SciTech Now Episode 540

In this episode of SciTech Now, battling the invasive zebra mussel, Einstein’s theory behind G.P.S., fighting pollution in Detroit’s neighborhoods and the cybersecurity job market.



Coming up... battling the invasive zebra mussel...

Right now, we're focused on zebra mussels and quagga mussels.

It's kind of like the cancer of the lake.

...Einstein's theory behind GPS...

Every time you use your GPS, you're actually using his special theory of relativity.

...fighting pollution in Detroit's neighborhoods...

Not only is it among the eight most polluted zip codes in the Detroit metropolitan area, but it's the most polluted.

...the cybersecurity job market.

We're looking for students that are also creative, able to problem-solve on their own.

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.

EQO, an Austin, Texas, based start-up is looking to leverage the same technology used in fighting cancer to help mitigate invasive zebra mussel infestations in bodies of water around the country.

Here is the story.

Turning on a tap is not just turning on a tap.

There's a whole system of infrastructure in place there, and things that we do as a community greatly impact our ability to provide clean water.

Biologist John Higley worked for years as a cancer researcher.

Now he's hoping to use that experience to attack a new problem -- zebra mussels.

My background is in molecular biology, specifically early-stage cancer research and biopharmaceutical development, and we're leveraging those technologies to help the environment.

Right now, we're focused on zebra mussels and quagga mussels.

It's kind of like the cancer of the lake.

Higley says zebra mussels are similar to cancer because they can grow quickly, spread, and completely change the ecosystem of a body of water.

So what are they exactly?

They're kind of similar to maybe a clam or something like that.

They're much smaller, though.

So, zebra mussels are only maybe, like, an inch long, and they're so tiny, but they grow so fast, and so they just encrust things.

Not only can zebra mussels clog infrastructure, they are also high-efficiency filter feeders, which means they eat all of the primary food sources in a lake, disrupting many of the existing food chains, but there is one thing they don't eat.

Zebra mussels do not eat toxic algae.

They spit it right back out.

And the problem with that is that then the lake, having none of its native algae anymore, is a perfect breeding ground for the toxic algae to bloom and create pretty significant health hazards.

Right now, cities typically send out researchers that use nets and collect water samples to check if zebra mussels are in a water body.

They use something called PCR, traditional PCR, and this is just where basically, they take a water sample, and they're looking for either presence or absence of zebra-mussel DNA.

We use something called qPCR, quantitative PCR.

So we can actually tell you how many copies of that DNA are in the water.

It's also very sensitive technology, so we can pick up things quite early before there's even a reproducing population.

Instead of using traditional methods requiring a lot more manpower, EQO uses an automated collector installed on a water body.

The collector draws in water samples and then sends them through a series of filters.

Those filters catch all of the biological material from the water and are then sent to EQO's lab for analysis.

You can look at what genes are being turned on in the population and off.

So that allows us to predict when a spawn is going to happen, figure out if they're responding to stress in a way that we want them to for mitigation effort.

So if we're treating with chemical or something along those lines, we can start seeing early-stage stress responses, later-stage stress responses and eventually death, and so you can start mapping what the population so you can have better understanding of what to do to address the issue.

Just like with fighting cancer, Higley believes early detection can lead to better outcomes.

If you do early screening, you can knock out cancer way earlier than when it's metastatic.

And right now, a lot of the people that are invested in water, they're not trying to treat the cancer until it's already metastatic, and that's already a terminal patient.

And just because many lakes in Texas are already infested with zebra mussels, EQO hopes their work can still inspire people to adopt preventative measures.

It's not hopeless because there's still plenty of water bodies in Texas that don't have them.

Don't just think that, 'Okay, well, it's inevitable.

They're coming downstream, right?'

Like, 'Let's just sit here and watch it happen.'

There are still things that can be done.

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

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

She joins me now to discuss how scientist Albert Einstein is connected to our GPS system.

So, what does Einstein have to do with GPS?

Yeah, so when we think about Einstein, we think, 'Really, really smart guy.

Whatever he's doing doesn't really relate to me,' but every time you use your GPS, you're actually using his special theory of relativity.

E equals MC squared?

No, not that one. [ Laughs ] But that's a very good -- very good... I'll tell you what the special theory of relativity is.

It's actually mind-blowing, so that's why I'm pausing.


So, what he said is that, if you have a clock, and it's moving very, very fast, it ticks at a slower rate than if the clock were here.

All right.

So you're in space on a satellite.

We both have the same clock.

You know, we both went over to a store and got the same clock, and you go into space, and you're looking at the time.

You come back.

Your watch is going to be slightly slower than mine.

Nothing wrong with your watch...

Because time is slower in space?

Time stretches.

That's what he's saying.

Time stretches.

So these satellites are miles and miles above us, and they're flying at thousands of miles per hour.


So their clocks -- because what they do is they tell us where they're located, and they tell the time, and our computers take that information, and they convert it into information to tell us where we're located.


But when they're telling us the time, our computers have to be smart enough to know that there is a shift, that that clock is a little slower than ours.

So that --

So all those -- Like, our smartphone, when we turn the GPS on, there is a calculation going on not just based on the satellites that are floating, but also accounting for the difference in the time in space.

In the time. That's right.

Fundamental science was established by Einstein.

That's right.

Let's say that I have a clock on a train, and the train is moving, and I shine a light.

If I'm on a train, I see the light hitting the surface of the ceiling and then coming back down.

A person who is looking at me doesn't see the same thing.

They see a diagonal going up and a diagonal coming back down sort of like if you're watching a basketball game.


If you're the basketball player, you see the ball going up and down while you're dribbling, but the fans see this kind of seesaw pattern.


So the seesaw pattern is longer than if I were to do it straight up and down.

That is why time is slower?

Time is slower because something has to account.

The 'C,' the speed of light, has to be the same, so what -- How can they line up?

How can this and this seesaw be the same?

Well, that means that in order for them to overlap, then something has to change.

Time has to stretch.

He didn't have the ability to have anyone walk around in space and tell him this.


This is a complete thought experiment.

This is a thought experiment.

He used trains to come up with this thought experiment.

But we actually have proof.

They put two very, very sophisticated clocks, atomic clocks.

They put them right next to each other, give them the exact time.


One stayed put, one went on the Concord around the Earth a couple of times.

Brought them back together.

They're different.

Different by nanoseconds, but they're different.

So that proves that Einstein's theory was correct.

So if an astronaut takes a clock up there now and brings it back down to Earth, it's going to be off by --

It's going to be off by a little bit.

Now, you may be saying, 'Why is this such a big deal?'

It ends up that this difference is cumulative.

If I have GPS and I take a snapshot, and I still have this difference because of that relativity theory, then in about a week, GPS is not going to work.

So we always have to put in that fudge factor, if you will, so that it will be accurate, so we know exactly where you are.

So, does that happen -- I mean, we have -- what do we call them? -- atomic clocks on the planet that are supposed to be super precise, right?


So we're comparing that atomic clock to what?

They have atomic clocks on the satellites, as well.

On satellites, too.

That's right.

So there's essentially -- At that point, we know exactly the rate at which this change occurs?

We know how much time expands.

We know how slow the ticks are on that clock that's flying in the air, and we know that difference, and we can add it to the time that we sense so that we can determine where we are.

So when someone sends up a satellite, then it also has to be at a specific distance.

Or, we should say, we could calculate exactly what that difference is going to be based on how far away from Earth it's going to be.

Once we know how fast it is, we can determine how much of a shift, how much the dilation, how much time will stretch once it's speeding up.

How far do we have to go out in space until we really notice effects?

That's a good question.

Well, satellites are, like, tens of thousands of miles -- They're going at a speed of 10,000 miles or more, and they're several miles up, and that's enough for a nanosecond -- for, you know, a fraction of a nanosecond to be detected.

Wow. All right.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael made catastrophic landfalls over the United States.

They caused extreme flooding, record-breaking winds and storm surges that devastated communities.

Understanding how hurricanes behave is critical to saving lives.

How a hurricane forms, develops, and dissipates is a complex problem, though.

It involves many different processes that are highly interconnected, but from space and the air, NASA satellites and aircraft can break down the underlying physics by monitoring each component of a hurricane.

There are a few key ingredients for hurricanes to form.

First, we need warm waters that provide fuel for the storms.

Water evaporates from the warm ocean and creates humid air which then rises and cools to form clouds and rain.

3-D structures to look for inside storms are long rain bands and a near-circular eye wall.

The warmer the ocean, the stronger the storm can be, which often means heavy rainfall and extreme winds.

Understanding each component is just part of the puzzle.

The key is to figure out how they fit together, and to do this scientists step into the digital world.

This is a computer-generated model of a hurricane.

Inside this digital environment, the atmosphere is programmed to behave as much as possible like the real world, governed by the laws of physics.

What makes this a valuable research tool is that scientists can put satellite observations into this digital world to see how the entire system evolves.

The impact of a hurricane lasts long after the storm has dissipated.

Satellites and aircraft can also be used to monitor damage and recovery.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria caused the longest electric-power blackout in US history in Puerto Rico.

Over the following year, satellite data helped first responders monitor where and when power was restored, and after Hurricane Maria, aircraft were used to map the island's recovering forests.

Satellites, aircraft and computer models help us understand each stage of a hurricane, including the aftermath.

As we learn more, not only will other agencies better forecast weather, but communities will have more time to prepare and evacuate from potentially dangerous storms.

In Detroit, citizens are fighting to retake what they say are toxic neighborhoods plagued by contaminated water and heavy pollutants, and one resident is even taking people on what she calls toxic tours.

Here is the story.

The CDC sent Dr. Laura Birmingham to do a three-year study.

Their samples showed no harmful chemical above the standard, but I was sure that we were off the chain.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality holds a hearing concerning Detroit's wastewater treatment plant in Southwest Detroit.

The plant's sludge-processing equipment put too many pollutants into the air, so the public gets to comment on the violations.

I truly feel disheartened about the process.

Teresa Landrum has lived in Southwest Detroit all her life.

...there is no notification to the residents when there is an exceedance of a dangerous emission.

Here's Rhonda Anderson who is with the Sierra Club.

We've been to literally -- I going to suspect hundreds of these permit hearings, especially in this area...

And that's Delores Leonard, the leader of the group.

How is that going to impact the workers, some who are here tonight?

I thank you.

Three environmental activists working together for nearly two decades, trying to convince the government to do more to protect their community.

You know, in the '50s and '30s and '40s, that's when African-Americans started to really move into the area.

When you look at it, it's all economics, and we -- as I keep telling people, we are collateral damage.

We just -- We're in the way.

Who has the ear of MDEQ?

Do you think they're listening to a bunch of poor black people, as we've been identified, or Latinos or people of color, you know?


This most southwestern part of Southwest Detroit, inhabited mostly by African-Americans, an area known as 48217, the most polluted zip code in Michigan.

This little diagram here, it shows all the industries within a three-mile radius that's located around my zip code.

This little black outline, that's 48217.

Industry, industry, industry, industry, industry, industry, industry -- heavy polluters.

At the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, Professor Paul Mohai and some others have been studying 48217.

These are the eight most polluted zip codes in the Detroit metropolitan area.

And except for this one out here, they're all congregated around 48217.

And not only is it among the eight most polluted zip codes in the Detroit metropolitan area, but it's the most polluted based on the data that we used from the Toxic Release Inventory.

This is what we call the black side.

When I was growing up, all of this was segregated, so this was the only area that black folks could live in.

Rhonda is taking University of Michigan professors and students on one of her toxic tours of the neighborhood.

So the fish seem to be doing good, but I wouldn't eat the fish.

They're looking at all sorts of heavy industry -- steel mills, oil refineries, the wastewater treatment facility, and the coal-fired power plant by the river.

The emissions that go into the air eventually fall somewhere, and weather patterns generally go from west to east.

It makes sense that the air pollution is getting into the Great Lakes, and into more local water supplies.

I've been doing these tours for probably 15 years.

And really, they are so damn depressing.

There was a fire out here.

You know, it's like, 'When do we win?

When do the people win?'

You know?

All you can do is talk about the bad stuff.

Along with the industry comes the exhaust from trucks passing through, a lot of them headed up I-75 and over the bridge to Canada.

All of those trucks, they back up on the freeway, you know, diesel emissions, and they have an impact on the people's health, as well.

The trucks create sulfur dioxide -- bad for your lungs.

And soot from diesel exhaust is not good, either.

Some of the stuff is so fine, it can't be seen.

We're breathing it everyday, so therefore it's locking itself in our lungs and all over our body.

Marathon's oil refinery has been here since 1930.

It's grown a lot since then, making gasoline and other things like asphalt, propane, and sulfur.

I taught myself how to read a permit.

When Marathon, in 2007, applied for that expansion, and other companies since then, I have taught myself to sit down and read.

Part of the problem for Marathon, they just look ugly, you know?

They're massive.

They're big.

They sit there in front of everyone, you know, and so that's what people concentrate on.

No one is kind of looking over here at nasty DTE, that coal power plant in River Rouge, that was actually putting out more poison than even Marathon.

Someone asked, 'Have you tested the soil?'

And so the results came back contaminated with you name it --

Arsenic and lead.

Heavy arsenic and lead.

We have a toxic soup down here.

The cumulative impact, that study that we have been asking for -- because Marathon emit a certain amount of different chemicals.

DTE emits certain types of different chemicals.

US Steel emits certain types of different chemicals.

AK Steel emits certain types of chemicals.

What is the byproduct of all these chemicals mixing into the air?

If one is toxic, then they find out two is toxic, when you combine two toxic things, isn't that a toxic monster?

The problem is, even with all the factories holding their emissions under allowable limits, add all those emissions together.

Just how toxic is 48217 now?

The activists are still trying to find out.

My question is, 'Is my child's health less important than your job?'

You know?

Where I believe we have the technology, we have the science, we have everything we need right now to have both a good-paying job and a clean environment.

The group concedes that, in the past, it did not play well with industry or government agencies.

Now they're trying to build relationships to get things done.

Last fall, the MDEQ installed an air-monitoring station behind the New Mt. Hermon Baptist Church with help from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

This air-monitoring station being put in 48217, that is monumental, because I really feel that we are one of the first communities to ever have this done.

I think it's important for us to know what we're breathing.

I used to work for BASF in the automotive-coatings division, so I'm aware of toxins and what they can do to your body.

I'm testing for SO2, which is directly related to man-made industry.

Acids found in the air.

We're also testing for metals and particulate, specifically 2.25 micron, and VOCs -- volatile organic compounds -- that are found in the air, as well.

The monitoring is planned for only a year.

After that, who knows?

The EPA is on our new president's chopping block.

We're certainly hoping that our funding will remain the same so that we can continue to do the air-monitoring work here in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan.

75 miles up 1-75, Flint found itself in the national spotlight with its water crisis, something that might bring more recognition to the problems in Southwest Detroit.

Some of the same toxins that were discovered in the water in Flint are actually in the air in this community, and so it took what happened in Flint to bring notoriety to the battles that we've been fighting in the 48217 zip code.

Resa Landrum's mother and father died of cancer.

Her sister was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24.

Her aunt lives a few streets away.

She has cancer, too.

I'm a cancer survivor.

I got cancer.

I've never smoked, used drugs, or drank.

I'm in this fight to save somebody else's life if I can.

I do it because I love my community.

This is all I know.

This is all I have.

If we as a people, we as a government, we as human beings can work on that problem, I'm sure we can solve some of it and give our children, which are our future, a chance at a better life, a healthier life, a livable life.

Up next, we sit in as students learn about the growth of information technology at a cybersecurity conference in Miami, Florida.

This segment is from 'PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs' as part of American Graduate -- Getting to Work, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Miami Dade College hosted a cybersecurity workshop which discussed all the changes happening in the world of technology.

Well, the workforce in general has changed.

It's moving very too much to the technical side.

So, specifically, within the technical field, someone yesterday had mentioned that technology is becoming a lot like medicine where you have very specific fields within technology.

And one of the really growing fields right now within technology is IT security.

In workforce development, we have found that 70% of students feel that all they need is technical skills to get jobs, but employers, 90% of them are telling us that they also want soft skills.

In the IT community specifically, they want things like collaboration.

They want us to have a teacher's disposition, somebody that's able to explain technical information to CEOs and end users in a way that's palatable and understandable.

Cybersecurity classes have made their way into the classroom, educating students on skills to better their future.

Academies like these are giving us the skills that we're going to need in the future to enter the workforce to do something that we like.

Not only that, but also, they're giving us the opportunity to use the skills that we're learning in the school environment in a real, working environment so that we know what we're going to need and how we're going to use it in real life.

I feel the requirements have changed because, like, people have gone from personality to people looking for just everyone that will follow the rules step-by-step, rule-by-rule, no matter what, unwavering.

They're looking for sheeple.

We're looking for students that are also creative, creative in ways that they're thinking, and able to problem-solve on their own.

So they have to have way more than just technical skills.

They also have to be able to figure out complex problems.

Something that surprised me was that I thought initially that people or companies would want people that are just knowledgeable in the subject.

But it turned out that they were actually looking for people that were committed, that were responsible, and that really cared about what they were doing, and that was more important than actually having a certain skill.

The cool thing about my company or about Microsoft or a lot of the bigger companies now, I think they're more looking towards people's attitude, really.

Seeing how people carry themselves, if they're willing to change, if their ability to adapt and go along with it, just because things are changing that weren't issues before or common before.

So with us, they're a lot more willing to hire someone that is positive and bubbly and happier and willing to learn versus someone who is, you know, straight stuck on what they know and the black-and-white concrete of things.

And that's where they get a lot of their good results from, too.

There's no denying that the field of technology will only continue to grow, evolve, and progress in the future.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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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... ♪♪