SciTech Now Episode 611

In this episode, the surprising history of paternity science; what it takes to make tech driven education successful; restoring sight in seals.



Coming up, the surprising history of paternity science.

It's really in the 1920s that people get interested in the idea that science might have something to say about this problem.

What does it take to make tech-driven education successful?

I think theres been an arms race to bring more technology into the classroom, with the view that that was the key to bridging the academic and sort of achievement gap in education.

Restoring sight in seals.

Right after surgery, once their wits are about them, their anesthesia has kind of worn off, they typically can target.

They can do hand commands.

They can do the things that they were trained to do.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


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.

Determining fatherhood is a matter of science.

DNA testing is now routine and accepted.

This relatively new science has now given birth to an enormous industry that markets testing for ancestry to consumers.

What led up to this, and why is determining paternity still creating challenges?

Barnard College history professor Nara Milanich is the author of 'Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father,' and she joins us now.

We kind of think now that we've solved this problem, that, 'Okay, now there's a DNA test.

This is the father of this child, and it's all fine.'

But you've found in your research that there's a long process that got to this.

There is a long process that got to this.

So DNA testing is ubiquitous today, right?

We turn on the TV, and we see 23andMe commercials.

Maybe we've purchased a 23andMe kit for our family members or friends for the holidays or birthdays, so it's easy to forget that this technology is actually very recent.

It's only in the 1980s that a British geneticist developed the technologies today known as DNA fingerprinting, and it's really only in the 1990s that mass commercialization happened, that, you know, Maury Povich starts doing his 'Who's your daddy?'

number on daytime TV, and the companies start marketing these tests directly to consumers.

So this is a really recent phenomenon, so I was interested in tracing the history that sort of led up to the recent boom.

And there are some wacky ideas that we all said, 'Okay, that must be the way, and that's legit.'

There are some wacky ideas.

So beginning in the 1920s, scientists and doctors and also lawyers and kind of the general public got really interested in this idea of a scientific proof of paternity.

Before that time, there had been 'proofs of paternity,' but they weren't necessarily scientific, and it wasn't necessarily biological paternity that people were interested in.

But it's really in the 1920s that people get interested in the idea that science might have something to say about this problem, and the 1920s is, of course, the heyday of eugenics, race science, this obsession with heredity and the idea that you can improve human populations by understanding the mechanisms of heredity, and paternity science really comes out of that moment.

I know that we had, you know, for a long time just said, 'Okay, well, if you have the same blood type, you must be the child,' but not even accounting for the possibility that there are recessive genes and you could have a different blood type, depending on your mom and other family, you know?


So blood-group typing is one of the early technologies that is used to establish parentage, and it's clearly one of the more successful technologies.

There are lots of other crazy methods that we can talk about, but blood-group typing develops over time, and as scientists understand the hereditary mechanisms associated with blood types more clearly, they start to try to use these technologies in courts of law to actually determine who the father of a given child is.

Now, of course, blood-group typing doesn't tell you who the father is, right?

It cannot positively identify a father.

What it do is eliminate or exclude certain impossible fathers, right, who have, you know, an incompatible blood type with the mother and the child.


So one of the things that you talked about in the book was something about blood and vibrations.

Explain what this person was trying to do and how it worked or didn't work.

So in the 1920s, in the early 1920s, the U.S. public was riveted by a doctor based in San Francisco named Albert Abrams, and Dr. Albert Abrams, who had a medical degree and was a well-respected doctor in the community, developed a curious machine he called the oscilophore, which claimed to be able to read blood vibrations and thereby determine whether a given individual was the father or mother of a given child.

So this is a pretty wild machine, as you might imagine.

Many scientists were quite skeptical of Albert Abrams, but many others said, 'Hey, maybe he's onto something.'


And, in fact, the results of the oscilophore were accepted in a California court, and I found, you know, archival evidence of everyday people from as far away as Oklahoma writing letters to Dr. Abrams, asking him if he could test their blood and determine, you know, parentage mysteries in their own family.

That curiosity is really strong in us.

I mean, that's what makes the 23andMe and the ancestry stuff so popular now, is that there's some need that we have, and we want to figure out that answer.

That's right.

So there's this real cultural fixation with identity, and it's especially exciting to think that the answer to that question might be hidden somewhere on our physical bodies.

This is a longstanding cultural narrative, but I think science gives us something new here.

It's a plot twist.

It's another way of telling an old story, and it's an exciting plot twist because it promises, you know, to resolve the mystery at the end of the day.

Yeah, and you have this kind of tension where part of it is the mystery of the unknown, and then you also have, you know, the leading edge of science that's coming in, and you say, 'Okay, I can solve this old mystery with the latest and greatest,' and you kind of want to believe that that latest and greatest is going to be the solver of your problem, whatever that is.

That's exactly right.

So one of the kind of recurring ways that people talk about genetic testing, beginning in the 1920s, is in terms of its modernity.

That's the way the press, for example, talks about it, that modern science is going to solve these ancient questions, and there's something very exciting about that.

So it's in part this kind of titillating obsession with sex, right, that is part of paternity disputes, and part of it is this real interest in and fascination with the power of science to solve, you know, human problems.

And so that, too, I think motivates this interest because when these technologies emerge, it's not just scientists or lawyers who are interested in them.

It's really the general public, the media, that follows these developments very closely.

Right, so add in the specter of scandal if there's an adulterous affair, add in the possibility of money at stake if there's an inheritance on the line.

So you've got sex, you've got money, you've got power, possible death.

What else could you --

Exactly. Celebrity.


We love celebrity paternity scandals -- date back, really, to the 1920s, so, yeah, it's got something for everybody.

Nara Milanich, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you so much.

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In part two of our exploration of how technology is impacting education, we hear from the staff at an Austin, Texas school.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Eanes Independent School District has a big electrical bill.

Honestly, most schools do.

It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars just to keep the lights on, but if you want to give an iPad to every kid in your district, you're going to need one key component -- fast -- well, really fast Internet.

The servers and the backups and the emergency power, if we have a power surge in the middle of the night, you know, the knock, and keeping that up and running so that, the next morning, everything still functions as is expected and that there is no disruption of service.

You know, walking through the campuses with the meters, trying to figure out, 'Do we have enough Wi-Fi here?'

looking at, you know, the response time in the system.

So when a student clicks on a specific website, how long dies it take for the student to get where they want to go?

Sailors' job is to make sure students, teachers, and administrators all have access to the tech that keeps these schools running.

You know, the kids see that they get their iPad, but they don't know that it took, you know, 16 people or 5 people to do that specific thing so that it works the way they want it to work for them.

So, you know, it's the Wi-Fi.

It's being able to order what we need to order.

It's the planning and the processes.

It's the acceptable-use agreement -- all of those things that happen in the back end that nobody ever sees.

They just know, 'Oh, the kids got their iPads today.'

Sailors is one of many staff members in Eanes whose job it is to make their tech initiatives successful.

It's not just teachers with iPads.

Each school in the district has educational partners, like Marianna Ricketson.

Why do I have clean hands when I'm using my iPad?

Ricketson has been working in the district since 2002.

She's an instructional coach who helps teachers integrate tech into their curriculum.

So the teachers, we help them learn through how to use this as an instructional tool.

The iPad has so many different accessibility tools, so teachers learn first.

Then we have the coaches on the side to be able to incorporate, 'Now that I know how to use a tool, how do I use it best for instruction?'

and then matching the purpose, curriculum, to the enhancement and extra special features that personalize learning.

So try it again!

But personalized learning comes at a price.

We can't talk about how Eanes built its one-to-one initiative without mentioning funding.

In 2011, EISD passed a $54 million bond package.

About $15 million went into buying iPads and starting plans that would eventually lead to the one-to-one initiative they have today, but the district still needed more money to hire the staff to support the system.

Texas has no income tax, so schools are primarily funded from property taxes.

To make up for the lack of income-tax funding, in 1993, the state legislature created a system called recapture.

It's commonly known as 'Robin Hood' because the state takes money from districts with high property values and redistributes it to districts with lower home values.

EISD is considered a wealthy district.

Under the Robin Hood model, about 60% of funds get taken from Eanes and redistributed around the state.

Last year, that was about $100 million.

To make up for this loss, about 27 years ago, EISD created the Eanes Education Foundation.

It's a nonprofit whose sole goal is to raise money for the district.

Their motto is, 'Funding the gap between adequate and excellent.'

Last year, the foundation raised $2.8 million.

It might not seem like much compared to what's taken from the district, but that money pays for crucial teaching positions.

It helps hire educational partners, like Ricketson, and even some special-elective teachers, like the robotics instructor.

We do have some programs that a lot of schools just do not have.

Part of that is because we are the perfect size.

Our high school is going to be about 2,900 kids next year.

If you're under a certain number of kids, you're not offering the wealth of electives that we're offering because you just don't have the numbers to do it, or you're trying to do it online, you know?

But we'll have almost every language you can think of AP, and we'll have all the sciences AP because we have enough kids signing up for it, and a lot of schools can't pull that off because their numbers are too small.

The fact that Eanes can hire this staff makes a huge difference in the success of their tech initiative, and the fact that lower-income schools don't have the money to hire the support staff makes a difference, too.

This is what media expert Craig Watkins describes as the new digital divide.

The disparity that we're seeing, right, it's not so much that some schools have access to tech and others don't.

Most schools now provide access to technology.

What's really lacking, right, is access to robust learning opportunities, well-developed and thought-out curriculum that are intended to really help students develop the kinds of skills that are becoming increasingly important in the 21st century.

It's creative curriculum, like Westlake High's Business Incubator class, that sets school districts like EISD apart.

You know, our students have a great... a variety of things that they can specialize in as they get further along.

You know, right now it's coding, or it may be a certain language.

For some students, it may be much more artistic.

What our kids do in video production, you know, is pretty amazing, and, you know, we have kids who have gone right from us to Cirque du Soleil, you know, or to Broadway, and they're working in tech theater because of the experiences they've had here.

We've had the kids in the Business Incubator here who know how to do a presentation that's world-class, you know, and how to do financial modeling of a start-up.

Those types of skills help them in their application process to college, and our students tell us that they feel that they're ahead of most kids when they get to some of the best schools in the United States.

It's not just about getting tech into students' hands.

Resources and training are essential.

We know, for example, that in lower-income schools, teachers who don't necessarily have the qualifications or aren't prepared to teach tech-oriented classes are oftentimes recruited or invited to teach these courses, even though they aren't necessarily qualified to do so.

We also know, right, that lower-income schools don't have access to resources that allow their teachers to pursue what me might call professional development opportunities, and this is teachers going to conferences, going to training workshops, summer learning that allows them to kind of grow their own knowledge and insight about how technology might be used in the classroom.

So for those schools, right, that can afford to send their teachers to those kinds of events, those kinds of workshops, seminars and activities, they're just put in a much better, advantageous position to then be able to sort of think outside of the box and sort of project forward about how this technology can actually be used in an inventive, meaningful and creative way to really drive deep and robust learning.

Eanes has made a commitment to provide this type of robust learning, which means they invest heavily in training.

One of the coolest things they do before any new technology, whether it's a MacBook or an iPad, is give it to the teachers in the summer and let you kind of figure it out and let you see how it works.

They have set up trainings at, like, the Apple stores that teachers can go to and get training.

So they really provide that training and support, and I think you have to have both.

You have to have both.

Otherwise, it's just some other tool, and maybe one teacher is really tech-savvy and the other one is not.

EISD knows providing teachers and administrators with opportunities like this are important.

That's why they started the foundation in the first place, to have the money needed to retain teachers.

No matter what, rich or poor, they all need that.

They all need very good, good teachers, and I know there's some great teachers in high-poverty schools.

There really are.

But I know that if you look at the numbers, their retention rates are tougher than our retention rates.

Our retention rate is good because I think they like working in our environment, and that's, again, part of the tools that we give them, and they enjoy that because that's just exciting to them.

'And until we deal with the disparity in teaching,' Watkins says, 'no amount of tech can make up for the inequality that exists in our school system.'

I think there's been an arms race to bring more technology into the classroom with the view that that was the key to bridging the academic and sort of achievement gap in education.

I think what's really going to transform that gap, sort of bridge that gap, is just higher-quality teaching, higher-quality instruction, and that really means reinvesting in our education programs and higher education, again, really preparing teachers to sort of think about the future economy, think about what it means to produce future-ready students and providing them with the resources to be able to do that.

Whether it's the tech itself or the staff and infrastructure, money is a key component to making a one-to-one program successful.

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At a zoo in Utah, a 13-year-old female harbor seal named Nika is ready to undergo cataract surgery to help improve her sight.

We join Nika on surgery day to see what it takes to perform cataract surgery on a harbor seal and to track her recuperation.

Today we are performing cataract surgery on Nika, a harbor seal, at Utah's Hogle Zoo.

So, she's a relatively young animal.

She's around 13 or 14 years of age, and seals can live up to 40 in human care.

The right eye was clinically blind.

No light couldn't get in.

There was no way for her to see out.

The left eye had gotten to the point of 100%, and the problem with cataracts in pinnipeds, or seals, sea lions and walruses, is that they get loose over time and fall forward and damage the eye further.

So, today, elective procedure on a harbor seal, and we had to do anesthesia because they don't understand what we're doing.

There's some things we can get away with sedation and communication in humans, but the seals don't know that we're actually on their side, helping them, so anesthesia or unconsciousness is needed.

So anesthetizing a seal isn't the same as anesthetizing a human.

One, it's the same thing that pediatricians have to deal with -- communication.

They don't know what we're doing, so we have to come in with drugs to help modify behaviors.

With a seal, it's a little bit harder to get in the blood to give a drug, to give an IV, intravenous injection, compared to a human because they don't have appendages that have easy, accessible veins.

You can't just grab their arm, find a vein, and stick it.

So our access to their inside of the body is harder, and then our monitoring equipment is mostly made for humans.

We have to adapt it to work for the seals.

Animals that naturally hold their breath for long periods of time tend to do that when sedated.

That's where companies like mine are coming in and trying to build equipment that's for these species to do a better job.

As soon as you enter an eye at all, you create inflammation, so for about a week before, we were already having her on these eye drops to get her ready, and then we gave her a mega dose numerous times to further diminish the inflammation.

So, inside the eye, you have the cornea, which is your windshield, and so that's the first focusing part of your eye, and then you've got the iris, which is like your aperture of your camera, letting light in and out.

And then behind there, there's the lens, and the lens is basically like a Peanut M&M that's clear, so you've got the peanut, the chocolate, and the candy coating, and what that does is it focuses light, as well, onto the back of your eye, called the retina, and what it does is, it takes that image, takes it to the brain, magical things happen, and then you can see.

So, the traditional cataract surgery involves -- dilate the pupil so that you're able to see the entire lens.

You make a hole in the candy coating of the front of the M&M, and we have a special machine which is basically a needle, and it vibrates with ultrasonic power, and it breaks up the chocolate and the peanut, if you will, of the cataract, taking it all out, leaving the candy coating intact which should then be relatively clear, and then we'll actually implant a fake lens so that they can be 20/20 again.

The difference in the pinniped is that the lens itself is very hard.

It's impossible to break up that cataract unless they're babies, and so what we have to do is physically take the cataract in its entirety and then take out the candy coating, because if we leave the candy coating, it will opacify within a year and make them blind again.

The reason they don't need a lens implant doesn't mean that they don't focus at all.

In fact, their corneas have an innate flattened area that works to focus incoming light to the back of their eye, totally bypassing or not needing the lens for it's function.

It's amazing.

Like, right after surgery, once their wits are about them, their anesthesia has kind of worn off, they typically can target.

They can do hand commands.

They can do the things that they were trained to do.


Nika started training and eating the next day after surgery, so we were a little surprised, and we credit that a lot to all the training we did beforehand and all the preparation that we went through.

Nika had cataract surgery in both eyes, so to allow that to heal, she was not allowed in the water.

She had to stay dry which is really hard for seals since they're used to being in the water.

We had to do lots of drops many times a day to help get medication into that eye.

So even people after cataract surgery have to get a certain number of drops, so with Nika, we had up to five different kinds of drops up to four times a day.

So to keep that all straight, we made a whiteboard, and we color-coded each drop.

These helped the eye heal, and each drop had a different purpose.

Some helped with inflammation, some was an antibiotic, so depending on the drops, she had to have that at different times.

We just got very organized, and that's something that we've continued because she will be on eye drops for the rest of her life.

She's on exhibit now.

She's been a great patient.

She still is a great patient.

She's great with our vets, and they still come out.

We haven't seen anything negative that has come from her surgery.

If anything, our relationship with her is amazing.

It's better than ever.

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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪