SciTech Now Episode 410

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look at how one zoo is helping sea turtles from becoming extinct; studying the evolution of animal societies; a story of how scientists turned an accident into an opportunity for innovation; and a lab in Penn State University playing an important role in exploring opportunities in additive manufacturing.



Coming up, a safe haven for sea turtles.

Each year, there's between 400 and 600 turtles that cold stun on the east coast, and there's not a lot of facilities like this out there.

The evolution of animal societies.

We need to look at a group that are relatively closely related and express all this different variety of social system.

Women in science.

We would like to really reach a wide audience, but also inspire women to become scientists.

3-D printing for the military.

We could go 70 to 100 microns, basically, about half of a human hair.

We could build a wall that thick now out of metal.

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.

Since the age of the dinosaurs, sea turtles have roamed earth's waterways.

But now six out of seven sea turtle species are endangered.

In an effort to prevent these sea creatures from becoming extinct, the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey opened the state's first long-term rehabilitation center.

Take a look.

Think of them as the snowbirds of the sea.

When temperatures drop, sea turtles head toward warmer weather.

But the ones left behind are vulnerable.

That's where the Turtle Back Zoo is lending a hand.

In the north a little bit near New England, these animals are stranded due to cold water temperatures.

They just didn't get the cues to leave in time, and they got stranded in the cold.

And being a reptile, their body temperature decreases with the water, and then all their systems start to shut down.

So, each year, there's between 400 and 600 turtles that cold stun on the east coast, and there's not a lot of facilities like this out there.

The Turtle Back Zoo is now home to the only long-term sea turtle hospital in New Jersey, 1 of fewer than 10 in the Northeast.

The new Prudential Sea Turtle Recovery Center has five recovery tanks, including an intensive-care unit.

It's absolutely separate from the other turtles.

So if we ever had a turtle that may have an infectious disease or something that we didn't want shared water with the other turtles, we would put them in the ICU.

This also is a room that doesn't get any type of public viewing stuff, and so it's very calming and relaxing.

And we're able to really monitor the turtle in this room.

Our goal is to release as many turtles as we can, so we can help out with the overflow of other facilities that are helping.

If they have 100, we can take 20 or 30 off their hands now.

So we're providing a really big service to the stranding community.

The Turtle Back Zoo has been expanding under the stewardship of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

This zoo is growing by leaps and bounds.

You know, we have over 800,000 people.

And we want to make sure that the people know, you know, these endangered animals, these turtles here need to be taken care of.

Most need a few months to recover.

For some, it takes a year.

The center is treating 11 turtles now but has room for 3 or 4 times as many.

Sea turtles, for most people, are a happy reptile.

There's a lot of people that don't like reptiles, don't like snakes.

But sea turtles are the type of things that are cute, and people really like them, so I think there's gonna be a huge draw just because of what the animals are.

But then it allows us to do the education and to put our education message forward.

There are four sea turtles that arrived here back in December.

They were cold stunned, but the staff here were able to nurse them back to health.

They're due to be released, but since water temperatures in New Jersey are too cold, they're heading to sunny Florida.

♪♪ ♪♪

Scientists who are interested in the evolution of animal societies have long theorized about the origins of these societies.

Up until now, much of the research on this topic has been centered around bees and ants.

Now a new study is looking at other animal societies with the hope of gaining new insight.

With us now is Dr. Solomon Chak, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

Why not just ants and bees?

Don't they tell us everything we need to know?

Well, they are actually the coolest eusocial animals that scientists ever find.

And a lot of study has been done on them.

And the problem is eusociality in ants and bees, some bees, have evolved for a long time, like almost 100 million years ago.

And then, for us to really understand how simple society like Paleolithic animals or solitary animals evolve into eusocial species, we need to look at a group that are relatively closely related but express all this different variety of social system and that, also, these species will have similar ecologies so that we can compare it and see how they evolve step by step from simple society into the more complex eusocial form.

Let me just take a step back.

What's eusociality mean?

Right, so, eusociality, a lot of us would know it from ants and honeybees.

And they form these big colonies with usually a single queen and up to several thousands of workers.

And they're traditionally defined by three criterias -- having overlapping generations.

So the queen would produce different batch of offspring that all live in the same hive or in the same burrow.

And then, there's also cooperative care of the young.

And all these worker would work together and protect the young and feed them.

And finally, there's a reproductive division of labor, which means that the queen usually is the only one that reproduce in a big colony.

And these workers only work for the queen to help produce their other brothers and sisters.

And you're studying not bees or ants, but you're studying shrimp?

Right, we are studying shrimps.

And eusociality in shrimps have only been known for about 20 years.

But the genus express a wide variety of social system.

And in about nine species of snapping shrimps, they are eusocial, meaning that they live in a big colony where these shrimps are sponge dwelling shrimps.

They live only inside sponge canals, and you can't see them out open in the ocean.

They live inside this sponge.

And if you open up a sponge, you will see these canals like Swiss cheese went through, and that's where the shrimps are living inside.


And you can see a big colony of up to several hundred, but you only see one or a few individuals that are queens.

They have eggs in their abdomens.

And all the other workers, they don't have any eggs, and they do not reproduce.

Is there a structural benefit to designing a society like that, where there's basically the queen is the only one that reproduces, and everyone else has a very designed task?

You're either a worker bee or a worker ant.

There is definitely some benefit, because all these worker would cooperate to help defend the colony or help feed the young.

And that really because they are highly genetically related.

They're basically protecting their own brother and sister and the parents in the nest.

There's also this idea of the inclusiveness theory.

What is this?

So, it's a theory that is one of Darwin's question when he look at eusocial ants and bees.

How, if these workers are not producing offspring, how can that gene be passed on?

How can workers ever evolve?

So, inclusive fitness or kin selection theory trying to explain this by that these workers, they are not producing offspring themselves, but they're helping the parents to produce their own brother and sister.

So they are strongly, highly related to each other.

So in that way, they're indirectly gaining fitness.

So the gene got passed on indirectly through the parents.


So that's how these workers' traits can evolve.

Why do you study this?

What fascinates you about this?

Well, I'm interested in marine biology and how animal society evolved.

So shrimp is the perfect combination of both of these.

And they're unique because they're the only eusocial animal found in the ocean.

So that get us really curious of, is there going to be something different from what we've studied on land invertebrate and insects?

And it turns out that they actually are very similar in terms of the steps they took to evolve into eusocial species.

In studying eusocial species, is there anything that makes you think about how humans live?

I mean, are there any lessons that we can learn from how these societies function?

Well, these eusocial society, they cooperate because individuals are highly related.

And that would be something equivalent to us being more cooperative if we're working with relatives and such.

I mean, other than the fact that we can all reproduce -- or, I should say, females reproduce, but we're all in societies where it's not just one queen reproducing -- Is this how kind of tribal structures work, where people have a shared sense of community, and they will work to defend a center?

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

And that's where the idea of hierarchy or dominance come in.

So if you have one dominant queen, in a sense, of a eusocial species, then she can enforce that the workers be working for her for the benefit of the whole colony.

What still needs to be understood about this?

So, the field is moving towards genomics to try to understand what's the genetics or what's the difference between the DNA sequences or structure or how genes are expressed between these different species with different social structures.

And it seems like from social insects that a lot of these eusocial species evolve because they have new kind of ways to regulate the genes.

It's not changing a lot of genes, but a way to see what is really behind in these social shrimps.

Solomon Chak of Columbia University, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪

'Science Friday' is premiering a new series that follows the innovative research of women scientists.

The first episode follows Dr. Rene Gifford and her colleague Dr. Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie, who together developed methods to improve cochlear implants.

Science filmmaker Emily Driscoll brings us the story of how these scientists turned an accident into an opportunity for innovation.

Joining me now is science filmmaker Emily Driscoll.

So, let's talk about, first of all, this is part of a series.

What's the series gonna be?

That's right.

'Science Friday' is launching a series about women scientists, and it's really six films that are portraits of women and also show the challenges, frustrations, obstacles but also the excitement and rewards of what it's like to be a scientist.

And we're following some incredible stories, like a team of women in India who are involved in space exploration in a very male-dominated field.

A field biologist who works in very harsh conditions but also has two little kids at home, so how does she work with that balance.

So it's really portraits.

It's about the science, but it's also about the scientists' journey to becoming a scientist.

All right.

So, let's talk about this specific story.

How much did the personal situation influence the work of Dr. Sisler-Dinwiddie?


So, this is a really exciting story that struck me for a number of reasons.

But, so, this is a case where Sisler-Dinwiddie, the researcher, she's studying towards becoming a researcher.

But then she also becomes the test subject.

So she was hearing impaired, and she was studying to become an audiologist.

And during this time, she was in a car accident, and she hit her head, and it made her hearing impairment fade into complete deafness.

So she thought, 'What am I going to do?

I'm deaf.

How can I help the hearing impaired when I myself can't hear?'

And at the same time, Rene Gifford was on her journey to becoming an audiologist, which is also a very personal story for her, because she was influenced by her grandfather, who was a war veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and had profound hearing loss.

So that was her personal journey to wanting to help people improve their hearing.

So, these women were both at Vanderbilt.

And Rene Gifford, along with an interdisciplinary team at Vanderbilt, they developed a method to fine-tune cochlear implants.

So instead of stimulating a number of different nerve cells, they could turn on the electrodes so they would only stimulate the nerve cells that that person needed to hear clearly.

So that would actually take away extra noise.


So Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie, she described this interference with the electrode stimulating nerve cells as sounding like Donald Duck, in her case.

So, they were able to, with this innovative technique, target the nerve cells only that needed to be targeted.

And they were able to restore Sisler-Dinwiddie's hearing.

So now both researchers are working to restore hearing in other patients and on a weekly basis.

And I'm sure she connects with the patient in a different way because she knows exactly what they're talking about.


And we're going to be seeing people who have their hearing restored.

Like, we're going to be seeing a patient who was a singer and lost his hearing, and now these women are going to activate his cochlear implant, so we'll see what that looks like.

So, first of all, I'm thinking from a storytelling perspective, how do you put a story about sound on TV?

Well, they have a chamber, which we will get to see what that looks like.

But, and that's also one of the exciting parts -- Like, how do you tell this story, and what happens to the ear?

What can go wrong?

How do you communicate that?

What does that look like?

What does the surgery look like?

So we'll be seeing all of that.

And we'll also get to be there for the activations, when people are hearing again for the first time, or maybe they haven't been able to hear for years.

And we'll capture that moment.

When we think of this whole series, why is it important to cover women and science in this way?

So, we wanted to show the challenges of being a scientist.

And one of the challenges is different for men and women, because gender is one of those challenges.

And so we would like to really reach a wide audience but also inspire women to become scientists.

So to do that, it's important to show role models.

And that's one thing I found in speaking with a lot of different women scientists, is that in their life, they had a lack of role models.

But they still got to where they are.

And that's one of the things that we want to show, is that it is very challenging to become a scientist, but these people overcame those challenges.

You can overcome those challenges.

All right.

Emily Driscoll, looking forward to the series.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.


VESvault is making encryption practical for mainstream use for all stored data.

Encryption, it's scrambling the data, making the data unreadable for general public.

So only the person who has the encryption key can access the data.

Encryption is so good that it's bad.

It's like having the world's perfect lock on your front door.

But if you lose the key, you can never get into your house again.

So if you have one key, you risk losing that.

You're in trouble.

And if you store the key with a service provider, that's like putting the key under the doormat.

And then all the thieves know where it is.

VESvault is a way of recovering your lost content if you lose the key without degrading end-to-end encryption, without degrading the privacy or the security.

And so it de-risks encryption and makes it practical for the mainstream public.

We didn't set out to create a way of recovering your data.

We set out doing different technologies.

One thing led to another.

We were starting to work with using encryption for Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive integration for management teams, and we had a problem, which was how do we keep this data from being lost?

And we needed to solve that problem if we wanted to make it practical for use.

That led to viral encrypted security, which is the engine behind VESvault.

Viral-encrypted security, it relies on the network of friends.

Each user can assign their friends, who can recover his data.

It's a little bit like taking a spare key and then scrambling it up.

We use linear algebra, if you remember that from high school, where you have to have at least as many equations as you have variables to solve the equations.

So that key is scrambled for a predetermined number of times for all the friends that you have.

And each of those scrambled keys is deposited in the friend's box, and it can only be decrypted by that particular friend.

So when you lose your key, a signal goes out to the friends.

The friends enter their own key.

You receive the tokens back.

And when you get enough of them, you can unlock your data.

And the nice thing about this is, there are no keys stored in an unencrypted state anywhere in a computer, so they can't be hacked.

And we're going to give people the capability of having a nice -- I'm not going to say it's as good as government encryption, because I don't know everything that they do.

But once it's encrypted, it will be as safe from hackers as it would be on a server that is government-sanctioned.

Anyone that stores any kind of data -- files, videos, photos, e-mails, text, if you have a digital wallet with cryptocurrency, anything, anything stored -- if you have that, and that's virtually everyone in the world, then you could be a user of this sort of encryption.

♪♪ ♪♪

Could 3-D printing dominate the future of parts manufacturing?

The United States military is exploring opportunities in additive manufacturing, and a lab at Penn State University is playing an important role.

We go inside the lab for the story.


A great design begins with a great idea.

It blends form and function to solve a problem.

In manufacturing, design is limited by tools and technique.

But the tools are changing, and the only limit is imagination.

Additive manufacturing has the potential to truly revolutionize manufacturing.

And an important aspect is the ability now to capture the manufacturing process in a digital environment.

The best analogy I have is Minecraft, right, where kids will play for hours putting little blocks in the right thing to create this intricate structure.

We can do that with this technology.

Additive manufacturing is the industry term for what you probably know as 3-D printing -- machines that use polymer or metal to build something one layer at a time.

Penn State's Applied Research Lab, or ARL, is home to some of the most precise equipment on the market.

With additive manufacturing, the machine doesn't care whether you're building a solid block or you're building a very, very thin wall structure.

And so if you think about, we could go 70 to 100 microns, basically, about half of a human hair.

We could build a wall that thick now out of metal.

And detail like that is changing some very basic assumptions.

One of the biggest things we see is challenging designers to think differently.

I mean, I joke, 'Well, why are holes circular?'

It's 'cause that's how we're used to drilling them.

They don't need to be anymore, right?

And just -- You can just sort of see their minds start to explode when they're like, 'What?

I don't have to have a circular hole?'

And so things like that, which is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to additive.

These machines haven't broken the mold -- They've replaced it.

You're watching what's called directed energy deposition.

It's just one of the machines at ARL's CIMP 3D facility.

Basically, how it works is, there's four copper nozzles down at the bottom of this cone that feeds powder out in all directions.

Then a laser comes down through the center of this portion.

Then anytime the laser's on and the powder's underneath it, the material will fuse into place.

It's like welding with uncanny accuracy.

The machines can create new objects and repair old ones.

It can even use multiple materials on a single build, metals like titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, and nickel alloys.

Powder bed fusion is a different approach.

They actually take a vat of powder, and they will scrape a small layer on the order of 20 to 60 microns across your building plane, and then the laser will solidify that layer.

The layers are so fine, complicated builds can take days.

But the precision is appealing.

One aspect that we're deeply involved with and have several, actually, ongoing programs is the application of the technology for sustainment of military systems.

For the military, additive manufacturing could mean parts on demand, saving time and money by keeping aging equipment in service longer.

But there's a catch.

A lot of the standards and protocols that we use for, you know, measuring the powder, the process, making sure it's repeatable and reproducible, isn't out there for additive yet.

Before a part can go into service, the results need to be predictable.

And that means extensive testing.

Qualifying a flight-critical component for the Department of Defense can take years.

Researchers want to know how the powder performs and if it can be reused.

The machines are continually tested for consistency.

The parts undergo even more scrutiny.

They're tested for strength and fatigue and examined layer by layer for anomalies.

But the attention to detail has led to a critical success.

The Applied Research Lab partnered with Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, to make this flight possible.

This is a historic moment, the Navy's first manned flight with a critical component created through the additive manufacturing process.

It's a titanium link and fitting, small enough to fit in your hand, one of four identical parts that helps hold an engine to the wing of a V-22 Osprey.

The piece was wired during the flight, letting engineers measure performance in real time.

This was just a demonstration, the first step towards formal certification.

But the Navy has already identified six additional safety-critical parts they plan to test over the next year, a clear signal the military is planning on a future with additive manufacturing.

I think it's on the rise, but there's a lot of, like, bumps to get through first.

It is very expensive.

So, people think that we're gonna be additively manufacturing everything, when that's not actually the case.

We're gonna be picking the things that would be best to additively manufacture to, like, lower the cost of them.

Bottom line -- Don't expect a 3-D printer like this in every home, at least not yet.

Sure, in 20 years, this is gonna be pretty mainstream.

I think even within the next three to five years, you're gonna start seeing it sort of used more frequently.

I sort of joke, nobody wants to be first, but then nobody wants to be last, either.


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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪