SciTech Now Episode 321

In this episode of SciTech Now, a wheelchair that allows dancers with disabilities to move in new directions; the online platform, IssueVoter uses tech to promote civic engagement; a biotech company creates spider silk; and the science behind making beer.



Coming up, inventing a chair fit for dancing.

In 2001, I started working with dancers with and without disabilities, integrated.

That's when I really started thinking of the wheelchair as a creative instrument because the individuals I was working with had a lot of upper-body mobility.

Hacking civic participation.

IssueVoter is a site that lets you get alerts when your congressperson is about to vote on a bill.

And we summarize the bills, offer what the proponents and opponents are saying, and then one click sends your opinion to your elected officials.

Engineering spider silk.

We're taking the black widow gene and putting it in place of the silkworm's silk gene.

And so, when they go to make the cocoons, they read the gene, and they just make it.

And instead of making regular silk, they make spider silk.

The art and science of brewing beer.

You know, all of our, you know, brewing-group managers, assistant brewmasters and brewmasters, they all have technical degrees -- typically electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, biology, or food science.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

For dancers with disabilities, traditional wheelchair designs can limit mobility and artistic expression.

'Science Friday' brings us the story of a choreographer who was inspired to create a smart power wheelchair, enabling dancers to move in new directions.

Let's take a look.

[ Piano music plays ]

There's something very freeing about, you know, basically having thoughts and ideas and human experiences that you can express through the physicality of your body.

Freedom of expression, creating new movement possibilities, you know, that's what we're always sort of exploring in dance.

My creativity has always blossomed when I begin to work with physical objects outside the body.

It's something about the relationship between the human person and the objects outside of that human body.

And especially working, obviously, with disability.

My name is Merry Lynn Morris, and I'm the assistant director of the dance program at the University of South Florida.

You know, there's a tendency with disability for folks to think of the tragedy or the challenge, and that's not where the emphasis should be, but to also recognize that there's a lot of innovative potential and there's a lot of opportunity.

From a personal experience, my dad had a disability, pretty severe disability.

He had a brain injury, and so that kind of brought me into this, more the world of disability.

And then that experience has been layered with my work in the art world.

In 2001, I started working with dancers with and without disabilities, integrated.

That's when I really started thinking of the wheelchair as a creative instrument because the individuals I was working with had a lot of upper-body mobility.

And yet they were using manual-wheelchair propulsion or they were using the joystick-controlled wheelchair.

So, it's been a long, kind of a long evolution.

Started with exploring seat adaptations on Segways.

Then later evolutions, as I worked with some other collaborators, moved into different places, and I began to sort of figure out for myself what the aesthetic of what I was trying to create was and why.

I wanted the emphasis to be on the person and their movement.

And, you know, a little different, a little unusual than, you know, you or I would typically identify as a wheelchair.

My chair is different in two particular ways.

One is the omni-directionality.

So the chair moves forward, backward, side, and diagonal directions, and rotates and turns.

The other thing is that the seat actually rotates independently from the base.

So that's helpful for accessibility if you're talking about daily living, but also from dance again, being able to actually spin the seat.

It does have height change, and that, again, allows the individual to be at eye level.

Or, in terms of dancing, it allows more change in the verticality.

The other significant difference is the actual control system.

So, rather than it just being a joystick that's attached to the chair, my control system is a mobile control.

So it's controlled through the smartphone.

And so it can be held by the person in the chair.

It can be worn by the person in the chair.

So, if you wear it, then when you lean forward, the chair moves forward.

If you lean back, the chair moves back.

If you lean to the side, the chair moves to the side.

If you rotate this way, the chair will rotate.

And the degree of movement -- you know, how far forward or how far back you lean or turn or twist -- is all dep-- can all be programmed.

The interesting thing, though, about this controller, which makes it just very different, as offering another kind of possibility, is that you can have someone that's not physically engaged, not actually touching, you know, the person, and they can yet be still controlling the chair through their movements, potentially, their own movements.

They can be dancing over here and controlling the movement of the person over here at a distance.

There's kind of empathy.

It shows an empathetic connection there.

And so, in some ways, that it kind of embodies this idea that even though we're apart, we're actually still really affecting each other.

You know, I'm in dance.

I'm a dancer.

And I'm a dance creator, you know.

So the chair -- I hope to use it in a dance context, but I also have always -- and I've had my eye on the pedestrian aspect, too, which is the sort of daily life aspect as well.

So, in the manual chair, you know, you can't really talk to someone who's behind you.

So, in the case of my chair, we're not necessarily, for instance, having people behind the chair pushing.

You know, if people want to hold hands or connect physically a little bit with their bodies, you know, you can connect hand to hand and simply walk together.

So the chair, therefore, is sort of a blend of the sort of aesthetic creative and this kind of more functional -- it's the sort of daily life aspect as well.

I think that if it's more conducive for people to come together to physically connect, and if it encourages that in some way, and certainly to dance together, that, yeah, it heightens emotional connectivity.

That's very exciting.

I mean, I get very... That's very joyful.

Following the 2016 presidential election, many voters are looking for ways to stay engaged in the political discourse.

And some start-ups are leveraging data and technology to help.

Maria Yuan is the CEO and founder of one such endeavor, an online platform called IssueVoter.

She joins us today to discuss the role of technology in fostering civic engagement.

So, what is IssueVoter?

IssueVoter is a site that lets you get alerts when your congressperson is about to vote on a bill related to an issue that you care about.

And we summarize the bills, offer what the proponents and opponents are saying, along with related news, and then one click sends your opinion to your elected official's staffer.

And you have a profile on the site that tracks throughout the year how often your congressperson is voting how you would want them to vote on issues you care about.

So this is kind of like one of those little cheat-sheet guides that you take into the polling booth that maybe your local paper said, you know, if you're a progressive or if you're a conservative, this is where you should be on these issues and so forth, right?

Similar. It's nice because you can keep all of your issues in one place as opposed to looking at several different organizations and their scorecards and trying to somehow triangulate that.

So it becomes a really personalized guide because it's literally the bills that you've actually sent your opinion on.

And then you can see what that outcome was.

So, when Congress votes, you would get a notification that shows you, 'This is what you voted.

This is what your rep voted.

And here's whether or not the bill passed.'

This is the modern-day version of the phone-call or the letter-writing campaign.


Yeah. So how does this technology improve that experience, right?

So, does the member of Congress... Are they more or less likely to be aware of how citizens in their constituencies, in their neighborhoods, in their backyards, are actually thinking about these issues?

I think that the nice thing about technology is it enables a lot more people to be heard.

So, a staffer can only take so many phone calls in an hour or in a day, and this is a way for more people to participate.

So, our mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy, you know, by making civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful.

I would say that by sending it electronically, there is still some resistance, depending on the rep, to be honest.

I think some reps and some really advocacy organizations oftentimes encourage people to make phone calls.

But I think eventually we have to -- we are going to move beyond that.

For example, you know, when you order your food online or by going to the restaurant and picking it up or eating at the restaurant or picking up the phone, like, no matter what way I order my food, I still want it to taste good.

And so I think, more and more, reps are realizing, no matter what medium you use to communicate, it doesn't mean that your opinion matters more or less.

What is kind of the back-end gain?

I mean, you said 'impactful.'

So, how do you make sure that this is action oriented, right, that people don't just study the issue, but they're telling their reps?

Right. Well, we make it really easy to do that.

So we give people alerts that there's even something to tell their rep about in the first place.

And then it is literally one click to send the opinion.

So that is the action that we want people to take.

And so far, we've sent over 20,000 opinions to Congress and in just a short matter of time.

And so we've also had a lot of staffers reach out to us to get connected with their constituents and ask about, you know, IssueVoter.

Is there a benefit to having that data of when somebody's opinion is a certain way about something?

So, are they going to be targets?

If I say that I am pro- or anti- gun control or choice or whatever it is, am I going to get targeted by different ads saying, 'Hey, you should change your mind,' or, 'You should think about this,' or... How do you work in that arena?

So, we're not selling the data right now.


And what, um... I would say that, you know, from the reps' point of view, they do have staffers whose job is to count every constituent contact.

So when you say impactful, that's the main impact that we're trying to have right now, as opposed to, for example, a petition.

So we see a lot of petitions, The problem with petitions is that to an elected official, it's merely a list of names.

And often, petitions for political causes don't actually work, and there's a number of reasons for that, but I think that the biggest thing that we can do is send the opinion directly to that person's rep, who's actually elected to represent them.

As far as how the data is being used, it's something we're still working through.

So we're relatively new.

We launched the day after the election, so it's been a little bit over a month.

So what do you need to do to get to scale?

Technically speaking, there are already phone lines everywhere in the country, and people know how to put something in the mail and reach their rep.

But what's the critical mass that you need to hit when all of a sudden, members of Congress say, 'You know what?

This is another medium where people are going to reach out and tell me how they think about things'?

Yep. So, I've spoken with former congresspeople and current staffers.

And generally, kind of to triangulate the different responses and conversations, they say anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people, it becomes interesting.


So it's not necessarily millions and millions because, unfortunately, less than 5% of constituents are actually reaching out to their reps currently.

So, are you hoping to change that by making it easier?

Definitely. Yeah.

That's definitely our goal.

One of the things that people forget about this election is how few people actually went to the polls.

Less than half the population or so actually used the rights that they have.

So, how does technology change that?

And if you can get people engaged now through the midterms, maybe an increase in people that actually turn out?

Yeah, exactly.

I mean, I think by seeing these alerts throughout the year, it will help people realize the work that's actually being done and the importance of voting.

All right. Maria --

Because you hear about a couple of issues in the news, but we don't necessarily see the hundreds of bills that are being voted on every year.

Maria Yuan, IssueVoter.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.

Up next, we go to North Carolina, where a biotech company is using spider DNA to transform silkworms to produce spider silk, a fiber tougher, lighter, and more flexible than most fibers.

Here's the story.

In a nondescript metal-framed building in an industrial park in Charlotte, the ultimate textile target may finally be reached.

These are all cocoons from silkworms.

They're ordinary standard silk that we keep here for testing, but it's the same.

So, this fiber is, as you can see, a lot thinner than the hair on your head.

But this is a mile long inside this cocoon.

A mile long?

A mile long.

A mile long of a continuous fiber.

The target is silk.

It has been collected like this from the cocoon of the silkworm for thousands of years.

The material is prized for its beauty and its texture.

But these are not the typical silkworms.

This one right here, one of the parents tested out at full-strength spider silk.

So I have great hopes, and they just hatched this morning.

Did you catch that -- 'spider silk'? Keep watching.

We're taking the black widow gene and putting it in place of the silkworm's silk gene.

And so, when they go to make the cocoons, they read the gene, and they just make it.

And instead of making regular silk, they make spider silk.

You heard correctly.

David Brigham is producing spider silk from silkworms.

But the black widow produces a silk that is stronger and stiffer than most spiders'. Brigham implants the gene that controls the production of spider silk into the silkworm.

That's right.

They eat mulberry leaves to grow big and fat.

They spin a cocoon.

And then they start turning into a moth.

They go to pupa and they would come out as a moth.

We interrupt the process to pull all the silk off their cocoon and make yarn and fabric.

You could call it agricultural alchemy.

Since silk is a natural protein fiber, putting the spider gene into the silkworm transforms the worm into a kind of protein factory for spider silk.

The silkworm doesn't change.

But thanks to genetic engineering, it's just making a different silk.

The engineered silkworms, which we tested to see if they had the spider-silk gene, and they did, one copy.

So now we're breeding transformed silkworms together so that we have offspring that have two copies of the spider-silk gene and are full strength.

To loosen up the protein glue that's holding that fiber together is we're going to put it in hot water...

But beyond the high-tech genetics, spider-silk cocoons are still processed in essentially the same low-tech way the cocoons of silkworms have been processed for thousands of years.

So we should have loosened up the glue enough in this very hot water to be able to swirl around and find that one end that goes all the way through.

And there they are.

So we're now unreeling the silk.

The way you work it, this one thread is -- well, this is not really very... thick enough to really actually run through a textile mill.

So what you do is you put, depending on how fine a fabric you're making, 10 or 25 together to make a thicker yarn.

The cocoons, with the ends of the fibers now exposed, are brought to a textile-mill reeler.

The tiny fibers are then combined one by one by one and loaded onto the mill, where they are automatically unwound.

We're making yarn.

And so, when this runs out, what you do is just grab this and throw it under, and it automatically takes up another one.

And you just keep going till you fill the reel.

By now, you're probably asking, 'Why, exactly, make spider silk?'

Spider silk is five times tougher than Kevlar.

It has not as much strength, but it has stretch.

So it's very, very tough.

And my favorite analogy is a plate-glass window and a trampoline.

You put Nolan Ryan in front of a plate-glass window, and you're pretty safe for a while, but eventually he's going to throw a fastball hard enough it's going to break that window, and then you have no protection.

But nobody throws a fastball through a trampoline.

Kevlar, Spectra -- those are plate-glass windows.

Spider silk is the trampoline.

The military is searching for a material that is not only strong but also more elastic and lightweight.

Brigham's creation has already undergone ballistic testing.

It passed until the most extreme of tests.

They kept upping the powder charge in the bullet until they defeated it.

They wanted to know how fast a bullet could go before it came through.

The fiber could also be used in a host of medical applications, such as sutures, implant codings, or even artificial tendons.

That's because the human body doesn't reject spider silk.

I'm seeing a soldier writing me a letter saying, 'I'm home because I was wearing your spider-silk vest.'

And that's why this business is here.

Brewing beer takes patience and scientific accuracy.

From basements to brewpubs to the home of Budweiser in Saint Louis, brewers are always tinkering with their recipes and cooking up new experiments.

Reporter Anne-Marie Berger takes us behind the scenes of the beer-brewing industry in Saint Louis, Missouri.

In 2015, the beer industry in the United States saw more than $100 billion in sales.

This includes craft, imports, and the largest in volume -- domestic beers.

Anheuser-Busch topped the charts at number one, and while A-B is loyal to their flagship beers, such as Budweiser and Bud Light, they do invest a lot of resources in experimenting with new beers.

So, what kind of beer is this?

So, this is the oatmeal stout.

This is our Project Training Day.

This was made in the Research Pilot Brewery.

The Research Pilot Brewery, located at Anheuser-Busch headquarters in Saint Louis, is where up-and-coming brewmasters are trained, future innovative beers are developed, and raw-materials testing is done.

We started with a grain like this, and if you'd like to try it, you can.

It tastes like -- just like a cereal.

It's sweet.

It's a little crunchy.

So, this is malted barley.


Rob Naylor is brewmaster at the RPB.

And we'll get hops in from Washington or Oregon or in Europe.

And we'll do some single-hop tests where we'll actually brew beer with it 'cause we want to know, you know, what type of bitterness does it give us, what does it really taste like?

And then we also want to see what the aroma is.

Beer can be many things.

It can simply be a beverage, a hobby, a social icebreaker, or all the above.

But first and foremost, the art of brewing beer is a science.

You know, all of our, you know, brewing-group managers, assistant brewmasters and brewmasters, they all have technical degrees -- typically electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, biology, or food science.

Like all sciences, beer brewing requires accuracy and patience.

And this process starts with milling, or crushing, the grains.

So what we're going to do is we're going to crack the husk.

And then we're going to try to expose that endosperm that's in the middle, and that's where we're getting a lot of our extract.

We don't want to pulverize the grain.

The goal is to reveal the starchy barley seed without crushing the husks that encase them.

If the starch is too coarse, the fermentable sugars will be affected.

If the husks are too fine, the filter bed will be ruined.

And you can't have that when brewing beer.

They're so small.

They're so small.

So, what we're doing right here, there's two big rollers that are coming together, and they're pushing the --

Oh. Out.

Yeah, they're pushing --

Squeezing it out.

They're squeezing it out.

Got it.

From there, the milled grains are combined with water in the mash cooker.

And what's actually happening is we are converting our starches to sugars.

So, the longer we convert starches to sugars, the more we're going to get more fermentable sugars, and then we'll be able to get a kind of a lighter, low-carb beer.

We'll also be able to get more alcohol from there.

The shorter time, there will be less fermentable sugars in there, and it'll be more non-fermentables.

So you'll get more body and a heavier beer here.

In this process, temperature is key.

Naylor explains it will mash in at about 109 degrees.

Raising the temperature releases the enzymes.

And that's when we're actually going to be creating different beers.

And that's one of the main things where you're looking for consistency, this is something that we can do.

We can make sure, in our mash cooker, we are consistent.

We know exactly what temperatures we want to hit so we'll get the right fermentable sugars and hit the right body and the right alcohol and the right color.

The ground-up grains in the mash are extracted through the lautering process to create the wort.

From there, we'll actually take it into our brew kettle, of which we will start -- we will bring up to a boil, and we'll add our hops.

Now, our hops are what are going to add the IBUs and kind of the spice of the beer.

They'll also give you the aroma, depending upon when you add it.

We add our bittering hops at the very beginning of boil.

And then we'll add more of our aroma hops towards the middle and end of our boil.

At this point we are transferring it to one of our fermentation tanks.

As we're filling, we start transferring our yeast.

We use different types of yeast.

We'll use ale yeast and lager yeast.

And then we'll be able to maintain it at a certain temperature.

While some brewing in the RPB is strictly materials testing, there's always the chance the next big beer could be discovered.

How many of these actually make it to market?

Because it's a big deal for Anheuser-Busch to put out a new beer.

Yeah, well, so, you know, the Research Pilot Brewery has been around since 1981, and, you know, one of the first beers we came out with was Bud Light, so I always look at it that it's giant shoes to fill to come up with the next Bud Light.

But, you know, all of the Shock Top beers, the Michelob series, Platinum -- all of those beers have come from the Research Pilot Brewery.

This is one that -- it's been on -- it's been up for about a week, and we're getting some really positive reviews.

So this may be one.

I like it.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...