to your research questions and will not rest until you figure it out, then you should be in graduate school.”
Kristal Gant is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Endocrinology and Reproductive Physiology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She was an MU PREP Scholar in 2015 and plans to graduate with her doctorate in 2021.
Focus on new grants results in research funding bump
By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC
It’s an inconvenient truth that every scientist knows; progress in research is driven by the money they receive to pursue discoveries.
As MU’s Chancellor Alexander Cartwright addressed the Mizzou community in October, he announced positive gains in securing grants for future science.
“Not long ago, we set an ambitious goal to double research funding by 2023. I’m thrilled to report that last year, our research awards – an indicator of future expenditures – increased from around $200 million to $250 million,” Cartwright said at the 2019 State of the University Address. “This almost 25% increase in awards in one year is phenomenal.”
Bond Life Sciences Center’s 29 research faculty are slightly outpacing this system-wide achievement, with the FY2019 report displaying a year-over-year increase from $13.3 million in FY2018 to $16.8 million. That’s an increase of 26% in grant funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy and other sources.
“As a faculty member, I would say we’re always motivated to get grants, but sometimes it is a little bit cyclical and depends on how good the federal budget is in various research areas,” Bond LSC Interim Director Walter Gassmann said. “But I do think the Chancellor’s challenge of doubling our research expenditures in five years was a big motivator for researchers because they realized people are paying attention.”
That challenge started in February 2018 when Cartwright announced the renewed focus. Within the first year, research faculty across campus answered that challenge head-on, increasing grant funding from $207 million to $255 million, a 23% rise.
It’s not just researchers getting more grants or submitting more proposals, but there seems to be renewed interest in larger grants. In Bond LSC, the amount requested has risen by almost 70%.
Cartwright’s challenge also sparked a change in the grant-seeking landscape. Now, researchers across campus are encouraged to collaborate with each other more and go after larger grants together, rather than compete with each other for smaller grants.
One way Bond LSC encourages collaboration and the startup of new studies is through seed grants. These help them get proposals off the ground with up to $100,000 to get their projects up and running.
“Funding has become so competitive you can’t just have a good idea. The more data you have, the better you can convince reviewers that the project will really work,” Gassmann said. “In a way, it’s counterintuitive. You write these grants and say, ‘I really need this money to prove that it’ll work,’ but the reviewers come back and say, ‘show me that’ll work and then we’ll give you the money.’ That’s always a balancing act.”
A significant intent of seed grants is to stimulate teamwork. Applications require both collaboration and for researchers to propose something they haven’t done before. Eight proposals were funded in the last round.
“The program has been very successful when you compare how much investment we put into seed grants and how much federal funding came out of previous rounds of Bond LSC seed funding. It was almost seven to one,” Gassmann said. “To me, that makes it seem like it was a good investment.”
The UM System recently built on this concept with a series of grants to enhance the ‘well-being for Missouri, the nation and the world through transformative teaching, research, innovation, engagement and inclusion,’ investing millions in strategic projects across Missouri.
Additionally, Bond LSC sets up “hot topics” lunches where scientists build bridges for potential collaborations. They help researchers meet other people on campus who they could team up with and apply for larger grants. These monthly meetings for metabolomics, microbiology and cancer researchers across campus help identify and form collaborations.
Julia Rodriguez, lead grant writer for Bond LSC, specializes in identifying new funding opportunities and potential collaborations as well as refining the grant applications. She regularly alerts researchers across campus to new funding opportunities.
“I think our investigators are very creative and they have the support from the administration to think bigger,” Rodriguez said. “When investigators are looking for potential grants, we help them attack the situation from another angle. We teach them how to search for grants and where to search. We talk with them about outside-the-box opportunities and help them frame their question a little differently to compete for funding from different sources, so that they have a broader portfolio.”
One example of this continued grant success is Primary Investigator Jay Thelen. He was awarded a $3.4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Plant Genome Research Program Grant to study metabolic constraints and regulatory nodes in engineered oilseeds. The grant was the fourth grant awarded to Bond LSC researchers in recent years by the NSF Plant Genome Research Program, which focuses on large collaborative projects, and all four are currently active.
But, it takes a concerted effort from faculty and staff to ensure everything is in order for federal granting agencies.
“Having knowledgeable and dedicated staff like Julia Rodriguez and Patience Okiring in close contact with our faculty is key to our high rate of grant success,” Gassmann said. “Not only are they familiar with the wide variety of funding agencies, but they also get to know the faculty well and know what funding opportunities might be of interest to them.”
The main motivation for the increase in grant funding is to strengthen Mizzou’s reputation as a leading research institution and attract talented faculty, students and postdoctoral fellows. By increasing grant funding, Mizzou can indirectly increase student enrollment, attract talented faculty and improve an already vibrant research environment.
“There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have to spend it on what you feel is important. There has always been an expectation of external funding,” Gassmann said. “Bond LSC faculty are very driven and entrepreneurial from the get-go. Chancellor Cartwright’s expectation to double research funding within 5 years was a welcome challenge for us.”
The complex title of the new painting in Bond LSC represents the nuance of its meaning.
By Danielle Pycior | Bond LSC
It appears to simply showcase a spectrum of beautiful colors, but there is much more than meets the eye to the painting above the plant wall by Monsanto Auditorium in Bond Life Sciences Center. Its creative expression is the work of local artist Kerry Hirth and has a particularly unique provenance.
Dean Bergstrom approached Hirth one day when she was in the administrative offices hanging some of her paintings as part of a program where the Columbia Art League loans out artwork to offices for exposure and sale. He walked her down to the living wall, pointed above it and said, we need something to fill that space, will you do it?
This led to the art piece that hangs above the living wall, which is the largest and most challenging work that Hirth has ever created. While she is proud of the outcome, she said she’ll never create something that large again.
Hirth had to plan for a variety of things such as discoloration of the wood board from the pastels, the scalability of her art onto something much larger than normal, exposure to dust and the test of time, among other things, which made the project the challenge of a career.
“It took a long time – there were some things I couldn’t control,” she said. “The epic nature of planning the materials and the execution of meeting a specific end result was challenging.”
After months of preparation and planning on her end and with Bond LSC’s facility staff, she finally began to paint the real deal. Equipped with her hazmat suit, her facemask, an endless supply of gloves that built up over time and the large wooden board, she took creative determination to an entirely new level.
“The project was like mental torture,” she said. “When you’re an artist sometimes physical exhaustion isn’t a thing. If you have the impulse to do something, then you have to do it. I wanted to make a really large painting and I did.”
Hirth is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Philosophy. She now teaches ethics at Moberly Community College along with producing art. She’s a woman with many interests, which only aids in the complexity of meaning in her work. She said her work isn’t meant to be socially or politically charged but is meant to stir the imagination.
In 2007 when Hirth and her husband moved to Chicago, inspiration struck. She recalls he had a fantastic office with a nice view and spent a great deal of time there. So, she decided to create an art piece to bring some color to his day. For something to hang in the spot she imagined, it would have to be long and thin, so she went to the store and bought the supplies. Little did she know that would be the beginning of a career in art.
Around that time, Hirth found out she had synesthesia, a condition where one of the senses is simultaneously perceived with another. In her case, she sees color attached to sound, more specifically music.
“I wanted something that was meaningful in that space,” she said. “For whatever reason, I used that paper, started from left to right, and began to paint in the colors of music. It happened to be a Bach piece.”
Growing up playing piano and drawing with pastels, this project for her husband’s office brought two of her loves together in a transformative way. To others, it seems incomprehensible to associate a complex musical composition with such specific colors, but to Hirth, things are much clearer. Her brain sees a reality that most people can’t imagine.
“Because the experience is so consistent with harmony and color, that’s how I can create a pattern,” she said, pointing to the horizon in the distance. She said it’s just like the pattern of a horizon that stretches from bottom to top, she naturally sees certain colors from left to right when hearing a musical composition.
Though Hirth didn’t discover this specific form of art until later on in her life, she’s always had an impulse to create things, and said it isn’t about casually following desire, but about being pulled to do something. After that first painting, she had to create more.
“I was always aware of how I was different, but I couldn’t before express it in a way that was interpretable to people, and evidently now I can,” she said.
The painting has many more depths than just the color she sees through Sonata in E Major K162 by Domenico Scarlatti. She also connects the left to right color scheme to the first section of The Wanderings of Oisin by Yeats.
Hirth had previously collaborated with a composer on the poem to create art for a previous show. This amounted to an acquaintance with the piece that was hard to shake. She says it worked its way into her everyday thoughts for months and the colors associated with the epic poem were also colors she saw in that composition. She chose the two for the painting because they combined together on so many meaningful levels. She said the epic poem is something bigger than herself; it simply amplifies the importance of the work.
“In the story, Oisin is a mortal king who gets taken by an immortal woman to her home in the Irish Isles,” she said. “It’s about the three different islands that they visit throughout his journey and his return back to human lands.”
The colors in the painting represent the journey that Oisin takes throughout the story. It represents a narrative, the deeper metaphors within that narrative and a complex musical composition as well. What can easily be taken as a pallet of colors up on a wall, is in reality a painting with more levels than any of us could ever intuitively understand.
“The painting itself is divided into three parts,” Hirth said. “The first part is water, the second part is land and the third part is sky.”
Hirth thought and planned for months to help create the perfect symbol for not only the living wall but for the Bond Life Sciences Center. Though it was the toughest project she’s worked on so far, she’s proud of the outcome.
The artwork Hirth created can be seen outside of Monsanto Auditorium above the plant wall. Minus the cost of supplies, Hirth graciously donated the piece to Bond LSC to inspire our scientists, students and visitors.
A time to celebrate the thing that makes us who we are
By Danielle Pycior | Bond LSC
In 1865, after a decade long search into patterns of inheritance, Gregor Mendel discovered how individuals receive traits from their parents. Through working with pea plants, he found that genes come in pairs and are inherited as distinct units. He tracked those genes through dominant and recessive traits. Like many vital scientists throughout history, Mendel wasn’t appreciated in his own time due to his unpopular ideas. Now seen as the “father of genetics,” Mendel is recognized as the scientist who began the genetics revolution.
“There’s been an immense amount of progress even in the last two decades,” Warren said.
While one cell’s DNA unraveled is around 1.2 miles in length, the entire DNA strand in a human body is equivalent to 120 billion miles, twice the diameter of the solar system.
“What fascinates me is decoding the genetic blueprint of life, comparing it to other closely related species and trying to understand how that species is unique and different,” Warren said.
Throughout his career, Warren has been able to work closely with what he calls the ‘blueprint for life.’ Through incredible scientific advancements, he’s been able to decode the genomic code of various species, paving the way for understanding and discovery.
“Certainly, we know the biology is different — physically they’re different, morphologically they’re different, but at some genetic level we know they’re very similar,” Warren said. “So how does that change in the variation of the genetic blueprint result in that individual species having a very different phenotypic profile than a closely related species?”
But this rapid advance in the modern era moved much slower after Mendel’s initial discoveries. It wasn’t until the 1900s that Mendel’s work was rediscovered and taken seriously, and by the 1940s, Oswald Avery, an immunochemist, discovered DNA to be the transforming factor of genes. A paper he published outlining this assessment then inspired Erwin Chargaff, who discovered that DNA composition is species specific.
A few years later, James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. By 1962, the three men won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for the discovery. Though the high-resolution X-rays Franklin took of DNA fibers led to the discovery of the double-helix structure, she was not awarded along with the three men, having died of cancer a few years earlier. Over the next six decades, scientists discovered rapid DNA sequencing techniques, various diseases associated with certain genetic markers, ways of cloning animals, how to decode chromosomes and many other revolutionary advancements.
DNA is something that connects every species on the planet. On the outside, it might look like we are extremely different, but on the inside, biological systems allow for each of our existence in a way that is relatively similar throughout any species. Warren enjoys understanding and dissecting the micro levels of that existence to understand how it influences who we and other species are.
“I absolutely think it’s important to look back into the past to understand where we’ve come from and also to learn from mistakes that we’ve made,” Warren said. “The forward-thinking process has to happen today, and we have to learn from what we’ve done in the past to strategize for the future,” Warren said.
In the future, Warren predicts personalized medical experiences where each person’s genomes are on file for doctors to see, helping to anticipate needs and revolutionize the way doctors are able to treat diseases. A century ago, it would have been unfathomable for scientists to image the profound advancements the field has seen, and yet they have only begun to see what is possible.
What do CBD, climate change, flat earthers, and anti-vaxxers have in common? All are prevalent in the propagation of ‘fake news’ in science.
Truthful and accurate reporting is crucial in the field of journalism to create a well-informed society. You may have heard the term ‘fake news’ a time or two, but what does fake news really mean, what does it look like and how does it arise?
“It’s important for everybody, all journalists, and really all human beings to kind of have a better understanding of where some of this information went wrong to be able to identify stories that might sound real that are probably not,” said Sarah Shipley-Hiles, an MU journalism professor who chaired the fake news panel hosted by the Science Health and Environmental Journalism (SHEJ) club on Wed., April 3.
In short, fake news is pseudo-news that contains disinformation or falsities that deceive the public. This false information sparks distrust of the media and causes strong debate among members of opposing ideologies.
SHEJ president Madelyne Maag opened the discussion Wednesday with the flat earth conspiracy theory.
“Flat earth theory is one of the most popular and talked about conspiracy since the 1990s when it first surfaced and then it nearly died out,” Maag said.
The flat earth theory is the belief that instead of the earth being spherical, it is on a plane with a wall surrounding it. It nearly died out in the 1990s when its creator died. However, the theory resurfaced with the rise of the internet and social media.
Facebook provided a platform for those still believing in the theory to connect and spread their ideology. To put it into perspective, the group of 3,500 original believers has expanded to a Facebook following of roughly 200,000 people now.
“Social media has magnified the problem, but it is not the sole source of the problem,” Maag said.
Other platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube have brought the flat earth theory to light through videos and documentaries, and further spread its doctrine globally.
To get an understanding of why conspiracy believers thrive, two cognitive researchers from Texas Tech attended the first flat earth conference in Raleigh, NC in 2017. Landrum and Olshansky conducted interviews with 50 attendees to better understand their motivations for believing the theory. They found that people who believe one conspiracy theory are more susceptible to believing other conspiracy theories.
They also found of the people they interviewed, most of them became aware of the theory through YouTube. They reported watching 9/11 conspiracy videos and being led to flat earth conspiracy theory through YouTube’s autoplay function and recommended videos.
And there is no shortage of user-generated content with the rise of the internet. The problem lies in unchecked information and deceptive claims being perceived as fact.
“Because of that, it shows that journalists have an important duty to get the story right the first time,” Maag said. “Those who are in charge of social media have a responsibility to make sure fake news and fake information is not given the light of day.”
The same problem presents in many science news topics, including rapid acceptance of Cannabidiol (CBD) oil as a natural ‘cure all’ despite not being approved by the FDA, anti-vaccination claims and misconceptions of climate change.
Anti-vaccination claims arose after British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a study in the Lancet suggesting a connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination to behavioral and developmental disorders in children. The study was later retracted as the study was not replicable by other researchers, thus invalidating its claims. Additionally, the study was funded by private interest groups who were against vaccine-producing companies.
“Jenny McCarthy went on Oprah, the Today Show and the View and talked about her own anecdotal experience of her son having autism so she claims that the vaccine for MMR led to that,” said Ashton Day, a graduate student at MU.
Because of the reach of these television shows as well as McCarthy’s following, among other causes, this belief was able to spread into public thought and encourage support for this stance.
The panel concluded that current journalistic reporting is doing a disservice to public perceptions of these issues.
“Unfortunately, the media played a big part in spreading the problem,” Shipley-Hiles said. “Journalists, in an attempt to be fair, cover these issues like a football game or a political battle. They just say these people say climate change is happening or not happening, you figure it out.”
Missouri Life Sciences Week 2019 has come to a close. It brought us a taste of science across our broad research community at Mizzou. From students presenting their hard work in labs to core facilities showing what they do to advance the work of scientists across campus, Bond LSC was bustling with energy.
If you missed the action, get a taste of what it all in the photos from the week’s events below or our daily recap email links below.
But first, here’s a list of winners from the research poster session contests. It’s a challenge to pick the best research presentations from a field of nearly 300 posters. With the help of a small army of volunteer faculty and postdoctoral students, organizers narrowed the field to 39 undergrad and graduate students who skillfully explained quality science created through their research.
Social & Behavioral Sciences 1st: Hadeel AlQadi “An Overview of Cognitive Diagnosis Model for Dichotomous Latent Variables.”
Adviser: Sangbeak Ye2nd (tie): Kelsey Irvin “Sensitivity of the Reward Positivity Event-Related Potential to a Savoring Affect Regulation Strategy.”
Adviser: Debora Bell2nd (tie): Kolter Grigsby “The Role of Nucleus Accumbens CREB and PKIÎ± modulation in Rescuing Low Voluntary Running Behavior.”
Adviser: Frank BoothLife Sciences Innovations
1st: Faye McGechie “Using Novel 3D Techniques to Visualize and Quantify Primate Neck Anatomy.”
Adviser: Carol Ward
2nd (tie): Aditi Mishra “Generation Of Novel Thermogenetic Tools In Drosophila Melanogaster.”
Adviser: Troy Zars
2nd (tie): Li Lee “T2-mapping Magnetic Resonance Imaging As A Novel Strategy To Detect And Quantify Myocardial Fibrosis In Mice”
Adviser: lixin Ma
Honorable Mention: Chunye Zhang “The Influence Of Gm Richness And Transfer Method On Disease Susceptibility In An Animal Model.”
Adviser: Aaron C. Ericsson
Honorable Mention: Paige Gruenke “2′-Fluoro-Pyrimidine-Modified RNAs Strongly Inhibit HIV Reverse Transcriptase.”
Adviser: Donald Burke-Agüero
Animal Biology, Health and Disease 1st: Karl Kerns “Sperm Capacitation-induced Zinc Efflux is Necessary for Increased Proteasomal Activity and Release from Oviduct Glycans of the Sperm Reservoir.”
Adviser: Peter Sutovsky
2nd: Alexis Dadelahi “B Cells Inhibit CD4-mediated Protection During Brucella Melitensis Infection via an MHCII-dependent Mechanism.”
Adviser: Jerod Skyberg
3rd (tie): Emma Stephenson “Effects of Copper, Zinc, and Manganese Source and Concentration during Late Gestation on Fetal Growth and Mineral Status of Calves.”
Adviser: Allison Meyer
3rd (tie): Monica Witzke “Experimental Heat Stress Alters the Fecal Microbiome of Dairy Cattle.”
Adviser: Pamela Adkins
Honorable Mention: David Korasick “Investigating the Dynamic and Complex Oligomeric States of Aldehyde Dehydrogenase 7A1.”
Adviser: Jack Tanner
Honorable Mention: Kinjal Majumder “Parvovirus Minute Virus of Mice Interacts with Sites of Cellular DNA Damage to Establish and Amplify its Lytic Infection.”
Adviser: David Pintel
Plant Biology, Health and Disease 1st: Jan Lorie Robil
“The Role of Auxin in Vein Patterning in Maize Leaves.”
Adviser: Paula McSteen
2nd: Jared Ellingsen “Establishing the Roles and Interactions of E3L1 and MKP1 in Pattern-triggered Immunity.”
Adviser: Scott Peck
3rd: Caio Canella Vieira “Major Gene for Resistance to Root-knot Nematode Sustains Yield Response Under High Nematode Pressure.”
Adviser: Pengyin Chen
Comparative and Translational Medicine
1st: Kari Chesney “Modeling Crohn’s Disease: Identifying Environmental Triggers in a Genetically Susceptible Atg16l1 Rat Strain.”
Adviser: Elizabeth Bryda
2nd: Robert Kazmierczak “Targeting Neuroendocrine Prostate Cancer.”
Adviser: Chiswili Chabu
3rd: Lindsey Ledbetter “Eosinophils Are Important for Early Formalin-inactivated Coxiella Burnetii Phase I Vaccine-mediated Protection and Antibody Isotype Switching.”
Adviser: Guoquan Zhang
Honorable Mention: Catherine Chambers “IL-1 is Protective in a Murine Model of Neonatal Meningitis-Associated E. coli Infection.”
Adviser: Jerod Skyberg
Honorable Mention: Hien Huynh “Antigen Requirements to Achieve T Cell Co-potentiation When Targeting Human CD3 with Fab Fragments in Humanized Mouse Models Expressing Transgenic TCRs.”
Adviser: Diana Gil Pages
Honorable Mention: Sessaly Reich “HER2 Antibody Validation in Dogs and Expression Pattern in Canine Osteosarcoma Cell Lines and Tissues.”
Adviser: Jeffrey Bryan
Ecological and Evolutionary Biology
1st: Makenzie Mabry “Brassica oleracea: The Dog of the Plant World.”
Adviser: J. Chris Pires
2nd: Troy Rowan “Detecting Signatures of Selection and Local Adaptation in United States Bos Taurus Beef Cattle.”
Adviser: Jared Decker
3rd: Erin Petty “Which Resources Control Algal Biomass in Turbid Missouri Reservoirs: Light or Nutrients?”
Adviser: Rebecca North
Honorable Mention: Micah Turrell “Evaluating the Critical Thermal Maxima Among Four Species of Missouri Salamanders.”
Adviser: Manuel Leal
Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
1st (tie): Sadia Akter “A Machine Learning Approach for the Prediction of Endometriosis Using Multi-OMICS Next Generation Sequencing Data.”
Adviser: Trupti Joshi
1st (tie): Nicholas Mattia Marazzi “Quantitative Evidence of the Role of the Lymphatic System in Maintaining the Subatmospheric Pressure Condition in the Interstitial Space.”
Adviser: Giovanna Guidoboni
3rd: Adil Al-Azzawi “Super Clustering Approach for Fully Automated Single Particle Picking in Cryo-EM.”
Adviser: Jianlin Cheng
1st: Olivia Botonis “Distinct Roles of Two Dopaminergic Pathways in Reinforcement Learning.”
Adviser: Ilker Ozden
1st: Andrew Yowell “An Essential Endopeptidase is Required for Cell Wall Synthesis and Morphology in A. tumefaciens.”
Adviser: Pamela Brown
2nd: Maha Hamed “Role of Salicylic Acid in Immune Responses in Arabidopsis Clathrin-Coated Vesicle Mutants.”
Adviser: Antje Heese
2nd: Alec Wilken “Functional Morphology of the Palate in Varanus exanthematicus and Its Significance for the Evolution of Cranial Kinesis.”
Adviser: Casey Holliday
3rd: Mason Ward “Say Yes to the Host: The Effects of Drought on Parasitoid Wasp Behavior.”
Adviser: Debbie Finke
Honorable Mention: Aleks Shin “Quantitative Analysis of Glycated Albumin by LC-MS/MS Using an Isotopically Labelled Standard.”
Adviser: Kuanysh Kabytaev
Honorable Mention: Skyler Kramer “Novel Improvements on a Machine Learning-based Approach for Large-scale Prediction of Negative-mode Collisional Cross Sections.” Adviser: Lloyd Sumner
Honorable Mention: Kody Jones “Uncoupling Functions of Dynamin-related Protein Network in Plant Immune Responses from Development.”
Adviser: Antje Heese
Lead Organizer for Each Category
Social & Behavioral Sciences, Nate Green
Life Science Innovations, Mike Lewis
Animal Biology, Health and Disease, Jim Amos-Langraf
Plant Biology, Health and Disease, Scott Peck
Comparative and Translational Medicine, Jeff Bryan
Ecological and Evolutionary Biology, Rex Cocroft
Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Chi-Ren Shyu
Undergraduates: D Cornelison
A casual conversation amongst friends two years ago turned into an initiative to better connect scientists doing related work across the University of Missouri campus.
Hot Topic research networking was born out of informal discussions, growing into a cross-campus and cross-discipline network.
“They need to talk and communicate to build things up and down the chain,” said Karla Carter, executive assistant to Bond LSC director. “That’s where some of the most exciting science is born.”
Carter explained that by helping facilitate these discussions, Bond LSC helps widen the scope of normal science and pull different researchers from across the MU campus together. Ultimately, that can lead to new, exciting types of research.
Three main research networks emerged from initial efforts, focusing on cancer biology, host/pathogens and metabolomics. In each discussion, a main presenter either shows successes they are experiencing in their labs or difficulties they face. By bringing diverse minds together, they can learn from one another and help each other overcome challenges in their fields.
At a recent research network for metabolomics, Aaron Ericcson, assistant professor of veterinary pathobiology, spoke about discoveries in his lab regarding colon and rectal cancer in mice.
“Research networks really open up everybody’s eyes to what else is going on throughout campus,” Ericcson said. “These are great ways to go out, show your science and just make yourself known.”
He spoke about how easy it is for scientists across disciplines to never meet or know what other fields may be doing differently right down the street.
“I always pick up something, some new tidbit of knowledge, but it’s definitely opened up some new collaborations. No matter what talk I go to, in the back of my mind I’m thinking of it in a microbial context,” Ericcson said.
At the end of the discussion, two gentlemen stayed behind to talk with Ericcson about his work and possibly begin a collaboration of their own.
Michael Petris, professor of biochemistry and Bond LSC primary investigator, was fascinated by the relationship between microbiome and cancer.
“For me, what’s cool is the different models that are available, which I can learn from and use in my own work,” Petris said.
He and Mark Hannink, professor of biochemistry and Bond LSC primary investigator, began discussing new possibilities for their own research afterwards, excited by new thoughts and ideas.
“Of the combination of different ideas and different approaches, the different approaches are more important,” Hannink said. “If we learn something can be done that we didn’t know was possible before, that’s what I think is the most beneficial part of these discussions.”
Hot Topic discussions happen at Bond LSC every week with the hope of inspiring more cutting-edge research. Anyone from any field is welcome to attend the discussions and to learn about the various practices happening all around campus.
“This is how science really moves ahead,” Petris said. “You have to bring people from different backgrounds together.”
Check out Bond LSC events pageto see when the next Hot Topic session is.
When Simine Vazire began teaching undergraduate research methods she focused on its difference from pseudo-science or nonscience, the value of the scientific method and the notion that science is self-correcting. However, it became harder for her to teach that lesson with a clear conscience as she began to grapple with issues of credibility and replicability in the field of psychology with her own research.
“Credibility is arguably the eye of the storm of the in the replication crisis. I didn’t call this the replication crisis in psychological science because that’s pretty controversial,” Vazire said.
Vazire, a psychology professor from UC Davis, focused on these issues Monday, Feb. 4, in Bond LSC, as part of the Evolution and Social Science series. The talk, “The Credibility Revolution in Psychology,” centered on the idea that each scientific field should engage in critical self-examination to detect errors in theories and to improve them.
Upon beginning her research, Vazire found the false discovery rate to be high because many published findings were difficult to replicate and when studies were replicated, the pattern of results was inconsistent.
“I’m not embarrassed that we got things wrong, I’m happy that we’re figuring things out to make it better,” Vazire said. “But how do we make it better? I think we humans are the bug. We are not designed to be universalists who are communal, open and transparent, who like to question each other and challenge each other and so on. I think the key question for scientists to ask is ‘how would I know if I was wrong?’”
One way to help solve the credibility issue, Vazire suggests, is transparency.
“The more transparent we are, the more likely it is our errors will be caught,” Vazire said.
That means documenting every aspect of a study, verifying the claims, and letting the data and materials be viewable for other scientists to test, according to Vazire. Although transparency is necessary for credibility, it does not guarantee it. Studies need quality data and strong methods to back up claims.
In order for the science community to operate under a self-correcting system, Vazire recommends following four norms: universalism of status, communality of findings, disinterestedness and organized skepticism.
“I think this is good news,” Vazire said. “We didn’t know we were doing something wrong and now that we know we can fix it.”
The problem is bigger than individuals, and the science community as a whole needs to be dedicated to producing solid, verifiable claims, she said.
Now, Vazire challenges her students to be transparent in their research instead of advocating that science is self-correcting.
“We should teach students that when they’re going into science, they’re agreeing to have their stuff checked, challenged and criticized by other people,” Vazire said. “But, also, they’re allowed to challenge and criticize other people.”
The Evolution and Social Science Speaker Series hosts presentations by scholars exploring evolutionary perspectives from an interdisciplinary framework. Speakers span the full spectrum of the sciences and the humanities, including biology, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, economics, history, philosophy, and literature.
The series is held in 572 Bond LSC and its schedule is at https://ess.missouri.edu/speaker-series/spring-2019.html.