Our Take on the Presidential Candidates’ Answers to 20 Science Questions

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Image from Nature Publishing Group

Written by Jess

Last month, ScienceDebate.org published a survey of our presidential candidates for their thoughts on some key scientific issues of today. Media partner Scientific American encouraged readers to provide their thoughts, and many have already done so. As a biomedical PhD candidate, I found myself imagining what my job would look like if each candidate were given the opportunity to implement their ideas. Solely based on their responses to the ScienceDebate article, here is how I imagine each candidate would influence my day-to-day:

Hillary Clinton:

Of all the candidates who responded, Clinton appears to have the most comprehensive understanding of the government’s current role in science administration, perhaps unsurprising given her previous tenures in federal office. As such, her responses were practical and nuanced, and while there were no suggestions of grandiose changes to policy, it was refreshing to hear moderate suggestions that accurately reflect concerns felt within the scientific community.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged in her responses the many institutions that rely on government support for their funding and asserted her commitment to maintaining this funding. She slipped in a comment about opening access to government-funded research results (often such results are published in journals which are accessible only for a sizeable fee; even a scientist may have trouble accessing an article in a journal that his or her institution’s library does not subscribe to).  

One point Secretary Clinton made that resonated with me personally was that we ought to find a way to fund young investigators and to support high-risk, high-reward projects. Funding for young investigators has dropped precipitously in the last few decades, with scientists being forced to push their careers back further and further. For instance, obtaining an R01, a sizeable research grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is a critical achievement for scientists in biology and health-related fields. The average age by which one obtains their first R01 has increased from 38 in 1980 to 45 in 2013. To be clear, this means scientists, on average, do not start independent careers until they are forty-five years old.

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In bright colors, the current age distribution of those holding R01 grants. In faded colors, the age distribution of those holding R01 grants in 1980. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299207/

In the meantime, talented scientists remain in relatively low-paying postdoctoral positions for longer than they ever have before. The NIH is showing an increasing tendency toward funding scientists with proven track records and neglecting early career scientists with equally valuable research proposals but less data. A corollary to this problem is that the NIH tends to want to spend its limited funds on projects that are less risky, and by association, often less innovative. Increasing funding for younger investigators who are more likely to be able to tackle higher-risk, higher-reward projects could promote innovation as well as improve prospects for young people in science.

Another important issue for science in America is immigration policy. Many students and professionals come to the United States each year for education and jobs, but it’s not always easy for them to continue their careers once their visas have expired. For example, many Master’s and PhD students will enter the country with an F-1 or J-1 visa, which allows them to remain in the country for the duration of their education but does not provide a simple route to stay in the country upon obtaining their degree. There is an H1-B visa, which allows 65,000 people a year to enter the United States to work in specialty fields, plus another 20,000 who have recently earned a higher degree from a U.S. institution. For reference, in 2014 there were nearly 600,000 F-1 visas awarded. Students entering with a J-1 visa are not even eligible to transfer to an H1-B visa; they must return to their home country for a minimum of two years. For students entering from countries with fewer opportunities in the sciences, this is a big deal – it means it is even more difficult for them to advance in an already very competitive field.

Clinton proposes to automatically allow international students who earn a higher degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields to obtain a green card, as well as to create a National Office for Immigrant Affairs to support immigrants financially as they transition to U.S. citizenship.  

According to Hillary Clinton’s responses to ScienceDebate, she would focus on maintaining sufficient funding for researchers, and she would aim to address the growing problem of funding for younger scientists and riskier projects. She would additionally focus on improving the prospects of international students who earn STEM degrees in the United States and increase the number of highly skilled STEM employees entering the country. Senator Clinton’s strength in this arena is her seemingly thorough understanding of the current state of science and her reasonable proposals to support the scientific community at a federal level. Where she may run into the most opposition would be in her immigration proposals, as there is considerable difference of opinion in Congress over this particular issue.

Donald Trump:

It’s a bit more difficult to imagine the state of science under Donald Trump, because his answers were mostly airy and vague. It’s not that Trump is anti-science (unless you ask him about climate change*), but it’s not clear that he has a good idea of how science is supported by government and how his administration would continue or modify the role of government in science. Trump is all in favor of space travel, of improving STEM education, of “investing in science.” His answers, however, suffered from a dearth of substance and an overabundance of hopeful yet vague language.

Ever the businessman, Trump advises that we “bring stakeholders together” to decide the future of science in our country. Not a bad idea, just one lacking in particulars. One wonders if Mr. Trump has taken a look at the publicly available strategic plans for the National Insitutes of Heath (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), two major federal institutes charged with creating long-term goals for scientific advancement in the United States.

One thing Trump and Clinton agree on? Immigration, surprisingly. Well, sort of. Trump states that people who immigrate to the United States for STEM degrees ought to be allowed to remain in the country to obtain a science-related job if they so choose. However, he does echo recent criticisms of the H1-B visa program, namely that it has high potential for abuse by employers and that it pushes Americans out of jobs rather than addressing labor shortages. Whereas Secretary Clinton proposes to nearly double the number of H1-B visas, Mr. Trump would have the program be restricted to only cases where a position could not be filled by an American worker or current resident.

In short, a Trump administration would be uncertain for science. His sparse policy proposals don’t seem to be rooted in any sort of understanding of the relationship between science and government in the United States, and his vague ideas about innovation and advancement would be unlikely to pass a stringent peer-review process.

*When asked about his ideas for curbing climate change, The Donald suggested that we focus on some real problems, like malaria. Although I appreciate Mr. Trump’s sudden passion for parasitic tropical diseases, it could hardly be a more ironic redirection, given that rising temperatures are already causing malaria to spread to previously unaffected regions.

Gary Johnson:

Mr. Johnson, of course, is running on the Libertarian party platform and is highly in favor of reducing the role of government in people’s lives. To this point, I think the main way scientific advancement in the US would change if Johnson got his wish would be that funding would shift from the public to the private sector. Johnson does specify that federal funding should be maintained for those research endeavors which do not have immediate economic benefit for investors. This caveat is important and indicates the value of long-term investment in basic science. Oftentimes basic science, which seeks to understand fundamental scientific principles, has immense and widespread long-term impact but would not immediately pay out to private investors. Applied research, on the other hand, seeks to solve defined problems, and investors are more likely to see a fast turnaround.

Scientific advancement has a long history of federal support, but researchers themselves are already thinking about a future with increased private sector participation. Particularly in the wake of the 2012 sequester and the dismal funding situation that many researchers continue to find themselves in, more and more scientists believe private funding will play a much larger role in research than it has in the past. That said, any significant cut in federal funding for science would have to be carefully mediated to prevent loss of productivity and even loss of livelihood for many scientists.

Although Johnson is ahead of the times in terms of thinking about where science funding must come from – our next generation of scientists will almost certainly have to be more creative than the last in this regard – any Libertarian who finds themselves in charge of science funding should be careful to include a good transition plan.

Jill Stein:

Being the Green Party candidate, Ms. Stein is committed almost singularly to halting the increasingly concerning problem of global warming. In her eyes, an ideal scientific community would be a better-funded one, and one more focused on climate change research. She mentions diverting funds from the Pentagon toward research institutes, as well as “revisiting” the focus of national research institutions like the NIH and NSF. She also mentions making science policy “more democratic,” though this suggestion lacked particulars. Stein’s climate change policy is detailed and specific, and though the particulars are outside the scope of this article, I highly recommend reading about them (see question 3 of the ScienceDebate article). However, the other aspects of science policy she mentioned tended to be a bit vague. When asked about her views on the H1-B Visa program, she responded that she is in favor of the program but that she supports international development so that “people don’t have to go halfway around the world to find a job.” An admirable sentiment, but perhaps not a goal that can be met in four years – the United States is a research powerhouse, and we are likely to continue to attract young scientists for far longer than a four-year presidential term. In the meantime, expanding the visa program by allowing trainees to advance into productive science careers is a good way to encourage economic growth both at home and abroad.

 

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A history of global CO2 levels. Scientific consensus states that rapidly rising CO2 levels are the primary reason for elevated global temperatures. Source: http://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/. A large part of Ms. Stein’s platform involves curtailing human contribution to global warming.)

In short, the research world as imagined by Jill Stein would be expansive, better-funded, and aggressively focused on climate change. However, she seems to have a limited knowledge of current institutional policy and practice, making it difficult to assess how well her administration would oversee aspects of science not related to climate change.

Each candidate brings up important issues that concern American scientists and the American public, and each candidate should be critically evaluated based on their responses. Clinton did particularly well at addressing science funding and science-related immigration. Johnson introduced the interesting point that science funding in the future may not always be supplied nigh-exclusively by the government. I would posit, though, that his hard-line libertarian stance could use a little more nuanced understanding of the vital role government plays in funding science. Stein raises climate change as the most concerning issue of the day and supplies a detailed action plan, though perhaps at the expense of developing a broad-spectrum approach to science policy. And Trump… has nice children?

For more election season fun, check out how Scientific American graded each candidate’s responses. In the interest of impartiality, I haven’t actually read this bit at the time of publication. Let me know what you think!

 

Science ACEs does not endorse any political candidate. The opinions expressed in the article are solely the author’s.

 

 

 

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fifth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

The Butterfly and the Fastest Man Alive: What Season 3 of The Flash can Teach You about Chaos Theory

 

By The Motley Advocate

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If you haven’t already guessed, I am a huge fan of The CW’s show The Flash. At the end of season 2 Barry Allen traveled back in time to save his mother from being murdered by the time traveler known as the Reverse Flash. This action changed his history, creating a new reality. In the world of comics, this event, referred to as Flashpoint, had far reaching actions for the entire planet.

 

In the season 3 premiere, and in the comics, to fix the world of Flashpoint, Barry traveled back in time again, and allowed the Reverse Flash to kill his mother. Hypothetically, this should have restored the original timeline as Barry undid the one change he made to the time stream. However, when Barry returned to the future he found that there are a few new changes to the original timeline. Based on the previews, dealing with the changes he has caused through time travel will be a big part of season 3.

So let’s talk about the science in the season premiere. The idea of changing one event in the past with drastic consequences in the future is often called the butterfly effect. You may be familiar with it from the film starring Ashton Kutcher or the short story A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. However, while it is a popular idea in science fiction, it is in fact a real concept in the subject of chaos theory. Science fiction fans may remember chaos theory from the movie Jurassic Park.

 

Without going into too much detail, chaos theory, also known as deterministic chaos, argues that unpredictable, seemingly random, events are still caused by underlying predictable laws. For instance, when a player hits a baseball with a bat, we cannot predict exactly where it will land. However, we know that this is controlled by physical laws such as gravity, collision against the bat, and wind resistance as the ball travels in the air. The term butterfly effect was coined by Edward Lorenz, thought to be one of the first experimenters of chaos theory, while he was running computer simulations to predict weather patterns. During this experiment, Dr. Lorenz wanted to repeat a previous simulation not from the beginning but from a mid-point, and entered the numbers in manually. By doing so he rounded one number to .506 from .506127. You would think that a change this small would produce similar results, yet the two simulations had very different results because of this small change. This happy accident led to the idea known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Basically, even the smallest change in the initial conditions can make unpredictable changes in the results. It’s called the butterfly effect because one famous metaphor states that a butterfly flapping its wings in just the right place, at just the right time, can influence a hurricane on the other side of the world. Fun fact: Lorenz originally used the flapping of a seagull as an example before changing to the butterfly.

It is important to remember that the butterfly effect is not focused on what we can predict, but what we cannot predict. As this Boston Globe article discusses, if something as small as the wings of a butterfly can influence when a tornado will happen, humans will never be able to predict exactly where a tornado will occur. We can guess when a tornado might occur, based on the conditions we know, but without the remaining data, we will never be 100% right.

 

Alternatively, we need to accept that there are some conditions we can not control. When something random happens in life, we often try to identify the single butterfly that caused it to happen. However, there is actually a swarm of butterflies, making it impossible to find the single, correct one. At the end of the day, chaos theory suggests that what seems random could actually be perfectly predictable. It is just impossible for humans to account for every possible factor that will have an effect, and thus the results are unpredictable.

 

Chaos theory played a significant role in the premiere episode of season 3 of The Flash. One change to the time stream had numerous unpredictable changes to Barry Allen’s world, including the introduction of Kid Flash. The big difference is that unlike real chaos theory, Barry knew exactly what that variable was, considering he caused it. However, when Barry went back in time to restore the original timeline he fell victim to sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Even though his mom was still murdered it did not happen 100% exactly as before, and as a result his world is still different. How will Barry handle the changes? I guess we’ll just have to watch and find out. In the meantime, check out this awesome PSA where the cast of The Flash supports STEM education.

 

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com

Neuroscience of Yoga

By: Berrak Ugur

Perseverance. It is a word that I had to deeply internalize during my graduate studies.  It is repeated over and over starting with your graduate school applications and continued throughout your training. But how do we manage to stay in power when everything seems like it’s falling apart? And more importantly, how do we make sure that our whole world does not burst into flames when one tiny little thing goes wrong? How do we deal with the fluctuations of mind that seem to go into places that are not always made of rainbows and unicorns? Especially in the beginning of my graduate research, I struggled a lot with these thoughts. Sometimes, it can be challenging to acknowledge a thought without letting it become a constant worry. In order to take my mind off of failed experiments and worries about the future, I tried many physical and mental activities. Among these, yoga has helped me a lot to become a better researcher. I started practicing yoga a couple of years ago and now it has become a fundamental part of my life; along the way, I became a yoga teacher. Through the practice, I am able to acknowledge a thought and then let it go and focus on my work.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says ‘yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ,’ which translates as ‘yoga is the cessation (nirodhah) of fluctuations (vrtti) of the mind (citta).’ I do not know or understand how practicing yoga changes my mindset and that is totally fine. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if there were any studies performed to document if practicing yoga actually changes neuronal communication.

I turned to Pubmed and came across a nature neuroscience review titled ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’ (Tang, Hölzel and Posner, 2015), which is a good summary of the current state of the field. This review summarizes a handful of current studies, mostly focused on brain imaging. According to the review, initial studies on meditation were cross-sectional, meaning that they compared a larger group of meditators (e.g.~100 monks) to completely unrelated group of non-meditators and observed differences in their brain morphology. However, the authors make a very important point that “although these differences may constitute training-induced effects, […] it is possible that there are pre-existing differences in the brains of meditators, which might be linked to their interest in meditation, personality or temperament.” In other words, perhaps the brains of those inclined to meditate were different even before they started meditating. On the other hand, longitudinal studies that are performed at multiple time points with more directly comparable control subjects offer a better understanding of how brain morphology/function is altered through meditation.

The part of the review that surprised me most was about studies that document increase in volume and density of grey matter (the part of central nervous system that contains majority of the neuronal cell bodies) in people who mediate compared to non-meditators. One study, performed by Sarah Lazar in 2005, shows that the thickness of cortical regions related to somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing correlates with meditation experience (Lazar et al., 2005). Of note, the authors show that the mean thickness across the entire cortex is not significantly different between meditators and non-meditators, indicating that meditation affects certain areas of the brain selectively. Currently, the research in Sarah Lazar’s lab completely focuses on neuroscience of yoga and meditation. You can check out her lab page for more info:

http://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar

Also you can check-out the TEDx talk she gave about meditation and brain morphology:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxCambridge-Sara-Lazar-on-how

Certainly, there needs to be more detailed and case controlled studies on how meditating changes neuronal communication. One thing that is sure is that meditating trains people to acknowledge a thought and then let that go. After all that is all you need to persevere.

Namaste 🙂

P.S. : In case if anyone has any questions about yoga, don’t hesitate to write a comment. I would be more than happy to discuss any questions.

 

Berrak is a guest author for Science ACEs. She is a PhD student studying molecular and human genetics and she teaches yoga in her spare time.

Featured image credit: http://magazine.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=6&action=detail&ref=835

The Future is Now! Jetpacks in Real Life!

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Man flying jetpack at the 1967 Superbowl. Photo: Vic Stein/NFL/Getty Images

Jetpacks are awesome, so I’m going to write about jetpacks. Lots of us grew up thinking that someday people would be zooming about in the skies attached to small rockets. Freedom from our earthbound existence is attractive for a number of reasons, including applications for first responders, law enforcement, military, structural engineering and simply how awesome it would be. Before we strap in to infinity and beyond, we’ll talk about three things: How do jetpacks work? What are the jetpacks of today capable of? Why should we maybe not have personal jetpacks?

The physics behind jetpacks are pretty simple. These rely on the conservation of momentum or   that says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Jetpacks (a lot like rockets) will spit out fuel, water, or air in one direction sending you off in the other direction. Fuel particles are very small and light, so they have to be sent out very fast to make up for the comparatively large weight of a human. The speed of tiny particles is another way of thinking about heat (higher temperature air has faster moving molecules than lower temperature air), so the exhaust of the jetpack is likely very hot.

 

Today’s jetpacks boast some impressive numbers. Some jetpacks are capable of flying nearly 10,000 feet (3050 meters) in the air at speeds of over 100 miles per hour (160kmph) using turbojets. Unfortunately the constraints on fuel mean that it is only operable for about 10 minutes at a time. Other designs run on gasoline with an effective range of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) with 28 minutes of flight time. These options are great, but if you’re concerned about your carbon footprint and still want the weightless flight experience there are aquatic variants. These, in somewhat cartoon fashion, strap you to a pair of giant firehoses that propels you about 30 feet (10 meters) into the sky.

 

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              Jetpack demo by Apollo Energy Gum in Denver, Colorado                  Photo: Jet Pack International

A big limitation on jetpacks come from the constraints of burning fuel. Jetpacks suffer the same problems as rockets in that they have to carry their heavy fuel with them. Making the jetpack heavier means more thrust is required to move it, requiring even more fuel. Fuel is heavy making the problem worse over again. Burning all this fuel will also unfortunately impact the environment and contribute to global warming unless we implement nuclear power in some way. However, as this Guardian op-ed points out, people are likely not going to enjoy being strapped to small nuclear reactors (no matter how cool Iron Man makes it look). Speaking of Iron Man, he showed us just how dangerous it can be when something goes wrong while flying miles above the surface.

Jetpacks are out there and it might not be too long before we begin to see them doing rescue or regulatory work. If you have deep pockets you can buy your very own jetpack and fly around for a few minutes which should be just long enough to impress your friends or an Olympics opening ceremony. The rest of us earthlings must look forward to high speed rail and autonomous vehicles to get us from place to place. I hate heights, so that’s fine by me.

 

Bryan Visser (Vice-President & Editor in Cheif)
2013-12-04 14.06.58
Bryan is a 3rd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He hopes to make a career in science advocacy, science journalism or science policy. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom dancing.

WE ARE GRAD STUDENTS, HEAR US ROAR!

Written by Ben

I have a riddle for you: I was not hired, but my boss can fire me. I am in school, but do not attend class. I earn credits each term, but not grades. My job is learning and I learn by working. I’m 27 years old, but I have never been unemployed, underemployed, or fully employed, nor have I ever been a part-time student, failed a class, or changed majors. Who am I?

And more practically, do I have the right to form a labor union with those like me?

I am a graduate student. But does that make me a student or employee? This is the riddle that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) answered last week, when it issued a ruling declaring that “students who perform services at a university in connection with their studies are statutory [(legally)] employees” according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This ruling overruled a previous ruling from 2004 (Brown University), which overruled an earlier decision from 2000 (New York University), which reversed a decision from 1974 (Stanford University), which ruled that “payments to the [research assistants] are in the nature of stipends and grants to permit them to pursue their advanced degrees and are not based on the skill or function of the particular individual.” This legal back-and-forth shows that many people don’t really understand who and what graduate students are.

The essential role of a student is to learn, and the essential role of an employee is to provide a service for their employer. A PhD student does a little of both. As a PhD student in Microbiology, I take courses and read scientific literature in order to learn what’s already known. But a huge part of my role is to add value to my institution by conducting novel research and publishing my findings, and this constitutes a full-time (or more than full-time) job that is compensated accordingly.

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“Piled Higher and Deeper” #1892 by Jorge Cham

 

My direct boss, the Principal Investigator (PI) of my lab, makes her career by publishing the science that comes from her lab in scientific journals. She doesn’t have time to conduct all the experiments that go into these publications, so, like any employer, she delegates tasks and assigns projects. Her job is to keep the lab funded, contribute to the success of her department, and oversee her employees. In this way, the PI-student relationship is just like any employer-employee relationship.   

The difference is that I work at a school, and this school has different rules for students and its other employees. Employees get time off, floating holidays, retirement plans, etc. Since there is no reason for undergraduate or medical students to get these benefits, why should graduate students? The argument against allowing graduate students to unionize is that collective bargaining would disrupt the educational relationship between students and school. This makes sense if you think about a union of students bargaining for easier graduation requirements.

But that’s not what is going to happen.

Graduate students at public universities have been allowed to unionize for years without ill effects (employees at public universities are considered government employees, and thus are not covered by the NLRB). Instead, students are going to bargain like employees: insisting that their work is properly compensated, having reasonable procedures in place for lodging complaints against faculty and administrative policies, and having the NLRB able to mediate disputes between parties.

The school’s goal is to have me graduate with a PhD, which happens to entail getting work done that is good for the school. That happens to be my goal as well, which brings us to the question, why would graduate students want to unionize?

The answer to that question is the same as it would be for other groups of workers: to not be taken advantage of! One of the biggest arguments for unions is that graduate students are often treated as cheap labor and are asked to teach classes for low compensation, no time off, few if any benefits, etc. For example, schools may pay graduate students the same amount for being the head teaching fellow of a large course as they would for teaching a small section of a course. A union could demand a fair pay scale based on class size or teaching hours required (e.g. class time + recitations + office hours).

While I personally don’t feel the need to start a graduate student workers union (my school has a graduate student council that represents us to the administration), there are many graduate students out there who feel their school does not address their needs.

So who am I?

I am a human being who wants best for my fellow human beings.

Because graduate students are, first and foremost, human beings, who deserve fair treatment.

Ben 
benBen is a sixth year PhD student in Virology and Microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in Public Health after finishing his degree.

Fatigue, Fractures, and Cupping, Oh My!

Well the Olympics are over, but some athletes face lingering injuries and a long road to recovery. We sat down with Samantha Burton, an Athletic Trainer in the Orthopedic Surgery Department at Baylor College of Medicine to answer some of our burning question about injuries and injury recovery.

  1. Which Olympic athletes are most prone to injury? Least prone to injury? Should parents worry about starting their future Olympians in certain sports?

Here is a great chart that illustrates the rate of injuries in Olympic sports:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/leg-head-injuries-frequent-at-olympics/

With any youth sports, moderation and being a well-rounded athlete is critical.  For example, it is common to specialize in gymnastics starting as early as age 8 or 9 which is a huge indicator for injury.  Several sports medicine professionals have complimented the training of Simone Biles- she is obviously very strong and does a lot of cross training.  She also practices her actual routines much less than what you would traditionally see in elite gymnastics.  This has limited her injury occurrence quite a bit.  

What’s the safest thing that parents should do?  Make sure your child is a multi-sport athlete or at least takes a significant break (1-3 months) from their preferred sport.  Let them be a kid- climbing trees, playing tag, and rollerblading are all great ways to cross train!

  1. Most Olympic athletes compete in multiple events stretched out over weeks. How does muscle fatigue affect performance and injury risk? How can athletes avoid these pitfalls?

Muscle fatigue is an obvious concern for those participating in multiple events, but these are also some of the most well-prepared athletes in their ability to recover.  Recovery is multi-factorial: physical rest, diet, muscle work, sleep, and understanding how to recover from their sport.  Recovering from a contact sport can take an entirely different approach than recovering from a marathon.  Athletes at this level are equipped with athletic trainers, physicians, biomechanists, sports psychologists, dieticians, and other professionals to ensure that the proper path is taken.  Also, athletes at this level are very in tune with their bodies and have often developed a recovery process as well as a better understanding of their physical limitations.

One of the biggest issues we see as non-elite athletes recover is the tendency to participate in an event (a race or game) and spend the next two days lying on the couch, eating whatever they feel like.  Ideally, athletes should keep their bodies moving in some way- an easy bicycle ride, light stretching, and a healthy diet filled with protein, .  This will help recovery far more than your muscle being inactive for multiple days.

  1. Older athletes are crushing it this year! What sort of injury risks is, say Michael Phelps facing in these Games that he may not have had to worry about in Athens during the 2004 Games?

Phelps almost looked like he wasn’t human during these games.  I think the biggest thing that we, as viewers, saw was that he was recovering more slowly towards the end of the Games.  That fatigue, as discussed earlier, can definitely increase the injury risk, but it was well managed by the medical staff in Phelps’ case.  In sports like swimming and running (Bernard Lagat was outstanding at 41!) there isn’t as high a level of age-associated risk for acute injury as there is in gymnastics or another contact sport.  We saw that 40-year-old Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan did an outstanding job; however she appeared to lack the shear leg strength of the young gymnasts, especially after landing on high-impact apparatuses like the vault.  Chusovitina talked about how she had to modify her training to limit the impact on her knees, which could have led to a catastrophic injury in competition as she applied a force to her body that she wasn’t used to.

  1. What about teen athletes that are still growing and developing? Do they face different risks than a fully grown adult?

One thing we are noticing in orthopedics is that pediatric patients are experiencing adult injuries at a higher rate than we have ever seen before.  This is concerning because having an ACL reconstructed on a 9 year old child will increase their risk of arthritis and anterior knee pain in the future.  Starting the cycle of acute and overuse injuries in this younger population can make it tough to manage recreational sports as an adult.  Besides the risk of adult injuries, we know that concussions can have much more serious implications in pediatric and teen patients.  The return to sport timeline must be carefully considered for these athletes, as well as the return-to-learn and classroom management. Multiple concussions in a young athlete in a short period of time should be looked at by parents and healthcare professionals as a red flag for continued participation in high-risk sports.  Another injury that can change based on the age of the patient is fractures.  If the athlete is still growing and sustains a growth plate fracture, they are more likely to need surgery to recover.

  1. Some Olympians are competing just months removed from major surgery. How do they recover so fast? How has new technology and recovery techniques helped the recovery process?

The comeback following surgery has been quite amazing.  Surgical techniques are always being perfected and these athletes are usually available to work with a physical therapist to rehab for many more hours per day than a normal athlete.  The individualized treatment plan for these athletes is a huge factor in how they can recover with access to new techniques that are still being researched such as platelet rich plasma injections and the use of stem cells.

  1. What’s the deal with cupping? Is there any evidence that it works? Would your clinic ever recommend it or other pseudo-science recovery methods (i.e. acupuncture, chiropractic massage)?
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Michael Phelps shows off his cupping bruises before celebrating a relay win. (Daily Mail)

 

Cupping is a hot topic; however there hasn’t been much research to back it up.  I would not typically recommend it to a patient because, unlike most manual therapy techniques, there is no professional certification and training required.  Being unsure about the formal training of the clinician in such an invasive procedure would lead me to recommend other modalities.  The jury is still out on alternative recovery methods, and each clinician and physician has their own comfort level on what they would recommend.  I don’t know that I can make a blanket statement about recommending certain types of treatment, for me it is more important that I know the practitioner’s background and training.  I’ve seen some of these modalities, like acupuncture, work magnificently when performed by some clinicians but fail with others.  Big picture?  Find a doctor that you trust for advice and always question someone’s background and training before you agree to alternative treatments.

  1. Walk us through some of the high-profile/gross/cool injuries that have occurred at these Games so far. What exactly happened? What’s the recovery time? Will they compete again?

Samir Ait Said– Samir had a tibia and fibula fracture coming off the vault, which was reminiscent of Kevin Ware and the Louisville Cardinals.  The frustrating thing for Samir is that he missed the 2012 Olympics with a fracture in his right leg coming off the vault as well.  So why do some landings cause a grotesque fracture, but most people land normally and walk away?  We may never know exactly.  If this were my athlete, I would ask questions like- do they have a normal bone density?  Do they have proper strength for their event?  Are they overtraining and progressively weakening the bone? What is their nutrition like?  What were the biomechanics that led to each of their injuries?  There are so many questions we don’t have the answer to that I’m sure his coaches and medical team are actively striving to find.  Recovery time is variable depending on what exactly they found in surgery.  One clean break will often be quicker than multiple fracture sites.  Also, without knowing how the surrounding muscles were affected, it’s hard to say exactly.  Unfortunately, it is hard to predict the likelihood of Samir coming back at this time.  The success of the surgery and his commitment to rehabilitation will play a significant role in his ability to return to a high impact sport like gymnastics.

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Samir Ait Said, French gymnast suffers gruesome leg fracture off the vault. (The Sun)

 

Andranik Karapetyan– Andranik suffered an elbow dislocation while weight lifting, which can be a very painful injury.  Not much was released following the injury, so it is hard to say what exactly could have happened to him. There are 3 types of dislocations:

A simple dislocation does not have any major bone injury.

A complex dislocation can have severe bone and ligament injuries.

In the most severe dislocations, the blood vessels and nerves that travel across the elbow may be injured. If this happens, there is a risk of losing the arm.

Some people are born with greater laxity or looseness in their ligaments. These people are at greater risk for dislocating their elbows. Some people are born with an ulna bone that has a shallow groove for the elbow hinge joint. They have a slightly higher risk for dislocation.

Depending on what additional imaging and exam found, the type of dislocation can drastically impact the recovery and return to sport.

Image 3

Armenian weightlifter, Andranik Karapetyan dislocates his elbow during a lift. (Joe.co.uk)

Annemiek Van Vleuten– For those who missed the Van Vleuten cycling crash, it was one of the most horrific I have seen in any sport.  We know she had 3 fractured vertebrae and a concussion, so it looks like she will be okay long-term.  Any back injury, however, can be chronic if not managed appropriately.

  1. One that probably won’t make it into the final cut, but how is Ellie Downie not dead?
Image 1

Ellie Downie of the Great Britain Gymnastics team lands awkwardly on her neck. (NBC)

Ellie Downie suffered a cringe-worthy fall on her head and neck.  I know I wasn’t alone in wondering how she walked away from that injury (that mechanism of injury and the angle she fell is one of the most dangerous), but HOW DID SHE COME BACK? If there is anything I learned from working college football, it’s that not every injury is how it appears to the viewers.  Some of the craziest hits and falls can leave the athlete with minimal to no symptoms, while some of the most minor touches can cause a season-ending injury.  Sometimes I have to temper my desire to “couch diagnose” these athletes- they are in VERY capable hands! 

Samantha Burton, MS, ATC, LAT
Samantha received her B.S. in Athletic Training and M.S. in Exercise Science from
Brigham Young University where she worked for the BYU Football team and the BYU
Track and Cross Country team.  She is currently working at Baylor College of 
Medicine to develop the Sports Medicine Outreach program and bring medical care 
and education to athletes of all ages and skill levels. She is trained in manual 
therapy, Graston technique, Functional Movement Screen, Titelist Performance 
Institute Certified,concussion testing, and is a Red Cross first aid + CPR 
instructor.  She is married to a medical school bound scientist, has 1.5 kids 
(both boys), and spends 100% of her free time traveling and dreaming of being 
independently wealthy.
Anthony Barrasso (President)
AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarAnthony is a 4rd year graduate student studying retinal development. 
His career interests include cancer research, education, and politics.
Outside of lab, he likes playing with his dog and eating delicious
food. Follow him on twitter @barrasso67

 

Where SHOULD your Olympic sports take place?

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Despite so much trepidation heading into the Rio Olympics  the most infamous scandal was fabricated by Ryan Lochte, a fraternity party that fell into a pool. What happened to all the gastrointestinal fireworks we were promised? I was expecting browned pools and vomit-filled sprints, but all I got was amazing competition and record-breaking performances. Thanks for nothing, Rio! While all the concern may have been for naught, the location of the games can actually impact the sports themselves. Where should the Olympics be hosted if we want to break more records? I’m talking about a location where circumstance and nature combine to create an environment that favors the athlete. Where, scientifically, should individual Olympic games be held?

Running: Don’t be afraid to get sand in your shoes.

We’re starting off with the most well known example. Marathons and any extended running event should occur at sea level. Many of you are aware that professional runners often train at high altitudes, but do you know why? Take a look at this diagram from national geographic.

You’ll notice that oxygen is at a lower concentration at higher elevations and vice versa. This is because the Earth’s atmosphere presses down on everything under it, including oxygen. Thus, oxygen at lower elevations is concentrated by the atmosphere above it. Runners train in high altitude, low oxygen environments so that their bodies start manufacturing more red blood cells, which contain the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin protein. More red blood cells means more hemoglobin, and a better ability to transfer oxygen to your muscles when you need it most. When runners compete at sea level their bodies are still producing hemoglobin as if they were at high altitude, boosting the benefit they receive from the high-oxygen environment.

Swimming: Get your float on at the Dead Sea.

Catch people dipping into the Dead Sea and they’ll probably look like this:

That’s not an optical illusion. You’re more buoyant in the Dead Sea because of its high salinity, or salt content. The more salt there is dissolved in water, the denser it becomes and the less water you displace as a result. You can easily demonstrate this principle at home by floating eggs. How does this help swimmers? The higher the salinity, the more buoyant they are and the less drag they create cutting through the water, creating faster swim times. Hold Olympic swim meets in the Dead Sea, and watch the records fall.

Weightlifting: Lighten your load by getting lightheaded.

This Olympics, Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia set a new world record by lifting 473 kilograms, or 1,043 pounds! However, this record was heavier than it needed to be, because it occurred around sea level. Newton’s law of universal gravitation reveals that the force of gravity on objects is inversely proportional to the distance between them. In other words, the farther apart any two masses are, the weaker the force of gravity attracting them. For Talakhadze, the farther those 473 kg are from the center of the Earth, the lighter they will be. Because Earth has an equatorial bulge, a weightlifter wants to be on the highest mountain closest to the equator (think Mt. Kilimanjaro). Here, the force of those 473 kg is about 18 Newtons (or 4 pounds) less than at sea level because the gravitational acceleration, the rate at which objects fall to Earth, is not 9.8 m/s2 but more like 9.76 m/s2. Those 4 pounds may not seem like much, but it more than makes up the difference between the previous record of 472 kg.

Equestrian Sports – Northern Europe, 10,000 B.C.

We’ve exhausted the simple, straightforward methods to boost athletic performance. Let’s start getting creative and travel back in time. Imagine all the beauty and splendor of jumping and dressage; but instead of horses, the athletes are riding these majestic beasts:

That’s Megalocerus giganteus, or the extinct Irish Elk. Actually a kind of deer, these megafauna roamed Eurasia during the Pleistocene epoch. Riding Irish Elk to Olympic glory would smash current records and turn every competitor into a gallivanting version of Thranduil from The Hobbit. There are even people spearheading de-extinction efforts to bring them back. Of course at that point the athletes are no longer equestrians, but rather megalocerians!

AustenPic5

The Hobbit, Warner Bros. Pictures      

Sailing – Miami, FL in the year 2100

In the object of balance, let’s take a trip to the future to round out our ideal Olympic venues. Depending on humanity’s response to global warming, rising seas could threaten the billions of shoreline denizens through flooding alone! Check out these interactive maps to determine just how close to disaster your favorite coastline is. Of particular curiosity, the southern tip of Florida will be wiped clear off the map if carbon emissions remain unchecked.

But when man’s hubris drowns you in lemons, make Olympic lemonade! We could easily turn downtown Miami into a sailing course for future Olympians. Picture the excitement of navigating a dystopian floodscape!  At the very least, sailing will become less Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and more Kurt Russel in Escape from L.A.

AustenPic7

Escape From LA, Paramount Pictures

Austen
austen_avatarAusten is a 6th year graduate student and member of Science ACEs. His dream is to go fishing every day once he’s finished with this bacterial pathogenesis thing. You can follow him on twitter @austenleet.

So you’d like to evade doping charges

By Jessica Scott

Congratulations! After much contemplation and vicarious living through the athletes on TV, you’ve decided to try out for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Because your only recent feat of athleticism was when you hung up a shirt really fast while pretending to be part of the Olympic Laundry Folding Team, you have a lot of catching up to do. However, you’re not sure how committed you’ll really be to the training schedule of an Olympic athlete. Not to worry! The age-old tradition of doping can turn you into an athlete without all that time and energy.*

There is one tiny hiccup in this plan, which is that athletes at professional competitions are subject to random drug screening. At the Olympics, for instance, you may be tested at any time, and you must provide a schedule of your whereabouts at any given moment so they always know where to find you for such tests. Compounding this difficulty, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) makes it their business to figure out what drugs the cool kids are taking and tests for all of them – stimulants, hormones, steroids, glucocorticoids, you name it. WADA accredited labs must be able to perform a wide range of analytic tests on blood, urine, or saliva samples. Does this present a problem to you as an aspiring but lazy athlete?

lance armstrong

Does Lance Armstrong feel guilty for cheating his way to the top?

Of course not! Just follow this handy-dandy guide to avoiding doping charges.  

  1.       Get into the chem lab. They can’t catch you if you use a compound they’re not testing for yet. One time-honored tradition among unscrupulous athletes and coaches is to find and use steroids that aren’t on the testing panel yet. Steroids work by activating Androgen Receptor (AR), and it turns out AR isn’t picky – there are hundreds of different kinds of steroids and AR will respond to a pretty good portion of ‘em. Do be aware that WADA may soon be able to foil cheaters like you. A new steroid detection method simply tests whether or not AR has been activated, meaning WADA doesn’t have to try to figure out which steroids are hip on the streets; one test could cover a multitude of drugs.
  1.       Don’t do drugs – inject yourself with your own blood. Instead of using traditional drugs, like steroids, many athletes are “blood doping.” The old-fashioned way to do this is to remove one’s own blood only to re-transfuse it in time for competition. The more elegant method (and Lance Armstrong’s preferred cheating tactic) is to take erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that increases red blood cell production in the body. Unfortunately, this method can be hit-or-miss for the aspiring doper. Although EPO is only detectable for a few days in the bloodstream and eliminates the need to smuggle bags of blood into the Olympics, WADA is beginning to implement Athlete Biological Passports. Among other things, biological passports would establish a normal red blood cell count for an individual athlete, and an unusually high red blood cell count might raise a red flag (haha). If you do use this method, we here at Science ACEs** recommend using leeches to remove large portions of your blood right after you compete just in case you get called for testing. 
leeches

What’s that? Leeches gross you out? No excuses, dope like a champion!

  1.       Try microdosing. Microdosing is all the rage among top athletes. Basically, athletes will use drugs in small enough doses that they don’t hit the threshold for a positive test. Perhaps you already play the same game with alcohol and DUIs (you’ll have to stop that; Olympic athletes tend not to have beer bellies). Obviously, you’ll want to microdose with hormones or steroids that are already present in the human body – testosterone is a particularly popular one. This way, the WADA won’t be sure if you’re actually doping or just naturally producing close to the legal threshold for performance enhancing drugs, which brings me to…
  1.       Get a genetic test. Okay, this one requires a little explanation. When labs test for testosterone, they’re really measuring the ratio between two chemicals: testosterone glucuronide (TG) and epitestosterone glucuronide (EG). TG is a byproduct of testosterone, and EG is a byproduct of epitestosterone, testosterone’s inactive cousin. Normally, the TG to EG, or T/E, ratio in the human body is somewhere around 1:1. Athletes who inject testosterone will end up with a higher-than-normal T/E ratio. However, certain people are genetically predisposed to have a lower ratio in the first place. A gene called UGT2B17 controls testosterone metabolism. Depending on your parents, you may have one, two, or zero working copies of this gene. If you have zero working copies, your body can have high levels of testosterone without the resulting high levels of TG. If you have two working copies, your body will have a naturally high T/E ratio. The WADA sets a ratio of 4:1 as the threshold to accommodate for these scenarios.

Naturally, this list is just a starting point for evading detection as you bend the definitions of “sportsmanship” and “integrity.” As you get further into the world of athletics, you may come across more straightforward but less interesting methods such as hiding fake urine on your person, bribery, and threatening whistleblowers.

And if you decide to go completely drug-free and compete on your own merit, you might need to worry about drug testing anyway. Due to natural variations in the human body, no drug test can completely eliminate false positives. If you take certain prescriptions, make sure you carry a doctor’s note. Remember how you can get lucky with two nonfunctional copies of UGT2B17? Well, you can also get unlucky with two working copies. Up to 5% of people may have natural T/E ratios that exceed the 4:1 threshold that the WADA considers positive for doping. Due to the poor regulation of nutritional supplements, it’s even possible to unintentionally take performance-enhancing drugs! Long story short, guys, keep yourselves educated about drug testing procedures. It’s all that stands between you and Olympic glory.

*I assume that is how this works.

**Science ACEs does not endorse the use of leeches. Or drugs. This is just me.

Jessica Scott (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fifth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

Why the Weird Bruises on Michael Phelps Reminded Me of Summer Camp

When people think of summer camp, they do not normally think of science. Surprisingly, I learned a lot of science in the boy’s dorm rooms of my high school summer camp.  I mostly learned about the flammability of health care products. Our amateur experiments included the science behind an “Atomic Hickey”. To form an Atomic Hickey, a person would first rub toothpaste along a spot of their body. Then someone else would spray a small glass jar full of aerosol deodorant. The spray would then be ignited, and the jar would quickly be placed onto the toothpaste-covered spot (the toothpaste protecting from any residual heat). If done properly, the oxygen inside the jar would be completely consumed by the flames, creating a vacuum as the jar was firmly placed against skin. Removing the jar a few minutes later would leave the person with a discolored circle on their body. I never did one, but I do remember going to the beach the next day and watching some guys try to explain why their bodies were covered in circular bruises.

Fast-forward several years to this summer, and I was highly intrigued by all of the weird, circular marks on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. I mean each one looked like an Atomic Hickey, but I doubted that was what they were doing in the Olympic Village.

(Copyright NBC Sports)

It turns out that I was half right. The bruises were the result of a massage technique known as cupping or myofascial decompression (MFD), a Chinese technique dating from 281 AD. Cupping uses negative pressure to increase blood flow to targeted spots of the body as a treatment for stiffness, muscle pain, skin grafts, and other conditions. However, the suction can burst small blood vessels, leaving the bruise marks.

Now that Michael Phelps, an Olympian who literally breaks records shrouded in legend, has been shown to use cupping the popularity of the technique will likely increase. But even with increased attention, the big question remains; does the technique actually work, or is it the placebo effect? The placebo effect is where belief in the treatment heals the patient. You may recognize the term from stories of someone getting a placebo instead of a drug during a drug trial where the placebo is a sugar pill. The person who took the sugar pill may feel better just because they think they received the actual treatment. This allows scientists to test if a drug actually works.

To return to cupping therapy, there have been few large scale scientific studies to prove that cupping therapy produces the desired treatment outcomes it is purported to do. There is some evidence that the claimed treatment outcomes are the result of the placebo effect, but also some evidence that cupping does in fact help relieve pain. This means that the benefits of cupping are not currently well characterized, and although it is still classified as “alternative medicine” at this time, it could mean that cupping may eventually prove to be a viable treatment. Scientific study has both supported and rejected many treatments that would be considered “alternative medicine” . Hopefully, this Olympics exposure will support more scientific study of cupping therapy on a large scale, or at least provide a good excuse for kids goofing around at summer camp to continue the tradition of the Atomic Hickey.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com

Engineering a Faster Olympic Swimmer

The Olympics are often thought of as competitions of human strength and skill. However, the world of swimming has changed drastically in the last decade thanks to engineers and researchers working on something often overlooked in swimming competitions: the swimsuit. Swimsuits of today do more than protect the modesty of the swimmer. The materials used are designed to reduce drag and increase buoyancy while also improving the muscle power of the athletes. Pretty soon, using these swimsuits, athletes began smashing previous world records.

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Four swimming events. (A) Men 200 m Breast. (B) Men 50 m Freestyle (C) Women 100 m Back (D) Women 1500 m Freestyle. Red lines mark the introduction of full-body polyurethane suits. Adapted from Berthalot et al. Materials Today 2010

To better understand how these swimsuits could lead to a sudden burst in performance, we’ll look at the physics of swimming. As you swim there are four forces acting on your body. First is gravity. Like always gravity is trying to bring you down. Second is the buoyant force. Being in the water displaces some amount of water molecules. If the swimmer weighs more than the water the swimmer displaces, they sink. This is why dense objects sink and light objects float. Third is thrust, the force from the swimmer pushing against the water with their hands, arms and feet. The last force is drag. This is the force of the water resisting your motion.

Swimmer1

Free body diagram showing swimmer in one-piece swimsuit (gray) and the four forces acting on them. Arrows are drawn to show how much they affect the swimmer

The type of swimsuit can change how much of a role the different forces play. A full-body polyurethane suit like the ones worn in 2008 allowed water to slide off the suit instead of allowing it to pass through. This reduced the drag the swimmer experienced allowing them to swim faster. Adding to that, air pockets in the suit increase the buoyant force keeping the swimmer closer to the surface. Being on top of the water instead of farther down further reduces the drag on the swimmer.

Swimmer2

Free body diagrams showing how the swimsuit worn (gray) changes how the swimmer (blue) experiences the same four forces. Reduced drag and increased buoyancy allowed swimmers to swim faster than ever.

Swimming with less drag has allowed the swimmers to swim faster and smash previous world records. The technology in the suits led the International Swimming Federation (FINA) to ban suits made out of rubber-like materials such as neoprene and polyurethane. Current restrictions on suit design include limits on how much of the body the suit can cover, what material it can be made of, how thick the suit is, and prohibits “outstanding shapes or structures, such as scales.”

With these constraints, major suit manufacturers such as Speedo and Arena Water Instinct are looking for new ways to improve athlete performance. Team USA (except for Michael Phelps who has launched his own line of competitive swimwear) is swimming in the Speedo Fastskin LZR Racer X. These suits use compression and carbon fibers to enhance muscle activity and connect muscle groups to increase performance from these athletes. The swimmers keep getting better and better with new world records set all the time. It won’t be too long before they overtake the records set in those full body suits.

Bryan Visser
2013-12-04 14.06.58Bryan is a 3rd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He plans 
on making a career for science advocacy working at a museum or in 
Washington, DC. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom 
dancing.