SciTech Now Episode 603

In this episode of SciTech Now, the first woman dean of New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, the search for life on other planets, the science of the sleeping lemur and strategies for a zero waste footprint.



Coming up, the first woman dean of New York University's Tandon School of Engineering.

There were before 10 women in a class of 100.

That's a very different story than now.

There's going to be 47 out of 100.

The search for life on other planets.

There are kind of concrete things we can talk about to get an idea of 'What is life?'

The science of the sleeping lemur.

They store fat prior to entering hibernation in their tails.

Strategies for a zero-waste footprint.

It's important because we need to divert waste from landfills into compost and recycling.

It's all ahead.

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


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

When Jelena Kovacevic was growing up in the former Yugoslavia, she says she just wanted to do math.

Her father encouraged her, and it led her to study electrical engineering.

She did her graduate work at Columbia University in New York City, worked at Bell Labs and later became Head of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and now she's returned to New York City as dean of New York University's Tandon School of Engineering.

She is the first woman to hold that post since the school was founded in Brooklyn in 1854.

Why do you think it took so long?

That's a good question.

Well, it's a interesting question.

I don't know that it has a really good answer.

When I was growing up, I felt that it was different than when I came here.

I...Maybe because it's Eastern Europe, maybe it was the, you know, socialist ideals of equality, and perhaps, you know, women had to work because it was a little less-developed country.

I don't know what it was, but as I was growing up, like, I wouldn't see that there was something that a woman not only could not do but that there are some areas of maybe science or math that they were closed to us, and here, for whatever reason, this doesn't seem to be the case, or it hasn't seemed to be the case for the past, you know, maybe 20 years.

I mean, if you look at the, you know, the NASA scientists in the '40s and '50s, they called them computers.

They were all women.

If I look at engineering in general, right now the average number of women in engineering is somewhere around hovering around 20 percent maybe, you know, low 20s, and in our school this year, the incoming class is 47 percent women.


So you can do things to change this, but it has to kind of start also very early.

It's not enough only to bring young women into, you know, math and science.

They have to be supported, and the climate has to be such that they feel that they're welcome, right?

And, you know, we hear, or we read research that says that kids usually decide sort of on their vocation in middle school, so if in middle school there are messages that come your way that say, 'Well, maybe you're not good at math,' or, you know, 'This is not for girls,' and also, this is the time when, you know, they're teenagers, so there are all kinds of other peer pressures come into play.

Who knows what kind of a message this leaves in you?

And then, you know, you may feel, 'Well, I don't feel comfortable enough doing that.'

What kind of things can you say as a dean to say, 'Hey, let's get that freshman proportion up?'

I mean, the fact that it's 47 percent or whatever it is, that's already abnormal when it comes to the crops of classes of engineering schools anywhere.

That's very true, but, you know, what you can do is, first of all, you can explain what you do.

Engineering is still... Lots of people think it's, you know, guys with hard hats.

It's not.

I'm an applied mathematician.

I went into this, as you said, because I love math.

I did all kinds of things from communications and transmission to biomedical imaging.

That's why I was a professor of biomedical engineering as well for 10 years.

It's really lots of fun.

It's, you know, this stuff that, you know, you can't, you know, wait to wake up, and we don't explain this to kids, right?


If you take your... Everybody has a smartphone.

This is what engineers did from the actual phone to the codec inside to the, you know, capacitor that's the screen to the apps and everything else, but they somehow think that somebody else did that, so somebody has to explain, how does this touch the world?

And by doing that, first of all, by explaining exactly what we do, I think you attract more young girls to get interested in this, so that's why we have lots of programs for high schoolers, for middle schoolers, high schoolers.

We also have them come work in our labs at the entire NYU, and so they see firsthand what that is, right?

They get excited, but then once they come to college, that's not enough, right?

You have to make sure that they're supported, so if there were before 10 women in a class of 100, that's a very different story than now that are going to be 47 out of 100, so we pair them up with senior mentors.

We have all kinds of programming, so there has to be a strategy, a principled and thought-out strategy how to do this, and this doesn't go only for women.

That goes for any underrepresented group in a particular field.

In engineering, you know, or STEM, this happens to be women and, you know, underrepresented minorities.

So especially right now, we seem to be at a pretty big inflection point.

with lots of different technologies converging that are set to change life as we know it in a very short period of time, I mean, whether it's automated driving or whether it's, you know, kind of personalized medicine.

All of these have big engineering components underneath them.



Within a generation, within 20 years, we have changed completely the way we live and work, right?

That's so exciting, sort of feeling like you are the right place at the right time -- everything is expanding and exploding at the same time -- that I think it's exciting for everybody, and kids, unlike us, grew up with that.

So what's your goal for the school?

I want the school to be this world-class engineering institution that makes an impact on society.

We have this motto.

We said, you know, 'Born anywhere, made in Brooklyn.'

I want it to be also accessible to lots of kids.

Still a third of our kids are first generation.

Third of our kids are Pell Grant eligible.

That means, you know, they come from economically disadvantaged families.

So if at all possible, to make it accessible to all and to create this melting pot sort of like New York writ small in a school that does technology, but it's in service of society, that we do something that's useful, right?

I told you I went into this because of math.

I could do math all day long, and I don't need necessarily to have an end goal.


I'm just going to... It's just fun for me, but when I went into engineering, what became even more fun when you understand that this math can be actually something that I can use to solve a problem that I actually can see the impact on somebody.

To give you an example, I worked on... still work on a project with Dr. Hoberman from University of Pittsburgh.

It's on middle-ear infections.

It's the most prevalent childhood disease, and when you go to pediatricians, there's very great possibility that what's a bacterial infection will be confused for something that's basically a buildup of the water behind the tympanic membrane, but there is no bacteria there, and so what the physician will do will give an antibiotic anyhow because you can't tell the two apart...

It might not be necessary.

...which might not be necessary, which leads to antibiotic resistance, you know, increased cost and so on, so we teamed up, and what we would provide, we would get pictures of the tympanic membrane and basically create algorithms that will tell these two apart and also apart from the normal ear, so you can use this, for example, as an aid to the physician who will look into this, make a decision, and can say, 'Hey, hang on a second.

Maybe you want to rethink this because we think this could be... You know, maybe this doesn't need, you know, an antibiotic.'

So a doctor, a pediatrician, could take a photo of what they're saying and automatically have an app or something that compares the photos and says, 'This is'...

Exactly, and we have this.

So the otoscopes of today are typically, you know, digital photo or video otoscopes, some of them even, so, you know, they take a picture of the ear, and these pictures can then be, you know, uploaded.

You could do it even remotely, right?

You could upload it somewhere, and the software somewhere does it, or you can have it on your iPhone.


We did this also as an attachment.

So when I understood... because what I do, I build mathematical models and, you know, use sophisticated math to do this, but in the end, I can explain to anybody sort of what the end goal is, and that's the part that's really fun.

All right.

Thank you.

Jelena Kovacevic, thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much. Thank you.

♪♪ ♪♪

In New Jersey, Rutgers University scientists with the NASA-funded ENIGMA project shared scientific research about the search for life in the universe with young students.

We go inside the classroom to get the story.

[ Indistinct conversation ]

Peering through one eye.

On the other side, an entire world.


Look at this!

[ Indistinct conversation ]

Kids from the McKinley Community School in New Brunswick are back in class after hours, getting deep into existential topics like, where did life on Earth begin, and could it possibly exist elsewhere?

There are kind of concrete things we can talk about to get an idea of 'What is life?'

and then what we could potentially look for on other planets as signatures, biosignatures, that we can say, 'Okay.

Let's continue to probe, for instance, Mars for information.'

We're here working with the community to share some of the really interesting science that's going on at Rutgers, and this project is especially geared towards a new NASA grant that we have called ENIGMA.

The ENIGMA project is led by Rutgers scientists through a 5-year $6 million grant awarded by NASA.

It stands for Evolution of Nanomachines In Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors, which is a really long name to describe how researchers are studying life in the universe, but equally important, part of the project creates a science-outreach program for K through eighth graders with the help of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

Ka'myrah Bass inspects a table of rocks, looking for an imposter from another planet.

This is actually called mica.

Look at this.

And it's found [ Speaks indistinctly ] really hard metamorphic rocks that are made from a lot of heat and pressure.

They look awesome, and they're pretty good.

What did they teach you?

What did you learn?

Some rocks are different, and some are not.

All the stations we have here today look at a different aspect of how one might as a scientist discover if there's life on other planets.

We have the geology museum as looking at it from a rock perspective, looking at rocks and looking at evidence of life from rocks.

We have the physics department, astronomy department looking at it from sources of light from other planets.

We have our undergraduate students teaching the kids about the planets in general and Meet the Planet station, and then finally we have the proteomics department looking at proteins.

I think it's a great idea because it will shape the person minds that it's exposed to, and it will help them think differently about the world and how we view things.

Multiple pieces of literature in the education world show kids achieve more when parents help with homework and become more involved with their learning.

The project provides information via pamphlets or person in multiple languages, hoping to break down barriers.

We are actually the environmental-science school in New Brunswick, and so we're trying to bring in more and more of this type of thing into our building, get the kids really excited about the world around them.

What do you hope he gets out of tonight?

Understanding that science is cool.

Science is fun.

And hopefully inspiring the next round of scientists.


Looking at severe weather event after severe weather event, we found it to be important to study cloud tops.

Using this latest-generation satellite technology, we have found these clouds that are a bit odd and look a bit unusual.

It looks a bit like smoke, and it also has a very warm appearance.

When you look at storms that produce the really damaging tornados and large hail, you're taking very unstable air, hot and humid air near to the ground and raising it up into the upper atmosphere very, very fast, and then it hits the layer of the atmosphere above called the stratosphere.

Clouds that are especially strong eject into the stratosphere.

It's like a smoke plume emerging from those bubbling updrafts, and because the stratosphere is warmer, you can see this pattern.

One of the most exciting things that we found in this research is that over 85 percent of the really damaging storms produce this kind of smokelike plume, and also this plume pattern tends to occur about 30 minutes prior to when these severe-weather events are happening, and so this is especially valuable for the public at large.

A forecaster can instantly see this pattern when it emerges in a cloud, and they're going to be able to issue warnings faster and tell people to take cover or get their belongings inside.

Satellites observe everywhere all the time, so being able to do something that helps warning just from a satellite perspective can really offer benefits around the world and save lives.

Researchers are trying to determine the biological mechanisms that enable the fat-tailed dwarf lemur to hibernate for 6 months at a time.

Figuring out how they pull off this feat could lead to innovations in cryogenics, space travel, longevity and medicine.

Our partner, Science Friday, has the story.

I would guess that people think of lemurs as cuddly little animals, but we don't know a lot about them.

Lemurs are limited to this one island.

They're very hard to maintain, so there's not a long history of study, but because they are such a diverse and yet closely related group of species, they're a very promising source of information.

I'm Peter Klopfer, and I'm a biologist whose principal focus is on lemur biology and, in particular, hibernation in the fat-tailed dwarf lemur.

They are primates.

Indeed, if you look at their genome, they're almost as closely related to us as are chimpanzees, which is one of the reasons that studying hibernation in these animals is a little more relevant to the human condition than studying other hibernators such as the ground squirrel, for example.

They offer us an enormous bed of riches.

The dwarf lemurs are found naturally only on the island of Madagascar.

They're nocturnal.

They're generally solitary, and they're called fat-tailed lemurs because they store fat prior to entering hibernation in their tails.

They live in an area where there's a prolonged dry period, so you either shut off your metabolic rate or starve, and so the question that suddenly popped up in my mind was, how do these animals manage to hibernate for 6 to 7 months at temperatures well below that needed for brain activity when prolonged sleep deprivation is fatal?

Well, the Duke Lemur Center is dedicated to this kind of research.

We really have the only captive colony of dwarf lemurs outside of Madagascar, and so we have a small facility that's designated as a hibernaculum, and they usually go into these PVC pipes, and that gives me a clear view of the animal, and they feel safe and comfortable inside of it.

They just curl up inside and go into torpor.

♪♪ Torpor means the animal's thermostat is disabled, and they become as cold-blooded as a snake.

It's the only primate that we know that has that capacity.

Needle electrodes placed under the scalp allow us to continuously record brain activity.

We have temperature loggers, which are chips that are attached to collars that the animals wear.

After lots of trial and error, we discovered that they periodically warm up just enough for the brain to become active enough so they can sleep.

Sleep is an active brain state.

There is electrical activity there in very distinct pattern.

That sleep phase persists for a few hours, and then they go back into torpor, and the brain becomes inactive again.

Now, most of these energy these animals expend during their 6-month period of hibernation is devoted to firing up the metabolic system during the arousals, so that points to the importance of the arousal, and in turn, that points to the importance of sleep, but all kinds of other things are happening as well.

These animals, when they emerge from torpor, within minutes are as agile as they are at any time in their lives.

How do the muscles maintain that capacity?

How does the kidney manage to stay alive?

We haven't a clue.

These are all questions which, given our present technology, require invasive techniques.

We can't employ these.

First of all, the Duke Lemur Center prohibits any kind of invasive procedure.

Secondly, these are endangered species, and indeed we needed to get exceptions from the various agencies that govern animal care in order to induce hibernation to the degree that we do, which is far less prolonged than in nature.

We humans possess the same genes that are activated in the dwarf lemur when they initiate torpor.

What we lack is the switch that turns them on, so if we could identify that switch, there is very real possibility that we could induce prolonged torpor in humans.

That would be a great asset.

If you're needing heart surgery, slow the heartbeat down.

Slow the circulation down.

And of course my friends in NASA have cottoned on to the idea to have prolonged space travel without the need for food or exercise.

I started studying lemurs in mid-1960s.

I never really thought about how long the lemurs would continue to engage me.

We've hardly scratched the beginning of understanding lemur physiology in general and the physiology of hibernation in particular, just beginning to get a picture of what's going on in these little bodies.

♪♪ ♪♪

In many ways, modern American life is set up for convenience and speed, and that can generate a lot of garbage.

In this segment, we hear from one zero-waste advocate about what you can do to achieve a low- to zero-waste footprint.

On a crisp spring morning in Avondale, Stephanie Katsaros is in her neighbor's backyard talking trash.

It's not all recycling.

I mean, if it's only recycling, we've got bigger, you know, we've got a bigger problem.

In the big picture, I think about, let's have less things brought into Avondale, and let's have less things leaving Avondale.


Katsaros and her neighbor, Christina Schleich, share an aspiration to live zero-waste, reducing trash of all kinds from food to plastics to the bare minimum through reuse, repair or responsible recycling.

They're hoping to get the rest of the neighborhood on board with reducing their waste, too.

Katsaros has even made sustainability her business -- literally.

Her consulting firm, Bright Beat, works with businesses to reduce their environmental footprint, like at the Good Food Expo where food-industry stakeholders share sustainable products and practices.

It's important because we need to divert waste from landfills into compost and recycling, and if you don't purchase the right products, if you don't implement and use the right products, you can't do that.

For me, you know, working with recycling and compost, you know, food-to-waste type of projects allow me to, you know, think about those things in my business.

A third of the food that is produced for human consumption is uneaten.

You know, that's not just food, but it's also the water that was put into the ground to grow the crops or the feed that was grown and fed to the animals and all the transportation that went into that.

It's such an environmental footprint just to get the food to, you know, through distribution to our house, and then when it goes uneaten, all of those resources are also wasted.

Katsaros says one way to reduce that footprint is supporting businesses who also walk the walk.

She does much of her shopping at the Dill Pickle Food Co-Op in Logan Square, where they minimize food waste through careful stock management, sending spoiled produce to be composted and donating unsold food items or using it up themselves.

We partner with the Northwest Food Partners Network to distribute that to a network of local pantries.

The food that's not donated, which is very little -- we have those pickups almost daily -- is open for our staff to grab, and we also use some of that in our deli department as well, particularly for the daily soups that we make.

Back at home, Katsaros has developed her own strategies to make it easier to live low-waste that she says anyone can adopt, from composting food scraps...

You have the bin right there where you can toss your food scraps. reusing old containers and buying in bulk to bypass packaging waste...

The containers might be something I purchased -- you know, it's a glass jar -- or something I had around the house that's just a reusable container of black beans. recycling-bin placement.

It's required by city ordinance that every box store, grocery store, convenience store all have a spot for you to throw away your used bags.

Not everyone knows that if it's any film plastic, you could put it in there, so we strategically place where the plastic bags go right by the garbage can.

If it's right there, it's easier to remember.

Even the refrigerator helps make sure food gets eaten instead of thrown away.

You can see everything.

When it's more visible, you're less likely to leave it sitting there.

Beyond the kitchen, there's also the stuff of everyday life, including everything that comes with having a child like Katsaros' daughter, Zoe.

When someone has a baby everybody wants to give them stuff because they love them, and they love the child, but also I've learned they want to get rid of that stuff because they have too much stuff!

80 to 90 percent of coats, shoes, clothes, toys, gear that we have was handed down.

And it's because of the uncertain future children like Zoe will face that Katsaros believes we all should do what we can to reduce waste in our homes and communities.

It's overwhelming to even ponder what this world is going to look like when my 2-year-old daughter is grown, let alone my grandchildren.

It's scary, and so I feel compelled to do what I can to make things not worse, you know?

And if I can make them better, I feel really good.

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... And contributions to this station.

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