SciTech Now Episode 520

In this episode of SciTech Now, Tiny injectable devices fighting cancer; decoding NASA’s time capsule; Drones exploring the Antarctic; and tools to learn coding.



Coming up, 3-D printing tackles cancer.

Now, this system is drug agnostic, and by that we mean that it can be used to deliver nearly any drug.

Decoding NASA's message to extraterrestrial life in space.

How do you tell an extraterrestrial how fast to spin it?

Drones in the Antarctic.

We can collect data on the water conditions.

We can collect data on how much food is out there.

Tiny coders.

Our main goal is to provide students kind of that spark early on in grades K through 5 to get them excited about coding.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio are developing tiny injectable three-dimensional printed devices to deliver medicine to cancerous tumors inside the human body.

Let's take a behind-the-scenes look at how these devices are conceptualized in the lab.

This particular system, as opposed to being an oral capsule that a patient swallows, is an implantable.

A lot of people are a little worried about implants, though the IUD market and a lot of the other implantables that have become more and more common, the average patient is becoming more comfortable with the idea.

These implants, as opposed to a large thing that we're going to cut open and slip in, is a microimplant or miniature.

It's in the millimeter scale, so it can be delivered through a needle stick just like a flu shot.

Size is really important in some of the designs that we're going for because 'A,' we want it to able to be injected so we don't have to have an invasive surgery.

We can just go in with the syringe and inject it that way.

And 'B,' because some of the drugs we're delivering don't necessarily take a very large dosage.

If we're going to deliver to a cancer tumor, then the size doesn't need to be very big because the therapeutics are pretty concentrated, and they don't need to be very large in volume.

So the scale that we want has to be injectable, which is why we're making them so small.

We're hoping to get them down to about, like, 1-by-3 millimeters.

Injectable sizes can go up to 2 to 3 millimeters in diameter as well.

If the device itself is 1-by-3 millimeters, then we have to make the composite structures inside even smaller.

So pretty much what you're looking at here is, we're actually creating a 3-by-3-millimeter cylinder.

So if you see right here, this just pretty much the inside structure of how it's being filled on the inside, which will play an important role as far as the drug delivery as well.

So with this software, we can actually change the way that it's filled to actually alter different parameters as well.

So some of the changes that I've found to be very, very important is, for instance, the pressure, the temperature as well which is here.

We're at 130 degrees Celsius for our PCL, which is polycaprolactone.

So that's another thing, as far as the layer height as well.

So we want it to have a very fine resolution when it's inside of the body as well.

So pressure, the speed, there are quite a few variables that you can change to get the perfect print.

So right here, we're actually on layer 31 of 32.

So this is pretty much... This software allows me to control everything that's going on over here with the 3-D printer.

So if I click Continue Printing, then we'll print our last layer, and then we have our 3-by-3-millimeter-sized particle ready to go.

So what we'll do is, we'll take this powder here, which is the polycaprolactone, and we'll actually place it inside of the chamber, which is here.

So we place it inside of the chamber and allow it to melt, and then once it's fully melted, then we'll go ahead and start printing.

So one of the main reasons that we have this fan here is because our PCL, the polycaprolactone that's located in the inside, it doesn't cool fast enough.

So if we can get it to cool fast enough, then we can print on top of the next layer, so that's why this fan is located here as well.

I can actually print this print in roughly 15 to 20 minutes.

Actually, you can print it faster, but with the properties of PCL, you want to make sure you kind of let it take its time to cool and things of that nature, so...

So these are on the millimeter scale.

We're trying to get them to be 1-by-3 millimeters up to 2 to 3 millimeters in diameter at the most.

So they're going to be really small because we plan to inject them.

So in order to inject them, they need to be at a very small scale, and if you just want to compare it to a penny...


Let me put the penny next to it right there so you can compare the size.

The pharmaceutical industry is coming out with new drugs constantly, and they're making incremental improvements to a drug, and then there's a breakthrough drug that's this blockbuster that runs away.

That's happening so fast than an academic research lab wouldn't be able to, say, optimize a system for today's big drug because tomorrow there's another one.

Now, this system is drug-agnostic, and by that we mean that it can be used to deliver nearly any drug.

So this system, as the pharmaceutical industry continues to push those boundaries, our system can be used to deliver whatever the new flavor of the week is in what's being developed in drug discovery.

♪♪ ♪♪

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She's the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss how to decode a NASA time capsule of Earth from 1977 called the Golden Record.

Yeah, okay.

If that's an image of the Golden Record, how in the world is a hopefully smarter life form going to make sense of that?

Well, you definitely have to be Sherlock Holmes or the equivalent of that in space to decode it.

This was what the cover looked like.


The Golden Record was inside of this aluminum cover, and if you think about it, it had music.

It had songs, and it had images, but how do you tell an extraterrestrial how fast to spin it?


See, a minute is based on Earth.


But a minute doesn't mean the same thing, so you have to give extraterrestrials information about to do that.


And so that's what this is doing.

It's telling them how fast to spin it.


And so in space the most popular thing out... Or one of the things that you can use is hydrogen, and for, you know, if we want to be general about it, hydrogen vibrates, and you can use its vibration as the unit of time.

So they used hydrogen time to tell extraterrestrials, 'Okay, you need to spin this at this rate,' you know, 33 or 16 revolutions per minute, 'based on hydrogen time.'

That's supposed to be hydrogen time?

That's what this is telling us.

That's right.


Also, NASA was kind enough to actually put a stylus, the needle of the record, inside of the capsule as well, so you...


That's always good.

That's right.

So this is also telling them how to play the stylus as well.

Ah, okay.

So this code is sort of like dashes and dots, which is this Morse code that they kind of made out of hydrogen time.

Okay, so that's... What are there, 33 little dashes or something?

It was actually 16 revolutions per minute.

Sixteen, oh.

They wanted to put 90 minutes of music on there, so they slowed down the time.

Okay, got it.


And then what's that big star-looking thing at the bottom?


This is a map of where the record came from.

That's us in the universe?

That is us.

It is giving us... These are signposts.

There are stars out there called pulsars, pulsating stars.


You can think of them as lighthouses.

Each of them have their own different beats.

Maybe one is doing this and one is doing this.


And there's 14 of them, and they were saying, 'Look.

If you're at that pulsar, point in that direction.

If you're in that pulsar, point in that direction.'

And that center point is Earth, so it's telling extraterrestrials where this record came from.

Okay, and what looks like a seismograph, Richter scale...

Now, this is very confusing.

If this wasn't confusing, this is extremely confusing, but what they also did is, they actually put images on a record.

And so they explained, 'Okay, this is how you detect the image, and the first image you should see is a circle in a box.'

So that's what this is telling them.

Oh, my gosh.


It's...These are engineers.

They're not, you know, they're not in marketing.

And we're assuming that aliens perceive with similar senses, that they would have eyes...

That's right.

That's right.

...that could see this, that they would have something, tentacles, fingers...

That's right. touch.

The senses that we... First of all, it's really a long shot that an extraterrestrial is going to pick this up.


It's more than a needle in a haystack.

It's the possibilities, so...

Or it could just bump into some planet that's uninhabited and just crash.

It could, but that will be billions of years from now.

That's right.

And beyond when Earth... Earth will already be gone before that actually happens, but it's more of the exercise of how to create something to communicate with another life-form.

Carl Sagan was the leader of this program for the NASA Golden Record, and so he wanted to actually use this, you know, as a beacon, if you will.

How do we connect with extraterrestrials?

How do we convey things like time?

How do we convey things like location?

So it was more of that exercise than anything else.

What did we learn about ourselves and about language and about kind of distilling the essence of communication?

Because that's kind of what we had to do for this.

That's right.

I mean, it was a fantastic experiment to say, 'Okay, what is human?'

So they put images.

They put greetings of hello from different languages.

They put sounds of the Earth, like a baby's cry, a heartbeat, and then they put about 30 songs onto the record that represent all of the planet.

Now, the story is that some of the songs that they put onto the record didn't really represent the entire planet.


They were mostly Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, and that doesn't really represent the entire globe, but if it wasn't for this gentleman Alan Lomax who was a song hunter... He went all over the world looking for folk songs.

What are the songs of the people?

He actually shifted what was on the mixtape, for lack of a better term, so that it was representative.

It had drums.

It had fiddles.

It had choruses from Russia.

It had all these different songs that represent the entire planet.

So if we're going to make something that represents the entire planet, he really made the Golden Record the way it should be.

And that's also the music that was available or popular in 1977, so it's a really... It is a time capsule.

It's a point in time of the types of bases... There's a very good chance that those hellos, the people that recorded them, some of them have passed on, right?

Might have, yeah.


Some of those... I don't think all of the languages, but, you know, we know that centuries from now, some of those languages won't exist.

So it really is a snapshot, if you will, of 1977.

I mean, is there something that was missing?

I mean, there is only a finite amount of space.

It seems like, what missing, right?

There's all this other stuff that we wish we could have shared.

That's right.

But that was also the recording device of record at the point.


We don't have spinning hard disks.

We couldn't have put in more data.

I mean, the kind of data you're talking about, a few dozen songs and some images and audio, that's nothing now.

That's right.

Our iPod...

People could have everything that's on here as a ring tone.

That's right.

If you said, 'Oh, I have 30 songs,' they'd be like, 'What's wrong with you? Are you okay?'


Actually, cassette tapes were around, but the simplicity of the record was perfect because you can just bolt it to the side of the Voyager.

If you put a cassette tape, now you have to put a player.

You have to put all these other technologies, and how the heck do you designate, 'All right.

This is how fast it should spin, and this is how the head should look on top of the tape.'

Much more complex, and also the tape isn't as robust, but a metallic record is simple.

You know, Edison created something very simple by just putting some bumps on a piece of tin, and he was able to record sound.

It's something very similar.

And this is... It's actually gold?

It's not.

Well, it's a gold layer on top of a metal.

And so do they feel like it is going to survive the ravages of radiation in space or...

Yeah, well...Absolutely.

The only thing it might suffer are, there are little micrometeoriods in space that might gash it, and so that's the reason why they actually put a cover on this because they were just going to bolt the record, but if you... You know, for those who know about records, you get these skips, and the music doesn't continue so they...

That'd be the worst...

Yeah. dust causing hiccups in the hellos.

That's right, and the records cost $25,000 to make, and all of a sudden you get space dust, you know, busting it up.

All right.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.


'The In-Space Refabricator,' presented by Science@NASA.

While 3-D printers are a technology that many people are familiar with, there's one 250 miles above us on the International Space Station, or ISS, that's unlike anything currently found on Earth.

It's known as the Refabricator, a hybrid 3-D printer that can recycle its hard polymer plastic numerous times to make new items.

About the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, the device is controlled by operators on Earth who oversee its manufacturing via video cameras.

Niki Werkheiser, NASA's in-space manufacturing manager at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says, 'Recyclers on Earth grind plastic pellets to create their products, but that grinding creates material shear, which prevents you from reusing that plastic again.

It's no longer strong enough.

For this technology demonstration, the company, Tethers Unlimited, developed a novel recycling process that doesn't require grinding, and that allows us to recycle the plastic multiple times.

The ability to reuse the plastic over and over again is essential for long-term space exploration.'

Werkheiser says, 'We can replace a lot of the things we need when we're orbiting above Earth.

We just have them delivered on a resupply mission.

But when you're in deep space, you don't have that option.

You have to have the ability to make all the parts you might need and without having a large stockpile of extra materials.

The Refabricator can even recycle plastic items not normally associated with earthbound 3-D printers.

For instance, almost all of the materials that are delivered to the station are packed using foam or plastic bags.

Both can be loaded into the Refabricator to deliver items such as a plastic syringe, an eating utensil or a custom-made wrench.

that ability limits the amount of backup materials you need to take with you on a long-range expedition.

After all, in space, space is at a premium.

The Refabricator's technology demonstration will be composed of two phases.

During each phase, the Refabricator will perform seven cycles of recycling and printing parts while onboard the ISS.

All of the items printed by the Refabricator will eventually be sent back to Earth for testing and analysis to determine the effects of repeated recycling on the material properties of the plastic.'

Werkheiser notes, 'I'm very excited about this technology both in space and back on Earth.

I can envision a day where you go to the grocery store and drop your water bottles and plastic bags into a Refabricator and then select your new phone case or a kitchen gadget or the raw filament that you can use in your 3-D printer at home.'

For more science from the International Space Station, go to

For more information about how the promise of future exploration is transforming today's technology, visit

San Diego, California, researchers are deploying new tools to study the Antarctic's underwater food web, and for the first time, they're using autonomous drones to more safely explore the Antarctic underwater universe.

Here is the story.

Krill are tiny crustaceans that got a moment in the spotlight during the 2011 animated film 'Happy Feet Two.'

Will, we are krill.

We are meant to look the same.

Not me, Bill.

There is only one of me in all the world.

I am one in a krill-ion.

Krill are an important part of the Antarctic food web that feeds whales, seals, penguins and people.

The tiny animals are known for their large underwater swarms.

So this is all we are, lunch.

To think we spent our whole lives not knowing the truth.

Goodbye, krill world.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have tracked fluctuating krill populations for years.

NOAA's Christian Reiss says it's part of an international effort.

So we study krill so that we understand whether its trends in abundance are likely to be influenced by how much fishing effort we do, but also whether that fishing effort will then impact the upper trophic levels, like penguins and seals.

But packing up a research vessel and traveling to the bottom of the world takes time and money.

Both are in short supply at a federal agency with an eye on shrinking budgets.

So Reiss says his team hopes to do much of that work with autonomous drones.

We can collect data on water conditions.

We can collect data on how much food is out there for krill, and then literally we can collect data on how much biomass of krill there is.

Anthony Cossio handles one of two Teledyne-manufactured undersea gliders.

Go in.

Okay, I'll go up a little bit.

Hold the outside.

He's inside a unique lab at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

All right.

Let it go.

Will it stay right there?

Yep, looks good.

You got the tail?

All right.

Let's take it up.

The 66-foot-long tank here holds more than 520,000 gallons of seawater.

Let's go south.

That makes it large enough to put one of the gliders through its paces.

All right.

Let's put it down.

You got it, Stephanie?


Once in the water, the glider's software takes over.

At the surface, it'll connect with a satellite.

And then it'll go get its GPS coordinates, make sure it knows where it's at, figure out where it's going based off of the directions we told it, and then it starts to dive.

Like, right now it's starting to dive.

Today, the mission is a couple of routine dives inside the large tank.

The watertight drone is slow but deliberate.

These are our deep gliders, so they go to 1,000 meters, and these are also the biggest gliders that Teledyne has manufactured.

Jen Walsh is one of three pilots that will watch over the drones on their long winter mission in the Antarctic.

She says the machines will do most of the work when they're in the field.

They'll dive and surface as they go back and forth over a preplanned survey area.

Piloting is mostly a hands-off operation.

If the glider is in an area of not very compli-- or complex bathymetry, we're not worried about ice where it is, maybe it's pretty far offshore at this point, sometimes that just means keeping an eye on it, making sure it's surfacing when we anticipate that it's going to surface, and sometimes I won't have to get it or give it any direction at all.

The vessels will have to navigate very cold and possibly rough seas.

A lot can go wrong.

Walsh says the drones do surface and check in regularly, and she can monitor the gliders in San Diego on any Internet-connected computer.

There's the connections.

When the glider surfaces and connects the satellite, it has a very specific ding-ding sound that it makes, and it is like a Pavlovian response.

My husband at home will hear it.

'Oh, your glider is up.'

And it just means it's connected, which is good because if it's doing 1,000-meter dives, which it's going to do in the Antarctic, that can take up to 4 hours.

Research biologist Anthony Cossio dropped the drones into the water off the coast of San Diego.

The vessel spent 2 weeks at sea practicing maneuvers over and around the San Diego Trough, which is just off the coast of La Jolla.

NOAA officials say the vessels will head south this fall for their first research mission in the Antarctic.

♪♪ ♪♪

Code to the Future is a nationwide program that's taken the initiative to provide students with the tools to integrate computer science and coding in the classroom.

Take a look at how this initiative is preparing students for the future of tomorrow.

This segment is part of 'American Graduate: Getting to Work,' a public-media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It's this unicorn full of magic and rainbows and butterflies and a whole bunch of awesome stuff.

Code to the Future is a nationwide computer science immersion program which has taken initiative at three Loudon County elementary schools.

Joshua Johnson is an instructional coach and curriculum designer for Code to the Future who works with the Loudon County schools.

Our main goal is to provide students kind of that spark early on in grades K through 5 to get them excited about coding, excited about computer science, and hopefully open some doors for them to pursue computer science in their future.

Andrew Davis is the principal at Round Hill Elementary School, who was eager to bring the Code to the Future program to this school.

Round Hill was having their first Epic Build Night, which is a showcase of the students' completed projects.

Guests were invited to come in and see what the kids had been working on.

The fact of the matter is we cannot continue to do things the same way and expect our students to be any more prepared for the world that's awaiting them.

Pretty much coding to me is an endless world where you can, like, change everything and so many different combinations to make new video games.

Teachers themselves are taking initiative to learn coding so that they can better teach the students, and Mr. Johnson assists them along the way.

When I work with teachers, I am providing ongoing professional development, coaching them in ways to integrate computer science and coding into their classroom on a daily basis.

As educators at Meadowland Elementary School, Principal Herman Mizell and third grade teacher Leigh Boyd value the positive impact of coding not only in elementary schools but also in the future and other fields of study that students might encounter.

Students at Meadowland just started their second module, which was making robots out of LEGOs.


In order to prepare our students to access to access and navigate the world, and not only that but to compete globally, we want to make sure that our students are embracing coding and that they have that experience.

Some of the students who have struggled with some of the more, like, reading and math have really been able to express themselves through the coding program and really have felt a lot of success, which has helped with their self-confidence.

It has a lot to do with other jobs, and I think even if I get a job someday and it doesn't incorporate code, then I would still like to have the talent to code.

All right.

I think I would do it not for the fame but more as in something doing I love and is, like, a passion.

Omari Faulkner has a student at Round Hill Elementary School and has seen the positive impact of the coding program on his child.

In an environment of everyone is all hands-in, all hands on deck, learning new things, and you can start to see.

The students are becoming the leaders and being able to teach their younger siblings and even some of their other family members.

Like, Pressie was teaching my mother, you know, the basics of coding, you know, over the last holiday break.

Mr. Davis and Mr. Mizell express how this program provides opportunities and skills that help the students progress in this field of work in the future.

What's expected of kids as they graduate high school is quite a bit different than what it's always been, and I think our job is to prepare kids for that future, that unknown future, with skills that are going to help them to be more successful in life, not just learning.

I mean, kids need to be able to articulate their ideas and thoughts orally as well as on paper, and to me coding provides that opportunity.

You want your students to be able to compete in this global society.

You want your students to be able to access and navigate the world, and coding is a great start.

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 could also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪