SciTech Now Episode 332

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look into a lab as researchers estimate the number of roach species on the planet; the story of retired astronaut Michael Massimino; virtual reality and the patient experience; and a look into the sustainability of guitar making.



Coming up, researchin roaches...

I do work with cockroache on an everyday basis Identifyin cockroaches is very difficult.

That's why we had to emplo the tool of using geneti identification

...a down-to-Eart astronaut...

Every one of my space walks that I've been involved with you're faced with somethin that is not what you expected.

...virtual realit and the patient experience..

What if we could just ste into a patient's world And if we could do that, how would that make us better caregivers?

...the sustainability of guitar making

Guitar makers are increasingly intereste in getting out of the tropic for their wood supplies.

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 lates breakthroughs in science technology, and innovation Let's get started.

Did you know that the pesky cockroaches we sometimes find in kitchens, sewers, and basement make up less than 1% of all cockroach species Researchers estimate there are as many as 20,00 roach species on the planet.

And less than 5,00 have been cataloged.

Up next, our partner Science Friday goes into the lab with roach researchers at Rutgers Universit in New Jersey.

It started on just anothe spring day on the job for a New York City exterminator

[ Distorted voice ] And h noticed that there were large cockroaches inside the bait station.

And when he showed them to me, I knew that there were characteristics ther that were somethin that I had not seen in this part of the country i the 30-some-odd year that I've been working in the pest-control industry

The puzzling cockroac was examined by expert from Florida t Washington, D.C.

before ending up at the Ware Lab at Rutgers University wher researchers capture cockroache for a different reason

In my studies in South America where I collect specimens, and I'm trying to figure out how we characteriz the biodiversity by defining species.

I had the job of tryin to identify the species.

I do work with cockroaches on an everyday basis But even for me, identifying cockroache is very difficult.

So that's why we had to employ the tool of using genetic identification.

Through a process called DN barcoding, Evangelista identified the genetic informatio of the mysteriou roach's mitochondria and produced a DNA sequenc that could be compared wit other known cockroach species.

We did that We saw the two unknown specimen fel on the same branch of the tree as the Japanese cockroach.

We saw the sequences were identical This is a species that's not known to be invasive in the U.S.

It has an interestin characteristic that it is cold-tolerant which is unique amon the pest cockroaches we see in New York City.

Many of these invasiv species become successfu because they know somethin or they can do something which other species cannot do.

They have traits which are novel to the system.

And therefore, they become successful and invasive.

But the arrival of a new cold-tolerant cockroach isn't novel.

The invasion has bee going on for centuries New York City's famous roaches originated elsewhere There's the oriental cockroach actually thought to be from Africa, which likes wet and damp areas the American cockroach also of African descent, which is partial to sewer line and floor drains the German cockroach a Southeast Asian export which you may find in your kitchen, the brown-banded cockroach native to Africa which likes drier part of your home, like your bedroom, and the Surinam cockroac of Southeast Asian origin, which burrow in ornamental plants

When humans cam to new areas they brought these species with them.

But since they always traveled with humans, they might b one of the first species we have brought into North America.

I'm quite sure that Jamestown, for instance had cockroache which stepped from a ship, something they are famous for.

In fact, John Smith one of the founder of Jamestown wrote in 162 that a certain India bug called by the Spaniard 'a Cacarootch, the which creeping into chests they eat and defil with their ill-sented dung.'

But the pest cockroaches we've grown all too familiar with make up just a small percentag of cockroach species

About less than 1 of the cockroaches that exist on the planet are pest species We know about 4,500 species.

But there's probably a lot more than that The only formal estimate that I've seen is about 20,000 There are cockroache with some amazing qualities.

There are other cockroache that glow in the dark.

There are other cockroaches that have bright metallic coloration.

There's a huge variety of awesome behaviors that they display.

Cold toleranc is just another tric in their time-tested arsenal

Well, they've always said that cockroaches will be the last living thing found here.

You know, if you look back in historical record cockroaches have not changed that much in 350 million years So it's pretty muc a perfect living thing They'll be here long after we're gone

Not many people can say they've graduated both from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institut of Technology, have published their memoir, and have flown space mission with NAS except for our guest today Retired astronau Michael Massimino is a mechanical-engineering professor at Columbia Engineering School You are running a progra called Extreme Engineering You're teaching extreme.

What does that mean?


Hari, first of all thanks for having me

Oh, thanks to you

It's a pleasure to be her an get a chance to talk with you.

So Extreme Engineering was actually the ide of our dean of engineering at Columbia, Mary Boyce.

And I had some interesting stories to tell.

And every once in a while, a friend of mine would show up from NAS someplace and talk to students And so Mary had this ide to try to turn it into mor of a formal progra where we could inspire student to see what's ahead of them, after they get out of engineering school, that could be exciting And things like flying in spac or exploring in the Arctic or coming up with ne medical devices or figuring ou a way to turn wastewater which is one of our professors working on turning wastewate into resources and clean water and so on, all these thing that are kind of on the edge of technolog that kind of, I think, is the reason why people get interested in scienc and engineerin from the beginning There's somethin they want to accomplish, something they want to do.

And then, they get t engineering school and they find ou it's really hard You know, I mean, like 'Why am I doing this while everyone els is having fun in college?'


You know, and 'I'm banging my head against the wall tryin to learn all these equations.'

And the reason is becaus when you get out o engineering school or out of a scienc major afte you study that stuff I think you're in a position to have a very exciting career So that's what we try to sho to students.

You know, it seems like a lot of kids get sidetracke on the process to get there, meaning understanding math and saying, 'I don't know.


'I don' want all this math stuff.'


But they don't really see what they can do with it later on and they don't have that kin of big goa that they're working toward.

That's right.

And I think it's important to have that goal.

And it helped me, particularly when I was in graduate school.

You know, I got interested in the space program at an early age, when I was 6 going on 7.

I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon But that kind of died for me And it didn't get -- That dream, I didn't pic that up until after college.

And I decide to go to grad school And having that goal in front of you that 'Hey, you know, I'm goin to make the sacrifice now, but it's going to maybe lead to something that I want t really want to do with my life.'

One of the things people sa is that colleg is almost about learning how to learn more than i is what yo get exactly inside the book.

I mean, you, through NASA, which is incredibly famous for having huge binders full of, you know, checklists et cetera, et cetera


But you've also bee in scenarios where you've had to thin out of the box..


...and say, 'All right, guys You didn't write something down for that.

Absolutely, yeah.

That's happened.

I think, in engineerin in general is -- I think the most valuable thin you can lear with an engineering educatio is how to engage a problem because if you look at problem if you see it written down on an exam or in a book, or if you're faced with it in reality, it's overwhelming.

Like, how am I going to figure all this out And certainly at NASA, you know, we're faced with - I've been faced on my -- About every space walk, some worse situations than others..


...but every one of my spac walks that I've been involved with, either on the outsid with my friends spac walking or on the outside my you know inside with my friends space walking outside or being outside in the suit myself, you know you're faced with something that is not what you expected But what you've done is you've learned how to solve problem because you practice so much and you simulate so much

So it seems the key to staying calm out in space or anywhere is preparation

Preparation, yeah I think that that' really important You know, if you think about doin almost anything in life...


...and you don' know anything about it it could b a little overwhelming.

But studying and getting ready being prepared makes a big difference And you can walk into an exa and feel a little bit better about it if you've studied a little bit And you're building confidence So I think preparation and study -- all you're really doing is building up confidence.

You can go into that exa or that space walk or that launch into spac or whatever it i and feel confident because you're well prepared

It sounds like your classes aren't necessarily just for engineering students.

No. Yeah, no.

So, the class that I teach I teach a class on space flight.

And it's primarily engineering students But it's also availabl to students at Columbia Colleg and graduate students.

But Extreme Engineering, for sure, our program there, and you can find i on the Columbia website, is open to the entire school

You're one of a few dozen humans that have ever seen the planet from the vantage point of space.

What does it do to you

It actually has changed the way I think about the planet And from the altitude -- I was up at Hubble It's 100 miles highe than station We see the curve of the planet when we're space walking You're not looking through a window any longer, like when you're inside the spacecraft Now, you're outside, and you can see the Eart in front of you.

And when I really had time to look at it, the thought that went to my mind was 'This would be the vie from heaven.

If you're up there in heaven this is what you would see.'

And then I dwelled on it for a moment I said, 'No, no.

It's more beautiful than that.

This is what heave must look like.'

And as I stared for thos moment and thought about nothin except the beauty of our planet, I felt like I was looking into a paradise And that's the way I feel about this place.

You know we have lots of problems here.

We have a lot of thing to work out.

Sometimes, we feel lik we're getting better overall Sometimes, we take steps back.

But I think, after seeing it the way I've seen it I really do think we're very very lucky to be here.

We have to take care of this plac and make the mos of the opportunity living here I think there's life other places But I can't imagine any plac being more beautiful than our planet Earth.

Besides the secret handshak that I'm sure you all have is there -

Shh I'll have to tell you that when we're off the air

Is there something that you know, having seen the things that all of you have seen, is there some sort o a shared understanding I mean, do mos of the astronauts coming bac have that kind of aha moment that says, 'This is a planet that we've got to take care of This is our only one'?

I think so.

I think some express i a little bit differently We all, maybe, have our own view of it.

But I think, certainly, yes.

And I think what all of us share is this great feelin of gratitude of -- You know, becoming an astronau is not likely.

It's a very unlikely thing to have happen to you.

And it's just a little bit of good fortune, I think that comes into play there And having had that opportunit and getting a chance to fly in space, I think for everyone that's had a chance to do that it makes you very, ver appreciative of it, I think.

So I think that's probably the common thing..


...that we have And not everyone will tell you We have various kinds of people, just like you do everywhere.

And some people talk about it.

Some won't Some are more affected about it.

But, you know, everybody's different.


But I think most of u are very appreciative of what we've gotten a chance to do and see.

Mike Massimino, Professor of Engineering Columbia, former NASA astronaut, thanks so much for joining us.

Hari, thanks for having me.


From surgical simulations to a tool that helps those who suffer from PTSD virtual reality is takin on the healthcar industry by storm.

Joining me now via Google Hangout is Carrie Sha of Embodied Labs whose lab is at the forefront of this work.

Carrie, you know, we've seen some example of how PTSD sufferers, maybe even if it's fea of heights lots of different case where virtual realit has helped them get into an unfriendly situatio but in a nice, controlled atmosphere.

And you're doing something a little different It's V.R. It's not a game.

But it's almost like an empathy app So explain wha you've got going on.

Sure, yeah.

So I was inspire to start this company, Embodied Labs, after I had some experienc as a caregiver for my mom, who had early onse Alzheimer's disease.

And part of my time workin with her was to train her caregiver that came to help he around the house in what her disease meant.

And that was the first tim I really asked myself, 'You know, what if we coul just ste into a patient's world And if we could do that, how would that make us better caregivers?

And so that's somethin that I pursued eventually, when I returned to graduat school for medical illustration.

And it becam my thesis research I said, 'You know, we can visualize what the heart looks like, what small protein interactions look like at a microscopic level so why can't we apply medica illustration to show through the patient's eyes disease states and the patient experience?'

So what we really do is us the power of virtual reality to transport healthcare providers in trainin to their patients' worlds.

And they can immerse themselve in the patient's perspective

So there was one app that was almost kind of making me pretend like I was a 70-something-year-ol with macular degeneration.

And I'd never even thought about what it would look like to have that.

But this i what they live through And here we are, all interacting with them.


So macular degeneratio and high-frequency hearing los are the two most commo audiovisual disabilities in Americans that are over 65.

And so what we wanted to d with this, the Alfred Lab, is create an experienc where trainees could embod the 74-year-old man, into Alfred, and not only experienc these audiovisual disabilities but really get to know Alfred's story and immerse themselves you know, at his kitchen table with his family, on the way to the doctor with his son and while he's actuall in the doctor's office trying to interact wit the healthcare professional.

And this has given the trainee this whole new insight into how they might look at communicating with patients going forward in their careers

That's what I was wondering whether it's a caregiver or a doctor or even mayb even a relative watching or experiencing these videos But what do you see?

What happens to them after they take the goggles off?

What's their first kind of reaction

I think the initial reactio is always just surpris at how much they fel frustrated or felt isolate or realized, had insight into thing that they hadn't realize before going through the application.

And so another thing - it kind of depends on who's using the app So when it's a medical student they say, 'Oh, wow You know, I really need to think about how audiovisual change could affect the way I'm diagnosing patients.

Maybe they have a disability that is audiovisual, and I can mistake that for cognitive impairment.'

I've also had learners as youn as middle school go through it and just have this insight 'Oh, wow. They're -- you know, people are going through lif experience different than my own, which is really a deep insight for someon that might be only 12 years old.

And then we have learner all the way in their 70s go through it that have some of these conditions and can say, 'Wow, I feel like my story's being told And this is somethin that I can use to share with my famil to help them understan my experience better.'

So, what's next Your best-case scenari a few years from now - What do you hope happens And what kinds of applications or what kinds of V.R films are you working on

Yeah, we're working on a suite of embodied patient experience lab and really tacklin the geriatrics education space right now.

And so over the next year, we're going to build out a suite focused on that.

And then, really what we want to do is expand to look at all different perspectives of vulnerable patient populations.

So that could be childre with learning disabilities That could be wome and minorities with specific issues to that or something like the issues of autism, for example.

So the beauty of virtual reality is that it's the only medium that can really transport yo into another world that you'd otherwise b unable to experience

Carrie Shaw C.E.O. of Embodied Labs, thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

There is both a consumer an a corporate need for enhance secure communication solutions Right now, there are a lot of really good end-to-en messaging apps out there like WhatsApp, Confide, and Telegram, that sen and receive encrypted messages so people cannot intercept or hack them However, you can reall only message other users on those systems with those apps.

Gibberit allows you to add that same sort of end-to-end encryption to services you already use, like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, and in fact, it even works o website comment boards like the New Yor Times comment boards Reddit,, the point being that users have control ove their encrypted contacts across platforms across systems.

I am a corporate lawyer, and I spend a fair amoun of time doing things like document discover and also assisting clients with data-privac breaches and general cybersecurity analysis It occurred to m that users really have very little transparency or control into their ow encrypted communications Most systems try to actively hide encryption from their users because they think users will be intimidate or don't want to deal with it.

But based on the new these days, with everyon getting hacked left and right, people discovering that their e-mails are being intercepte by third parties phones being hacked, it occurred to me that most people are probably going to want some way to communicat with their lawyers their accountants, their doctors and really put the control of the encryptio right in their own hands Right now, you sign up by going to and installing a Chrome browser extension You add buddies, just like any other social network like LinkedIn or Facebook.

And your buddies are able to decrypt the messages that you send to them.

It works in most place you can enter text into a browser And mobile apps are coming soon, as well.

First introduce in 12th-century Europe the guitar is no a ubiquitous musical instrument.

And now, growing in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest may be exactly what guitar makers nee for a generation of ethicall and sustainabl sourced instruments.

Our environmenta reporting partner EarthFix has the story.

When Steve McMinn looks at trees he tries to see their future

It's difficult to predict Thinking, 'Man, I could cu a 12 out of about here This piece would slice nicely.

For decades, McMinn has supplied the guitar industry with trees grown from Alaska to Oregon.

His customers include America' biggest guitar makers.

At his shop in the foothills of the North Cascades, he cuts them splits them... and listens to the results [ Mid-tempo music plays

I figured somebody could do a better job providing woo for musical instrument than had been done In the course of a year, we'll cut enough woo for 300,000 to 400,000 guitars

Lately, McMinn has been looking further into the future, trying to help make the guitar industry more sustainable.

Guitars use some of the rarest woods on Earth They command a high price, making them targets for poachers in parts of the worl already hit hard by deforestation

It's increasingly difficult to legally ethically source woo from the tropics So guitar makers are increasingly intereste in getting out of the tropic for their wood supplies.

One place is McMinn's backyard The Pacific Northwest is hom to the fast-growin big-leaf maple tree.

Maple is a clean, green, legal, local wood We're interested in seeing whether we can provide the with a secure supply for the long term.

To find out, he partnered with Jim Matson.

They're nice trees.

Matson studies tree at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia Big-leaf maples like these are common in the region But very few of them wil develop the beautiful appearance that guitar players want

When we think of wood we mostly think of woo that looks something lik this with a fairly straight grain But it's also quite dull in its appearance.

So many people like tree that have defects.

Defective or figured grai is popular for decorative items.

But nobody has figured out how to grow maple tree to look like this.

They find it very rarel in nature.

So what causes this defect?

Matson had a hunch.

In other kinds of trees, the wavy grain is genetic.

So Matson began taking samples of figured maple trees and cloning them in his lab.

When the trees get big enough, Matson will bring them her and turn 50 acre of old farmlan into a figured maple plantation.

It could take 10 years before McMinn know whether his experiment are working.

He's willing to wait

Left to my own, I would rather just have trees, period.

If McMinn doesn't see guitars in their future, at least he'll have trees to look at.

And that wraps it u for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and joi 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 progra is made possible by...