SciTechNow Episode 408

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look at how one scientist uses unconventional research techniques to study muskoxen; the growing biotech movement; students try their hand at engineering; and how the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is battling pollution.


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Coming up, an unconventional research technique...

Our control is to dress up as a caribou, and we approach.

And that reflects, then, whether or not muskox respond differently to grizzly bears than they do to caribou.

...the DIY biotech revolution...

It has served as what I call a pre-incubator space where people that aren't classically trained can have sort of an entry level into the technology.

...learning the basics of engineering...

It's a really rewarding part of the process to have drawn something out and identified what they think the best material possible is going to be to solve that problem.

...battling national park pollution.

We're improving faster than just about anywhere else in the United States because we're downwind of where a lot of the emissions are.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

In this segment, we meet Joel Berger, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist and expert on hoofed mammals who uses an unconventional research technique to study muskoxen.

In order to observe the behavior of herds up close, Berger dresses up as a grizzly bear and approaches the oxen to gauge their reactions.

Our partner 'Science Friday' brings us the story.


They roamed North America when there were giant lions, and there were woolly mammoths.

And they're the ones that have hung on.

They're the surviving species that's here.

People just haven't been thinking how we might try to get more insights about these animals.

We've been interested in understanding how grizzly bears effect muskoxen.

We can't just make believe it's the Serengeti or Yellowstone and get a lot of interactions.

We don't see that.

Hence, we dress up as a grizzly bear, and approach groups.

But it's a little bit more interesting than just being in grizzly bear costume.

♪♪ ♪♪ I'm Joel Berger.

I'm a wildlife biologist.

I work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and I'm a professor at Colorado State University.

I'm standing just southeast of the Egegik Hills in arctic Alaska.

It's an area where we still have a lot of land that is one of the least-densely-populated parts of the world, where we have wildlife that still exists now as it did 5,000 years ago.

So, to find muskoxen is not very easy.

It's not like we can just drive out to find muskox.

And so Dr. Ellen Chang and I will be out on snow machines in the winter because you can get around on snow machines.

In the summer, you can't get around very much.

[ Engine revving ] Sometimes we'll hire and do an aerial flight so we can know where the groups are.

Sometimes, groups can be 30 or 40 miles apart over pretty difficult terrain where you're going up and down, up and down.

But once we know where they are, we'll go out to each group and visit each group so we can start to understand how different factors are affecting herd productivity.

When one looks at a muskox, and they think, 'Oh, they're like a buffalo or a bison.'

But the species is unusual.

Their closest relatives are sheep and goats.

They run uphill, just like goats do when they're afraid, and they have these little, tiny, tiny, tiny poops like a goat does.

Muskox are an arctic-adapted species.

They live only in the arctic.

Their home that they really like is in the hills, in the mountains, in the rocky slopes.

They have generally a slow metabolic rate so that they're not always burning, burning, burning.

They put on lots of fat.

But the most impressive thing, to me and to many people, about a muskox is that they have these really thick fur coats.

They produce this very, very fine underwool.

It's called qiviut, and it's eight times warmer than sheep wool.

What eats muskoxen are wolves and grizzly bears, and occasionally, occasionally a polar bear.

Unlike so many hooved mammals that run and flee, these guys stand tight in tight circles, almost like those old movies of wagon trains when you circle the wagon.

That's what muskoxen do.

Now, what's the advice that you were given when you run into a bear?

Don't run.

So, if a muskoxen group runs, they might be dead meat.

Grizzly bears have much better success when muskox run than when muskox stand their ground.

And so we're interested in understanding, do groups with and without males differ in whether they run?

Here in Alaska, where there's a hunting season of muskoxen, there had been in the past a disproportionate offtake of more males.

So some herds only had females and young.

If we find that female groups without males are more vulnerable to grizzly bears -- maybe because they run more when there aren't males to make them more sedentary -- that would argue that we should not be harvesting more males.

Our research is testing some assumptions about whether or not that makes some sense.

When I see a herd of muskox, we have to figure out how to approach them to get data.

And so, ideally, I want to get within 50 yards of them.

And so how do we do that?

Well, that is a little bit tricky at times.

There is a little bit of element of excitement when one approaches closely.

Grizzly bears don't, just, like, walk into a group of muskoxen.

They meander, they meander.

They go back and forth.

And so I meander a little bit.

What I will do is first understand when the first individual in a group becomes vigilant to me.

And I measure that distance.

Is it 400 yards?

Is it 250 yards?

Then, as I continue to approach as a grizzly bear, I ask, what is the distance when half the group notices?

Then I ask, when do they run together in a clump?

And then, once they're clumped, I will continue.

Then, do they run away from me?

Do they stay?

Do they start to swivel and turn and turn?

Do they run 20 yards and stop?

And I continue to force this situation so I can understand, are they likely to flee or to stay?

This is my fourth or fifth year of doing this.

Not once have I been charged by a cow.

On seven occasions, males have left the group to come toward me.

On three of those, those were real charges.

I think it's not a common behavior because it's risky to the bulls.

The idea to approach as a grizzly bear is multifaceted, like most things in science.

They're not just one-dimensional.

We need a control because we're doing science.

So what would a good control be?

It would be a species that is non-threatening -- caribou.

So our control is to dress up as a caribou, and we approach.

And that reflects, then, whether or not muskox respond differently to grizzly bears than they do to caribou.

Our work is also looking at what happens in cold winters and good summers and bad summers and bad winters.

Just as scientists can measure the growth of tree rings to gauge whether there were drought conditions or wet conditions, for muskoxen, we can look at the facial sizes and changes across time.

So, we want to measure how fast babies are growing, yearlings are growing, juveniles are growing.

One can walk in with a camera, do photo-imaging of the distance between the eyes.

Then, if the animal turns, you can get distance from the horns to its nose.

And then you calculate what its head size is.

But is there changing incrementally?

You can measure that.

And that's what we're doing so we can start to understand what happens with the kind of challenging events that this species faces as the planet is warming.

Let's face it -- It's miserable out here in the wintertime.

But to be out with these animals is phenomenal.

Muskox are symptomatic of an entire system -- an array of species, of lifestyles -- and if we start to understand and appreciate their role in the system, then there's a being.

There's a reason that, I think, we should care, have compassion, because they're part of a landscape that predates us by many millions of years.


In recent years, the do-it-yourself biotech movement has been gaining momentum, spurring a growing number of community labs across the country.

At the forefront of this movement is Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and former director of the Brooklyn-based biotech lab Genspace, and founder of Biotech Without Borders.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you, Hari.

So, first, the DIY biotech movement -- I mean, just kind of explain that for us.

I think it was kind of the perfect storm around 2008.

You had the rise of the maker movement, where people were putting 3-D printers everywhere -- in schools, in libraries -- and people were learning how to solder, forming maker spaces.

And then you had the rise of the field of synthetic biology, which is basically making genetic engineering sort of easier -- sort of an easier entry into it, more plug and play.

And then you also had the economic downturn, which ended up dumping a lot of used equipment on eBay.

So all of those things combined, I think, to make it possible for the first time, really, for somebody who doesn't have classical training in biotech to enter the field.

So, what were the kinds of projects that you saw people pick up and do when they came into one of your spaces?

So, a lot of the original projects were things that they had strength in.

So, they were reverse-engineering lab equipment or, you know, creating robots that would do lab work.

But eventually, as the community matured, we've started to segue into more interesting things.

So right now, there are projects as diverse as taking the proteins of milk, putting them into yeast, and making real vegan cheese.

This is a project at BioCurious Labs in the San Francisco Bay area.

We even have another lab in that area trying to make insulin by a generic-type process.

They call it the Open Insulin Project.

And at Genspace, we've had a lot of different entrepreneurs doing everything from trying to turn spent waste from the brewing industry into animal feed, to working on RNA-based therapeutics.

So, kind of the whole spectrum.

And it sort of increases access to people who have an idea who just didn't have a vehicle and a place to play.

Absolutely, and when you talk to professional scientists, and you say, 'Hey, I've got a space where you can do whatever your imagination -- wherever it leads you, as long as it's safe.

It doesn't have to save the world, it doesn't have to make money,' which is really kind of the tinkering mentality that most scientists got into science because of.

Their eyes light up, and it has served as what I call a pre-incubator space, and also a space where people that aren't classically trained can have sort of an entry level into the technology.

And what's Biotech Without Borders?

Biotech Without Borders is my new nonprofit, and I became very, very interested in kind of -- sort of the global implications of how what I've learned from the DIY community in Brooklyn can be applied more globally.

I'm starting to get involved in an effort in the country of Ghana to... partner the growth of synthetic biology within some of these nations that are really hungry for this technology.

The other thing is, of course, locally.

As a woman in science, I went through a lot of stuff when I was coming through the ranks, and that's still there.

If you look at the gene jocks, the majority are still men -- the people at the upper echelons.

And so, we have a ways to go, and I would like to support young people that are from groups that aren't necessarily represented in science right now and try to do more for that particular group in terms of internships, training.

New York City public school teachers -- There are a lot of schools that don't have a lot of resources.

And to have a lab that can actually provide these services for the general community is pretty important.

So, if you can take this across borders, I mean, who knows where the next big biotech idea comes from?

It could be in Ghana.

Exactly. Exactly.

And 'borders' meaning not only national borders, but borders of culture, borders of community.

Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder of Biotech Without Borders.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

At Discovery Space Children's Science Museum in State College, Pennsylvania, children have the opportunity to try their hand at engineering over summer vacation.

In this next segment, we take a look as students tackle the engineering of a windmill.

Discovery Space in State College is technically a museum, but it feels more like a clubhouse -- one where the only membership requirement is a curious mind.

Today, 15 young explorers will put their imaginations and creativity to the test to become eco-engineers.

Does anybody have any ideas what the difference might be between a windmill and a wind turbine?

The task -- build a windmill capable of raising a bucket filled with pennies.

To do it, they'll need to think like an engineer.

That means coming up with a plan.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Paper, rock.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I find that that's often the most challenging part of the process for kids, because they don't want to have to, you know, tell me ahead of time what they want to use.

They want to just grab a bunch of stuff.

But it's a really rewarding part of the process, also, for them to have drawn something out and identified what they think the best material possible is going to be to solve that problem.

Then you can come and pick them up, and then go back and start building.

After a little brainstorming, the building begins.


[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪ There we go.

Good job.

Prototyping is a really important and fun part where they get to build.

But then, also, the redesign step.

To me, that's one of the best parts of the engineering design process as an educator, is that we are making failure a great thing.

In fact, it's an encouraged part.


How about we just make the blades before we put them on?

♪♪ I honestly don't know if it's gonna work or not, because the rest of this was easy -- just make the blades and make sure that they can catch air.

This, there's no background information for it.

Once the prototype is ready, it's time for a test.

Each prototype gets evaluated, and the design gets tweaked.

What's happening over here, Malachi?

Is it pulling the bucket, Emilia?


Oh, that's a lot.



All right.

So what might we do differently to that design?

Get it to stay down.

Get it to stay down?

Secure your design a bit more, and then come back and test again.

It's so rewarding, I think -- especially the ones that fail the first time -- for them to understand that the failure happened, it was all right, we all moved on.

They redesigned, and now they have success.

You have six.

I have six.

All right.

Six, seven.

All right, ready?



It did it, didn't it?

[ Boy speaking indistinctly ] Nice! Good design!


I hope they remember that engineering was fun and that it wasn't something that just happened in a classroom, it wasn't something that involved solving math problems or sitting at a computer.

It was actually hands-on.

They did something to solve that problem.

I hope they remember that they failed and then succeeded.

Probably most importantly that they may not become engineers, but they now have an idea of what those people do and why they're important in our society.

And so, you know, we're just kind of forming a more scientific-literate community through our work here, I think.

We might need to slide this down a bit.

Awesome idea.

Turn off the fan.


Go and redesign and come back.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bordering North Carolina and Tennessee, is not only a natural paradise, but also is home to 20,000 species of animals and plants.

However, the park has some of the highest-measured air pollution and the highest level of acid rain of any national park in the country.

Here's the story.

[ Birds chirping ]

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a biologic treasure trove.

[ Water flowing ] More than 20,000 species of animals and plants are identified in the park.

And what's important for researchers is the long history of observation that documents all of that life.

The Smokies have a rich history of being studied by people for over 100 years now.

This place had early descriptions from people that explored the area.

We have botanical records of people coming here and describing species for the first time.

We also have great sets of data on weather and water quality that enable us to look at impacts over a long-term data set.

The information is a valuable research tool to understand just how the park is changing.

The trouble is, the data shows one of the greatest threats to the park is from the air.

And all of these things cannot simply be protected by drawing a line around the Smokies and then saying that, once you cross this line, it is now protected from all harm, because so many challenges have now presented themselves that move across that line, some of which is coming through our air.

I mean, you learn about the threats that we have to so many different species from air quality.

In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park experiences some of the highest-measured air pollution of any national park in the country.

It also receives the highest level of acid deposition from acid rain and acid fog of any park.

And it's all because of the park's location.

It's downwind of many sources of air pollution, including power plants, factories, and vehicles.

In fact, the emissions from the eastern 2/3s of the nation affect the air over the Great Smokies.

That air pollution contributes to the decline of old-growth forests.

Ground-level ozone harms plants.

The acid rain increases the acid content in the soil, which blocks plant nutrients and releases other toxic chemicals.

The acid rain also changes the chemistry in streams, which affects forest health and kills aquatic vegetation as well as fish.

But what is most visible to park goers is how pollution, combined with fine particles in the air, creates haze.

Scenic vistas that should be seen for almost 113 miles are now only visible for about 25.

But, if the skies seem dark and dirty, the researcher in charge of monitoring the park's air quality does see a bit of blue sky.

The good news is it can recover.


So there's hope.

Jim Renfro is standing in a small forest clearing that's been transformed into a science station.

It's one of seven air-quality monitoring stations in the park.

So, we monitor mercury, part of a national network, just like the acid rain program.

And this is, like, a wet and dry collector.

So, when it does rain, it's only measuring mercury through this chimney.

There's a glass funnel, a little tube into a collection bottle.

And so when it rains, that rain is gonna hit this sensor over here, and I'll just fake like it's raining.

And it should move this arm over and expose the wet side -- the side that we want to collect on.

Right now, this is the dry side.

It's not raining.

It's waiting for rain.

Here comes the rain, and it's going to activate this motor and expose what we call the wet side.

And so the rain gets in there, is collecting.

There's a similar device nearby to measure all the chemicals that fall from the sky, especially those that create acid rain.

So, we're measuring nitrogen and sulfur, and then all the good stuff -- so, we get all the elementals, like calcium and magnesium and potassium.

So, we're measuring the acids, but some of the stuff that's also in the air.

The weather station also collects more common weather data, such as temperature, humidity, wind speeds, and precipitation.

Additional instruments monitor ozone and fine particles in the air -- that stuff that creates haze.

So, when utilities put on controls, we're gonna be able to measure those improvements.

And we are.

So, I'm going to fake like it's drying out now and it's stopped raining.

I'm going to blow the water off of that, and that arm should go back over.

[ Blows ] So, the rain event stopped, and we're going to protect that sample from contamination.

The data from all of that monitoring has helped scientists understand the effects of pollution on the forest.

But the information has also been used in a public-awareness campaign, and that has led to stricter air-pollution controls.

[ Water flowing ]

That has had a huge impact on improving all the things that we just talked about -- visibility, haze, ozone levels, acid rain are all better since the late 1990s.

So, about 15 years of steady improvement and progress.

Researchers report the air in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is getting cleaner.

That means visitors can see a few more miles.

We're improving faster than just about anywhere else in the United States because we're downwind of where a lot of the emissions are -- the Ohio Valley, the Tennessee Valley.

The Southern-tier states that affect us have made significant progress toward reducing emissions that create the pollutants that blow downwind.

For almost 20 years, the park was non-attainment for ozone, meaning we had measured violations -- We had measured hundreds of days where the air was unhealthy to breathe in some place in the park.

Right now, the entire park is designated attainment -- meaning we're meeting the standards, all the air-quality standards -- and now we want to stay there.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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