SciTech Now Episode 403

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look into the Tuvan Throat singing ensemble; a promising scientific advancement in artificial lungs; a look into how science played a role in the life of a newly selected NASA Astronaut; and watching out for wildlife.



Coming up, the science of singing...

By adjusting the length and shape of the vocal tract, a singer can amplify certain harmonics.

Promising scientific advancements in the use of artificial lungs.

These essentially are the artificial alveoli of the artificial lung.

What it's like to be selected as a NASA astronaut.

I'll never forget that moment.

It was absolutely surreal and wonderful and a joyful surprise.

Watching out for wildlife.

This is my life.

This is what I do.

This is why I wake up in the morning and go to work.

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.

A Tuvan throat-singing ensemble from Siberia has toured the world, demonstrating both their cultural heritage, as well as their vocal mastery.

Their incredible ability to sing many pitches simultaneously has inspired wonder and a deep appreciation for their craft.

How they achieve these otherworldly sounds is being explored by speech pathologist Aaron Johnson.

Our partner, 'Science Friday' brings us the story.


If you've never heard of Tuvan throat singing or seen it performed... the first time that you do, you might think that there's some audio trickery at work.

[ Throat singing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ All throat singing ] ♪♪

But the singers in the band Alash produce transcendent sounds like these solely through the mastery of bioacoustics.


[ Exhales deeply ] [ Cheers and applause ]

Tuvan throat singer Bady-Dorzhu Ondar speaks softly offstage.

I start early, four, five years old.

You're about to see the first child from Tuva to perform here in the United States.

For those of you who don't know, Tuva is a country located between Siberia and Mongolia, and the people there have this uncanny way of singing two notes at the same time.

[ Throat singing ] Yes, first time, you know, not hurt -- tickles, tickle.

[ Cheers and applause ]

So, what's Bady's secret?

Yes, I listen and try.

Yes, every day, I try.

It's a bit more complicated than that.

Just ask the band's manager, Sean Quirk.

So, the way we explain it to school kids is that, every time we make a musical note, there's lots of notes that are already there.

Those are called overtones, and normally we don't hear them as separate notes, because they're all blended together, but a Tuvan is squeezing for some of those overtones to get louder and the rest to go away.

[ Throat singing ]

To find out exactly what they're squeezing, you have to look inside.

This is Dr. Aaron Johnson, a speech pathologist at the NYU Langone Voice Center.

And while he doesn't throat sing, he can reveal how a baritone can achieve soprano-pitched overtones.

We have two pieces of tissue here in the larynx called the vocal folds, and the air then makes those vocal folds vibrate.

[ Vocalizing ]

Good, so those are the vocal folds vibrating...

The speed of which changes the pitch.

[ High-pitched vocalizing ]

Good and now super low.

[ Low-pitched vocalizing ] Good, and so now we're starting to see a little bit how things compress during the throat singing in those low notes.

We get a really small tube down there.

But that's not all that changes.

By changing the shape of my tongue and my lips, I then create different resonances.

The soft palate is moving around, the height of the larynx.

We see the larynx moving up and down, as well, all to change the shape of that tune.

[ Throat singing ]

Dramatically reducing unwanted frequencies while strengthening others at the same time.

That space that's inside the larynx just above the vocal folds is a very tight constriction.

That's probably what is amplifying those high harmonics.

Essentially, the Tuvan singers are using their throat a little like a sound mixer.

By creating different constrictions, you're lifting the slider up on certain frequencies and lowering the slider on other ones.

And by using audio-imaging tools, you can actually see the two distinct harmonics that are produced by a throat singer.

And if I go -- [ Vocalizing at various pitches ] You can see that we have these different harmonics that are being amplified.

But with a throat singer...

We have one resonance that's down here that's staying pretty constant.

And then, by adjusting the length and shape of the vocal tract, a singer can amplify certain harmonics.

[ Throat singing ]

Throat singers also squeeze and vibrate different regions of their larynx to produce that low, raspy-style singing known as Kargyraa.

[ Kargyraa singing ]

These pink tissues, kind of bulges above the true vocal folds, are the ventricular folds, also called the false vocal folds.

Those aren't designed to vibrate in a regular way, so you're getting some irregular vibrations with those pieces of tissue that causes that scratchiness, that noise.

[ Kargyraa singing ]

But just because you can physically produce these sounds doesn't mean that you can master them.

For Bady and Ayan and Ayan-Ool, this is the thing that they grew up in.

It's so deeply tied up with the culture and with the way Tuvan people view the world, and that is a world view that is built on a long, long history of being a nomad.

That means you're very attentive to the cycles of nature, you're attentive to the sounds of nature.

People say, 'Oh, it's in our blood.'

And it's like, 'Yeah, that's magical.'

Don't get me with that nonscientific stuff, but I feel there is a case to be made for at least something like that.

A soul to the music that just can't be taught.

[ Throat singing ] ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] [ Keyboard clacking ]

According to the American Lung Association, more than 33 million Americans live with a chronic lung disease like asthma or emphysema.

In the most serious cases, lung transplantation can be an option, but it's risky and still requires a donor.

Dr. Keith Cook of Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Biomedical Engineering has developed an artificial lung that promises to provide needed long-term respiratory support for patients waiting for a transplant.

There's a big gap there between when somebody needs a lung and when somebody actually gets one, right?

Yeah, and there's a limited number of donor lungs.

There are only 2,000 transplants every year in the United States, and so that's a huge gap.

Most patients don't even make it onto the waiting list.

So, what do we have on the table here?

Is this an artificial lung?

So, I lead the bioengineered-organs Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, and we work on artificial organs, as well as tissue-based organs and things that are in between.

This is a fully artificial lung.


Would that go in someone's body?

No, these devices actually would sit on the outside of a patient.

So they would sit at belt level.


One of the major engineering challenges we have with these devices is that they fail due to clot formation.

And the current devices fail within weeks, and we're trying to make it to the point where these devices will last for months, but we would still need to replace the organ.

Okay, when you say 'clot,' what kind of clots are happening in there?

So, anytime blood contacts an artificial surface, it immediately begins to clot.

And so, slowly, over time, these devices will start to fill up with clots, and so it blocks blood flow, it reduces the gas-exchange efficiency of the device, and so you need to use anticoagulants to slow that down, but that can create bleeding risks.

We're not just talking about two plastic boxes here.

What's inside there?

Yeah, so it's hard to see inside the device, so I brought these along.

These essentially are the artificial alveoli of the artificial lung.

So, they look just like threads, but they're really small tubes, and we can flow 100% oxygen through the inside of the tubes, and then oxygen diffuses out, and carbon dioxide diffuses into the inside of the tubes.

So, that's what the blood would actually touch?

Yeah, yeah.

And that's the challenge, is that these things are great for providing gas exchange, but they also accelerate clot formation because they're fairly densely packed.

So, does this mean every month, every few months, you'd want to change the filters?

Yeah, so we do think of this as sort of like a razor and razor-blade combination.

So all the attachments to the patient, those are the razor, and this is the blade.

And so, currently, devices fail between one to four weeks, and you just can't send a patient home if they're going to need to come back to the hospital every one to four weeks.

So we're trying to work on devices that will last for greater than three months.

What's different about this versus what's in the marketplace today?

There's been a bit of a dogma that has come about through cardiopulmonary bypass surgery.

During those surgeries, you have an oxygenator that provides the gas exchange for the patient for a period of a few hours.

And there's a certain design that they use for those devices, and those devices have been around since the 1960s.

And, unfortunately, it's followed these devices into long-term support.

And so we have sort of changed that up.

We really work hard on creating very careful blood-flow patterns inside the device so there's no areas where blood is circling around and eddying or where blood sits stagnant.

All those areas are really rapid clot-forming regions.

And the other thing is we pack these fibers much more loosely than in those devices, and what we find is that loose packing will slow clot formation down in the devices.

Is science to a point where we would build a pump and a system like this that could last a lifetime, an artificial lung that could sit inside someone's body?

Yeah, so, we work on biomaterials approaches to coding these devices, and we work on new pharmaceutical methods for slowing clot formation only within the device, not within the patient, so they don't bleed.

But even there, I think that we're probably going to be limited to a few years on these devices.

The tissue-based devices, however, should be self-regenerating, and it's possible that those devices could last an entire lifetime.

How far away are we from that?

So, these devices, we're within five years.

The tissue-based devices, I would say probably 15 to 20.

And each year, you're talking about thousands of people who are, at times, just waiting for a transplant and sometimes don't make it.

Yeah, absolutely.

I, myself, have had relatives who that's happened to.

Keith Cook of Carnegie Mellon University.

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks a lot, Hari.

Zena Cardman, a Pennsylvania State University research fellow, was selected as part of NASA's astronaut class of 2017.

In this segment, Cardman explains the selection process and the role science has played in her life.

In 2015, NASA began accepting applications for its next class of astronauts.

A record 18,300 people applied.

Only 12 were chosen.

One of them is a graduate student at Penn State.

My name is Zena Cardman.

I am a microbiologist by training, but currently I'm a graduate-research fellow at Penn State University.

I'm actually studying cave slime at the moment, so microorganisms that live underground in caves.

One of the most unique places I've visited is absolutely Antarctica.

It's unlike anything I had ever seen before.

I first went down there when I was maybe 20 years old, and you fly down to the southern tip of Chile, and then you get on an ice-reinforced vessel like one step down from an ice breaker, basically, and you cross the Drake Passage, which is notoriously one of the gnarliest seas in the world.

You keep going, and eventually you see little bits of icebergs floating around and some penguins, and it really feels like you've arrived there, so much more so than trips on planes that I had taken to get somewhere.

Cardman submitted her application to NASA in January 2016.

After two rounds of interviews, she was waiting on one last phone call.

I had a couple friends over that morning to keep me company because I think I would have gone insane otherwise.

They sat around making me breakfast tacos, and we actually started watching 'Apollo 13,' which is embarrassingly cliché. But about halfway through the movie, I got a phone call, and they asked, 'How's your day going?'

And in my head, I'm thinking, 'I don't know. You tell me.'

But I said something like, 'So far, so good.

How are you?'

And they said, 'Well, I think your day is going to get a little bit better.

We'd like you to come join the astronaut office.'

I'll never forget that moment.

It was absolutely surreal and wonderful and a joyful surprise.

What I'm most looking forward to about the training is just getting to know the rest of my classmates.

We got to know each other a little bit when we were in Houston for the two-day announcement.

Everyone is absolutely awesome.

I'm really, really excited to get to work with them.

Besides that, we get to learn how to fly T-38 jets.

I've never been faster than 100 knots in a plane that I was flying, so this is going to be a completely different ballgame.

I'm so excited about that.

My first piece of advice is go for it.

It's possible.

You know, I never would have thought that growing up.

You do need a degree in a STEM field, so science, technology, engineering, math.

One other thing that we all have in common -- you'll look at the class that was just selected -- is we love working in teams and groups.

So keep that in mind as you go through school and beyond school.

And after that, honestly, just pursue something that you love.

If you're waking up feeling inspired and curious about the questions you're asking, then you're going to be happy no matter what the eventual outcome is.

♪♪ [ Keyboard clacking ]

Over the past few decades, 'Oregon Field Guide' has documented conservation-effort and wildlife-research projects across Oregon, with many of those projects spearheaded by the state's Fish and Wildlife Department.

But conservation programs run by the state wildlife agency have been slashed since the heyday of the early '90s.

So, who's watching out for Oregon's wildlife now?

And is enough being done?

Our environmental reporting partner, 'Earth Fix,' has the story.

People spend big money to hunt and fish in Oregon.

[ Gunshot ] Hunting tags and fishing licenses are largely what funds the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Reel this one up.

Hatchery coho.

Must be about eight pounds.

It's money that goes towards things like fish hatcheries and intensive wildlife research like this.

I'll track down a radio-collared animal, and then we move in in, and we dart it.

As just one example of the kind of attention game animals get, 'Oregon Field Guide' once documented a 17-year study that used helicopters and teams of researchers to track hundreds of elk in the Blue Mountains.

This calf was born this morning.

In fact, you can still see some afterbirth on it.

It looks like it's a little wet and sticky.

Massive efforts like this give biologists the information they need to keep Oregon elk herds healthy.

[ Radio beeping ] It's also expensive.

Putting a radio collar on a single elk can cost up to $1,000 or more.

But for wildlife we don't hunt, it's a very different story.

These traps, we actually made these, a group of us, back in the early '90s, and you can see all the holes that I've stitched through time.

Simon Wray has been studying Western pond turtles in Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley for 23 years.

Western pond turtles are declining throughout the Northwest.

They're threatened by nonnative predators like bullfrogs and habitat change.

But Oregon's longest-running study of native pond turtles falls to just one person -- Simon and his homemade gear.

Recycled water bottles and duct tape and some string, and then, basically, these are strapped on the top of this thing.

You have to be inventive with the materials at hand and the meager budget that you have.

You have to find ways to fill in the gap and get the job done.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife has only three full-time, nongame field biologists out of a staff of 1,200.

Just another one.

Another female.

There's so little money for this work that Simon wound up doing surveys on his own time for 10 years, essentially as a volunteer.

That was captured in 2007.

It was a juvenile at that time, so this is the first capture since I got that.

This is my life.

This is what I do.

This is why I wake up in the morning and go to work.

I mean, I'm all in to do what I can and try to make a difference.

At least the turtles have Simon looking after them.

Hundreds of species get little to no attention at all.

When you look at the number of species out there -- birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals that we have virtually no information on -- for a lot of those species, we don't even have the basic information necessary to know how to benefit those species.

Oregon spends far fewer tax dollars on wildlife conservation than Washington, California, or even Missouri and Arkansas.

Take a look at where ODFW spends its money.

About 10% of Oregon's wildlife are so-called game animals.

They get the biggest slice of the pie.

The other 90% includes hundreds of rare and sensitive species.

They get a fraction of Fish and Wildlife dollars.

I don't think that there's anyone that would argue that the mission's being fully implemented, but it's -- we're doing what we can with the resources that we have.

ODFW has been reluctant to spend more hunting and fishing revenue on nongame wildlife, trying instead to raise money through things like birdseed taxes and specialized license plates, but those efforts have failed.

Lawmakers are now proposing income taxes and bottle taxes as they struggle to fund wildlife conservation.

If we thought we were doing enough right now, we would not be going down this path of looking for alternative revenue.

Oregon has a list of species the agency is most concerned about.

Lindsay Adrean kept tabs on those species for Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

My biggest fear is that we have worked so hard to put this list together with the goal of preventing these species from becoming threatened and endangered and feeling that that time has been for nothing.

That list of species has been neglected for so long that Lindsay and other biologists can't even say when many species on it were last monitored.

We know so little about so many of these species it's completely a possibility they could go extinct and we wouldn't know until after.

Bats are an example of wildlife that only got help after they were pushed to the brink.

Threats like disease and wind turbines have been hammering bats nationwide, so Oregon is now scrambling to get basic information about its own bat population.

So, Smith Rocks is this amazing bat hotel.

This is a great place to begin to kind of get our heads around what's going on.

In this case, ODFW teamed up with federal biologists to deploy bat-call monitors around the state and do hands-on health checks.

The agency didn't have its own bat expert, so it tapped outside biologists like Pat Ormsbee.

Yes, it's a male.

She remembers when ODFW led the way.


There were more specialists.

They were considered the source of information for species.

We said we were interested in doing pine-marten surveys, boy, they went with us.

We used their snowmobiles.

They had people who had the expertise with that species.

Sharp-tailed grouse, same thing.

You know, just -- Bats, same thing.

We just rarely went to the field without somebody from ODFW.

ODFW has fewer nongame field biologists today than it did back in the early 1990s.

So they're increasingly dependent on other agencies to help keep watch over sensitive wildlife.

This is a massive project for Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

They got funding to do this for about two years.

It's also exceptionally rare.

There's over 600 species of nongame wildlife in the state of Oregon.

They get about 2% of the total Oregon Fish and Wildlife budget.

So most species are getting nothing like this.

As you see, these efforts that can kind of bubble up and then die out, and it erodes partners' trust in the ability of the department to implement the conservation strategy.

Biologist Audrey Hatch left ODFW, frustrated by how little the agency did for so many sensitive species.

This is a Pacific tree frog, one of our native amphibians.

The biologists we spoke to were especially concerned about the state's amphibians.

Why is this species doing reasonably well and many of our other native amphibians are declining?

And we're really not sure what the answer to that question is.

ODFW hired Audrey to update its conservation plans for species like this.

But she says the state failed to implement it.

Without the department stepping up clearly and taking some leadership with what they've got, I think other organizations are going to scratch their heads a little bit and they're going to wonder why do we need to sign on if the agency that's given this charge isn't taking the reigns.

[ Swan calling ]

Oregon Fish and Wildlife leadership disagrees with that criticism.

It's director says conservation happens in ways you don't see in the numbers.

He points to the kind of work happening at Summer Lake, where the refuge manager, not one of the full-time, nongame biologists, is leading efforts to bring back rare trumpeter swans.

If you look at all of our state-wildlife areas, where we do a whole bunch of conservation work not just for hunted species, but for all species that use those wildlife areas, none of that shows in the conservation pie.

But even the agency says it is millions of dollars short of what's needed to fully protect Oregon's native fish and wildlife.

So, while the game animals like elk and trout get expensive GPS trackers and helicopters, native turtles keep getting duct-tape solutions.

We have to use every dollar that we can as carefully as we can.

We come up with creative fixes like this that are basically free, just take time to cobble together.

Because there's an awful lot of important information out there that we need to do our jobs to conserve the species in the state, and so we have to find a way to get the job done.

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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪