Category Archives: arts & culture

Notes from the North – Reporting at the Molecular Level

March’s Notes from the North article is written by guest writer Spencer Scott, a current member of the Liaw Lab at MMCRI and recent transplant to the field of molecular medicine. He worked for seven years in New York as a producer for NPR, CNN, and ABC and is now a pre-med post-baccalaureate studying Biochemistry at the University of Southern Maine. Spencer will be applying to M.D. programs this spring.
Spencer CNN

CNN cameraman Spencer Scott reporting on the blackout in Manhattan following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Spencer Scott

Tom McCarthey’s brilliant film Spotlight took best picture at the Oscars this year. In an age when news has become synonymous with 24-hour cable networks plastered with pundits and steadily declining newspaper readerships, Spotlight is an important homage to the important role of real journalism in American society. For over seven years I worked as an aspiring producer for outlets including NPR, CNN, and ABC. While I would never dream of comparing my young career to the work of the incredible reporters at the Globe’s investigative unit, there is still a common aspiration amongst all those who enter the field. As their name, “Spotlight,” implies, we wish to shine light where there once was darkness, to illuminate the unknown for the betterment of our society.

A little more than a year ago, I left the craft to which I had thought I would devote my life. I spent the final four months of my career in television news shooting a medical documentary series for ABC in three of Boston’s Level I trauma centers. It was there in those halls that I finally decided to follow in the foot steps of my mother, father, and brother, and pursue medicine. I left my work in television and returned to my home state to begin a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program at University of Southern Maine, which I will finish in May.

It may seem odd that the child of an orthopedic surgeon and emergency room physician grew up shying, if not flat out running, away from the sciences. I still struggle to answer that for myself. But the only answer I can give is that I didn’t think my mind was wired in that way. I loved history and language and stories, and when I thought I could help people by telling their stories, I believed I’d found my calling. I sold my first story to NPR when I was seventeen, an interview with an Iraq war veteran, only three years older than I was. He had nearly lost his life in an IED explosion in Fallujah, the shrapnel of which had torn through his throat, rendering his voice a quiet rasp. Because of my reporting, millions of “All Things Considered” listeners heard Cpl. Chris Kotch tell his story. It was a feeling that inspired the pursuits of the next decade of my life.

In fact, after all of my years working in the field, I’m still proudest of the reporting I did when I was just a kid in high school. None of the stories I told in my professional career carried the weight that my earliest, self-directed work did. Working for big networks, the feeling that you had helped someone share something vital, that you had illuminated what was once shrouded in darkness, became rare, especially for a young producer. But in Boston, as I watched the doctors in my camera’s viewfinder treating their patients I saw something so exhilarating. It may sound cliché, or like a line from “We Are the World,” but I saw people helping people, through my lens and live before my eyes. I do not mean to discount the importance of journalism, I believe steadfastly in the critical role it plays in our society. But for me, witnessing those human connections made walking away from the field easy. I knew my place lay on the other side of the lens where the help was delivered every day directly and in real time.

Back in Maine, I threw myself headlong into my studies. When I walked into my first class at USM (BIO 105 Cell & Molecular Biology) I didn’t yet know if I had a mind for science, but I was willing to do whatever it took. Fortunately, I soon learned that in academia, you can do whatever you set your mind to, as long as you are willing to put in the work and the passion is genuine. Finding science has been the most fulfilling and gratifying experience of my life and I have been rewarded for the work I’ve put into it. When I started my program a little over a year ago, I never could have dreamed that I would be interning at a place like Maine Medical Center Research Institute, involved in the incredible work its investigators perform every day. In one sense, my work at the Institute is the farthest I have yet strayed from the newsroom. Whether it is furiously scribbling down names of promoters or genes or antibodies to google, or looking at slides of fluoresced cells and western blots, every Monday lab meeting reminds me that I am not in Kansas anymore. But in another sense, the work of the researchers at MMCRI is akin to that original creed of the aspirant journalist. Science and research, like journalism, work to shed light where there once was darkness. Both disciplines endeavor to peer into the unknown and learn what lies within. Whether it be learning the struggle of an American veteran who can no longer sleep through the night, or learning the process by which the notch signaling pathway impacts the function of endothelial cells in vasculature, science and journalism share the understanding that we are all better off for knowing.

2015 Nobel Prizes in the fields of Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry

First awarded in 1901; The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of physiology or medicine, chemistry, physics, economics, and literature. Nobel Prizes are awarded annually in recognition of outstanding academic, cultural and/or scientific advances. Each Nobel Laureate receives a Nobel Foundation medal, a diploma, and a sum of money, which is decided by the Nobel Foundation. As of 2012, each prize was worth approximately $1.2 million (USD).

This year, Nobel prizes in the fields of physiology or medicine and chemistry were awarded for: discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites; and mechanistic studies of DNA repair, respectively.

Novel Therapies for Parasitic Infections

Nobel-2015-Medicine-people
(Ill. N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media AB 2015.)

Diseases caused by parasites have plagued humankind for millennia and constitute a major global health problem. In particular, parasitic diseases affect the world’s poorest populations and represent a huge barrier to improving human health and well-being. This year’s Nobel Laureates for the field of physiology or medicine developed therapies that revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases. The Nobel was awarded ½ to Youyou Tu and ¼ each to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura.

Youyou Tu is recognized for her discovery of Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura are recognized for their discovery of Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually.

The discoveries of Artemisinin and Avermectin have fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases. Malaria infects close to 200 million individuals yearly. Artemisinin is used in all Malaria-ridden parts of the world. When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. For Africa alone, this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year. Today the Avermectin-derivative Ivermectin is used in all parts of the world that are plagued by parasitic diseases. Ivermectin is highly effective against a range of parasites, has limited side effects and is freely available across the globe. The importance of Ivermectin for improving the health and well-being of millions of individuals with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, primarily in the poorest regions of the world, is immeasurable. Treatment is so successful that these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind.

The discoveries of Artemisinin and Avermectin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Tu, Campbell, and Ōmura have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are truly unfathomable.

 

 

 

The cells’ toolbox for DNA repair

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(Ill. N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media AB 2015.)

Each day our DNA is damaged by UV radiation, free radicals and other carcinogenic substances, but even without such external attacks, a DNA molecule is inherently unstable. Thousands of spontaneous changes to a cell’s genome occur on a daily basis. Furthermore, defects can also arise when DNA is copied during cell division, a process that occurs several million times every day in the human body. The reason our genetic material does not disintegrate into complete chemical chaos is that a host of molecular systems continuously monitor and repair DNA.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for having mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information. Their work has provided fundamental knowledge and insight into how a living cell functions.

In the early 1970s, scientists believed that DNA was an extremely stable molecule, but Tomas Lindahl demonstrated that DNA decays at a rate that ought to have made the development of life on Earth impossible. This insight led him to discover a molecular machinery, base excision repair, which constantly counteracts the collapse of our DNA.

Paul Modrich has demonstrated how the cell corrects errors that occur when DNA is replicated during cell division. This mechanism, mismatch repair, reduces the error frequency during DNA replication by about a thousand fold. Congenital defects in mismatch repair are known, for example, to cause a hereditary variant of colon cancer.

Aziz Sancar has mapped nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. People born with defects in this repair system will develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight. The cell also utilizes nucleotide excision repair to correct defects caused by mutagenic substances, among other things.

These Nobel Laureates have provided fundamental knowledge and insight into how a living cell functions. Their respective breakthrough discoveries have been applied and used for the development and advancement of novel cancer treatments.

Movie Review: The Martian

Who wouldn’t want to be a space pirate? Granted, if you had to be stranded alone on a barren planet for over a year for that chance to happen, it might not be so appealing. Still, space pirate: think of the possibilities.

It is this optimistic, jocular tone that Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, takes as it follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, through the trials and tribulations of having to remodel rudimentary living conditions after being presumed dead and left behind by his crew during a mission to Mars. Stranded initially without means of communication to Earth, Watney’s life-saving ventures range from making water using hydrogen and oxygen gas (which almost gets him blown up) to growing potatoes in a homemade greenhouse (you don’t want to know where he got the fertilizer for that project, just saying). His life gets a little less difficult when an observant mission control operator notices a moving rover on the satellite surveillance of Mars’ surface late one night, giving those on Earth the first sign that Watney is in fact alive. With some quick thinking and teamwork, they rig up a way to communicate and suddenly Watney isn’t so alone anymore. They continue to help him survive in the harsh conditions of the planet, which he does all to the lively beats of disco hits, as that is apparently all his team’s commander, played by Jessica Chastain, loaded into the system during their stay, much to his chagrin.

The 1970s soundtrack calls back to the post-space race era, using the backdrop of where we have been to throw into sharp relief how far we have come, and also how far we can still go in exploring the stars. Still, The Martian, at its heart, is not a two-hour promotion for NASA and its programs. Though it does get ample on-screen time, political maneuverings and calculated public relations decisions made in board rooms rival the time spent problem solving in mission control or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), giving the organization an almost ominous corporate vibe. Driven by Jeff Davis’ performance as the callous program director, NASA becomes the antagonist when the decision is made to keep the news of Watney’s survival from his crew, who are making their way back to Earth, in an attempt to keep their focus on the mission to return home safely.

It is this theme–balancing the lives of several versus one–that refracts throughout the back half of the film, making the humanity of this survival story begin to outshine the science in a subtle and heartwarming way. Thus it comes as no surprise that the returning Ares III crew chooses to risk their lives in a genius attempt, crafted by an eccentric but endearing JPL engineer, to change course and retrieve Watney even though NASA initially rejects the plan. As every pirate adventure should, mutiny and risky swashbuckling ensue, ending in a daring rescue attempt that requires the brains and particular STEM skills of all six members of the Ares III team. In a breathtakingly beautiful and nerve-wracking sequence, an injured, exhausted, and bearded Watney attempts to launch into Mars’ atmosphere with a jerry-rigged pod to reach his crew’s ship which is orbiting by, all while the whole world watches on.

Whether or not he makes it–well, you’ll have to go see The Martian yourself to find out the answer to that question. Though the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 will no longer screen the sci-fi adventure after this week, Regal Fenway Stadium 13 and AMC Assembly Row 12 have showings scheduled for the next two weeks, so catch it while you can.

Lastly, for those interested in how accurate Watney’s scientific efforts to remodel his surroundings are, NASA [1] and The Guardian [2] both addressed this question, and Neil deGrasse Tyson also weighed in on the matter via Twitter with some very amusing and pointed commentary [3].


 

  1. Fox, Steve. “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian’.” NASA. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 11 Sept 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nine-real-nasa-technologies-in-the-martian
  2. Zubrin, Robert. “How Scientifically Accurate Is The Martin?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, Limited. 06 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/06/how-scientifically-accurate-is-the-martian
  3. Gettell, Oliver. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tweets His Thoughts on The Martian.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, Inc. 2 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/10/02/neil-degrasse-tyson-the-martian

 

Enjoy a classic cultural experience in Cambridge!

The Central Square Theater in Cambridge houses two award winning and professional theater companies; The Nora Theatre Company and The Underground Railway Theater. This vibrant hub of theatrical, educational, and social activity, is where artists and audiences can come together to create theater that is both vital and captivating to the community.

Live performances for the month of November include:

Einstein’s Dreams (ending Nov. 14th)

Switzerland, 1905: A modest, newly-married patent clerk struggles to make ends meet while re-conceiving time. What happens when Albert Einstein completes his Theory of Relativity? Absurd, comic, and poetic, Einstein’s Dreams captures the poignancy of the human condition. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Underground Railway Theater reunites the original 2007 world premiere cast, adapted by director Wesley Savick from the novel by Alan Lightman.

 

Copenhagen (ending Nov. 15th)

Copenhagen, 1941: Two brilliant physicists – fast friends from enemy nations – famously confront each other at the height of WWII. This award-winning psychological mystery unravels what transpired on that fateful night. Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr meet again in the afterlife, goaded by Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. Who will remember the truth that changed the course of history? Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, Eric Tucker cracks open Michael Frayn’s contemporary classic play.

 

Arabian Nights (beginning Nov. 27th)

Become enchanted by the power of storytelling one final time! The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater revive their award-winning production of Dominic Cooke’s Arabian Nights. Based on One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folk tales from the Middle East and Asia, Arabian Nights is rich with suspense, romance and hilarity—stories irresistible for all ages, and at its heart, the power of the imagination to heal, inspire, and transform.