SciTech Now Episode 330

In this episode of SciTech Now, detecting life on one of Jupiter’s moons as the presence of ice an oxygen has hypothesized extraterrestrial life; mapping the sounds of New York City; researcher Caren Cooper speaks about how ordinary people are changing the face of discovery; and a breakthrough discovery of the Aspirin of the future.

TRANSCRIPT

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Coming up, detecting life on one of Jupiter's moons...

If we've learned anything about how life on Earth works, it's that where you find the liquid water, you generally find life.

In a way, what we're trying to do is sort of reverse engineer what's happening on Europa's surface.

...mapping New York City's sounds...

We're deploying a large-scale sensor network, acoustic sensor network, which the idea is to monitor the acoustic environment 24/7.

...re-thinking the meaning of the word scientist.

Scientific frontiers have advanced so far that some of them have kind of hit a point where, in order to keep advancing, they need to collaborate not just with other scientists, but with everyone.

...the aspirin of the future.

It is rare that drugs that we get in basic science make it to the point of being a marketable item, and so this is truly special.

We've made an impact.

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.

The presence of ice and oxygen on Europa, one of Jupiter's four moons, has led scientists to hypothesize that the moon could harbor extraterrestrial life.

Now, led by astrobiologist Kevin Hand at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, scientists are using chilled vacuum chambers to simulate what life might be like on Europa with the hope that astronauts may one day travel there.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' has the story.

Oceans exist beneath the icy shells of moons of the outer solar system.

If we have learned anything about how life on Earth works, it's that where you find the liquid water, you generally find life.

And so if Europa's inhabited, if Enceladus is inhabited by microbes or some other creatures, how do we actually go about detecting those life-forms?

We can't wake up in the morning and go to Europa, so, instead, we wake up in the morning and go to the lab.

My name is Kevin Hand.

I'm a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In a way, what we're trying to do is sort of reverse engineer what's happening on Europa's surface and potentially figure out what kinds of chemical signatures might be indicative of biology within Europa's ocean.

So Europa's got this liquid water ocean, but it's covered by an ice shell that's a few to maybe as much as 20 kilometers in thickness.

No sunlight is actually going to get down to that ocean.

Does that mean it's kind of game over for life?

No.

The bottom of our own ocean has ecosystems powered by hydrothermal vents where the microbial communities do just fine without any sun.

If we were able to drill through the ice on Europa and drop a camera into its ocean and something swam up to the camera, then touchdown.

You've found life.

But it's going to be a while until we do that, and so, at least for the near-term exploration of these worlds, we're going to be limited to measurements that are made through spacecraft flying by, and through robotic vehicles that land on the surface and then grab some material off the surface.

So, what would we look for?

Much of what we do in our lab is re-create the surface of Europa at many different scales.

At the tiniest scale, we've got these chambers that we refer to as our 'Europa in a can.'

These are vacuum chambers that allow us to pump down to Europa temperatures, which is about -280 degrees Fahrenheit.

We can bring it down to the space vacuum of Europa's surface, and we can then irradiate it with energetic electrons or ions, which is what happens to ice on the surface of Europa.

We've put salts into the chamber because we think that Europa's ocean is salty.

We put it in, and it's a nice pure white.

We irradiate it under Europa conditions, take it out, and it's a brownish- yellowish color.

And some of that color sort of matches the discoloration on Europa's surface.

We've also put different carbon compounds in there, and sometimes we can create a little waxy goo, and that's interesting because maybe these organic compounds are not getting destroyed by the radiation, but instead they might be synthesized into larger compounds.

And then we've also put microbes in there and irradiated microbes, and look for the remnants of what would serve as a sign of microbial life.

We've got these stock-pot chambers that are kind of a quick MacGyver-y version to recreate Europa's surface, and then some of our experiments feed forward into the design of robotic landers and sampling systems.

Our team has built a vehicle that we call the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, and basically what it does is it floats on the underside of the ice and look at the ice/water interface.

Those capabilities will hopefully someday be used to explore these far and distant oceans on worlds like Europa and Enceladus.

You've got this incredibly cold ice on Europa's surface, and at that temperature, is it possible to even sample that ice, or is it so hard that you just cannot drill into it?

And we've done experiments to get at exactly that question, and turns out, with the right tools, we can put a saw blade down in and through that ice.

And then most recently, our team has created what we call The Ark of Europa.

This is a very large vacuum chamber and cooling system, and then there's a roughly 30-centimeter thick block of ice within there that is then subject to lights going back and forth, kind of like the rise and fall of the sun on Europa's surface, and that may create spikes and dips within the ice surface.

This is where our Ark of Europa will help, because we'll be able to re-create the surface structure of Europa.

There's still another -- phew! -- nearly 15 years or so to go before we maybe land on the surface and then sample the surface to look for signs of life.

But I predict that, within our lifetimes, we will potentially revolutionize our understanding of life in the universe and our place in it, and that's because we do have a pretty robust plan for exploring our solar system and beyond.

From construction workers drilling to sirens blazing, there is seemingly no escape from the cacophony of New York City streets.

But now, researchers from New York University and Ohio University are teaming up to curb these urban irritants with an initiative they're calling Sounds of New York City.

Joining us to talk about this initiative is lead investigator Juan Pablo Bello.

You're literally trying to listen to everything in the city.

Sure. Yeah.

We're trying to understand, you know, what is the composition of sources in the environment of the city so that we can direct mitigation efforts in a more effective way.

Also to understand, really, you know, what is the behavior of noise at larger scale, right?

So, you have specific sources being activated in a specific location in space and time.

And I think, right now, we don't really have the data to understand, you know, how that influences the way that we go about mitigating noise, the way that we go about deploying city resources to mitigate noise, and, more importantly, how we can incur self-regulation from, you know, this type of information.

So, right now, you're trying to build a map of New York City, but one we can hear?

Yeah.

I mean, well, I think, at the first level, it's one that we can visualize, so one that will give you really good information about, you know, noisy areas in the city, but also, you know, that this area is noisy with emergency-vehicle sounds.

This area is noisy with, you know, like, street-party noise.

Or if you live around a square, you know, what type of events, you know, change the behavior of the acoustic environment around your location?

So that's the type of information that we're hoping people will have more accessible through these maps.

How do you capture this data?

New York's a big city.

It's got lots of different neighborhoods, lots of different sounds.

So, it's a combination of things.

So, primarily, we're deploying a large-scale sensor network, acoustic sensor network, which idea is to monitor the acoustic environment 24/7.

But most importantly, it has advanced technologies in the sensor in order to identify automatically the type of sources that contribute to the environment in those locations, right?

So you get a 24/7 monitoring of jackhammers versus idling engines versus, you know, like, the sound that trucks make when they're, you know, backtracking.

So, you know, so part of the idea is to have that identification inside in a way that you can really start to collect patterns at a larger scale, you know, as source-based patterns.

How do you see those patterns?

I mean, you don't have an army of humans sitting there with headphones on, listening to every one of these microphones.

No, and in this part of a project, you know, really the idea is that we're going to leverage that noise from data science -- so, large-scale data mining, things like computational topology that allow you to look for abnormalities in large data sets.

So, just to try to understand, you know, what is regular in terms of acoustic behavior, but also, more importantly, what is irregular, and what could be attached to certain, specific events in the city.

So, are these sensors picking up, well, for you, noise, but, for us, conversations?

Well, no.

The sensors are more concerned, and we are more concerned with source type.

So the idea is that the sensor will tell you there is speech here.

It might even be able to tell you whether it's male or female speech in there, or shouting, but we're not interested on conversational account, and nor we have the technology, really, to extract conversational content in noisy environments like the city.

I mean, like, the thing to understand here is that, in New York City, you have hundreds of sources active in any given location, right?

So in these various situations, it's very difficult to get something like phonemes or words.

And, furthermore, you know, we're taking very specific steps to try to ensure there is protections in terms of privacy for the people in these locations.

So, you know, right now, though we're collecting audio data, we're only recording 10-second snippets in these locations.

And they are collocated in time, right, so we don't have contiguous events that we can identify as a longer conversation.

So, let's say you build this map that you can see and hear on how New York sounds and where.

What does a policy maker do with this information?

So, right now, like, if you take one agency, for example, which is tasked with mitigating noise, which is the Department of Environmental Protection in New York City, and you have something like 15 inspectors to cover the entirety of New York City in terms of noise mitigation, right?

So these are, you know, highly-qualified individuals, but there are only so many of them, and I think it's unrealistic to expect to the city to try to hire, you know, thousands of people to be able to cover a city of this, you know, scale.

So, the technology at that first level will be able to better direct the efforts of these experts, right?

So just be able to use the kind of, like, operations research technology that is currently used, you know, for your delivery trucks, you know, like, to scale, you know, your Amazon or, like, FreshDirect delivery.

You know, you could use the same sort of intelligent allocation of resources to be able to locate inspectors in time and space in ways that maximize their impact.

And then, afterwards, you could try to maybe say, 'This is a residential zone.

Let's not put this hospital right next to it.'

Or how would you redesign a city keeping noise in mind?

Yeah.

I mean, I think this is, of course, one of many threats which are currently going on in the city, in particular, but, you know, around the world in sense in different aspects of city behavior.

So we definitely think that noise could be one of those components, you know, that will hopefully inform city planning going forward, and the way that people distribute zoning, especially, like, mixed zoning areas, you know, which is something that the city is very keen to try to roll into, but right now it's very hard.

You know, it doesn't have necessarily the data to do this effectively.

So, you know, we think of this as one data stream that can contribute to do, you know, better mixed zoning, you know, to better allocate, you know, like, different types of activities across the geographical area of the city.

All right.

Juan Bello from NYU.

Thanks so much.

Thank you so much.

Science has been relying on the work of citizen scientists, ordinary citizens who aid with science research, for centuries.

Researcher Caren Cooper highlights the work of citizen scientists in her new book, 'Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.'

She joins me now via Google Hangout.

Let's just get a definition of 'What is a citizen scientist?'

Well, a citizen scientist is someone who helps in scientific research, and it can be in so many different ways.

It can be from someone sharing their bird-watching checklist, someone monitoring their water quality, someone hooking up their computer to a distributed computing network, someone tagging butterflies.

It can look so many different ways.

So many different ways that people get involved in genuine scientific research.

Oftentimes, they're sharing information that collectively makes some big discovery.

Now, I remember in the '90s -- I'm aging myself now.

But the search for extraterrestrial intelligence had a screen saver that my computer could use the excess power.

You know, that was a relatively passive experience.

What are some projects that are happening today where people are actively contributing something for greater understanding?

Well, let me start by saying there's literally thousands of citizen science projects out there.

So, really, like, anything someone might be interested in, any kind of species or phenomenon, there is a project out there that's coordinating volunteers to study it and understand it better.

There's a lot of bird projects.

Ornithology is a huge area in citizen science, just because people love birds.

And that's some bias there because I'm an ornithologist, so that's where I'm most familiar.

There's projects with marine pollution, you know, like, finding marine debris, finding little nurdles, which are, like, little plastic pellets that are major pollutants.

There's projects like following the phenology of spring, the timing of spring, like when flowers bloom, when trees leaf out.

That kind of stuff.

So some are really long-term projects to look at phenomenon over years, something that one scientist -- like, they could collect data with the help of volunteers over time frames that are longer than their own careers, really.

There's projects that are very large-scale.

It seems like there's also communities that are encouraging new scientific projects to emerge.

I mean, I think of SciStarter, similar to Kickstarter, where people are throwing up their ideas saying, 'Here's how much -- what I need in money and what I need in time.'

Yeah, SciStarter's a great system for citizen science because, like I said, there's thousands of projects, and it can be sort of overwhelming to sort of navigate this space when everything is changing so quickly.

And, so, SciStarter has sort of a project finder where people can search for projects based on their interests or their skills or what kind of activities they want to do or the location, you know, where they live.

So it's great, really, at matching people and projects together.

Is there an attitude adjustment that's started to happen in the world of academia and science where -- not that they had their nose held up in the air, but, you know, there has always been a resistance -- 'Oh, I don't know the quality of the data.

I don't know if I can trust this information coming from these sources.'

But now when you see publications, peer-reviewed journals starting to accept some of these, is that shifting?

Yeah, it slowly is shifting, I think.

I think everyone, scientists and even non-scientists, often have that initial skepticism like, 'What?

How could it be that people without any scientific training could actually help in real scientific research?'

But there is a lot of lay expertise, and it really can vary.

Yeah, I have seen a shift in the scientific community toward people understanding a whole host of ways that we manage data quality and make sure that it's fit for the uses that it's appropriate for.

And yeah, I've been, you know, part of a movement to make that more prominent and to help scientists and others see that, actually, citizen science has been around a really long time.

It just hasn't always had that name, and so it's really gone unacknowledged.

I mean, that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to write the book was that this is, like, this great thing that's happening, and it's so unacknowledged and undervalued, and that it really should just be a household term.

Scientific frontiers have advanced so far that some of them have kind of hit a point where, in order to keep advancing, they need to collaborate not just with other scientists, but with everyone.

Like, they actually need citizen science to answer the kinds of questions where some of the fields are going.

You know, I think back to farmers that have kept almanacs of their property and their crops year after year after year, and they've observed everything and they've catalogued everything meticulously just like a scientist would, and it also occurs to me that, just looking up at the sky at night, I mean, astronomy is a field where people almost get to name a galaxy if they find it.

Right. Yeah, actually, one of the oldest citizen science projects in this country is the Cooperative Weather Observer Network run by NOAA, and that started in about the 1880s.

And it was farmers, actually, who volunteered to set up weather stations and report those data back.

And, yeah, amateur astronomers, they're often called, you know, are the ones that find comets and asteroids and stuff.

And there's a lot of online citizen science, where the whole project is exclusively run online.

So it's not making, like, necessarily a new observation out in your neighborhood, but it's actually tagging or processing information that's either collected from automated systems or in some other way.

So how do you see citizen science progressing?

I mean, if it picked up momentum where it is now, in the next few years, do you just think that it's kind of... Do you see sort of high-school classrooms and middle-school classrooms contributing in a pipeline, or people not necessarily seeing science as something other, but really just part of life?

Yeah, good question. Yeah.

I mean, my hope is that it does become so mainstream that is just a part of daily life, and that when people consider career options, you know, maybe they want to go into science, but also they think, 'Oh, yeah.

I love science, but I also love these other types of careers, but I could always have science be something that I do as a citizen scientist,' right, just like people do sports or art, and they don't necessarily think, 'Oh, I'm gonna become an artist or a professional athlete.'

It's the same with science.

There's so many things about it.

All right. Caren Cooper, author of 'Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery.'

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

♪♪

A breakthrough discovery at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine could change the way illnesses like asthma and cancer are treated.

Researchers at the university discovered a compound that reduces inflammation by slowing the movement of cells into unwanted areas.

Here's the story.

Scientific discoveries often require years of methodical, painstaking research involving countless tests, reformations, and retests of hypotheses.

Just media alone.

Okay.

Transfection vehicle.

Wow, that's amazing.

And that describes Dr. Ken Adler's work at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

It's how he found out about a medical breakthrough that makes this story unique.

His colleagues asked him to look at the lab mice.

Something was happening.

I said, -- well, I think I was doing something at the time.

I said, 'I can't come down to the animal room right now.

Why don't you just take a video?' not even thinking, because everyone's got a phone now with a video camera.

So he came up and showed this to me.

It's like, 'Oh, my goodness.'

And indeed, Dr. Qi Yin had his phone with him.

Yes, when I saw the animal getting better, I just want to share the good news to everybody, so I make the video simply from this phone.

I know it's not professional, but it really found the animal getting better.

You had to show somebody?

Yeah, I have to show everybody for that.

You have to understand that just a few days before, those mice were on the brink of death, infected with acute respiratory distress syndrome.

So what we have here is a model of ARDS.

We call it ARDS now, acute respiratory distress syndrome, in mice.

What you do is you inject a substance called lipopolysaccharide into the airways of the mice.

This is the most common model in mice.

The mice get, essentially, ARDS.

It's about the same amount of mortality.

So these are the mice that are sick, and this is what they look like.

They're lying in one part of the cage in their own urine.

The rapid breathing.

Hair standing up.

Eyelids droopy.

Sort of huddled together.

Not very happy.

Very sick mice.

Now look at Dr. Yin's video.

It was shot after the mice received two treatments with a drug Dr. Adler discovered more than a decade ago and has continued researching.

Their eyes are bright.

Their hair is no longer standing up.

All activity.

Breathing normally.

Moving around.

Happy.

You couldn't believe it.

You said, 'These aren't the same mice.'

I'm totally blown away by this.

Dr. Adler discovered a peptide, which is basically a compound formed by linking amino acids.

Depending on the makeup, peptides regulate all kinds of things in the body, including hormones.

This peptide appears to block excessive inflammations.

Think of the swelling around an injured leg.

We'll let Dr. Adler explain.

So, if my hand is a cell, it's sitting on a blood vessel or a tissue, and the stimulus is over here, so it moves like this.

Sends out part of the cell.

Adheres onto whatever it's moving on.

Drags the rest of it.

The drug blocks the proteins that allow the cells to move.

To be clear, inflammation isn't bad.

That rush of cells helps to prevent infection and promote healing.

You want some inflammation.

You want some of your inflammatory cells to come to sites of infection, but not this tremendous cascade, which can cause all sorts of problems.

And you need to think of inflammation in a broader sense.

Many lung diseases are caused by inflammation.

The mucus in bronchitis is an inflammation.

That's why the drug powder is suspended in a solution and delivered as a mist that is inhaled using a nebulizer.

This is bronchitis caused by smoking, okay, causes all these inflammatory cells to come into the lung.

Air pollutants, we breathe in air pollutants.

All the inflammatory cells come to the lung.

So you want to stop the excess inflammation.

So this discovery could mean new treatments for chronic bronchitis, asthma, and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which results from stresses such as pneumonia or near-drowning.

So, inflammation in the lung, asthma's considered an inflammatory disease.

Bronchitis is considered an inflammatory disease.

It is rare that drugs that we get in basic science make it to the point of being a marketable item, and so this is truly special.

We've made an impact.

The cell biologist is now investigating if his drug could be used to block cancer metastases, which is the spread of cancer cells between organs.

There are currently no drugs to do that.

And to think that this drug can actually help people save lives is pretty humbling.

And I consider myself one of the fortunate scientists who have come to the point where something that I developed in my laboratory can actually be used as a drug to help people.

And that's the overriding thought.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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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... ♪♪