SciTech Now Episode 413

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look into a producers experience in the arctic; a cutting-edge medical institution seeking answers to Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury; and the making of the most iconic images in televised football games.



Coming up, a daring study of arctic polar bears.

The part that I become most excited about is when I have the data to finally answer the questions that are important.

Seeking answers to Alzheimer's.

If we get in early enough, we can reduce the rate of progression of the disease and maybe we can put the disease in hold.

The technology of 'Sunday Night Football.'

It has to start with information, something that gives the viewer a piece of information that they wouldn't have otherwise and putting it in a place where they can see it.

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.

For wildlife biologist Karyn Rode, tracking and tranquilizing polar bears from a helicopter are just the first thrilling steps in her research.

In this episode of 'Science Friday's' series 'Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science,' we learn what the data she collects reveals about how polar-bear populations are adapting to the warming Arctic.

Here's a look.

It's funny.

I knew very little about bears when I was growing up.

In fact, I never saw a bear until I went to graduate school.

My early studies on bears were addressing how important vegetation may be in the diet of grizzly or brown bears.

When I came to study polar bears, it was coming at a time when we needed to be able to understand more about polar bears, in part because of sea-ice loss.

My name is Karyn Rode, and I'm a wildlife biologist for the United States Geological Survey.

And I study polar bears in the Chukchi Sea.

My research -- a lot of it is about nutrition.

Are they getting enough to eat?

Are they producing enough cubs to maintain the population?

And how they'll respond to climate change.

Polar bears range throughout the Arctic, and they occur, actually, in 19 recognized populations.

Polar bears have to travel a huge range.

They live out the majority of their annual life cycle on the sea ice.

They have to have the sea ice to hunt their prey, ringed seal, which is the most abundant.

They also eat bearded seals.

They evolved to feed on these high-fat marine mammals.

They've become the largest of all the bear species.

And, so, as the sea ice retreats in the summertime, that's really the challenge that a bear faces when they come onshore.

In the summertime, a big bear cannot forage long enough in a day to meet their caloric requirements on vegetation.

Even bird eggs and birds are nothing like capturing a seal out on the sea ice.

Here in the Chukchi Sea and in the Beaufort Sea, they have very different ecological conditions.

In the Beaufort Sea, as the sea ice retreats in the summertime, it quickly moves into these really deep waters.

But in the Chukchi Sea, it's very shallow, which makes it a more productive habitat.

There's habitat for bearded seal throughout that whole range, and there's also much more walrus in the Chukchi Sea.

So much of my work focuses on trying to understand differences between these two populations.

Obviously, we're in a pretty unique place that's very remote.

This is where we have our helicopter that can take us out to the sea ice and where the polar bears are.

You check the weather a lot and also ice maps, trying to strategize the best you can.

Every year, you're going out to the ice and trying to find bears, not knowing where they may be.

I remember the first time I went out and thinking, 'Wow.

It's really hard to imagine how they're navigating out there.'

It's challenging flying, for sure, because you're trying to follow their tracks in a helicopter.

I see some tracks.



The best conditions for finding a bear is a fresh set of snow so that all the tracks that you find are new.

Sometimes it's really easy.

You find a lot of bears.

But we have days every year where we never find a bear.


Bear is in a good position.

You see it right in front of us there?

I do.

And I can come back on it pretty quick.

Okay. Got it.

Good stuff.

It's always exciting when you see a bear.

Once we see a bear, we evaluate the surroundings and determine a safe location.

We don't want a bear being darted around water.

And then go in for what's called a dart run.

We usually come in right on top of the bear and try to shoot straight down and hit the shoulder.

And then, if all goes well, within about 5 minutes, the bear has laid down and is sedated, and then we can land the helicopter and begin our sample collection.

When it's your responsibility for these animals, certainly, you want to make sure the bear is safe.

And so the very first thing we do is protect the bear and keep it comfortable.

We check their temperature and their vital rate.

Then one of the first things we do is check to see if it's a bear we've caught before.

So, each bear gets a lip tattoo that has a unique number.

And that's really critical information, because the way that we determine survival rates of bears is based on capture and recapture.

And then we weigh the bear, we get the length of the bear, and we take skull-width measurements.

We collect hair, blood, usually a fecal sample, and a small fat biopsy.

So, we do collect a small vestigial tooth, so a tooth that's not actually used.

The rings on a tooth can be used like tree rings to age a bear.

We only put collars on adult females, and that provides really important information on where these animals go, what types of habitat they use, are they coming on land, and how long they're coming on land.

After we're done, we pack up our gear and make sure that the bear is in a comfortable position and is starting to rouse.

And then we lift off.

Primarily, I use hair to estimate polar-bear diets.

Ringed seals feed in the water column, and bearded seals feed on the ocean floor.

Because the prey differ in what they eat, the carbon and nitrogen isotopes, naturally occurring variations of an element, also vary in those two species and then can be detected in the tissues of the bear.

What a bear eats also gets incorporated into their blood, and different components of the blood actually represent different time frames.

You can get a window into what they eat up to 4 months ago.

The part that I become most excited about is when I have the data to finally answer the questions that are important.

There's a lot of key differences in those populations that are going to determine whether they're affected by sea-ice loss.

We know, in the Beaufort Sea, that bears are declining in body condition.

Their cub survival is declining.

And we found that the population is in decline in the Beaufort Sea.

And some of the reasons is because they're getting less to eat than they have in the past.

In the Chukchi Sea, one of the most interesting findings is that, even though there's been substantial sea-ice loss between the 1980s and the current data we've collected since 2008, polar bears haven't shown declines in condition or cub survival.

We know that, in the springtime, they are feeding more often here.

We assume the food resources are richer here.

It isn't simple that sea-ice loss is a direct linear relation to population decline.

If, for whatever reason, the prey population isn't doing well, they can have lots of sea ice but still not fare well as a population.

They can't just have sea ice.

They have to have prey.

But there's no doubt that if you have a substantial reduction in sea ice, they have lost the area over which they can hunt.

The Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else in the world.

Polar bears are a really good indicator species for the Arctic because their health depends on the health of the ecosystem below them and a dynamic food web.

I think in the past 10 years, we've learned a lot about polar bears, and I think we're on the cusp of learning a lot more.

I think it's just a question of how quickly will we have a complete picture?

Scientific information is really, really important for making decisions about our world.

I take a lot of pride in trying to do the very best, most objective science I can and letting people make decisions based on that.

Joining me now is science writer/video producer Luke Groskin.

You got to be in a helicopter with someone who was shooting a polar bear.


It was definitely one of those things on my bucket list, and I can definitely cross it off.

It was 16 hours of flying, and it was pretty grueling.

And I have tremendous respect for these guys and their professionalism out there.

They're really giant animals, and, you know, you get some perspective when you start to look at them, you know, lifting them up and cutting some hair.

What's she doing?

Well, she's trying to get as much biometric data as possible.

I mean, you mention the weighing of them.

When I was out there, they weighed a 600-pounder, but this thing dwarfed -- You know, I put my hand up to it, and its paw was, like, this big.

And she's collecting all this data.

She's going to get hair, feces, fat sample.

She takes a tooth, a vestigial tooth, at the back of the animal's mouth that doesn't affect the animal's ability to hunt or eat.

And you can actually get the age of a bear based on the rings inside the tooth.

So she gets all this data, and then she compiles that into, like, a big spreadsheet with all this data from 10 years of bears out on the Chukchi Sea, which is that space right between Alaska and Russia.

And then she can make assessments about the population based on the nutrition of these bears.

How well are they eating?

How well are they reproducing?

These bears -- how long does it take them to wake up?

Because they're kind of in a drowsy state during this whole process, right?

Oh, yeah.

That was a big question that I had while I was out there.

About an hour after we sedated a bear and they've done all their work, I'm like, 'Have they ever woken up on you?'

And she was like, 'No.'

Thankfully, they've never woken up on her.

But there was definitely a moment where the researchers were like, 'Okay, Luke, it's time to get back in the helicopter, 'cause the bear is starting to wake up.'

So, did they make sure?

Did they wait to make sure that everything is okay and that the bear is kind of getting off its feet before they leave?

Yeah, absolutely.


So, what they do is -- they take off and then they'll stick around, because what they don't want happening is another bear to show up and be like, 'Oh, look, here's a groggy bear.'

That's dinner.

So they want to make sure the bear is okay and wanders off.

And, in fact, while we were out there, we saw a bear that had already been captured a week earlier, and he was doing just fine.

In fact, he took one look at us and was like, 'I'm out of here.'

Luke Groskin of 'Science Friday.'

Thanks so much.

Thank you.

The Roskamp Institute in Sarasota, Florida, is a cutting-edge medical institution, seeking answers to debilitating and sometimes fatal conditions, like Alzheimer's and traumatic brain injury.

In this segment, we learn about research that's at the forefront of new treatments.

Here's the story.

The institute is a standalone biomedical research establishment funded by the NIH, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and the Roskamp Foundation.

And the goal of the institute is to find new treatments for newer psychiatric disorders.

Our research has been primarily on Alzheimer's disease, which has really been the disease that we've moved furthest forward with, 'cause it's the one we've been working on the longest.

But there are also many other research programs here at the institute, including programs on traumatic brain injury, Gulf War illness, post-traumatic stress disorder.

The institute provides tours to the public as a way to educate the community about the team of scientists and their work.

We have molecular biology, genetics, chemistry, proteomics, pathology, and we can move forward with that into the clinic very easily because we have this translational aspect.

We have our own clinic, and then we have a lot of clinical collaborators.

It's a massive effort that is part of the larger work of hundreds of institutions and pharmaceutical companies to find cures for Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders that affect millions of people worldwide.

One of those patients is Suki.

My mom has vascular dementia.

She suffered two large strokes, or two bigger strokes and several ischemic strokes in between.

She was forgetful.

Things on the stove were left on.

Neighbors noticed that she got lost walking.

And so then she started living with me.

Suki had always been independent, and Nancy made every effort possible to accommodate her mother and her needs.

I was able to create an environment at our home so that she could be as independent and could be home with the animals that she loves so much.

My mom did not particularly care for house pets when she was fully cognitively functioning.

Now, having the two rescues in the home all the time -- and now I have my grandpuppy at home -- she gets along famously with them.

In fact, she misses them when she's not with them.

And just recently, we attended my older daughter's wedding, and my mom had a blast.

She danced.

She interacted with so many people.

And, so, those types of things I really am so thankful for.

Today, patients and their families are relying on hope, but the team at Roskamp is feverishly working to turn that hope into solutions.

Their most important work has been in Alzheimer's and the discovery of the amyloid gene.

Once we found those genetic errors in the amyloid gene, it became apparent that amyloid, the buildup of amyloid, was really an early step in what was resulted in degeneration of neurons.

So that threw a focus on amyloid and ways to perhaps reduce amyloid and thereby mitigate the risk for the disease.

So we and others started on a long journey to find treatments that did exactly that.

We just finished a large multi-country, multi-site study of a drug that we developed here at the institute which targets amyloid.

And we've been using that in early-stage and middle-stage disease Alzheimer's.

The drug is Nilvadipine, which was originally developed for the treatment of high blood pressure.

And we had been finding, in the laboratory, that Nilvadipine was capable of stopping amyloid production by cells.

And we tested it in mouse models of Alzheimer's disease and showed that it improved cognition in those mouse models and, also, it reduced pathology.

So we saw less amyloid in the brains of those mice.

The research then moved to human studies, which were completed in the summer of 2017.

What we suspect from other studies and what we hope to see in this study is that if we get in early enough, we can reduce the rate of progression of the disease, and maybe with higher doses or slightly different versions of the drug, we can put the disease in hold, in a holding path.

The Roskamp Institute has taken a fruitful approach to developing research and implementing studies that lead to new treatments.

There's a huge amount of collaboration and integration of thought and ideas across all of the scientists and clinicians in the institute.

And things are not siloed, so it won't be my project or Dr. Paris' project.

If there's a project happening, we bring whoever is needed to the table.

A key person who is often brought to the table is Dr. Keegan, the clinical director at the institute.

You can't just be in your silo working on traumatic brain injury and not think about, 'Well, what's happening in a neurodegenerative disease, like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or an inflammatory disease, like multiple sclerosis?'

You kind of have to look at how there's overlap.

Today, the process of research moves along much more quickly.

The use of computers has made it possible to test ideas at an amazing speed.

Years ago, we would have had to screen each individual drug before we could decide whether they were useful or not.

I mean, physically screen them.

We would have to make maybe 5 million drugs and test every one.

Now we can screen in silico, on the computer, 5 million drugs in an afternoon.

And the Roskamp Institute has been very agile in managing the entire drug-development process.

We have this model where the not-for-profit institute partners with for-profits or even spins off for-profits in certain situations, and then we find for-profit dollars to get through that very expensive pre-clinical testing before we enter the clinic.

And that's been a successful strategy for us.

The future of research here is promising.

The expertise and the talent and the passion that we have here at the institute makes me very confident that we are going to achieve some key goals in the coming years.

Many of the techniques that we used are applicable to a wide range of diseases.

So my hope for the future is -- we do much, much more of what we're already doing.

I think there's lots of promising research, and I have hope for that.

But I don't want to not enjoy and appreciate where I am with my mom.

I know there's certain things that have been lost, but there's also, you know, a lot of things that we can enjoy in the present.

There's a lot of science and technology that goes into creating the yellow first-down line marker, one of the most iconic images in televised football games.

Sports Media Technology Company, SMT, based in Durham, North Carolina, is a pioneer in real-time virtual sports graphics, blending technology, computer science, and art.

SMT has created a revolution in televised sporting events.

Here's the story.

An artist dreams of having tens of thousands of people view their work, their creations.

And then I'm making sure that my color is good, I'm making sure that the line is in the correct spot, and then I insert it, all before the director is getting ready to take the game camera.

More than 18 million people see Iam Prokes' handiwork every week.

And you want to make sure that, when you put it in, it has to be in the exact right position, because then everyone at home is going to see that it's not right, right?

So a little bit of pressure, right?

I was going to say -- no pressure there.


The remote operations technician blends technology, computer science, and art to draw the first-down line on 'Sunday Night Football,' the NFL's biggest game of the week.

That's right, the iconic yellow line.

It's all up to him.

You have to do a lot of little things before the next play.

So you got to make sure that you have your ball position and everything is ready to go before they come back to the game camera.

Otherwise, the line is going to come in late.

The first-down line may be the best-known work of Durham-based SMT, but these days, the company adds visual aids for most televised sports.

Think strike zones in baseball, pointers for NASCAR drivers, the flight paths of golf balls.

For us, it really is about informing the viewer.

It has to start with information and something that gives the viewer a piece of information that they wouldn't have otherwise and putting it in a place where they can see it very easily.

It's a kind of television revolution.

While technology now allows real-time data to be displayed, viewers must be comfortable with graphics constantly on the screen and now being virtually inserted into a scene.

For us, just very logically, 'Hey, we've now put something on the screen that people are used to seeing, but how about now we put it into the scene itself?'

So, just how does the first-down line happen?

It's all computer algorithms.

We have to build up a mathematical model.

This is a very complex lens.

It has 19 different elements in it, of glass.

And so we need to be able to build a mathematical model.

We get readings off of the lens that tell us a number of how it's zoomed and a number of how it's focused.

We get readings back from the panhead that tell us how the lens is titled and how it's panned.

But we need to take those numbers and turn that into, 'Hey, I'm looking at this area from the left 45 to the right 40, and I'm zoomed to this level, so I see this much of the field.'

And that information can be used to build a mathematical model of how the camera sees the field.

We take, then, a model of where we want to put things on the field, that I want to put a line of scrimmage here, at the right 46.

Then I want to put the first-down line at the right 36.

And, together with those two mathematical models, we can figure out where to draw our elements and to keep them on the field.

So, 60 times a second, we get new information from the lens and from the panhead saying, 'Here's how we're zoomed.

Here's how we're pointed.'

60 times a second, we say, 'Here's where we should draw these things.'

And because so much data is reported so frequently, that first-down line moves with the camera.

But there's something else that goes into making the first-down line appear as if it is on the field and part of the game.

The other piece here is that we need to figure out how to make it appear behind the player like this, and the way we do that is by analyzing the colors of the image.

So, ahead of time, our operator can go through and pick areas of the field -- You can see there are different greens here on the field.

You pick different areas of the field and you identify a set of colors that you're willing to draw on top of, which we're doing here -- we're drawing on top of this green in the field -- and colors you're not willing to draw on top of.

So, we're not willing to draw on top of whites in the uniform, black in the helmet, the yellows in the pants.

The algorithm is sophisticated.

It identifies various hues, saturations, and shades of color -- in this case, the green of the field.

It takes technicians about 3 hours to set up the cameras with the technology.

There are usually six cameras used in an NFL game.

But for all the technology, it's the technician that must enter the information into the system in about 10 seconds.

So, essentially, everything is in right now.

Iam let me give it a try.

So the ball -- they just moved it down to the 14-yard line, right?


So what you want to do is -- you want to take the mouse.

And I would immediately pull everything out, make sure everything is locked up together so it's automatically 10 yards, and then move it down -- What is that?

The 30-yard line?


So I move it down this way, down the field, to the 30.

And so then you can go ahead and fade in your line of scrimmage.

And then you go down here and make sure that it's first and 10.

So you'll click on that third arrow, make it first.

And then you fade in your graphic.




There it is.

Of course, three plays were ready by the time I completed one graphic.

You could call the first-down line high-pressure art.

So, you do this and you do variations of that every --

Every single play.

Every single play.

It is pretty much nonstop.

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...