SciTech Now Episode 530

In this episode of SciTech Now, box jelly venom, why we choke under pressure, the ultracold world and the future of engineering.


Coming up, box jelly venom...

I was wheezing, and I felt like my lungs were filling with liquid.

It was just shocking and terrifying.

...why we choke under pressure and how to avoid it...

We worry about the situation.

We worry about the consequences.

We worry about what others will think about us.

...the ultracold world...

It's sort of a frontier of nature just being able to make such a bizarre state of matter that nobody's ever made before.

...the future of engineering.

They're looking in their everyday lives for what are some of these problems that need to be solved and, 'Hey, I can find a solution to that.'

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.

You may think that sharks are the most dangerous animal you'll encounter at the beach, but in places like Hawaii, sharks are not the marine creature to worry about most when swimming.

The more serious threat is the box jellyfish, a clear, translucent sea creature that can be lethal when touched.

Dr. Angel Yanagihara, an assistant researcher for the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, came dangerously close to dying after being stung by a box jellyfish.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' has the story.

Waikiki, one of the world's most popular beaches, gets flooded with thousands of visitors every day, but in the dark, before the sun comes up, researchers hunt for a different kind of visitor... ♪♪ ...the kind with venom.

♪♪ ♪♪ Each month, 8 to 10 days after the full moon, hundreds of box jellies rise up from the deep and swarm the shores of Waikiki to spawn before beaching themselves on the sand.

Yeah, he's not living.

Just one of over 40 species of box jellies, these are the cousins of some of the deadliest creatures in the ocean.

The objective for collecting them is going to be to take the tentacles off.

On average, sharks kill fewer than 10 people per year.

The estimate for box jelly fatalities soars over 100.


Yeah, I got it.

Little was known about these mysterious predators until Dr. Angel Yanagihara came dangerously close to becoming one of those statistics.

> I've been a lifelong ocean swimmer, and one morning, I went out, and there were these tiny, clear things on the beach that looked like little Ziploc bags, and I just thought, 'How bad could it be?'

I've been stung on the east coast by jellyfish . Then I decided, we're going to drive on through and go swimming.

I was an hour plus into the swim when all of a sudden, I felt some kind of needle, this pricking but burning feeling.

I was wheezing, and I felt like my lungs were filling with liquid.

It was just shocking and terrifying . I was convinced that this may be the end of me, that I may be in danger of drowning.

Angel barely made it to shore before losing consciousness.

I was in an ambulance, wrapped with meat tenderizer and vinegar, they said, and Saran Wrap, and I just thought, 'Now, this is not proper care.

What are we doing here?'

They said to me, 'Well, you have been stung by box jellyfish.

It's very dangerous.'

I was very curious to find out what's the biochemical explanation for something that primitive that can cause so much pain.

It had my full attention.

So that was July 1997.

When I did my very first literature search, I was appalled when I read about so many deaths of children and how quickly these deaths occurred, and I really had in the back of my mind, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could make some contribution here and figure out what the biochemistry of this venom is?'

As their name suggests, box jellies are four-sided invertebrates.

They use their 24 eyes to hunt prey, and they can even see in color.

Box jellies are found all over the world, and their sting is far worse than any other jellyfish.

They are all part of the phylum cnidaria.

The phylum cnidaria is defined by this remarkable specialization, these explosive cysts called cnidae.

All of the animals in this phylum use that for both defense and offense.

The box jelly sting is one of the fastest known events in biology.

Cnidae are tiny capsules containing microscopic tubules.

When triggered, a barbed tip shoots out like a bullet, piercing through the skin.

The tubule follows within microseconds, discharging venom which starts attacking your blood immediately.

The very first thing it does is causes the platelets to rupture.

We see white blood cells changing shape.

The red blood cells go from being a nice oxygen-carrying cell to being a swollen lipid ghost.

So when the blood becomes filled with these agents, a whole lot of systemic symptoms occur.

When I started this work, methods for producing venom left a whole lot to be desired.

They were using freeze-dried tentacles, macerating these in dilute saline, and pronouncing that venom.

Well, really?

I mean, if you took a dried rattlesnake off the road and put it in a blender with dilute saline, would you call that venom?

Angel developed a method to isolate the cnidae and cause them to rupture en masse, leaving her with a pure and complex cocktail of dangerous toxins.

So what should you do if you're stung?

Do a quick search, and you'll find dozens of recommended treatments for jellyfish stings.

After testing every method imaginable, they ultimately created a line of topical products to treat the sting site, but what should you do if you don't have access to these?

Ever been taught to pee on a jellyfish sting, rinse with water, or scrape with a credit card?

Well, don't believe everything you hear.

It just causes the tentacle to roll down and sting more surface area of the victim.

First step of proper first aid should be to get rid of those.

Vinegar will irreversibly inhibit them.

But rinsing with vinegar doesn't stop the venom already injected.

For that, apply heat, 42 to 45 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes.

To get the word out, Angel travels to the Indo-Pacific, where the stakes are extremely high.

Unlike the box jellies in Hawaii, the Chironex here can stop a human heart in less than 5 minutes.

One of the most recent deaths that occurred in an area which is largely a cashless fisherfolk village, they had seen a brochure that baking soda would be good first aid.

They went out and bought baking soda at great expense to them to try to help the child.

Well, the child died.

All right?

A lot of deaths are occurring.

The responsibility of it lays flatly at the feet of every website which had non-evidence-based claims.

Credible sources that people confidently rely on for medical advice still dispense false non-evidence-based recommendations.

Whether it's due to a distrust of research, a touch of ego, or the assumption that the treatment of stings is a one-size-fits-all science, it's costing people their lives.

As a scientist, we need to always be sort of standing by to shred our own pet hypothesis, shred our own bias, shred our own opinions, and we need to be evidence-based, not opinion-based, because, in the end, to make contributions to human health, we need that deep understanding and deep knowledge.

Many of us have had the experience of choking under pressure -- during an important game or performance or speaking event.

What comes naturally in practice can suddenly become insurmountable when it feels like all eyes are on us, but with practice, we can learn not just to survive but even to thrive under pressure.

Joining us in Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, whose work specializes in human performance.

So why do we choke?

Well, first, I think it's important to talk about what choking actually means, so when I talk about choking under pressure, I'm not talking about ups and downs.

We all have normal ups and downs.

What I'm talking about is worse performance than you would expect given your skill level precisely because all eyes are on you.


Maybe your parents are watching or your peers are depending on you or there's some incentive for performing well, like a scholarship.

Why -- I want to know is why, in those situations, we sometimes fail to put our best foot forward.

Is it because we're worrying about it?

Well, we do.

We worry.

We worry about the situation.

We worry about the consequences.

We worry about what others will think about us, but it's not just the worries in themselves.

Oftentimes when we worry a lot, we actually start trying to control what we're doing.

We try and monitor our performance in a way that counterintuitively actually disrupts us.

So we're paying too much attention?

We are paying too much attention, especially to those aspects of performance that should really run on autopilot.

You know, it's almost like when there's, you know, a batter or whatever, and they talk about being in the zone, and they actually talk about almost not even thinking about the game, batter or basketball, whatever, that they're just making these three-point shots.

'I wasn't intending it.

I wasn't willing it.

I wasn't thinking about it.'

Yeah, and, actually, I think that's why oftentimes professional athletes, after a good game and they're being interviewed, they don't actually have a good memory for what happened because you need to think about something to remember it, and so that's why I think they're always thanking their mothers in those things because they don't know what to say.

They actually weren't paying attention to the details of what they were doing, and because of that, their memory for how they performed isn't so good, which is okay.

Yeah, so what's a tip that you can take into whatever that stressful situation is where you feel like you're about to have to make an important presentation or a job interview?

How do you calm yourself down?

Yeah, well, first of all, I think that we don't give enough credence to how we practice.

Oftentimes if we are in an interview situation or we're giving a presentation, we might look over our notes, but we don't practice under the kinds of conditions we're going to perform under, and one of the big ways to help avoid that choke is actually to get used to the situation you're going to be under, to inoculate yourself.

So if you have to give a big presentation, practice it with people watching you, and if no one is willing to watch you, videotape yourself.

We've known for many decades that when you're in front of a mirror or you're videotaping yourself, you become more self-conscious, and the idea is to get used to those kinds of feelings when you're practicing so in the moment, it's really no big deal.

And what if you find yourself around someone else who is either about to choke or facing that stress?

What can you do to mitigate that?

Well, one thing that it really comes down to is that choking is not inevitable.

We're not born chokers or clutch players.


It's really about getting a toolbox of techniques that you can use in the moment to succeed, and so one thing that we focus at Barnard, where I'm president, which is really devoted to empowering young women, is to think about why you should succeed.

If you're worried about, say, a stereotype that we know is not true about girls being successful in math or science, don't think about that stereotype or why you should fail.

Think about why you succeed.

Maybe you were at the top of your class in calculus in high school or you've done well on the quizzes.

What you want to do is think about ways and reasons you should perform better, and that gears your mind, essentially, to focus on the positive.

Is there a way to distract someone?

I remember hearing about coaches coming up to, say, for example, a pitcher at a World Series game seven and a very crucial pitch is coming up, and they just come up, and they talk about the weather, or they talk about their kids, or something totally bizarre, and you're like, 'Well, that's what you talked about and then he went and pitched this fantastic inning?'

Yeah, I think that's actually a really important point and a way of getting rid of that self focus, right?

In that moment, you don't want to be focusing on the details of what you're doing.

We know that great athletes often sing songs when they're about to take that penalty shot or that important kick, and we know that things like icing the kicker, where you call a timeout right before a really important field goal, can actually be detrimental because it gives them time to think.

So what you want to do is have those distraction techniques in the moment, right?

As Nike would say, 'Just do it'...


...whether it's singing a song, thinking about your pinkie toe, or actually thinking about the outcome, where you want the ball to land, or the three points you want to get across in the interview.

What that does is it focuses your mind on where you want to go, and you're less likely to start unpacking where you are in the moment.

How has this changed you as a manager?

I mean, you have people coming up to you.

Sometimes, for them, the very act of meeting you and expressing whatever their concerns are in their department or whatever is a high-stress situation, so what -- You know, knowing what you know about what could be going on in their heads, how do you get through that?

Well, first of all, I think it's really important that there's not a one-size-fits-all for anyone, so what I do is try and pull out the best of any individual that I'm working with.

I know some people do really well in pressure situations.

They have that toolbox of techniques, and so I'm excited to put them in them, and other people, I think there are different ways to help ensure that they are really succeeding, and, of course, with our students, we spend a lot of time not just teaching content in the classroom but actually helping them form that mind-set, those toolbox of techniques so that they can succeed no matter what it is.

Sian Beilock of Barnard College, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

For the first time, scientists have created laser-cooled neutral plasma.

Normally, we think of lasers as being used to heat things up.

However, when scientists worked out how to cool atomic gases, it opened up the ultracold world.

Joining us via Google Hangout is Tom Killian, physics professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Thanks for being with us.

So, first of all, there's so many scientific words in that sentence that I just want to make sure that I break this all down.

When I think of plasma, I'm thinking of, like, the Sun, right?

I'm thinking of incredibly hot things.

How are you able to do this in the context of cold?

Well, there are two tricks that we use.

First, we actually start with some amazingly cold stuff.

We take advantage of work that's been done over the last couple decades to cool gases of neutral atoms down to very, very cold temperatures.

That gives us a good starting point, and then we use a big, strong laser to knock an electron off of each atom in our small gas cloud, and that turns the atoms into a plasma, so because we started with cold stuff and we're careful with the way we make it, we end up with a cold plasma that already is very interesting.

The heat of the laser doesn't matter?

No, because we're very, very careful about it.

Most of the energy of that laser goes into just the electron, just knocking it away from its core ion, and the ions actually stay at relatively low energy or low temperature, and they're the focus of what we look at.

They're showing the interesting physics.


If that's the how, then I got to ask why?

Why do we want things this cold?

Well, there are two reasons.

One is that it's sort of a frontier of nature, just being able to make such a bizarre state of matter that nobody has ever made before, and I'm a fundamental physicist, curiosity-driven, so I like to look under rocks that nobody has looked under to see what amazing stuff we may find, and that's led to great things over the years, but in particular here, these cold plasmas actually behave in a very similar way to the plasmas at the center of a white dwarf star or a gas giant planet, so by studying the plasmas in my lab, we can learn how those more exotic environments behave.

And then how does that translate into what we could use this for on this planet?

Well, it turns out that, also, the plasmas that you create when you try to re-create the conditions at the center of the Sun for inertial confinement fusion, which is a possible energy source for the future, those plasmas can also get into this regime that behave a little bit like the plasmas that we study, so if we can learn how to describe the plasmas that I make very carefully, it can improve our models of those plasmas that are made at places like the National Ignition Facility and help us to get closer to getting a new energy source to work, so that's a possible application.

And put this cold into perspective here.

How cold are we talking?

What kind of temperatures?

So for plasmas, which are normally very, very hot, we get to about 50 millikelvin or 50 thousandths of a degree above absolutely zero, and that's very, very cold by plasma standards, so it's much colder than deep space, for example, much colder than you can get with any sort of mechanical refrigerator that we have on Earth.

It's not the record for cold.

If you just use these laser cooling techniques to try to make gases of neutral atoms cold, you can actually get down to just a billionth of a degree above absolutely zero.


What is the container?

What is the vessel, whether it's 50 close to zero or a billionth, that can even measure this?

Yeah, so there are two important things there.

Whatever sample you get cold, it can't be touching any mechanical container because we can't get the mechanical container that cold, so we have to isolate our sample, and we do that by doing our experiments in an evacuated chamber so there's no hot gas around bumping into it, and we hold our sample in either magnetic fields, or intersecting laser fields can also hold the sample together, so we have to isolate it from the environment, and then to measure the temperature, we have to somehow look at the motions of the individual particles because at those low temperatures, we can't just stick a thermometer there.

Does it ever just occur to you that this is all in kind of the invisible space, that you're just trusting the equipment that this is actually happening?

It's actually not just some invisible blip that comes out on a computer screen.

Even though these samples are amazingly cold and we have them in a vacuum chamber to isolate them, you can look through the windows of our vacuum chamber and literally see this little sample of atoms or plasma, and so it's very visible.

It's not some abstract thing, and our diagnostic is taking pictures of the light that's scattered off the plasma with, actually, what's a relatively standard camera, so you don't have to believe our diagnostics any more than you have to believe that your iPhone could take a picture of you or your family.

So how much energy goes into the process which allows you to get to this temperature?

The whole experiment sort of fits in a room that's the size of your kitchen, and it doesn't take too much more energy than it takes to run your refrigerator, your dishwasher, and your light bulbs.

All right.

Tom Killian of Rice University, thanks so much.


Thank you very much, Hari.

Engineering students at the University of Texas at San Antonio present their solutions to some of the world's most difficult technological problems through their innovative projects using engineering, science, and business.

Here's the story.

3-D printing has emerged as an elegant solution to everything from producing spare body parts to creating robots, but did you know that makers use fresh plastic?

Student Robert Oakley noticed and decided to put discarded plastic bottles to work.

A lot of people 3-D print, and they go through pounds and pounds of plastic each year, which it seems kind of ridiculous that we have all this trash building up, yet no one is really trying to find a good solution to use it.

Case in point, thousands in Puerto Rico hit by a devastating hurricane and stuck with no electricity and no fresh water.

And right now, they're shipping lots and lots of water bottles there because the water wasn't safe to drink, and so they just have this huge buildup of water bottles.

If we can get something like this to Puerto Rico or other areas that need it, and they will have, then, local manufacturing that will be able to locally and easily manufacture usable things and create useful objects that they need right now.

It's a DIY vacuum dryer system that will take and reduce the the moisture in the plastic, suck the moisture out, and then feed it into an extruder, which uses an auger and heat zones to take... mix and feed the plastic out into a usable feed stock.

They're looking in their everyday lives for what are some of these problems that need to be solved and, 'Hey, I can find a solution to that.'

So it's not always a brand-new device that's never been thought of, although some of them are out there.

Many of them are, 'How do I make it better?'

After a massive oil spill in the Gulf, this student determined a way to filter the oil before it pollutes precious inlets with endangered wildlife.

You know, Deepwater Horizon was -- We're still facing issues about that, and that happened, like, quite a while ago.

Since there's going to be that crude oil that hits the coastal areas, it'll be able to circulate that water and grab that sheen while there's nobody having to be present.

To get to this point, it takes someone with real-life experience, and that's where mentor George Karutz comes in.

When they go through the process, developing these products, it's going to be the same type of process no matter where they go.

They got to go out and kick the tires.

They've got to interview people.

They've got to look at the competition.

They've got to look at IP, do they compete, who else is in the market, and that's the most important thing.

This engineering team uncovered a solution to get shingles up to tall rooftops using a conveyor belt.

We have made a conveyor lift system that takes shingles from the roof to the ground, and so they'll be able to, instead of taking each shingle pack up the roof on a ladder manually, they'll be able to just put it on the conveyor lift, and it'll be able to just go right up to the roof.

All engineers graduating from an ABET accredited institution like we have at UTSA are going to be technically excellent, but it's those other skills that we work on quite a bit to make sure that they're also a great employee, a great boss, a great manager.

Those are the ones that we know are really going to make it far.

I mean, there's one out there that Beldon Roofing supported, and they've all got white shirts, and they look sharp.

There's another group that has a cleanup for oil spills, and they're all dressed well with suits, and almost everybody is very well-dressed and well-presented.

I definitely got to have that hands-on experience of what it is to be in an engineering team.

Here in classes, you know, you learn all of the textbook stuff, but this was the first class where we actually got to use all that knowledge and hit the real issues on, it looks good on paper, but when you build it, things change.

You know, life isn't perfect.

Things are going to happen, so it's all about managing.

It's more about time management, business creation, and also being creative and having fun while you're doing it.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...