COVID-19 and Your portfolio

Dow Jones Industrial Average, Feb-March 20th, 2020. Source: marketwatch.com

Investing in a time of turmoil

The uncertainty of the novel coronavirus pandemic has left global stock markets reeling, erasing gains from the past 3 years. Massive selloffs have occurred over the past month that have not been seen since the 2008 financial crisis. For those of us young enough to be long-term investors (many year horizon) this is not a time to panic sell. I would argue the opposite and to continue your monthly contributions practicing dollar cost averaging. I caution against trying to “catch a falling knife” in trying to time this market volatility with large sums of uninvested cash. This is a trial-by-fire for testing an individual’s tolerance to risk and unrealized loss, so do not throw money in now that you are not comfortable seeing potentially decline another 50% or more in the coming months. Even if that does occur, ride out the bump however long it lasts and eventually you will see the value increase. Historically, market downturns are followed by a recovery, and over the long term still provide the best returns on investment. While the past is no guarantee of future results, the two hundred years of US stock market history would indicate this is still the best way to generate wealth.

Anyone near retirement age should have already reallocated their assets to consist mostly of lower-risk fixed income securities as appropriate for their age. For those of you who have parents who are concerned by this crisis, assure them that unless they need their capital within the next few years, they should not sell holdings at a significant loss. The hit to the economy during this pandemic is uncertain but will definitely be deep. In the coming weeks, unemployment will skyrocket as most sectors grind to a halt. This is certain to continue for the coming months as more and more state-wide lockdowns will go into effect. However, the extent to which this is mitigated depends on the actions of Congress as they continue to debate different stimulus measures.

Choosing stock investments

So, what investments should be considered during this current market discount (and at all times when investing)? I would not feed into frenzy of any “hot stocks” because by the time you have heard about it in the media, they are likely already overvalued. Similarly, companies with promising COVID-19 treatments may end up disappointing investors. The principles I would recommend for those beginners wanting to invest a percentage of their savings would be to dollar cost average into an index fund that tracks the total stock market. These provide the safety of diversification that picking individual stocks do not. Essentially each month, no matter what the price of the fund is, buy the same dollar amount of that fund. Some months you can buy more when the price is low, and other months you buy less when the price is high. Over time, this averages to a lower cost-per-share than jumping in all at once. This is a great way to passively invest in stocks, as you don’t need to do deep analysis of a company that you want to invest in (and feel the pain when it turned out you were wrong). The S&P500 tracks 500 large companies in the US and SPY is a great low cost fund tracking it. Be sure to chose a fund with a low expense ratio (fees), and many popular ones can be found for under 0.1%. Anything charging over 1% eats away at your return and is not worth your money.

For those who want to be more active in their investments and buy individual stocks, you must do your homework. If you don’t want to take the time and discipline to invest in individual stocks, follow the investment strategy in the previous paragraph. Your principal will be much safer that way. There are two main schools of thought for picking stocks, technical analysis and fundamental analysis. Technical analysis looks at volume trends of buying and selling of shares and other metrics on how to predict which way a particular stock will move. In my opinion, this is essentially gambling and should not be followed. Fundamental analysis looks at the fundamentals of a business. All things from its financial health, growth prospects, dividend payments, management team, and advantage over competition are looked at. This is the best way to determine which companies have true staying power over the long run.

Fundamental Analysis and Value Investing

The best-known proponent of fundamental analysis is the investor Warren Buffet, who learned his strategy from the “father of value investing”, Benjamin Graham. Value investing seeks to buy stock at a safe discount, as the investor has determined this stock to be mispriced by the market in her favor. Eventually, she hopes the strong fundamentals of the company place it in the good graces of Wall Street and as more investors buy in, the share price increases. Value investing requires patience, as you could wait many years before your favorite picks become the favorites of Wall Street. But when they do, you will be happily rewarded.

You can read hundreds and hundreds of pages from many books and take many classes on how to learn fundamental analysis. Personally, I feel a great starting off point for those who are interested is to read Ben Graham’s, The Intelligent Investor. My perspective on investing, risk, and emotional responses were completely changed for the better after reading that book. Honestly if I had not read this only a few months ago, I probably would have sold my investments completely at the first whiff of this virus. (I believe time in the market is superior to timing the market). Briefly, the definition Graham gives for investment is the following:

  1. Investment, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Not meeting these requirements is speculation
  2. An investment operation is one that can be justified on both qualitative and quantitative grounds.

In another earlier work by Graham, Security Analysis, he sets criteria that should be met by a company before consideration of purchasing their stock:

  1. a suitable and established dividend return
  2. a stable and adequate earnings record
  3. a satisfactory backing of tangible assets

Essentially this boils down to the company should distribute profits (and they should have for many years prior), they actually have earnings, and their debt does not exceed their assets. If you follow the advice in The Intelligent Investor you will do well. If you want to speculate, avoid doing so with more than you are comfortable seeing disappear to zero. I would strongly urge against gambling with all derivatives (buying on margin, puts, calls, futures etc.) unless you REALLY know what you are doing and are also ok with losing your initial investment, or in some of those cases, owing MORE than you originally had.

Where can you buy stocks?

After putting down your copy of The Intelligent Investor and carefully analyzing a stock that looks attractive to you, you decide to go ahead and buy that stock. But how is this accomplished? Today it is even easier to buy and sell stocks than in the past. A stock broker is authorized to handle this task and there are many companies offering this service online. Fortunately many commission fees for doing this have been eliminated. Some popular brokers are TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Vanguard, and E-Trade. These companies have different minimum investment amounts so be careful to check the requirements before choosing.

Conclusion

Many of us are not trained in finance, economics, or security analysis (I certainly am not), but I hope that investing does not have to be scary to those in other disciplines and is seen as a valuable way to grow wealth over the long run. It is fun to learn more about a field completely different than your own. This could also be a good skill for scientists, as familiarizing yourself with a prospective company’s 10-K filing (yearly financial report) will teach you a great deal about that company and if they have the financial health to ensure you don’t need to look for a new job in 6 months. This only applies to publicly traded companies however. Startups and established private companies don’t have to disclose as much to the public. Whether or not you decide to take a passive or active approach, you will be able to achieve your financial goals through sound and disciplined investment.

Disclaimer: These views are my own and I am not qualified to give financial or investment advice. Please seek out certified financial planners from trusted institutions. I own shares in SPY and other individual stocks and index funds as of this writing.

Can you find artist among the scientific community?

Can you find artist among the scientific community? If you ask someone off the street if they consider a scientist an artist many may answer no; perceiving scientist as dull people in lab coats. This early March serval scientist at the Tufts Boston Campus where challenged to strut their artistic skills in the Sci-Art Competition helping break down the dull scientist persona people often perceive.

Jacob Klickstein, a Neuroscience student won first place with his “Brain Storm” piece. The piece was part of his current lab work in which he was looking at a cluster of iPSC-derived lower motor neurons stained for a cytoskeleton marker (TuJ1-cyan), a nuclear marker (dapi-blue) and a motor neuron-specific transcription factor (Hb9-red).

For second place, we had a tie between graduate students Ashlee Junior and Linus Williams. Ashlee is a Genetics student, her piece titled “INVADERS!” showcases Candida albicans filaments invading an agar plate.

Linus Williams is an Immunology student, his piece “A heart, broken by rejection”, is a Maisson’s Trichrome of a rejected mouse heart (Blue is fibrosis, red is muscle).

Eric Link is a technician in the Zeng lab. His piece “B-CHP Metatarsal on glass slide”, is a collagen hybridizing probe highlighting cartilage remodeling in the growth plate of a developing mouse metatarsal.

Quentin Bernard is a Microbiology student, his piece “Five, six, pick up Tick”, is an oxide’s scapularis tick stuck on its back before it was microinjected.

Alyssa DiLeo is a Neuroscience student. Her piece, “Possibilities: what went wrong with my western blot”, showcases the unfortunate results from a botched western blot.

Rachael Ryner is a CMDB student. Her piece, “Mermaid Mouse Brain”, is a fluorescent mouse brain section that has been immune-stained for beta-catenin and GABA in a CaMKII-Cre:Ai9 background.

Surendra Sharma is a CMDB student. His piece “The Dark Side of the Genome”, describes the long considered “dark matter” of genomes, regulatory noncoding RNAs like miRNAs and lncRNAs which are now recognized as key drivers and/or regulators of a variety of cellular processes.

Dominique Ameroso is a Neuroscience student. Her piece “Alien Astrocytes”, showcases astrocytes in culture – or an alien waiting for host.

Pragya Singh is a CMDB student. Her piece” A network of collagen”, exhibits collagen bundles forming in 3D, specifically a collagen1 gel as a result of LOXL2 treatment.

As scientists we have characteristics that by any dictionary definition would categorize us as artists. Naturally most scientists are curious. Our daily work requires us to be creative, take risks, and have a sense of passion for the work we do. The muse of a scientist lies in the continuous sense of adventure that comes from trying to uncover the unknowns in our projects. We don’t have to look too far for an example of an established scientist who struts his scientific muscles regularly. In our own Tufts community, our very own Dean, Dan Jay, is a visual artist who combines art and science to create pieces that express inspiration in science. This art competition was definitely a testament to our communities vibrant artistic abilities. Thank you to all those who participated and keep a look out for upcoming events and competitions.

References:

“Daniel Jay.” Daniel Jay | School of the Museum of Fine Arts | Tufts University, smfa.tufts.edu/directory/daniel-jay.

The Red Meat Article Controversy: HAMBURGLER STRIKES AGAIN

Pepperoni pizza. Pulled-pork sandwiches. Burgers. Bacon. These are some of the foods that I miss the most since deciding to reduce my meat consumption to virtually zero servings a week. My decision was environmentally and eco-consciously driven, but many Americans cut back meat consumption due to health concerns. The risk of red meat and processed meat consumption in cardiac disease, cancer, and overall quality of life has thoroughly pervaded the public conscience. But at the beginning of October 2019, a review was released in the Annals of Internal Medicine that recommended not changing current red or processed meat consumption. The authors concluded there is poor evidence linking red/processed meat consumption to adverse health risks, which directly contradicts years of nutrition research.

I’ve never read a lick of nutritional research in my life, but I have enough experience in reading scientific literature to attempt a summary of the review for you here. The authors integrated evidence from studies that included at least 6 months of red meat or processed meat consumption and at least 1,000 participants. They additionally took into consideration the feasibility of reducing meat consumption, the cost of meat consumption, and the personal preference of eating meat for the participants. However, they excluded environmental impact and humane animal practices into their consideration.

The evidence was evaluated with a set of guidelines the authors outlined, which included systematic review and GRADE (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) methodology. GRADE is traditionally used in rating clinical drug trials, so that recommendations can be made regarding a drug’s efficacy and safety. GRADE was not designed nor has it been used before in nutritional research. After the evidence was rated in this manner, a “low conflict-of-interest” group of experts and some public members outside of the science community made their recommendations. Their findings weren’t very conclusive; evaluation of the evidence provided little certainty in the risks associated with red meat and processed meat consumption.

The use of the word “certainty” in the article highlights the bias that the authors’ methodology introduces; it is a subjective quality. Our faith in the authors’ discernment depends on our faith in the authors themselves.

How was the group of experts and public members making the recommendation determined to be “low conflict-of-interest”? The panel was asked to disclose any financial or intellectual conflicts from within the past 3 years. Only those with none were invited to participate in the panel. But is 3 years long enough? Dr. Bradley Johnston, the head researcher of the article, has industry ties that lie just outside the 3 year window. The New York Times and the Washington Post reported on this and another author, Dr. Patrick Stover, who has similar ties to the beef industry through the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M.

In the wake of the red meat article, prominent leaders in the field of nutrition and public health have criticized its recommendation. Prior years of nutritional research have illuminated the risk of frequent red and processed meat consumption in contracting heart disease and cancer. Some experts point to the distrust that this direct contradiction instills in scientific research, whose relationship with the public is already challenged in areas like global warming.

Environmental impact and humane animal practices were among the evidence that the panel did not take into consideration while making their recommendation. How would their recommendation change if they had considered these conditions? The evidence is staggering. Red and processed meat consumption contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gases through animal agriculture and deforestation. Additionally, while meat consumption is rising across the globe, the stress on water availability, biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and the animals themselves increases as well. Higher demand for red meat has resulted in the sub-ideal conditions for animals that documentaries like Food Inc. have made us familiar with. Cattle, pork, and poultry often have limited access to open pasture and are fed unnatural diets with antibiotics to save money. Confronting this information was enough for me to decide to reduce meat consumption.

For many, incorporating meat into their diet is easier and cheaper than eating a plant-based diet. For those looking to reduce their carbon footprint through what they eat, I suggest purchasing poultry (cheaper) and meat alternatives (increasingly more accessible) over red meat. However, people also care about the nutritional value in their food. The rise in popularity of plant-based meat alternatives can be seen in the fast food industry. Notably, Burger King has released their Impossible Whopper within the last year, which uses an Impossible Burger patty made from soy and potato protein with the crucial ingredient of heme (the molecule attributed with “meaty” flavor). Despite whether it comes from a fast food restaurant or the meat aisle, we should still be reading the nutritional facts before congratulating ourselves on choosing the “healthy option”.

Overall, while doing my research into the red meat article controversy, my take-aways were as follows:

-A panel of experts and members of the public made a recommendation to not change current red or processed meat consumption habits based on a review of evidence that weakly points to adverse health consequences.

-Like most recommendations, this one has sources of bias despite the authors’ efforts to minimize them.

-Human nutrition research also has its own caveats, confounding factors, and complexities. Since researchers can’t control everything that a person eats in a day, we can’t expect a study to be completely accurate.

-Some of the authors have ties to trade industries. Whether those ties influenced the recommendation of the article remains uncertain.

-There are good reasons for reducing meat consumption that pertain less to the health of an individual and more to the health of an entire planet.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Léa Gaucherand, “I Fell in love with research”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 22 October 2019

Léa Gaucherand, Microbiology, Third-year Ph.D. Student: “I Fell in Love with Research”

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! To begin with, where did you grow up?

LG:I grew up in the North East of France, in a city called Nancy in the Lorraine region. There are many differences between life in France and here; university is very cheap, like 100 – 200 euros [110 – 220 USD] a year. Also, the Ph.D. system is different because it’s only 3 years (you do it after your Master’s). You don’t have rotations, you just apply to one project in one lab and for funding from the government or other agencies.

JH: What were you doing before graduate school?

LG: I actually have a Master’s degree in Health and Drug Engineering and a multidisciplinary Engineering degree (equivalent to a Master’s but it is a weird concept that only exists in France where you do a little bit of everything). As part of my studies I did an internship in bioengineering research at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle and I fell in love with research (and with someone in Seattle). I went back to Seattle after graduating and started as a volunteer in Dr. Tom Wight’s lab at the Benaroya Research Institute. I then got a technician position in the same institute in Dr. Adam Lacy-Hulbert’s lab, and after two years there I moved to Boston for grad school!

JH: When you first moved to Seattle, did you encounter any culture shock?

LG: I had actually already lived in San Francisco for 6 months for another internship one year before I moved to Seattle, and I had a pen pal from Pennsylvania that I visited for a week in high school. I don’t think I really had any culture shock, it was more the excitement of being somewhere new and fully independent.

JH: How did you first become interested in pursuing science as a career? Was there anything in particular that steered you towards microbiology?

LG: My interest actually came pretty late. I was always good at maths and just liked thinking about science in general, but I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do. That’s why I went to the French engineering school I mentioned earlier, to still have a broad science background without deciding yet what I wanted to do. It was only there that I realized I missed learning about chemistry, and the only class I really enjoyed was about human physiology and bioengineering. I took extra classes during my last year to have a more specialized degree, and did the internship [in Seattle] that really opened my eyes about what research was and how much I enjoyed it. It’s only once I was a technician that I worked on viruses. I thought they were the coolest thing so I wanted to learn more about them, and about how they interact and evolve with the host. I applied to a bunch of programs, most of them more virology-focused than Tufts, but I really enjoyed my interview at Tufts Micro. It just felt right.

The Gaglia Lab

JH: What do you like to do outside of lab?

LG: Outside the lab I like to play volleyball (we have a great team at Tufts Micro!). I say it’s a Micro volleyball team but it’s not official at all. Another Micro student, Allison (in the Camilli lab), has a net so we go play with a few people from Micro (and other programs) at the Boston Common in the summer. Everyone is welcome and it would actually be great if we had more players! I also like to watch intellectual movies and travel. My husband showed me two intellectual movies in the past few weeks that I really enjoyed: Burning by director Chang-dong Lee and Shoplifters by director Hirokazu Koreeda. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to travel that much (apart from going back to France twice a year). The last big trip I took was right before moving to Boston, to Panama and Hawaii.

Summer volleyball on the Common

NOTES FROM THE LIBRARY

RESEARCH GUIDES TO HELP YOU GET STARTED ON YOUR RESEARCH

Many people turn to Google when they are brainstorming a research topic. I am not here to shame anyone on that practice, especially because I am guilty myself! But as many librarians will say, you can always start with Google but NEVER end there.

There are better resources to help get you started on your research. The following are some research guides that have a curated list of resources based on topic/subject area.

As always, if you need help navigating any of these resources, please feel free to make an appointment with me or drop by Sackler Library Office Hours!

FINDING INFORMATION

SCHOOL OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH GUIDE. This will guide you through finding journal articles, chemical/drug information, protocols/methods, data, data analysis/visualization, and more!

PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING. For those of you working/researching in a clinical setting, this guide will help you with some resource that might be helpful in answering clinical questions. This guide includes a variety of resources that include, but is not limited to, point-of-care tools, e-book collections, clinical practice guidelines, drug information, etc.

BIOINFORMATIC RESOURCES. If you need bioinformatics resources, this is a guide that directs you to databases, tools, journals, books, and bioinformatics at Tufts.

STUDY DESIGNS IN THE HEALTH SCIENCES. This guide will help you gain an introductory understanding of the different types of study designs that are frequently used in the health sciences.

ADVANCED SEARCHING TECHNIQUES. If you have a handle on basic searching in databases like PubMed or Ovid, you might find this guide helpful. It will give you some tips and strategies for advanced searching on a variety of databases.

OTHER RESOURCES

APPROACHING THE LITERATURE REVIEW. This is a great place to start if you need help with your literature review. It walks you through the steps of approaching your literature review and links you to other resources that might be useful.

DOCTORAL RESOURCES. You should visit this guide if you need help with your dissertation, teaching, or locating career information!

FINDING FUNDING. This guide is specifically designed to help you find funding (both on and off campus), as well as write grant proposals. It will also give you tips on finding successfully awarded grants on PubMed and other databases.

CACHE Your Antibodies to Save Cash!

No antibody is perfect for every application, but if you’re on a budget and everything you’ve found looks about the same, here are a few things that you should consider before purchasing.

A simple way to remember this information is with the mnemonic CACHE: Citations, Application, Clonality, Host, Epitope. The more “yes” answers that can be applied to the questions below, the more likely the candidate antibody is to be successful for the experiment at hand.

1) Citations: Does the literature support the functionality of the antibody?

A good antibody will have numerous citations supporting its use. More often than not, the manufacturer will not have validated the antibody for exactly what you need. And if the goal is to do immunohistochemistry (IHC) on paraffin-embedded kidney tissue, but the manufacturer only validated the antibody for Western blotting, the literature is the best place to go to see if someone else has used a particular antibody for that purpose. Check out CiteAb for this; it is an excellent resource to compare antibodies!

2) Application: Has the antibody been validated for the desired application?

If so, make a little mental checkmark that this might be a good one! If not, consider the applications it is validated for, and compare them to your own. An antibody for Western blotting, for instance, which may recognize the target in a denatured form, might also work for immunoprecipitations. An antibody validated for flow cytometry and fluorescence-assisted cell sorting (FACS) could recognize the native form of the protein found in a tissue section.

3) Clonality: Is the clonality appropriate?

And what is the difference between monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies, anyway? Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) are produced by a single population of B cells that is derived from a single cell, while polyclonal antibodies (pAbs) are produced by multiple B cell clones. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, monoclonal antibodies bind to a single epitope, resulting in high specificity and low background, but staining with them is easily lost if the antigen is degraded. Polyclonal antibodies, on the other hand, are resistant to this problem in that they bind to multiple epitopes. This promiscuity can also result in higher background staining, but also greater sensitivity. Choosing to use a monoclonal antibody versus a polyclonal antibody will largely depend on the target of interest and the application of the antibody.

4) Host: Is the host for the antibody different than the species of the target?

The best practice is to use an antibody raised in a host other than that of the sample species, to avoid any potential binding of the secondary antibody to endogenous immunoglobulins within the sample. Preventing cross-reactivity within the sample minimizes background staining and is a relatively simple way to ensure better results, but this is probably the least important question to consider. There are kits available to block cross-reactivity when the source of the sample is the same as the host of the antibody.

5) Epitope: Is the antigen used to raise the antibody present in your sample (or does it have significant homology)?

Multiple epitopes can be targeted within a single molecule, and antibodies can be raised against entire proteins, a protein fragment, or a particular sequence. If you are working with samples from an uncommon organism (plant biology, anyone?), you will be relying mainly on homology of your protein of interest with the epitope that the antibody targets. This is also a good place to consider your experimental conditions. As an example, FACS requires an antibody that targets an extracellular epitope so that it can bind to live cells.

These questions are not a substitute for optimizing an antibody in the lab, but they do make it much easier to choose antibodies that work, and work reasonably well, faster.

References

CiteAb – The Life Science Data Provider, 2019, www.citeab.com/. Accessed 13 September 2019.

Lipman et al. (2005) Monoclonal Versus Polyclonal Antibodies: Distinguishing Characteristics, Applications, and Information Resources. ILAR Journal 46(3):258-268.

“Polyclonal vs Monoclonal Antibodies.” Pacific Immunology, https://www.pacificimmunology.com/resources/antibody-introduction/polyclonal-vs-monoclonal-antibodies/. Accessed 13 September 2019.

“Antibody Basics.” Novus Biologicals, https://www.novusbio.com/support/general-support/antibody-basics.html. Accessed 13 September 2019.

NOTES FROM THE LIBRARY

Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Andrea Kang and I recently joined the Research & Instruction Librarians at the Hirsh Health Sciences Library (HHSL). One of my roles is to be the library liaison to the School of Biomedical Sciences. I am so excited to be a part of the Tufts community and hope I can make your lives a little bit easier, whether that is by helping you through your literature review for your thesis, or giving you tips on research data management, or connecting you with resources that HHSL has to offer you. Here are some things that I can help you do throughout your time at Tufts:

FIND JOURNAL ARTICLES & MORE. I can help you find articles, datasets, health statistics, chemical/drug information, etc. and equip you with the skills on how to do it yourself in the future! Even if you know the basics, I can help with troubleshooting or refining search strategies.

GET YOU STARTED ON A RESEARCH DATA MANAGEMENT. Government funders among others are requiring rigorous research data management (RDM) plans for your research, some requiring that you meet with a librarian. But beyond these requirements, RDM can make your life (and others’ lives) easier in the long run. I can provide tips on best practices and where to get started with your RDM plan.

HELP ORGANIZE YOUR CITATIONS. If you are still using Microsoft Excel/Word, Google Sheets, or going old school with pencil and paper to organize the bazillion articles you found for your research, STOP. There are other ways that you can manage your citations that will save you time in the long run! I can help you with tools like Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote (which is FREE because Tufts pays for it), or connect you with the experts here at HHSL.

CONNECT YOU WITH OTHER RESOURCES. There are so many other resources available at HHSL. Whether you need to use test prep books, borrow a phone charger, just need advice on where to start your research, or learn skills like R/R studio, I can help connect you to the resources you need. Just reach out!

To make an appointment with me, you can go to my page and schedule an appointment through the scheduler. If there are problems with this, you are more than welcome to call me at (617)-636-0385 or email me at andrea.kang@tufts.edu.

Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

From Goodreads.com

When I was getting ready for school in the morning as a tween-going-on-teen, I’d often have the TV on in the background, playing reruns of whatever television shows adults enjoyed in those days. So I’ve never actually seen a full episode of M*A*S*H, and really only know it by the sound of the helicopter blades in the opening segment, which was often playing as I walked out the door. But I’m definitely familiar with the actor who played Hawkeye in this show, Alan Alda. After Hawkeye’s tour was over, Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 12 of its 15 seasons, and that show was most certainly not just background to my middle school mornings. For me, Scientific American Frontiers was a sit-down-stop-everything-else-and-only-watch-TV kind of show. Naturally, I decided I had to read Alda’s latest memoir, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, which encompasses his experience with scientific communication in an amusing and relatable way. As Alda says in the introduction, “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication, and are what this book is about.”

            Storytelling is an important aspect of science. When we’re giving a talk, we have to convince the people listening that the research is worth their time and attention. Alda argues that communicating isn’t just telling. It is simultaneously observing and determining whether the audience follows, and whether what you’re saying resonates with them. In many ways, it’s akin to a performance, which is perhaps why an actor with a prolific track record like Alda is so successful at it. Using small studies and anecdotes as evidence, Alda suggests in this book that things like improvisation or audience-synchronization exercises can improve presentation skills.

            His principle extends to written audiences as well. A writer cannot observe and react to a reader’s thoughts, confusions, or frustrations, but they can learn to think about a reader’s state of mind and anticipate the reader’s expectations. In essence, a writer can learn to be familiar with the experience level of their target reader and what questions they might ask if they were in the room, and adjust the narrative or delivery of the story accordingly.

            If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is a quick read, but that doesn’t hinder its capacity to home in on the important points above. This is not a how-to book; just reading it will not inherently improve your ability to communicate or your grant writing. But it may give you an idea of how to practice getting into your audience’s head and engaging with them in an easy and effective manner. Every audience will be different, and it is our responsibility – as researchers, as authors, as presenters – to be able communicate the intricate concepts of our research in a way that is readily comprehended by both scientists and non-scientists alike.

#SackSackler : Demands & Petition

This January, the Massachusetts Attorney General released a memorandum to the public as part of her lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and their owners, the Sackler family. This lawsuit alleges gross misconduct on the part of the Sackler family in their unethical marketing and selling of OxyContin, valuing corporate profit over the safety and lives of patients. The United States is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic, caused by pharmaceutical companies like Purdue selling potent, addictive opioids and lobbying physicians to overprescribe these drugs to their patients.

Tufts has well known financial connections with the Sackler family, who have donated vast sums of money to the university and supported the founding of the Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy. This relationship is painfully evident in the name of the Sackler School for Graduate Biomedical Sciences. Worse, the Sacklers and Purdue used their connections to Tufts to push pro-opioid propaganda into the medical community. At one point, Purdue employees allegedly inserted pro-opioid information into the pain management curriculum, bragging afterwards about “penetrating this account.” The full extent of how Tufts is funded or influenced by the Sackler family is unknown to the public. Not only is this relationship unethical, it also poses a potential serious conflict of interest in the university and threatens the integrity of Tufts’ biomedical research and education.

In response to the lawsuit memorandum and increased media scrutiny, Executive Director of Tufts Public Relations Patrick Collins released this statement:

“The information raised in the Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and other defendants is deeply troubling. We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity. Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward.”

This official response offers no details, accountability, or mechanisms of transparency and is inadequate. Instead of working to solely minimize public relations damage, Tufts has a responsibility to hold itself and the Sacklers accountable.  While the focus of this petition is on the Sackler family, we are conscious of the fact that Tufts receives donations from other powerful families and organizations, such as the Koch brothers. Tufts’ relationship with the Sacklers underscores the need for democratic accountability more broadly.

We need your help in making change happen. We are collaborating with students in the Tufts Medical School to demand changes. However, Tufts University is more than just the medical school, or the undergraduate campus. We want a representative coalition, with support from community members (students, faculty, workers, etc) across all the programs. By signing this petition, you are affirming your support for the following demands from Tufts leadership:

  1. A fair and transparent investigation into all connections between Tufts University and the Sackler family. The results of the investigation must be made public, and an open forum must be held where students and community members can raise their concerns.
  2. A plan for instituting community oversight of all future donations to Tufts programs that includes a review committee comprised of students, faculty, and community members, and an annual public report of all donors.
  3. Appropriate steps to defend Tufts’ academic integrity, including the removal of Purdue-sponsored curriculum material and the acknowledgement of any research produced with a conflict of interest, especially those produced through the Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy program.
  4. Financial support for opioid treatment programs through the School of Medicine and the University at large.
  5. A name change for the Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences, the Sackler Building, and any Sackler Family affiliated edifices or institutions at Tufts University.
  6. A revocation of the honorary degree provided to Raymond Sackler and any awards or recognition provided to the Sackler Family including plaques, signage, and dedications.

Petition Link
http://bit.ly/SackSacklerPetition

This petition will be used to demonstrate to the University administration a demand for action from the Tufts community. With a growing number of concerned voices from students and faculty from all parts of the Tufts community we believe we can begin to address this problematic legacy and make changes for the betterment of Tufts as an institution and our community at large.

Op-Ed: Rename the Sackler School

Guest Post by Nathan Foster, a recent graduate of Tufts University

The United States is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic, with 72,000 people estimated to have died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone. The crisis was caused by the systemic overprescription of opioid pain relievers, fueled by a massive drug industry campaign to downplay the risks and straight-up lie about the dangers of their drugs. Troublingly, it has come to light that Tufts programs were used to promote the opioid industry’s lies.

Purdue Pharma, wholly owned by the Sackler family, is one of the companies most responsible for the opioid epidemic. Purdue makes OxyContin, and for decades they systematically lied about its effects in order to sell more pills at higher doses. As tens of thousands of Americans died, the Sacklers made billions, some of which found its way to the Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences here at Tufts. Although the school was originally founded with donations from three Sackler brothers in 1980, before OxyContin was invented, the Sacklers have continued to give large sums of money to Tufts, including to establish the Masters in Pain Research, Education, and Policy program through the Medical and Public Health Schools in 1999, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Convergence Laboratory in 2013.

As the role of the Sacklers in the opioid crisis has become increasingly clear through news reports and the activism of artist Nan Goldin, there has been some discussion about the appropriateness of the school’s name. Tufts’ biomedical scientists dedicate their careers to saving lives, after all, not destroying them for profit. But the conversation has remained relatively abstract, more about the symbolism of good deeds sponsored by bad people than about the concrete effects of the Sacklers’ money.

That has to change now. The Sackler name is no longer an abstract morality problem, if it ever was, but a full-blown crisis of academic integrity. According to a lawsuit from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, Purdue Pharma used the Sacklers’ donations to systematically corrupt Tufts’ curriculum and research in favor of opioids.

The Attorney General’s allegations are mind-boggling. Purdue employees placed unlabeled curriculum materials in Sackler School courses, and talked afterwards about “penetrating this account.” A seminar on opioids in Massachusetts was regularly taught by Purdue staff, and Tufts helped the company develop pro-opioid materials for patients. The head of the Masters in Pain Research program spoke in favor of Purdue at FDA meetings in 2012 and 2013. Purdue sent staff to Tufts “regularly,” as recently as 2017. The CEO of the company wrote to President Monaco in 2017 “to promote Purdue’s contentions about opioids and offer to meet,” though the lawsuit does not say President Monaco took him up on the offer. And all this happened after Purdue Pharma was fined $600 million in 2007 for misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about OxyContin’s potential for addiction and abuse. 

“The Sacklers got a lot for their money” at Tufts, the lawsuit asserts. “The MSPREP [Masters in Pain Research] Program was such a success for Purdue’s business that the company considered it a model for influencing teaching hospitals and medical schools.”

To be clear, Tufts is not the only institution alleged to have been improperly influenced by Sackler money. Following millions in donations, Massachusetts General Hospital even named its pain program after Purdue Pharma—then changed the name as the scale of the opioid crisis became apparent.

Last week, Attorney General Maura Healey stated that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are “one and the same.” It is not possible to separate the Sackler name from the crimes of the company that made them billions.

It is disturbing that the makers of OxyContin had such deep influence over research and education at Tufts. In addition, Purdue and the Sacklers’ close connection to a leading biomedical research institute allowed them to maintain credibility in the medical community for years after it was clear their product was killing people. It is too late to save the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been lost to the opioid epidemic. But Tufts can act now to undo some of the damage it has caused.

First, Tufts needs to immediately change the name of the Sackler School. Faced with lawsuits and protests, the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma can still draw credibility from having their name attached to one of the country’s top biomedical schools. The recent resurgence of the tobacco industry shows that the makers of deadly drugs will seize on any remaining scraps of credibility to push their product. We cannot let that happen.

Second, Tufts must establish a commission of medical professionals, students, and members of the addiction advocacy community to thoroughly review all improper connections to Purdue and the Sacklers, past and present, including but not limited to those alleged in the Attorney General’s lawsuit. The results of the review should be made public. Given the extent to which Tufts’ academic integrity is alleged to have been compromised, a fully transparent review process including students and addiction advocates is the only way to genuinely move forward. As an added benefit, the students involved will get an excellent education in the sociopolitical determinants of health.

Third, Tufts must file an amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family.

Finally, Tufts must implement clear guidelines to prevent any donor from compromising its academic integrity in the future.

Editors’ Note: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of the Sackler Insight editorial board or that of the Sackler community. Below is an official response from Patrick Collins, Executive Director of Public Relations at Tufts. 

Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research and education. The information raised in the Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and other defendants is deeply troubling. We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity. Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward.