SciTech Now Episode 325

In this episode of SciTech Now, researchers apply tech to traditional farming methods in order to feed earths rising population; a company is creating a community microgrid that will change the way energy is bought and sold; a therapy that can help improve anxiety and PTSD among soldiers returning home from war; and a pre-k program engages students with STEM.

TRANSCRIPT

Coming up -- technology in agriculture.

Only 3% of today's land base is used for agriculture.

It's likely not gonna grow.

How do we create new innovations, new tools so that they can vastly improve the production on the same land base they have?

Sharing energy with your neighbors.

If there's a market for renewable energy that's produced in a local manner, you should be able to sell to that market.

We really see this going toward exergy, which is the productivity of energy.

A therapy tool for post-traumatic stress.

The protocol that is delivered is meant to bring up original traumatic experiences and actually change the way that the information is ultimately stored.

STEM education sprouts early.

Children learn by doing and by being involved.

They use all of their senses to find out about their world.

If we can integrate as many of those senses into the activities that we're doing in the classroom, it's a natural fit.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. 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.

As populations grow, researches are applying high-tech science to traditional farming methods to help farmers produce bigger yields that are also drought- and disease-resistant.

To learn more about what's being done, we head to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

[ Machinery beeping ]

We take samples and send them to the lab for analysis to confirm that the gene that was in the parent plant was passed on to these plants.

Growing a healthier world, for Jenna Ausbon, means studying one leaf, one plant at a time.

We are growing these plants for seed production, and they'll go to field trial.

So anything that performs well here will go on to a field trial for further data analysis.

Seed meets soil inside the massive greenhouses of Bayer's Crop Science division in Research Triangle Park.

It's cool to see that something that I've worked on is doing well and going through the pipeline and may eventually become a product.

The challenge is to help farmers feed the Earth's expected population of 9.7 billion people by 2050.

It's estimated that food production will need to increase by 40% to meet that demand.

So it's not a situation where we can simply plant more to get more.

Why?

Because only 3% of today's land base is used for agriculture.

It's likely not gonna grow, with global urbanization, with land degradation.

So it really is about, 'How do we create new ways, new seeds, new production practices, new innovations, new tools, so that they can vastly improve the production on the same land base they have?'

We'll give this one... a 20%.

Which will be 100?

Yep.

Okay.

Great.

This one, obviously...

Scan that one for you.

Yep. Scan.

[ Machinery beeps ] This one here is 100%.

Because traditional farming methods won't dramatically increase food production, scientists use the greenhouses to test new varieties of plants that grow faster, use less water, and are more disease- and pest-resistant.

The goal is to discover new plant varieties that can meet the demands of farmers and food production, while at the same time reducing the amount of chemicals applied to fields.

So what we're seeing right now is a term we'll refer to as 'chlorosis.'

And so that is yellowing tissue caused by herbicide.

And some of this would recover, some of it wouldn't, but, again, for our purposes, we're looking for a perfect plant.

We want something with no damage at all -- something closer to this plant here.

So we don't want to see So as it moves forward, those plants will have a better chance with their performance in the field and further on.

And sometimes, the best way to test for insect tolerance is to get down and dirty in the soil.

In the nematode lab, scientists check for -- you guessed it -- nematodes.

It's a tiny worm that chews its way into plant roots, only lives for 30 days, but reproduces so quickly only a few worms can devastate an entire field of soybeans.

Nematodes cause more than $1 billion in crop damage each year.

Counting the worms in a soil sample checks for the effectiveness of a new pesticide.

There are roughly 70 rooms inside Bayer's multiple greenhouses.

That allows specific environments from around the world to be replicated.

It also means scientists can test how specific plants would grow in each of those environments.

Corn is the crop most produced in the world, but it is used for more than just food.

Wheat takes up the most acreage.

Rice is the most important food crop.

Researches hope to harvest the future of farming.

[ Machinery beeping ]

First, we get the plants in from our Innovation Center, where they put new traits inside the plants, inside the seeds.

We receive those plants, and then we want to grow them up until they're big and tall, until they set seeds.

Because with those seeds, then we can do new experiments.

So it's basically production sort of goal.

Our second goal is really to test how well the plants are performing based on what we put inside the plants.

So we're putting new characteristics, new traits inside the plants.

Sometimes that means resistance to insects.

So our job is to expose an insect to these plants and see if the insect dies.

If it doesn't, we got a bad plant.

That means into the trash can.

If it's a good plant, we'll grow it up until it's big and tall, get seeds, and do another experiment with it.

Our third goal is, once we kind of have a good result -- Let's say a plant that's killing an insect -- we may need to make a hundred or a thousand variations of that particular plant, of that particular characteristic, to find the really good plant that's going to hold up in the multitude of different geographies in the U.S., the different stresses like drought, rain, and so forth.

So you need to make a lot of variants, and 999 of them won't be good enough for commercialization towards the farmer, but we're looking for that one.

[ Keyboard clacking ]

What if you could share energy with your neighbors during a power outage?

One company in Brooklyn, New York, is working to create energy microgrids that would radically change the way energy is bought and sold.

Scott Kessler, director of business development at LO3 Energy, joins me now.

All right, so, how does a microgrid work?

What a microgrid?

So, a microgrid is really a physical part of the larger utility network that can sort of separate itself during a severe weather event -- like Hurricane Sandy, that came through New York a few years ago -- and make it so that people within that area are able to stay powered.

If you see photos of Manhattan when the lower half was all out of power, there's little pockets, like right around NYU and the southern part of Battery Park, that still had some lights on.

And that was because they had a microgrid.

So a microgrid requires some energy generation.

So is this from solar energy?

I mean, obviously, there's geothermal and hydroelectric -- whatever -- but, inside a city, is it mostly solar panels that are generating energy?

So that's what tends to get the most attention, but, really, there's a mix of energy sources that are going to be included in projects like ours.

So, there are already over about a megawatt of solar energy in the area of Brooklyn we're working in, Park Slope and Gowanus.

But we also want to develop some assets that enable more flexibility, because the sun isn't available all the time.

So we're looking to install utility-scale storage systems, and we're also looking to install some combined heat and power.

So, there's this other structural hurdle, which is that you and I cannot buy and sell energy to one another.

It's just not possible in the legal sense of the word.

So how does a microgrid work if there's someone with a rooftop solar that might be generating it and a neighbor wants to use it?

So, what we've done is we've utilized block-chain technology to come up with our own metering system, which is a combination of meters and computers that sense electron flow and then can write that to the block chain.

So it enables consumers to conduct transactions with each other at a much faster pace and in a much more efficient way than they ever could before.

So now that we have the technology, all we need now is sort of to get the policy there.

And New York is already on the way to doing that.

New York's currently undergoing what's known as Reforming the Energy Vision, which is a big initiative of Governor Cuomo and the Public Service Commission to reform the way that utilities conduct business here in New York State.

Right now, if I have solar panels, the only thing I can do is offset my own consumption, whereas, in the future, you should have a variety of choice.

You should be able to offset your own consumption, but if there's a market for renewable energy that's produced in a local manner, which we are trying to develop, you should be able to sell to that market.

And if you wanted to do other things with that energy, like store it in your battery, you should be able to do that, as well.

So we're really looking for more variety for consumers and trying to get utilities to a place where they are enabling that choice.

So, when you say block chain, to my mind, bitcoin is the thing that I associate with it.

But bitcoin fluctuates wildly in its value.

Does block chain require your transactions to be in bitcoin?

So, block chain's really just a type of software.

It means that, instead of a centralized ledger of information somewhere, like a data center, it's distributed.

And that's really what all block-chain software is.

Bitcoin's a of block chain, just like Kleenex is to tissues.

So what we've done is we've taken that block-chain technology and applied it to energy.

So we're not even developing a block chain.

You can't send money to your neighbor through our block chain.

What you do is send energy, in electron, kWh form, however you want to quantify it.

Directly back and forth between people.

So, the utility grid, it's best to think of it as having inputs and outputs.

And in the middle, you have all of these wires that are sort of serving as the intermediary.

So we can never track an electron and say that I sent my electron directly to you, but what we do is say, 'We knew Scott sold 5 and you bought 5.'

So we can make that transaction happen that way.

Where do you see this -- let's say best-case scenario, 5 years out, 10 years out, do you see more microgrids popping up?

Or do you see larger-scale utilities using something like this?

So we really see this going towards pushing the concept of exergy, which is the productivity of energy.

Right now we really only look at 'how much energy did you use?'

We don't really quantify 'how did you use it?'

So we really want to get this to a place where you and I, if we are neighbors, are incentivized to have transactions between rather than us having to bring power down from Niagara Falls or other large hydro sources.

Because from a system perspective, that doesn't make sense.

What we want to do is get to a system where there's a big incentive in the network both for you and me as participants and the utilities to have distributed grids, but to have them also be resilient and adaptable so that, if we lose a pocket of it, it forms a self-healing grid and the rest of us can still maintain power during that outage.

So, I also hear kind of a... maybe it's a success-disaster coming.

Let's say lots of microgrids catch on.

Then that means that there are pools of people that are no longer contributing to some of those large-scale infrastructure costs -- right? -- that it costs a lot of money to build a dam and actually have substations and bring the power all the way here.

But, essentially, if I have parts of Brooklyn and parts of Queens and parts of Manhattan no longer paying for it, then that leaves a smaller pool of people actually paying for all that infrastructure.

Wouldn't their rates rise?

Well, so there's always going to be a need for there to be wires for there to be infrastructure, to send these electrons back and forth.

And we think the utilities still play that role, and we think they still need to be fairly compensated for that.

Additionally, even if we do come up with a system which I think we're moving towards, where it's a number of community microgrids, there still needs to be a backbone connecting them all.

Because some of those microgrids will have excess energy, and they'll be sending it out.

Some of those won't have enough energy, and they'll be importing it.

So there'll be sort of a market between community microgrids, and while prices may vary, what you get is, if there's a really expensive price of energy somewhere, that sends a signal to investors to build more solar, build more storage in that community.

So, eventually, you sort of are using market signals to balance us all out instead of sort of large master planning like we currently do, which doesn't really allow communities to provide what input is and what values are.

All right, Scott Kessler, LO3 Energy.

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks so much.

Can technology help victims of trauma rewrite painful memories?

A team of researchers from the University of South Florida are studying the effectiveness of Accelerated Resolution Therapy, a tool that may improve anxiety and post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning home from war.

Let's take a look.

[ Explosion ] ♪♪

Veterans returning home often have difficulty adjusting to life after war.

One place in Holiday, Florida, makes the adjustment a little bit easier.

The Veterans Alternative is a place where they can reignite that familiarity with some of those tools that they utilized while they were serving on active duty.

The camaraderie is definitely one major piece.

The physical fitness -- nostalgic, as well.

And then we bring in other pieces to help them overcome some of the hypervigilance that they might face after coming home from war.

So some of those pieces that we tie in is some of the yoga that we do to help calm the breathing and really kind of learn how to meditate and just stay in the moment instead of getting tensed or anxiety.

Then we bring in another therapy called Accelerated Resolution Therapy, which is absolutely amazing, what it does.

It's saved a lot of warriors' lives, including my own.

♪♪

Accelerated Resolution Therapy, or ART, was created to help people who have experienced trauma.

University of South Florida epidemiologist and researcher Kevin Kip began studying several therapy modalities in 2010.

And we designed five studies to use this money that was congressionally appropriated to look for some alternative ways to help service members, veterans, and their families with emotional difficulties.

A study with Accelerated Resolution Therapy was one of the five, and, over time, it turned out to be the most promising.

The protocol that is delivered is meant to bring up original traumatic experiences and actually change the way that the information is ultimately stored -- to replace negative images in the brain and, believe it or not, replace that with positive images and sensations.

And our brains are wired in such a way that that be accomplished.

It's something called memory reconsolidation.

Alison Voisin works at the Veterans Alternative Center as a licensed mental-health counselor.

Being a therapist for you know, over 10 years, I've tried a lot of different therapies.

And some things have worked, but nothing has worked for PTS, specifically for anxiety, like Accelerated Resolution Therapy does.

The ART session starts with a patient bringing up a past traumatic experience.

So, you ask the individual to bring it up in their mind -- now, they don't have to it, they have to bring it up -- and to start to walk it through from beginning to end like it's occurring again.

While they're doing this, I'm moving my hand side to side, which is helping them to move their eyes side to side.

That mimics what happens when we're in REM.

A lot of our trauma hangs out in the front of the brain, so to say.

And when we're utilizing these bilateral eye movements, we're able to consolidate the memories, put them in long-term storage.

So they're not up front -- constantly evading them in the here and now.

So, the next piece is to imagine a way you'd remember it.

'The firefight never happened,' or, 'My friend was wounded but taken to safety.'

And they actually walk that through like a movie while following the clinician's hand.

And what happens is they're actually changing the original negative images, almost like pasting over them or rewriting them with positive images.

They're able to, within an hour, an hour and a half, go through an entire memory, the emotions connected to it, and find relief, put it in the right place, so that, on a day-to-day basis, they don't have to be constantly being exposed to these different triggers, these memories.

♪♪

Jerry Sableski served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

First tour was on a ship.

Second tour, I was what they referred to as a 'river rat' or a 'brown water sailor.'

After returning home, Jerry suppressed his memories of war for 45 years.

And then once I retired, my psychiatrist theorized that I had a little more free time.

And then my mind started thinking about what I went through 45 years ago, and then that's when I started really having the problems.

Jerry decided to try ART.

It makes your brain tired, and you can reprogram it.

I don't know how she does it, but she does.

After just three sessions, Jerry is pleased with the results.

I'm able to cope with everyday stresses a lot better than I was six months ago, before I started coming here.

Army veteran Jeff Baughman served our country during the Bosnian conflict.

I was a light-infantry squad leader, so I was one of those guys who carried a large backpack and a rifle everywhere.

Best job I ever had in my life.

Jeff saw firsthand the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia.

After returning home, he tried to put those memories behind him.

I excelled when I had something to do, when I was in college and grad school.

Those things kept me busy.

Following that, once my mind had a chance to work on its own, it decided to take over and essentially crumble my life quite a bit.

Jeff is actively involved at the Veterans Alternative Center.

He enjoys the camaraderie and activities, like this eye-rest meditation.

He, too, tried Accelerated Resolution Therapy.

What I noticed probably right off the bat was I was very calm coming out of the very first session.

Where I really began to notice it was about the third session.

So, you walk out of the room, you do feel a lot better, but I woke up the next day, and I was like, 'Wow.'

I really slept the whole night.

And it was honestly a sense of peace that came over, probably for the first time in about 10 years.

The center was founded by Brian Anderson, who also sought relief from the memories of war.

I was desperate, you know?

I was a Green Beret.

I'm a barrel-chested freedom fighter.

I'm supposed to be physically, mentally, spiritually tough.

Inside, I was just going through a ton of turmoil.

When he learned about ART, he immediately decided to try this novel approach.

It saved my life.

And I wanted to make sure that other warriors had that same opportunity.

Dr. Kip shares his findings by speaking at conferences and having his research validated.

We've done three studies, published seven papers, and, as a result of the evidence we've acquired, now we're federally recognized as an effective, evidence-based treatment for both post-traumatic stress and depression.

Accelerated Resolution Therapy may be relatively new, but the results are undeniable.

It's everything from people reuniting with their families again, people being able to socialize, be able to come here and have the camaraderie, you know, with fellow veterans.

Their anxiety is decreasing.

Their depression is decreasing.

♪♪ [ Keyboard clacking ]

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are a priority in schools, but The Amazing Explorers Academy in Oviedo, Florida, is giving students a jump start by outfitting pre-K students with engaging activities.

When it erupts...

Among educators, a consensus has emerged that STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- is essential for a 21st-century education.

The Amazing Explorers Academy in Oviedo, Florida, is doing something new -- bringing STEM to the pre-K set by stimulating learning through hands-on activities.

Children learn by doing and by being involved.

We often think of young children in the sensorimotor stage of development, which is where they use all of their senses to find out about their world.

And so if we can integrate as many of those senses into the activities that we're doing in the classroom, it's a natural fit for what they already do.

Every space -- and you wouldn't believe it has up to 20 activities that are embedded and that are scaffolding in every single area of the school.

They're actually connected to the standards to make it more intentional -- for the educators to understand that they're not just there doing something or playing, that that has a purpose.

That activity, at the end, will actually allow them to discover new knowledge.

When we look at a model that allows children to think, that encourages them and invites them to think and to question, that whole process is setting the stage for children to know that, if they have a question, if they want to learn something, if they want to find out, they can do it.

Well, I was just looking at a crab, which had a huge claw.

So I was just asking myself, 'What do they use their claw for?'

An important aspect of the curriculum is physical movement.

Children learn better when they move.

As a matter of fact, learn better when they move.

It's called kinesthetic learning.

The more senses you use, the more neurons are firing in the brain, the more pathways are made that will help you recall and remember.

The brain is an amazing part of your body.

And most people already know that you have a right and a left hemisphere and the brain's divided in half.

What most people know is that, across the top of your head, you have the motor cortex, which 'motor' means 'movement.'

So if you were combining music, movement, and academics, you're now firing all four parts of your brain.

So your whole brain is engaged in the learning process.

[ Laughter ]

Teachers often blend several methods of learning to ensure the lesson is reaching each student.

We actually encourage being different and finding your own language.

We expose them to all different technologies, mediums, ways of expressing themselves artistically, musically.

So we're actually providing them a platform, or canvas -- an canvas so they can become all that they can be.

The academy also brings in members of the community to share their experience and expertise.

See all that fire?

When I was first asked to do this, I thought, 'Oh, how in the world am I gonna teach 3-year-olds anything?'

It was just hard for me because I've had 25 years of high-school teaching.

And you don't 'dumb' it down.

I hate that word.

You don't water it down.

You just figure out a way to explain to 3- and 4-year-olds the scientific concepts.

And they are so bright.

It's just absolutely amazing what they actually can learn.

It never ceases to amaze me.

In the end, it's about making pre-K education more effective by getting the kids involved.

We believe that children are not recipients of information, but we see them as co-participants in the learning process.

When children actually participate in their learning process through hands-on activities, through play, in a fun way, we're actually able to build on their natural ability and curiosity.

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... ♪♪