SciTech Now Episode 340

In this episode of SciTech Now, University of Washington researchers are studying the invasive crab species; polar Scientist Marco Tedesco shows us the difference a few degrees in temperature can make; 3D printing is changing the face of medicine; and a regional STEM competition in Hillsborough County Florida where we meet students preparing to be the cutting edge scientists of tomorrow.

TRANSCRIPT

[ Theme music plays ]

Coming up... trapping an invasive species...

We want to be thorough, but we're hoping to not find them, because when we find them, it could be just the beginning of something really terrible.

...the difference a few degrees in temperature can make...

When we expose this bare ice, it's very dark, it contains dark material, and so it absorbs the sunlight much stronger, and it melts much faster.

...3-D printing changing the face of medicine...

Blood vessels and nerves will actually grow into these tissues, and they will become functional inside the body.

...the scientists of tomorrow.

So, the project title's Water Purification by Controlling Turbidity Using Natural Coagulants.

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.

Over the last few decades, an invasive crab native to Europe has been making its way to the West Coast.

Recently, that crab species was found for the first time in Washington's Puget Sound.

Now University of Washington researchers are trying to find out if more of these destructive invaders are lurking in the Northwest's inland sea.

Our environmental reporting partner EarthFix has the story.

[ Water splashing ]

Emily Grason and Sean McDonald are on a hunt.

They're scouring this salt marsh on San Juan Island in Puget Sound in search of a three-inch menace -- the European green crab.

This was the location where our volunteer crew found a single adult male, and this is the first sighting along Washington's inland shores.

And the trap where they found the green crab was right here.

Grason and McDonald are with the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team.

They've set hundreds of baited traps to try to prevent invasive green crabs from setting up a colony.

It might seem like it's crazy for us to have such an intense trapping effort for just a single crab being found.

One crab, what's the big deal?

But these crabs do tend to show up in numbers, and where there's one, there's often more.

We want to be thorough, but we're hoping to not find them, because when we find them, it could be just the beginning of something really terrible.

Green crabs are considered one of the worst global invaders.

So the team is teaching citizen scientists how to identify green crabs, and asking them to keep a lookout.

The green crab has five spines on both sides of its eyes.

So, if there are not five spines, five very distinct teeth to the outside of each eye, then it's likely a native crab.

From their home shores in Europe, green crabs have spread to South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and both coasts of North America.

They are voracious predators, able to crack open mussels and clams.

On the East Coast, their numbers have been on the rise.

They've wreaked havoc on the ecosystem and devastated Maine's soft-shell clam industry.

If they reach the densities here that they do on the East Coast, it would be disastrous.

In a marsh like this, they would burrow into the banks, they would riddle it with holes.

It would cause it to degrade at a faster rate.

Once green crabs become abundant, like here in coastal Maine, they become near impossible to get rid of.

The only effective tool we have for eliminating green crab is trapping.

We don't want to spray chemicals.

We don't want to use any sort of biological control.

But for the time being, there's hope.

After three days, their traps come up empty.

Now I have a little bit more confidence that there's not tons of crabs hiding in pockets of this marsh.

There's always that voice in the back of your head, 'Well, did you look everywhere?

Did we thoroughly explore this entire marsh?'

And there's really no way to know.

They'll be back in the coming months to search some more.

[ Theme music plays ]

Earth's polar regions are sensitive enough that a difference of 1 or 2 degrees in temperature can thaw a world of ice.

Polar scientist Marco Tedesco of Columbia University's Earth Institute has been studying these warmer winters that affect our poles and our planet.

This segment is part of our ongoing series of reports, 'Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.'

Thanks for joining me.

Thank you.

So, you guys put out a report card.

What's in an Arctic Report Card?

Well, the Arctic Report Card is something sponsored by NOAA, which groups many scientists -- this year, 61 scientists -- to put out what is the state of the arctic in a very fast and quick way, right after when the data comes out fresh from the sensors, so that we can have a better picture of what the state of the arctic is, what's happening, and if things are changing.

So, what are the grades of the arctic, and what's been happening over time?

Well, the arctic has been warming, first of all, at a very fast pace.

Mostly twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

For 2016, for example, the arctic, just the land over the arctic, was up to about 3.5 degrees Celsius -- about 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit -- warmer than the average.

And the overall arctic was about 2 degrees Celsius -- about 4, 4.5 Fahrenheit -- warmer than the rest of the world.

So, is it happening at the pole more so than in the rest of the planet?

Well, when the rest of the planet warms up, there is something we call arctic amplification.

The arctic amplification is really the mechanism through which the arctic warms much faster than the rest of the world.

One example, there are all these feedback mechanisms -- so, mechanism that amplifies the effect of a warming world.

For example, this appearance of sea ice.

You replace a very bright surface that reflects all of sun radiation and keeps the planet cool with the dark ocean that absorbs a lot of solar radiation, it keeps warming more and more the arctic.

This, for example, and other aspects are all mechanisms.

They're amplifying the warming of the arctic, and this is what happens.

So, is it a bit of -- I hate to mix snow and ice here, but -- a snowball effect, where the more ocean you get, the more heat it absorbs, the faster it melts, the more ocean you get --

Correct. Correct.

The snowball effect.

Sometimes I'll describe it like a train running downhill, for example, right.

So if you put the temperature as your coal in the furnace, your train goes faster and faster if you put more coal.

But if your train is running downhill, like the amplifying mechanism on your speed, then even if you don't start putting more coal, the train will keep accelerating farther and farther.

And so that's what happens.

You put more coal, we're going downhill, and everything happens much faster.

So, let's talk a little bit about, what are the actual impacts on the surface?

So, places like Greenland.

They're not as green as they once were.

Or maybe you're seeing more green now than you used to see.

Well, we don't see a lot of green, but we see less ice.

And also we see more bare ice exposed.

You know, snow is one thing.

Pure snow, bright snow, it really reflects a lot of solar radiation.

The ice which is below the snowpack, is really what really puts water into the ocean, that contributes to sea-level rise, because this ice has been locked for a very long time on the ice sheet and is not part of the water cycle.

And so when we expose this bare ice, it's very dark, it contains dark material, and so it absorbs the sunlight much stronger, and it melts much faster.

And so we are starting to remove this ice that was locked for tens of thousands of years and putting it into the ocean, which is directly contributing to the sea-level rise.

And that sea-level rise can be felt globally.

It can be felt globally, yes.

So, everything you put into the ocean will be redistributed, but overall the impact that this might have is both local in terms of salinity, ecosystems, fishery, but also global in terms, of course, of sea-level rise in coastal regions.

So, if you put a cube of ice in a glass of water, it doesn't necessarily change, but it does start to expand, and over time, when that melts, you get a lift.

Right.

So, the reality is that the ice is not sitting in the water.

It's sitting on land.

So everything that we remove from land to the ocean, that actually is increasing our glass of water.

So that's the equivalent of adding more and more ice cubes in, right?

It's the equivalent of adding more and more ice cubes.

There are shelves, of course, ice is sitting into the water.

That does not add up.

But when those are removed, that is really the unplugging the cork of your champagne bottle, and then all the ice behind can start flowing much faster, and this increases sea-level rise.

So, as these changes are able to be measured...

Mm-hmm.

There are different scientists that say we're at a tipping point, we're nearing a tipping point, we're past a tipping point.

Can this be slowed?

Well, it can be slowed, but we don't know how fast it can be slowed.

And there are mechanisms that can counter-effect the acceleration that we're seeing.

Namely, putting more snow -- or cooling down the planet.

This is really the recipe.

There's no big other issue or big other thought to make.

And you can do this by reducing, of course, the CO2 emission.

So, the thing that is very important to think of is, the time it takes to destroy or to remove the ice from the ice sheet is much faster than the time it will take to build an ice sheet.

You can really see this like building slowly something that takes a long time to consolidate and take shape, and then suddenly you take away the base of the structure, everything collapses.

To build it back still takes the same time, which is a long time, and it's much longer than destroying it.

So, how do you measure the warming that's actually happening?

Well, the warming is measured through a series of things.

Satellites are observing the surface, the ocean and land surfaces, through a network of sensors on land, through models that try to replicate what happened in the past and is happening in the present to project what will happen in the future.

For example, satellites, they've been used to measure the mass of Greenland -- how much mass Greenland is losing.

They've been measuring, too -- they used to measure also how much snow is falling here, and how much melt is occurring.

We have all this beautiful set of sensors, which we didn't have until 10, 12 years ago, together with the advances of supercomputing and the possibility of exploring this data, and a new generation of scientists who's really focusing their effort on understanding better these processes through these great data sets.

And so we can have a better picture now than we had even just 10, 12 years ago.

And this is somehow much better for us, but it's also more frustrating, because the more we know, the more we think there's an action that needs to be taken.

Is there any question that humans are contributing to this?

Well, not on my point of view, and not to the opinion of the IPCC.

I think being skeptical is a good thing.

I do agree with people who say that being scientists means also being skeptical.

This doesn't also mean that you need to start attacking a lot of things that are easy to defend when you don't have the time to do it, or when you can do it in a fair way.

So, to me, there's really a little point to discuss about this.

Well, one of the things that even the head of the EPA says is it's really hard to measure the amount that humans contribute to all of this.

But given all of the work you're doing, all of your peers are doing... you're fairly certain that this is warming that is caused by humans, and you can see the impact on the arctic?

Right.

I do agree, it's very hard.

But I do think, also, that the scientific community is doing an excellent job.

Being hard doesn't mean it's wrong.

I do think that there's more need to better understand and refine the projections in which way.

We want to know, for example, whether there will be a problem for Battery Park in 20 or 40 years, if there is a storm surge coming with an increase in sea-level rise, instead of being out one week, we'll be out maybe a month, or a blackout in the subway like happened with Sandy.

So in this regard, yes, we need to refine better, but we need to do it because we need to provide our expertise and service to the public by refining our projections, and work with policy makers to basically give back what we take from the public, which is the federal taxes used for the good of the public.

All right.

Marco Tedesco, professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much.

[ Theme music plays ]

3-D printing takes the science of regenerative medicine to a whole new level with the replacement of human organs.

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is printing organs using human cells on a biodegradable frame, allowing for nerves and blood vessels to grow into the organ and function normally.

Here's the story.

This lab at Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine looks pretty much like any other lab.

Lab coats, microscopes.

There's a device to warm and prepare samples.

Lots of samples in a tray.

And in the back of the lab there's a machine that looks pretty much like the standard 3-D printer.

Lots of ink reservoirs and nozzles, a computer to program what's printed, and an automated system that slowly builds a model, layer upon layer.

However, this device is anything but your standard 3-D printer.

So, you know, the strategy is that we take a very small piece of tissue from a patient -- less than half the size of a postage stamp.

We then expand the cells outside the body, and we then place these cells on cartridges just like your ink-jet cartridge.

But instead of using ink, we use cells.

And we then print these structures one layer at a time.

And as we print the cells, we're also printing the structure that holds it.

The glue, if you will.

So we create the structure together.

This is the integrated tissue and organ printing system.

What it prints is alive.

There are tens of millions of living cells suspended in a gel.

There's also a precise latticework of microchannels 200 microns wide imprinted into the system.

The vessels allow blood and nutrients to flow through the tissue.

The printed organ, made from the patient's own cells, is designed to be surgically implanted back into the patient.

You know, the interesting thing is that you're using the patient's own cells to create these tissues and organs, so basically the body recognizes them and adapts them as their own.

Blood vessels and nerves will actually grow into these tissues, and they will become functional inside the body.

The framework is a 3-D model created from an X-ray of the patient's actual organ.

And because each organ has specialized cells, the tissue sample is taken from the specific organ to be printed, and a protocol is designed to expand the cells.

With this technology, you're taking the patient's own cells, and we're using a glue-like substance, but when this gets implanted into the patient, the cells remain but the glue goes away, and it gets replaced by the patient's own glue.

So, six months later, you're left only with the patient's own tissue and organ.

So far, the research team has implanted into humans flat structures such as skin, hollow, tubular structures such as blood vessels and windpipes, and hollow non-tubular organs, such as a bladder and a stomach.

But those tissues and organs were handmade in the lab, and the customized scaffolds were coated by hand with the patient's cells.

What you are watching is research into the future of regenerative medicine.

3-D printers that can scale up the process so tissues and organs don't have to be tailor-made.

How can we actually accelerate the production of some of the technologies that we're working on?

For example, tissues and organs?

And the future is promising.

The new printing system, with its breakthrough technology of microchannels, has created 3-D-printed muscle and bone that have been successfully implanted in animals.

Those microchannels allowed blood vessels and nerves to generate after implementation.

For us, of course, it's all these challenges every day -- 'How do you solve this problem?

How do you solve this other problem?'

So there are always challenges that you have to face, and that you have to try to solve.

So it's not like there's this one big 'Eureka!' moment.

You know, it's really a lot of hard work that goes behind making sure that these technologies do, at the end, work.

[ Computer keys clacking ]

Every year, thousands of students in Hillsborough County, Florida, enter the state's STEM competition.

But only the very best make it to the finals.

In this segment, we take a look at the regional competition, and meet the students preparing to be the cutting-edge scientists of tomorrow.

It's really cool to see the different students out here.

They're really passionate about their science-fair projects.

It was just really interesting to see what other people -- projects that they had come up with, and how they can incorporate that into the real-world situations currently going on.

I really love getting to see what everybody else came up with.

I mean, there's some really interesting projects here.

These students are talking about their experience at the 2017 Regional STEM Fair for Hillsborough County schools.

The Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair is our single largest academic competition in the district.

So, today we have just over 1,700 students.

But many of them also already competed at the school level.

In terms of scope, we have over 100,000 students competing in the STEM Fair at their local level.

And, so, really, here at the convention center, it's the best of the best.

The best have come from all corners of the county because of their passion for science, technology, engineering, and math.

The Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair is an opportunity for students to really come together around the work that they've done, and for us in the community to honor that work.

So, for some students that might not be interested, say, in football or in soccer, this really is their Super Bowl.

We decided to do our own research and experimentation to determine what makes a STEM Fair participant successful at this level.

We randomly selected three students and their projects.

My project is titled How Vitamin E Delta Tocotrienol Targets Cancer Stem-Cell Transcription Factors, and also Inhibits the Pancreatic-Cancer Metastasis.

Sayyada Kazim is a senior at Tampa Bay Tech.

Her work is focused on finding cures for cancer, and she really knows her stuff.

The beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienols are known to inhibit the growth.

But the delta tocotrienol is the most bioactive anti-tumor agent.

However, its effects on the metastatic process and the transcription factors that are involved in that metastatic process are not known, so that's why I wanted to investigate this.

Yeah, we had a hard time following all that, too.

But it is all science and medicine, and it is what it takes to be on the cutting edge of cancer research, and something she's passionate about.

There are different challenges.

But, you know, you just have to stay grounded.

Researchers need to have patience, and they have to make sure that they do not make mistakes, because once you make one mistake, then everything's messed up.

Sayyada was very successful.

She was the first-place winner in the Senior Division for Biomedical and Health Science.

She also won the NASA Earth System Science Award, and Woman in STEM Award.

So, the project title's Water Purification by Controlling Turbidity Using Natural Coagulants.

Ameya Mujumdar is in the 8th grade at Williams Middle Magnet School.

Turbidity is basically the murkiness or cloudiness of all the particles -- dust and everything -- in the water.

So, the current solutions for that right now is using chemicals such as alum sulfate or iron sulfate.

His research is aimed at finding solutions for clean water in developing countries.

I wanted to use natural coagulants 'cause it'll be more economic-friendly, less hazardous to use, and they're also really abundant around the whole world.

So, for example, there's a lot of Moringa trees in Africa.

And Africa really needs a lot of clean water, 'cause there's many developing nations there.

Another one I decided was using peanut shells, because I liked how they're agricultural waste.

So instead of just wasting them directly, we can actually make use of them, because they have the carboxyls which attract the metal ions, such as copper ions, so they can even remove metals.

Ameya had an excellent STEM Fair.

He won first place in the Junior Division Environmental Engineering Award.

He also won the Carollo Cares Award and the Stantec Award.

And I wanted to find something that would benefit the real world.

I wanted to try to make an impact on something that mattered.

So I found this disease, which is also known as black rot.

That's the common name.

Taylor Mingle is in the 12th grade at Brandon High School.

She's seeking ways to treat black rot in certain plants.

I did some research, and I found out that chlorine eliminates the disease, but only for nine days.

So, I said, 'How can I make it last longer?'

So I applied the chlorine in different concentrations to see if it had any effect on it, and then I took a paraffin wax and I melted it down, and I painted it over the chlorine on the leaves of the plant.

And I found that it eliminated the disease for three weeks.

Taylor initially struggled with the idea of even entering the STEM Fair.

When I first had the idea for this project, I was not sure if it was something that I could carry out.

But my teacher encouraged me, and she said, 'You know what, if you want to do it, I want you to try it.'

So I did my research, I figured out exactly what I wanted to do, and I went with it.

And it turned out great.

The thing about science is, even if you don't get the results that you want, you're still collecting research, and you're still doing what you want to do.

Taylor's efforts resulted in a second-place award in the Senior Division for Plant Science.

A STEM Fair alumna has now graduated from college.

She's returned to give back and be a judge today.

So, Jasmine started with us in 4th grade and continued through the system.

And she graduated high school, went on to Johns Hopkins, and that's what we would hope all students have the opportunity to do, should they wish to do so.

Jasmine Roberts is quite a star here.

Today she was also invited to be the keynote speaker at the kickoff breakfast for the fair.

It was a lot of fun to be able to have the opportunity to speak on the science fair, and the impact it had on me.

And then, of course, judging.

It's always great to give back.

And it was kind of nerve-racking, as well, just because it was weird to be on the other side.

Her passion for science at an early age made it easy for her to find her way in college.

Getting that early exposure, if that's what you want to do, for me, it helped guide me for when I went to college.

It helped me decide on what college I wanted to go to.

And I ended up at Johns Hopkins, which is number one in neuroscience, and number one in a lot of science fields.

She appreciates what others did to help propel her toward her goals in science.

Even in high school, I was at the lab until midnight, and my parents would come and stay with me.

So a lot of it was thanks to the support that my parents did give me, and also the support that I had from mentors.

Jasmine is a rock star.

And, you know, it's students like Jasmine that inspire us to continue to do the heavy lift of putting on an event like the STEM Fair.

And the young scientists we met today have these sage words for their fellow students.

The science fair allows students -- it gives the students the opportunity to showcase their work.

If they don't win in the first year, it doesn't matter.

Just keep working hard and come up with a better project next year.

Never give up.

If you're interested in a topic and you have an idea and you're passionate about it, go for 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... ♪♪