SciTech Now Episode 536

In this episode of SciTech Now, we hear about the newest research on the effects of language brokering, revisiting the moon with robotics, and could earth’s most resilient creatures hold the key to life saving medicines?



Coming up, we hear about the newest research on the effects of language brokering.

A language broker is a child who has to translate between English and the heritage language.

Revisiting the Moon with robotics.

You can do a lot of things with robots ahead of humans.

Could Earth's most resilient creatures hold the key to lifesaving medicines?

And the smallest species are about 50 microns, like, smaller than some cells.

Battle of the bots.

And Steamworks teams have 6 weeks to design and build a robot that can complete the challenge.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ And contributions to this station.


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

For parents in the US who don't speak English, their kids often become translators or so-called language brokers.

Now, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin is working to understand the effects that language brokering can have on child development.

My name is Soo Yeon Kim, and I'm a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.

For the past 12 years, Kim has been on a mission to understand language brokers.

A language broker is a child who has to translate between English and the heritage language of their parents or their immigrant families, so that's why they're called a broker because they're sort of brokering not only for themselves but also their parents and the US society.

Kim and her family immigrated to the US from South Korea when she was 9 years old.

Her parents owned a laundromat, and Kim was often the translator between her parents and the customers.

It was so important for me in my own self-development.

When I'm thinking about how I navigate myself as an adult, a lot of those skills I learned as a language broker as a child.

But when she got to college, she noticed her experience was missing from her textbooks.

When I was in my developmental psychology class, the whole class was supposed to be about child development, and all I saw in that child-development class is how children in white American families develop.

Inspired by her own childhood, Kim is now studying more than 600 Mexican-American children and their parents in the Austin area to understand the impact of language brokering.

There's a big debate in the literature about, you know, whether language brokering has a positive or negative effect, and our goal is to find out, what are the conditions under which we do see that positive or negative effect?

17-year-old Risella Bautista and her mother, Maria Elvida Gonzalez, are two of the people in the study.

Bautista says she's been translating for her mom her whole life.

I remember being about 7 years old or 8 years old...


...and being, like, at H-E-B, talking to the cash-register lady.

To measure the effects language brokering has on Bautista, Kim's study monitors Bautista's stress levels.

First, Bautista has to translate a complex medical document into Spanish.

[ Speaking Spanish ]

And we chose the medical document mainly because studies have shown that that's the most stressful of all the types of documents that children as language brokers conduct.

It's considered one of the more stressful ones.

Research assistants then collect saliva samples to measure Bautista's cortisol levels.

They also collect hair samples.

One centimeter of hair is related to your stress level in the past month, so we typically take 3 centimeters to assess about your past 3 months' stress history to see not only your stress levels at the acute momentary level at the task activity visit but also more of a chronic level in the past 3 months.

Bautista says she has mixed feelings about being a language broker.

Sometimes, I'm fine with it, like, when we're translating at a regular place or something, but sometimes, it can get a little stressful when it's more, like, serious things that I have to translate for.

Kim is researching this variation in hopes of moving past seeing language brokering as either good or bad and instead understand the range of emotions language brokers feel.

We have studies that show children who are language brokers actually outperform kids who are not language brokers, but then there's also other studies that show that the stress of language brokering is so burdensome that kids end up being so stressed out, they end up becoming very delinquent and have negative outcomes.

The goal of the study is to understand what leads to positive or negative experiences for the language broker.

What has she found so far?

When kids feel very efficacious about language brokering, where they feel like they're very good at it, we find that their cortisol response pattern, their cortisol reactivity and recovery, follows a very healthy pattern.

But then if they feel very not efficacious about it, and they feel that their parents have to depend on them so much, and they feel very burdened by it, then their patterns of cortisol reactivity and recovery is such that they have a very difficult time recovering from that stress.

Kim believes if we can have a greater understanding of the conditions that cause these negative experiences, intervention programs can be created to help increase the benefits of brokering.

A large series of studies have been coming out showing that children who are bilingual and adults who are bilingual have this cognitive advantage such that if you're bilingual that you actually have lower risk of Alzheimer's disease, so we're looking at that bilingual advantage or that cognitive advantage in bilingual language brokers to see, how could that translate into better academic outcomes, and what are the conditions that help us to understand that?

And just being in the study has had some benefits for the participants.

[ Speaking Spanish ]

It's created a sense of awareness for Bautista too.

This study has made me realize that I'm not the only one, that there's lots more kids out there that translate for their parents.

Ultimately, Kim hopes that awareness will spread into the classroom.

If more educators know and understand the nuances of language brokering, maybe it will lead to curriculums that better reflect these children's experiences.

We know language brokers are there, and educators know they're there, but they don't really know how to develop a program that's more effective for them, so I feel like we can inform possibly a curriculum and even develop intervention programs to help language brokers.

♪♪ ♪♪

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for and

Throughout his career, he has watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss robotic lunar exploration.

Are humans necessary the next time we go to the Moon?

It depends who you are and, you know, what you want to do there.

I think if you want to sort of establish a human presence somewhere else, yeah, they're absolutely necessary, but you can do a lot of things with robots ahead of humans.

Humans are risky because they can die.

If a robot dies, you know...

Big deal. Build another one.

Big deal.

We lose a bunch of money, but we don't lose a human life.


So how are governments or companies thinking about putting robots onto the Moon?

So NASA recently unveiled this program.

It's basically like a grant program similar to how they funded SpaceX and other sort of private entities, but it's different than that.

What they want to do instead of building their own Moon landers is, they want to buy space on private or commercial landers, so they can put whatever experiments they want on there, whether it's, you know, a Moon-quake seismometer or something that's looking for helium-3 or whatever, or they want to look for water.

Whatever it may be, they're kind of looking at it that way.

They want to save money.

They see...What they see is all these private companies are building landers.

Rockets are getting cheaper.

They're saying, 'Well, this is the future.

Like, we might as well ride on these things instead of, like, using tons and tons of taxpayer dollars to build our own things that will just duplicate what is already out there and is much cheaper.'

So, interestingly, it was sort of NASA technology that enabled the rocket science that SpaceX and lots of these other companies are doing now, right?

It's just that the cost structure perhaps is different for these private companies than it was for NASA.


NASA pioneered a lot of the stuff.

So did Russia, I mean, to be totally fair, and China is getting there too with all of these Chang'e missions.

There's just so much happening right now that the market hasn't... It's enabled so many things that the market has been created, and also Google and the XPRIZE Foundation played a big role in this too way back in the early 2000s when they launched the Google Lunar XPRIZE.


A lot of these teams that we're seeing that are going to the Moon, such as SpaceIL and Astrobotic and other things that are now companies, they were teams in a competition for about $20 million.

That competition is closed.

Nobody can get that money, but they're seeing dollar signs in the future because they see NASA wants to go there.

People want to send cremains to the Moon, so there's, like, a business for that.

There's all sorts of these weird industries that these private companies are seeing, and they see a sustainable and increasing future, and then you also have the rocket industry.

You know, SpaceX has come in and completely disrupted it with its cost structure, at times three or four times cheaper than competitors, so they're seeing this opportunity to, like, do more with less and make money at it.

What's, say, for example, Israel get out of trying to put an object, or is it about bragging rights?

Is it about wanting a seat at the table of saying, 'Hey, we are also a space-exploring nation'? What are the motivations?

I think it's all of those things.

You know, Russia, China and the United States have landed on the Moon, India, I believe, as well, and they're about to land another lander as well, so Israel would be, I think, the fourth or fifth country that would be there, and that's huge.

Landing on the Moon is incredibly hard.

It takes a lot of ingenuity, a lot of planning, and, frankly, a lot of money, so if they can pull this off, they do have a seat at the table.

They have the respect of other nations.

They have shown their prowesses in engineering, you know, hive mind, even though it's just, like, a nonprofit that's trying to do this.

So if they can pull that off, then that opens up more possibilities for them for collaboration on future space missions, whether it's with NASA or the European Space Agency or whomever.

Are there plans now to put more humans back on the Moon even for a visit?

There are plans.

The most defined ones are with China, though.

They want to take... They want to leverage all these robotic lunar explorations that they've done, starting with the Chang'e missions.

In fact, Chang'e 4 is in part looking for sites, looking for something that would allow a permanent base to be settled on the south pole of the Moon, where you can harvest water, do really important science, maybe build a very high-tech unprecedented astronomical observatory where you can look at the radio sky because the Moon is blocking all of the transmissions from the Sun and the Earth.

That's huge, so there's a whole bunch of reasons they would want to do this, and, you know, China is kind of like the farthest ahead in the thinking.

NASA has talked about this before, but the plans have been so notional.

They have this gateway thing, but they haven't really said exactly how they're going to get to the Moon and what they're going to do there.

China seems to be a little bit ahead of them on that.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Beeping ] ♪♪

Tardigrades are the most resilient creatures on Earth, able to survive in any extreme environment.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have identified the genes and proteins that make tardigrades so resilient.

It's now hoped those genes and proteins can be used to make lifesaving medicines.

You can find them in the ocean.

You can find them in dry deserts like the Sahara Desert, cold deserts like Antarctica, like I mentioned.

They've been found in rain forests, at the top of mountains, but, you know, the amazing thing is if we went outside and found some moss or lichen, like, growing on a brick and brought it up to the lab, within 10 minutes, we could find some under the microscope.

And, indeed, in Thomas Boothby's lab on the third floor of the Genome Sciences Building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you'll find the most resilient creatures on Earth on a counter, in a dish.

This is the tardigrade farm.

These are some different culture dishes that we have the animals growing in.

The green stuff in the dishes is the algae that they eat, and we can't actually see the tardigrades with our naked eye, but I can pop some on the microscope.

Some say tardigrades are cute, some say creepy.

They've been called gummy bears and mini blimps.

And let me focus it a little bit more.

But whatever the label, there are about 1,200 species of tardigrades.

I can see little legs moving.


And it's just hugging this piece of algae.


The tiny creatures have been around for 500 million years.

They're animals, so they're multicellular.

They're complex, so they have a nervous system.

They have a brain.

Some species have eyespots.

They have digestive tract, reproductive system.

Although they're very small, they're very complex.

The largest species are about a millimeter, so with the naked eye, that would look like a little speck of dust, and the smallest species are about 50 microns, like, smaller than some cells.

They're really cool.

They're really weird.

The proteins that I work with from tardigrades are really, really weird and don't behave like your average protein.

That's because tardigrades have a unique family of genes that produce what are called intrinsically disordered proteins.

They're intrinsically disordered, which means that they're very dynamic.

They're constantly moving.

They have no stable, consistent structure.

And scientists believe those proteins produce a gel-like fiber that protects other proteins under extreme conditions.

It gives tardigrades an almost supernatural ability to survive anything.

Thomas has led us on this adventure, and these proteins are the strangest things I've ever worked with.

You know, you have species of tardigrades that can survive being dried out completely, can survive being heated up past the boiling point of water, can survive being frozen down to, like, a degree above absolute zero.

They can survive in the vacuum of outer space.

They can tolerate thousands of times as much radiation as we can.

They can go for days or weeks with little or no oxygen, and they can do this at every life stage.

You know, one of the things that we're working on now is looking at how we can use some of these tricks the tardigrades use to protect their cells and their cellular components when they dry out and applying those tricks to stabilizing pharmaceuticals and other biomedical material.

It's been estimated that about 90 percent of the cost of vaccination programs in developing parts of the world comes from the mere fact that you have to keep vaccines cold.

If we could understand how tardigrades are able to stabilize their proteins when they dry out, we could apply those same tricks to stabilizing vaccines and in this way be able to dry vaccines out, keep them stable at ambient or even elevated temperatures, which would allow us to cheaply and efficiently get medicine to everybody everywhere.

And that means that tardigrade proteins have the potential to create lifesaving medicines.

We've identified a family of proteins that they make when they dry out that are unique to tardigrades, and we've been able to show that the animals themselves need these proteins to survive, so there's something about these proteins that makes them very efficient at protecting biological material, and what that special thing is is what we're trying to figure out now.

Beyond just looking at something cool under a microscope, we can do some fairly sophisticated work with these little critters.

♪♪ ♪♪

In just two decades, the monarch butterfly population fell by 90 percent.

In order to understand why this is happening and help protect monarch butterflies, we need your help.

Since 1997, citizen scientists across North America have been gathering information about where monarch butterflies lay eggs and feed.

I found an egg.

Guys, look it, a caterpillar.


Oh, yeah.

The monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed to provide a food source to their offspring.

We're going to have to figure out what instar that is.

The habitat monarchs use and the conditions that keep monarchs healthy are good for other species, people and the environment.


We got a big caterpillar.

Holy cow.

Look at this.

Help protect monarch butterflies by joining the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

♪♪ Monitoring involves just a few steps.

On the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project website, print out data sheets.

Find a site with milkweed in your backyard or a nearby park.

Look for eggs, caterpillars or butterflies.

Record your observations on the data sheets.

You may do this one time or once a week during the spring and summer.

Egg population in the beginning -- lays...

Submit your observations online, so scientists can use your data to help protect habitat for monarchs.

But there are plants everywhere.

Oh, there's the monarch right there.

There he goes.

Join other volunteers helping with this important project.

You can make a difference.

♪♪ ♪♪

Building robots isn't just a science project for a group of Houston, Texas high school students.

It's a game.

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how high school students from across the state are using their skills to compete in a national tech competition.


Why are we wearing these goggles?

[ Chuckles ]

So these goggles, safety glasses, are pretty important to make sure that we don't get any shards into our eyes while we're working on robots.


Well, wait.

Let's back completely up and tell me what this competition is and how significant it is for your team.

So this competition is the first robotics competition.

This year, we're playing the game Steamworks, and so in Steamworks, teams have 6 weeks to design and build a robot that can complete the challenge.

The team who collects the most number of points at the end of the competition is crowned the world champion.

So the Robonauts are a 60-student team based out of Clear Creek Independent School District.

Our robot this year is named Ruckus.

It's about 2 feet tall and weighs about 120 pounds.

We have Logitech controllers.

They're very similar to Xbox controllers.

It has a six-wheel drive train.

It goes 17 feet per second.

This is our gear intake.

Pneumatic cylinders fire this wall down.

A gear comes in with this roller.

These pincers close, and it comes up, and then we can place it.

These three white rollers are the ball intake.

It sucks up balls into the robot, and then this feeder system inside of the robot takes them up to the shooter, so this is our turreted shooter.

It spins about 2,600 to 3,200 rpm and fires 10 balls per second into the high goal.

So far, our team is doing really well.

We are ranked first in our division.

We've won six of our matches so far today.

We tied one, and we have three more to go.


Three, two, one, go.



What do we need, Justin?

Vision was way far, way too fast there.

I don't know what... I didn't really know what was happening because Vision was working, but it was wrong, and it was giving us wrong data, so we've never experienced a failure like this before.


So tell me what it's like when you guys are in the middle of a competition, and something goes wrong.

It's always sort of nerve-racking when something goes wrong on the robot, but our pit crew is fantastic.

They're a well-oiled, efficient machine to identify the problem and solve it as quickly as possible.

One of the encoders on our shooter was failing, and so our shots were way too fast, so we just went to the practice field.

We fixed the encoder.

We tuned our shots, and we're getting ready for the next match.

Three, two, one, go.


We feel pretty good.

The robot is running really well.

If we win our division, we move onto Minute Maid Park against the winners of all the other divisions.

We won the world championship in 2015.

We think we have a really good shot of doing it again.

You are clearly very much enjoying yourself here.

Tell me why you're so passionate about doing this.

[ Chuckles ] Why?

All of the great experiences I've had throughout the entire competition season.

We're solving problems.

We're anticipating new problems.

We're trying to make the robot as good as it possibly can.

I love getting in there, looking at all of these different problems and trying to optimize each individual aspect to do our best at the competition.


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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪