Worldwide Study Highlights Blatant Gender Gap in Academia

It’s really easy to get caught up in a few anecdotes that make a lot of logical sense and believe that it describes the truth in the world around us. The government might tout some cases where struggling people can now afford health care, but that doesn’t make Obamacare a success. Just like Rush Limbaugh may tell the story of one of the few Americans who had to give up their shitty insurance because it didn’t meet basic criteria that everyone should be covered for, but that doesn’t mean Obamacare is a disaster. What you really need are statistics.

Similarly, I keep getting barraged with how big of a problem it is that women aren’t entering the STEM fields. Gender equality in the sciences are always said to lean heavily toward male domination. And even for the few that do make it through an undergraduate education, people always talk about how hard it is for women to progress in their careers because of gender biases, hostile work environments, expectations to raise families, etc. But where are the actual facts?

Well, here’s a few.

According to a recent study from Indiana University, there’s a gigantic gender gap when it comes to the number of women appearing in places of power regarding authorship of scientific papers. What’s more, those that do get their names attached to studies get cited a whole lot less than their male counterparts.

The study analyzed 5.5 million research papers constituting 27.3 million authorships from across the globe. By looking at the U.S. Social Security database and international records, they were able to sort each name by gender, country, discipline and U.S. state. And the results are pretty telling.

On the whole, females are underrepresented at a rate of 30 percent to 70 percent, and have half the incidence of first authorship than men. Also, their papers are cited at a much lower rate, which is a big problem because citations are a major indicator of the strength of one’s work and plays a part in hiring, advancement and tenure. Finally, women tended to lack a presence in international collaborations – yet another biggie when it comes time to review one’s work.

It comes as no shock and surprise that the most patriarchal societies show the worst gap – Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran – although the United States isn’t as good as it should be. Leading the way for gender equality in countries with high scientific output include places like Italy, Spain and France, but they weren’t even the highest.

Interestingly, countries and states that had a much lower scientific output in general typically also had a more equitable balance between the genders. Places with the greatest parity include Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, Macedonia, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.

If I had to guess, I’d say that this was also a big indicator of the continuing gap. The cream of the crop, I would imagine, would tend to flock to the major players pumping out the most papers and garnering the highest prestige – none of which are in Vermont. And if men have the advantage that the statistics indicate, I’d expect them to lean toward those prestigious institutions.

So now comes the point where I speculate as to the why.

In my humble opinion, we’re still seeing the results of a different society from 40 years ago. There were undoubtedly less opportunities and a greater social burden on women in the sciences back then than today. The result is a lot more men in positions of power – deans, chairs, heads of laboratories, research provosts, etc. – which means they get published and cited more. It also means they are more likely to still have their ego in the past and have gender biases of their own.

“Seniority, authorship position, collaboration and citation are highly interlinked variables, and the senior ranks of science bear the imprint of previous generations’ barriers to the progression of women,” said Cassidy Sugimoto, assistant professor of information science at Indiana University.

If I were a betting man, I would guess that as that generation retires, and as the women growing up under the women in science initiatives that have been in place for the past decade, those attitudes will begin to shift, as will the gender discrepancy. I would bet that our efforts at fixing this blatant problem will begin to show some real traction in the next 40 years.

Then again, maybe I’m just naïve.

There’s a really cool interactive map that you can check out. And if you’re like me and want to see some of the data, look at this chart.

The study, “Global gender disparities in science,” was published in Nature by Sugimoto, along with Blaise Cronin, the Rudy Professor of Information Science at Indiana, University of Montreal assistant professor Vincent Larivière, University of Quebec at Montreal professor Yves Gingras, and Indiana doctoral candidate Chaoqun Ni.

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Acoustic Cloaking Device Hides Objects from Sound

Bogdan Popa, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, shows off the 3D acoustic cloak he helped design and build as a member of Steven Cummer’s laboratory.

Bogdan Popa, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering, shows off the 3D acoustic cloak he helped design and build as a member of Steven Cummer’s laboratory.

Using little more than a few perforated sheets of plastic and a staggering amount of ingenious number crunching, Duke engineers have demonstrated the world’s first three-dimensional acoustic cloak. The new device reroutes sound waves to give the effect that both it and anything beneath it are not there.

The acoustic cloaking device works in all three dimensions, no matter which direction the sound is coming from or where the observer is located, and holds potential for future applications such as sonar avoidance and architectural acoustics.

The study was published online on March 9, 2014, in Nature Materials.

“The particular trick we’re performing is hiding an object from sound waves,” said Steven Cummer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University. “By placing this cloak around an object, the sound waves behave like there is nothing more than a flat surface in their path.”

To achieve this new trick, Cummer and his colleagues turned to the developing field of metamaterials—the combination of natural materials in repeating patterns to achieve unnatural properties. In the case of the new acoustic cloak, the materials manipulating the behavior of sound waves are simply plastic and air. Once constructed, the device looks like several plastic plates with a repeating pattern of holes poked through them stacked on top of one another to form a sort of pyramid.

To give the illusion that it isn’t there, the cloak must alter the waves’ trajectory to match what they would look like had they had reflected off of a flat surface. And because the sound is not reaching the surface beneath, it is traveling a shorter distance and its speed must be slowed to compensate.

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“The structure that we built might look really simple,” said Cummer. “But I promise you that it’s a lot more difficult and interesting than it looks. We put a lot of energy into calculating how sound waves would interact with it. We didn’t come up with this overnight.”

To test the cloaking device, researchers covered a small sphere with the cloak and “pinged” it with short bursts of sound from various angles. Using a microphone, they mapped how the waves responded and produced videos of them traveling through the air.

Cummer and his team then compared the videos to those created with both an unobstructed flat surface and an uncloaked sphere blocking the way. The results clearly show that the cloaking device makes it appear as though the sound waves reflected off an empty surface.

Although the experiment is a simple demonstration showing that the technology is possible and concealing an evil super-genius’s underwater lair is a long ways away, Cummer believes that the technique has several potential commercial applications.

“We conducted our tests in the air, but sound waves behave similarly underwater, so one obvious potential use is sonar avoidance,” said Cummer. “But there’s also the design of auditoriums or concert halls—any space where you need to control the acoustics. If you had to put a beam somewhere for structural reasons that was going to mess up the sound, perhaps you could fix the acoustics by cloaking it.”

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Changing Your Body’s Biochemistry by Thought Alone

meditation-6The first time I ever tried yoga, I was genuinely surprised at how good I felt afterward. It was a feeling of calmness and self-centeredness that I don’t come across on a regular basis, if at all. And it’s not just me. There’s a range of scientific studies that have catalogued the numerous mental and physical benefits that accompany the practice.

Now, I’ve never really been instructed in the workings of meditation, but I’d have to assume that the effects feel much the same. And just like yoga, science has shown there can be both mental and physical benefits to those who understand how to practice it.

But how’s it work?

For the first time, researchers have discovered at least a couple of the biological mechanisms that appear to underpin the documented health benefits. In a study from the University of Wisconsin, along with international collaborators from Spain and France, it is shown that a period of mindful meditation by experienced individuals can change the way your body functions on a molecular level.

Everyone knows that DNA is the instruction booklet for how to build a human. Biological molecular mechanisms are hard at work every microsecond of every day building proteins and other blocks to put together our remarkable bodies.

But DNA certainly can’t act alone. To get those instructions from the blueprints out to the workers assembling the structures, nature relies on messenger RNA, which transcribes the orders and takes them out into the factories. These strands of RNA don’t always act the same, however. Based on circumstances ranging from environment to illness to plain mistakes, some pieces of DNA get covered up or turned off. Or sometimes RNA transcribes the orders in a slightly different fashion. It’s a delicate circus act that is changing moment to moment.

And meditation, according to the study, can affect the way our DNA’s orders are read and carried out.

In the study, researchers had a group of experienced meditators do their thing for the better part of an afternoon. At the same time, they had a group of inexperienced meditators conduct quiet activities that, while relaxing, certainly weren’t meditation. After the sessions, they took blood samples to determine if there were any differences between the two groups.

The meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.

I find all of this fascinating. Even though we on an individual basis have no real appreciation for or control over the basic molecular workings of our bodies, we can still alter and affect ourselves on the most basic of levels by doing nothing more than thinking.

Now that’s cool.

The study, “Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators,” was published in Science Direct by Richard Davidson, Antoine Lutz, and Melissa Rosenkranz of the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior along with Colleagues in Spain.

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Tuning NASA’s Newest Weather Satellite to Improve Forecasts

Duke engineers have spent five years building the weather data collection infrastructure that will be used to help calibrate NASA’s new weather observation satellite. Here, a tipping bucket rain gauge that collects rainfall observations stands in the Pigeon River Basin.

Duke engineers have spent five years building the weather data collection infrastructure that will be used to help calibrate NASA’s new weather observation satellite. Here, a tipping bucket rain gauge that collects rainfall observations stands in the Pigeon River Basin.

The city of Atlanta was paralyzed earlier this year when a rare snowstorm turned its roads into something akin to the luge course in Sochi. Many fingers were pointed assigning blame for the resulting traffic catastrophe, including at least one aimed at imprecise weather predictions.

“The governor of Georgia said that they thought the heavier snowfall was going to be south of the city,” said Ana Barros, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in those predictions because we don’t really understand the fine details of complex storm systems. We don’t know how to model these processes at high spatial resolutions.”

This summer, Barros and her colleagues will conduct the first field mission with a new satellite system intended to fill in those knowledge gaps. On Feb. 27, NASA and JAXA—Japan’s national space agency—will launch the core satellite for their new Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission.

GPM is an international satellite mission designed to provide more detailed measurements of rain and snow over a wider range of the globe than previously possible. Not only will the satellite have more precise instrumentation than its predecessors; its orbit will allow researchers to study rainfall at higher latitudes at higher spatial and temporal resolutions. The data it collects will help unify measurements made by partner satellites and add to science’s understanding of how weather works.

Before meteorologists can start plugging the new data in to their weather models, however, researchers have to make sure they can accurately interpret the GPM measurements. The upcoming field mission, based in the mountains of western North Carolina and led by Duke engineers, will help achieve this by comparing satellite readings with those taken simultaneously from multiple aircraft and ground sensors. Besides calibrating the new satellite, the campaign will help improve how precipitation processes are represented in forecast calculations. It will also provide data and inform models used to address critical water management issues in mountainous regions.

A Micro-Rain Radar observes the vertical profile of the atmosphere above and a weather station makes observations of surface meteorological variables in Madison County.

A Micro-Rain Radar observes the vertical profile of the atmosphere above and a weather station makes observations of surface meteorological variables in Madison County.

“The campaign that we are running will obtain very high-resolution data of precipitation and the microphysics of storm systems in mountainous regions,” said Barros. “The end goal is to improve weather predictions and climate models.”

Between May 1 and June 15, measurements will be taken on the ground as well as by two aircraft flying at different altitudes and by the newly launched GPM satellite. The data collected will help calibrate the new satellite’s sensors for the rest of its long-term mission to study complex weather phenomena.

The campaign will also be the first of its kind in mountainous regions that, according to Barros, are home to complex rain patterns that are one of the biggest challenges in remote sensing.

After the initial field campaign ends on June 15, the two participating aircraft will move on to other missions, but Barros and her team will continue taking data from the new satellite and the extensive ground sensor network they have built until the effective end of the hurricane season.

“When we first started in 2007, there were only two rain gauges reliable for these kinds of studies above 3,200 feet in the whole eastern United States,” said Barros. “Now, for this experiment, we have more than 100. It’s taken a long time to get here, but we’ve had a lot of help along the way.

“We’ve been working with a handful of non-governmental organizations along with water authorities, planning commissions and literally dozens of independent entities, including the Haywood Community College, the Haywood Electric Membership Cooperation, Wilson College, UNC-Asheville, Maggie Valley Water District, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, ABTech, and even local landowners and landmarks, like Joey’s Pancake House, who have been very supportive of our field work.”

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MRSA Uses Autoimmune Defense as a NET Gain

If you’re a human being and old enough to be reading and understanding this blog—which I wholeheartedly hope is every single one of you, or else my logical reasoning skills are completely failing me—you’ve probably been host to Staphylococcus aureus. It’s one of the most common and successful bacteria on the planet, often causing boils or rashes on human skin, and sometimes picking up antibiotic resistance genes and killing patients in the form of MRSA.

In fact, statistically speaking, one out of every five of you have S. aureus on your person right this moment. Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes these bacteria so difficult for the human immune system to handle, and those efforts have shown some modest fruits in the past few years. But a new study from the University of Chicago identifies one strategy for bacterial survival that is especially cool.

Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that ensnares invaders in neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs), a web-like structure of DNA and proteins. As one of the first lines of defense in the human immune response, they’re responsible for ensnaring troublesome bacteria that are then destroyed by amoeba-like white blood cells known as macrophages.

While neutrophils seem to have no problem netting themselves plenty of S. aureus when they begin their invasion, the battlefield is completely devoid of the all-important big-gun macrophages to finish them off. Somehow, the foreigners are defending themselves from the firing squad.

Researchers set to work to figure out how this happens by making a wide range of genetic modifications one-by-one to strains of S. aureus to discover which are important for their immune system avoidance. After narrowing it down to two genes that, when turned off, allow macrophages to thrive and do their job, the scientists set out to figure out what the hell the genes actually do.

As it turns out, the genes allow the bacteria to turn the netting against their own users. They discovered that S. aureus were converting NETs into 2’-deoxyadenosine (dAdo), a molecule that is toxic to macrophages. This effectively turned NETs into a weapon against the immune system.

“Sooner or later almost every human gets some form of S. aureus infection. Our work describes for the first time the mechanism that these bacteria use to exclude macrophages from infected sites,” said Olaf Schneewind, professor and chair of microbiology and senior author of the paper. “Coupled with previously known mechanisms that suppress the adaptive immune response, the success of these organisms is almost guaranteed.”

While the discovery is cool and all, don’t expect it to lead to the sudden development of new ways to fight the common bacteria. Both genes and the dAdo molecule are closely related to important human physiological mechanisms, and Schneewind believes targeting these in bacteria, without harming human function, could be difficult.

“In theory you could build inhibitors of these bacterial enzymes or remove them,” Schneewind said. “But these are untested waters and the pursuit of such a goal requires a lot more study.”

The study, “Staphylococcus aureus Degrades Neutrophil Extracellular Traps to Promote Immune Cell Death,” was published by Schneewind along with his University of Chicago colleagues Vilasack Thammavongsa and Dominique M. Missiakas.

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Shocking News: People Who Suck at Math Don’t Understand Health Messaging Based on Statistics

Rottenecards_964790_4m6kqmp683And in other news, a study from Penn State University has led to the remarkable insight that stupid people don’t understand simple messaging based on numbers. Whoda thunk?

Researchers rounded up 323 college students and asked them about their math skills, their confidence in their math skills, and tried to figure out whether or not demands to perform mathematics gave them anxiety. This is a phenomenon apparently known as “math anxiety,” which is exactly what it sounds like—people getting nervous around numbers.

Next, these coeds were presented with messaging about health studies reporting risks of genetically modified food using either percentages in the text, bar graphs or both. After drinking it all in, the respondents were once again asked a series of questions to determine their anxiety and comprehension levels.

The results showed that those people showing the most fret over their numerical performance issues had trouble retaining the information. And if you read stories around the internet today, you’ll see stories that say the same thing. “Math anxiety makes GM food data hard to decipher,” and “Genetically-Modified Food Message Comprehension Falters When Math Anxiety Prevails,” are just two of the headlines I came across.

But that’s not the story.

Also hidden in the study’s data is the fact that if you’re good at math, it doesn’t matter one bit whether or not you’re afraid of numerical ineptitude. You can have all the math anxiety you want, but if you’re well educated in the subject, you’re still going to understand the statistically based messaging. So here’s the real headline…

“People Who Suck at Math Don’t Understand Health Messaging Based on Statistics.”

Jaw-droppingly shocking, no? I’m sure their anxiety doesn’t help, just as it didn’t help them pass those failed math tests in high school, but the bottom line isn’t about anxiety, it’s about competency. So the best way to get the general public to understand health risks is to educate them. Again, not shocking. But in a country where a large portion of the population doesn’t understand why faith and religion is, by definition, not a scientific subject, I don’t have much hope for the future.

The paper, “Math Anxiety and Exposure to Statistics in Messages About Genetically Modified Foods: Effects of Numeracy, Math Self-Efficacy, and Form of Presentation,” was published in the Journal of Health Communication by Roxanne Parrott, Distinguished Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Health Policy and Administration at Penn State, and Kami J. Silk, associate professor of health and risk communication at Michigan State University.

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Gluing Nanoparticles into Crystals Using DNA

An electron microscope image (left) shows a faceted single crystal consisting of nanoparticles brought together using DNA interactions. A schematic (right) illustrates how the lattice of nanoparticles is held together by DNA, taken from a simulation used to model the system. The observed crystal shape is a rhombic dodecahedron, a 12-sided polyhedron made up of congruent rhombic faces.

An electron microscope image (left) shows a faceted single crystal consisting of nanoparticles brought together using DNA interactions. A schematic (right) illustrates how the lattice of nanoparticles is held together by DNA, taken from a simulation used to model the system. The observed crystal shape is a rhombic dodecahedron, a 12-sided polyhedron made up of congruent rhombic faces.

Large, single crystals are extremely valuable. The natural order taken by the atoms within form lattices and patterns that give single crystals properties not found in any disordered material. So, as you would expect, science has figured out how to make most of them in the laboratory rather than having to dig them out of the mountainside. Forming perfect silicon crystals has led to the explosion of semiconductors and the tiny computers in each of your pockets while pushing carbon together in the proper formation has made it slightly less expensive to put a ring on that finger you like.

Now, researchers from Northwestern University have developed a way to build crystals out of things nature never intended. Using some of the same free energy principles and some fancy chemistry, they have, for the first time, gotten nanoparticles to form crystals using strands of DNA as their glue.

In nature, the strongest crystals are formed when atoms stick together thanks to the sharing of electrons. But chemical bonding doesn’t really work outside of the atomic world—a nanoparticle can’t link up with another nanoparticle via electron sharing. You can, however, attach other molecules to the surfaces of nanoparticles using such techniques. The only question, then, is what do you want to use for your glue?

In the new experiment, the researchers turned to DNA. As most of you are (hopefully) familiar, DNA forms in a double helix with one strand connecting to the other strand through a series of base pairs. What’s more, each individual base will stick only to its partner in biological crime: guanine with cytosine and adenine with thymine.

Using this quirk of nature, researchers created two types of glues, sort of like two sets of Velcro that will only work with each other and won’t interact. They then stuck these biological glue sticks onto the nanoparticles, heated them up, and let them cool slowly over the course of a couple of days.

As predicted, as the system slowly lost energy the nanoparticles self-arranged into a crystalline structure, as physics dictates they do. They formed near-perfect single 12-sided polyhedron made up of congruent rhombic faces (if you don’t know what that means, check out the image above… one of those guys).

“If you get the right ratio it makes a perfect crystal — isn’t that fun?” said Monica Olvera de la Cruz, who also is a professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “That’s the fascinating thing, that you have to have the right ratio. We are learning so many rules for calculating things that other people cannot compute in atoms, in atomic crystals.”

So what can people do with large single crystals made out of nanoparticles? Hell if I know; I’m no expert. But seeing as how a pure crystal typically tends to pop up in extremely lucrative industrial practices—computing, manufacturing, cutting, lasers, etc.—I have no doubt that the technique will find a way to influence lives on a daily basis… eventually.

The paper, “DNA-mediated nanoparticle crystallization into Wulff polyhedra,” was published in the journal Nature by Olvera de la Cruz, nanoscientist Chad A. Mirkin, Evelyn Auyeung (first author), Ting I. N. G. Li, Andrew J. Senesi, Abrin L. Schmucker, and Bridget C. Pals, all from Northwestern.

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