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2019 Nobel Prizes: Another Year Filled with Great Discoveries

This past December, the prestigious international Nobel prizes were awarded in recognition of academic, cultural and scientific advances. Before delving into this past year’s prizes, it seems only appropriate to take notice into how nominations to become a Nobel laureate occur. The process to select laureates begins in September when invitations are sent out to a select group to make nominations. The deadline for nominations is January 31 of the following year. Once nominations are in, there is a three-month process in which all nominations are being consulted on, with experts. After having consulted with experts, reports are written with recommendations during July and June. In September the Academy gets a report on final candidates and in October, after a majority vote, the Nobel Prize is announced. Bringing us full circle to this past December’s Nobel prize awards.

We begin with the Nobel Prize in Physics which this year was awarded for two separate discoveries, each of which I will comment on separately. The first, “the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”, by Michel Mayor and Didler Queloz ushered in a new era for exoplanet astronomy. Before this, physicists wondered if there were other planets like ours in the solar system, and more deeply, wondered if there were planets just like our Earth that could sustain complex life. Since then, the interest in exoplanet astronomy has grown, and the tools at the disposal of scientists studying them have improved, with more exciting discoveries about exoplanets every year. The second, with equal value, “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology” by James Peebles is profound because his work attempts to understand the origins of the entire universe. A lot of active research in astrophysics depends on understanding what the initial conditions of the universe were like and wondering how the galaxies themselves came into existence. In building this article, it is worth mentioning many physicists felt the award for cosmology was bittersweet as it came a little too late for a certain well-known astronomer whose contributions to cosmology were also immense. Vera Rubin was an astronomer in the field of galaxy rotation rates that revealed the presence of dark matter. Dark matter is an essential component in the theories of cosmology, and many felt it sad to think her contributions did not get as much recognition from the Nobel committee when she was alive (She passed away in 2016).

The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability” was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza. Every cell in our body requires oxygen for basic metabolic and physiological functions. Several animals utilize oxidation reactions to power the conversion of nutrients from food into energy, making oxygen essential for supporting life. This discovery completed the full picture of oxygen sensing in cells that began back in 1931 with Otto Warburg’s discovery concerning the enzymatic basis for cellular respiration, and Corneille Heymans in 1938 for his findings on the role of the nervous systems respiratory response to oxygen. The question that loomed over many scientists in the current century, that this year’s Nobel finally addressed, was cellular adaptation to oxygen availability through gene expression. The ability to alter gene expression patterns to oxygen availability is essential during normal physiological events from embryonic development to even exercise. This variation also extends to pathological states such as cancer and infection. William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza found that during normoxia a transcription factor that alters normal physiological processes is degraded via the ubiquitin proteasome system. However, during hypoxic states such as cancer or infection this transcription factor is not ubiquitin tagged and thus not sent to the proteasome for degradation leading to alterations in gene expression. The question these scientists helped to answer is a textbook question that we will likely see being taught in early biology classes. It is also something we will likely see being applied to new therapeutics as it paves the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.

Lithium ion batteries are everywhere from your smartphones to devices used on the International Space Station. The Nobel prize in Chemistry “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” was awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. The concept of lithium batteries has been around since 1991 and since their introduction to the field they have been revolutionary. The working principle of a battery is simple; it consists of two electrodes (metals like lithium) each connected to an electric circuit which itself is separated by an electrolyte that can accommodate charged species. Before we had lithium ion batteries, batteries relied on other metals such as copper, lead, and nickel. The main issue with the previous battery designs was that they were not rechargeable. Lithium on the other hand was rechargeable but prior to perfecting the design of the lithium battery, many worried it was too explosive. The current design of lithium batteries is not based on a chemical reaction as the designs preceding it were. Rather the new design relies on ions flowing back and forth between anode and cathode. This design is advantageous as it allows users to charge their batteries hundreds of times before the performance of the battery deteriorates. The work of these scientists is exciting as it introduces new power resources that other scientist can expand on in an era that seeks to lean away from fossil fuels. 

The last Nobel prize I will comment on is in Economics which was awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. According to the UN though, the global poverty rate has declined by half since the beginning of the twenty-first century, one in ten people in developing regions still live on less then two U.S. dollars. Many have attempted to help address the problem but have come short, describing the problem as too big. This year’s laureates went about addressing the crisis using a more strategic approach. The economists utilized a method familiar to many clinicians; they utilized Randomized Controlled Trials or RCTs. Instead of tackling poverty as a whole, they set up randomized trials in different locations in developing countries, in which they compared different groups with the same average character analyzing different things that contribute to poverty: education, health access, job availability, etc. By breaking down the problem, the economists were able to better define the needs of these developing countries in terms of resources they need, or have but aren’t utilizing. Today the field of developmental economics relies on field experiments as the gold standard for experiments done in order to give more valuable data.

For more information on past and current Nobel laureates visit: https://www.nobelprize.org/all-2019-nobel-prizes/

References:

“All 2019 Nobel Prizes.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/all-2019-nobel-prizes/.

Kabisch, Maria, et al. “Randomized Controlled Trials: Part 17 of a Series on Evaluation of Scientific Publications.” Deutsches Arzteblatt International, Deutscher Arzte Verlag, Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3196997/.

“Lithium Ion Battery.” Lithium Ion Battery – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/lithium-ion-battery.

“Power System.” How Do Batteries Work?, www.qrg.northwestern.edu/projects/vss/docs/Power/2-how-do-batteries-work.html.

“Areas of Research.” Areas of Research | Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, www.mpa-garching.mpg.de/27882/Areas_of_Research.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Uri Bulow, “Archaea Don’t Get Enough Love”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 13 February 2020

Uri Bulow, Microbiology, Third-year Ph.D. Student (Fifth-year M.D./Ph.D.): “Archaea Don’t Get Enough Love”

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions! So what were you doing before graduate school?

UB: I worked as a tech in a lab in Boulder for two years after finishing my degree in molecular biology. I was in a molecular cardiology lab, but I ended up working on a transduction system and found out that I enjoyed thinking about viruses more than myosin. I also loved the microbiology classes I took (thank you, Norman Pace and Shelley Copley), so when I came to Tufts I decided to join the microbiology department. Now I work on Lassa virus, which is a hemorrhagic fever virus. Hemorrhagic fever viruses (like Lassa or Ebola) are characterized by high fevers, multi-system organ failure, and hemorrhaging from mucous membranes (though this is less common than the name would suggest). I really enjoy being able to study such a simple and elegant system. Lassa only has 4 genes, any organism with more than that is just showing off!

JH: Getting an MD/PhD requires a great deal of dedication and time. Why did you go for an MD/PhD, and did you decide you wanted to go into medicine or science first?

UB: I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, and I figured that if a PhD takes 6 years and an MD/PhD takes 8, I might as well throw in the free MD since it would be interesting and it’s only an additional 2 years. At the time I didn’t really know what residency was, or that MD training doesn’t end when you graduate. Oops. Since starting this program I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy medicine, and making a career of both science and medicine sounds pretty ideal to me.

JH: Are there any major controversies in your field right now? What are they, and what are your thoughts?

UB: I know that this doesn’t need to be said to any GSBS students, but people need to get over this antivaxxer nonsense that’s threatening the health of our country. Vaccines are arguably the single greatest healthcare achievement we have ever made as a species, and watching them get dismissed by parents who would rather use essential oils and spells to ward off evil spirits is incredibly frustrating. The CDC actually estimates that 2.5 million lives are saved every year due to vaccination.*

JH: Is there anything you think is under-appreciated in microbiology (or medicine, if you prefer) as a whole?

UB: I think that archaea don’t get enough love. They’re a whole separate domain of life, comparable to bacteria or eukaryotes, and we know so little about those adorable little weirdos. Did you know that their plasma membranes aren’t bilayers, and that they use ether-linked lipids instead of ester-linked lipids? They live in every known biome on Earth, even inside our own GI tract, yet we know so little about them. What are they up to?

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

UB: Lately I’ve been really enjoying the Berklee student concerts. They’re super cheap and those kids are super talented. Shout-out to Mike Thorsen for introducing me to them. My favorite thing to do is to experiment in the kitchen. I recently dry-aged a beef striploin for 90 days, made my own lox, smoked some cheese, and I’m currently making pineapple vinegar. I also really enjoy marathoning the Lord of the Rings with friends, photoshopping my PI’s face into funny pictures, growing super-hot peppers, and canceling plans so I can stay home and read.

The famous lox

*Uri kindly provided this further evidence for the benefits of vaccines from an economic standpoint: “A recent economic analysis of 10 vaccines for 94 low- and middle-income countries estimated that an investment of $34 billion for the immunization programs resulted in savings of $586 billion in reducing costs of illness and $1.53 trillion when broader economic benefits were included.” Orenstein and Ahmed. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Apr 18. 114(16):4031-4033.

2019 novel Coronavirus: The latest zoonosis

A new coronavirus has made the jump from its animal host into the human population from what is believed to be an animal market in Wuhan, China. Reminiscent of the coronavirus responsible for the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak during 2002-3, this virus is making headlines around the world. As of this writing, it has already infected and killed more people in China in the past three months than the entire SARS outbreak. The current infected count is over 28,000 people with over 560 deaths, all but two of which are in China. While the risk to people outside of China is minimal at this time, the outbreak must be monitored carefully as reports of human-to-human transmission are being confirmed. Because this is a new outbreak, very little is known about this virus and rumors and unsubstantiated claims are running rampant in online communities. We must remember not to panic and rely on factual information from the Chinese and US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which circulate among animals such as camels, cats, and bats. The 2019- novel coronavirus (nCoV) is most similar to SARS, but is a different virus to that which causes SARS or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The 2019-nCoV causes respiratory illness in people with the potential to spread from person-to-person, although it is unclear on how easily this happens. Based on how other coronaviruses behave, 2019-nCoV transmission is most likely through respiratory droplets from infected individuals, as well as surface transfer to mucosal membranes. Reports of symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and in severe cases pneumonia in both lungs. Onset of symptoms can occur anywhere between 2-14 days after exposure.

An international response is mounting to contain the spread of this virus, and the WHO has declared this outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the sixth time they have done so. There have been confirmed cases in 24 countries around the world. Airlines are restricting flights to and from China, and the United States is barring individuals who recently visited China from entering the country. There are similar travel restrictions in Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. Vaccine development is already underway in several countries with testing reported to begin as soon as this summer. A group at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is targeting the spike proteins that the virus uses to attach to its host cell receptor, ACE2. Although, any vaccine is still a year away at minimum, so we must rely on a swift response from the global community in identifying new cases and blocking routes of transmission if we are to stop this from becoming the next pandemic.

This situation is evolving rapidly, and infection counts and deaths may increase each day. Travel restrictions and policy are likely to change rapidly as well.

For the most up to date information please see the CDC website here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

And at the WHO here: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

New Year, New You: A Guide to Making Your Goals S.M.A.R.T.

Happy New Year, everyone!

There’s a lot of motivation flowing at the beginning of a new year (and, in this case, a new decade!) to set goals — and subsequently crush them. Most often, I quickly find that my dedication to stick with whatever harebrained New Year’s resolution I may or may not have come up with is waning (exponentially decaying with a half-life of about 4.5 days, resulting in only 1% of my original motivation still present and accounted for at the end of January). And while my resolutions have typically focused on personal development, this year I’m turning my attention to the lab.

As graduate students, we’re often spread thin, what with trying to get our experiments done, train new students, and meet with our advisors. Add to that taking classes (at least in your early years), keeping on top of the literature, creating your own literature, and networking, and it’s a wonder that any of us have time to focus on things other than our degrees. What are we to do when we want to set goals and make sure we achieve them?

I was musing over how to write this article over dinner with a friend one evening when she mentioned S.M.A.R.T. criteria. While I’d heard of this acronym before, I never knew exactly what it meant, or how I was supposed to apply it, until she explained it to me. It makes a whole lot of practical sense, so I’m going to pay it forward and share it all with you, in case you were similarly unaware of its meaning and potential.

S.M.A.R.T. criteria were first introduced by George Doran in 1981 (1). In the article he published, Doran states that objective should be [(quoted)]:

            Specific – target a specific area for improvement.

            Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of
            progress.

            Assignable – specify who will do it.

            Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved,
            given available resources.

            Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Keep in mind that this article was originally meant for managers with a team. Other sources and articles on S.M.A.R.T criteria use other words (e.g. “achievable” in place of “assignable” and “relevant” instead of “realistic”) (2). For graduate students, using “achievable” might be more realistic than “assignable,” since, unless we’re managing another student, we’re going to “assign” the work to ourselves.

Let’s set an example goal, say, reading more of the literature in a particular field. How can we make this into a S.M.A.R.T. goal? For each letter in the acronym, there will be a list of things to consider and refinement of the goal to include the necessary information.

Specific
Consider the goal, who will be involved, and what your motivation is.

I want to read more papers to gain a better understanding of the role of Wnt signaling in cancer.”

Measurable
How can this goal be quantified? How will you know if you’ve made progress?

“I want to read 20 papers to gain a better understanding of the role of Wnt signaling in cancer.”

Assignable/Achievable
For graduate students, reading 20 scientific journal articles is certainly an achievable goal. So we get a checkmark here!

Realistic/Relevant
Consider what resources are available to help you achieve this goal. Is this goal relevant to your overall objectives (earning a graduate degree)?

Using journal access provided by the university library, I want to read 20 papers to gain a better understanding of the role of Wnt signaling in cancer.”

Time-related
Consider what your deadline is (perhaps you’re writing a review article on Wnt signaling and a section on cancer will be included) and whether it is realistic.

“Using journal access provided by the university library, I want to read 20 papers by June 15th to gain a better understanding of the role of Wnt signaling in cancer.”

Consider this article as a starting point when setting goals. The nice thing about S.M.A.R.T. is it gives you an achievable goal to go after, but the bad thing is it puts you in a structured box, which can prevent you from taking some bigger risks that could really pay off! It’s important to know when your goals need to be more flexible than S.M.A.R.T. criteria allows them to be, but if you, like me, find yourself getting frustrated for setting goals and not achieving them, this may be a good place to start.

References:
1. Doran GT. (1981) There’s a S.M.A.R.T way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review 70(11):35-36.
2. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/smart-goals.htm

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

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.

New Initiative on Campus Seeks to Tackle Mental Health Issues among Grad Students

For a long time, it was a generally accepted trope in academia that graduate students must endure harsh conditions, intellectual and emotional, before they are granted their PhD degrees. This is supposedly meant to build character, and weed out those who are not fit for the rigor and stress one encounters in academic research – a trial by fire of sorts. The ones who survive these conditions and emerge victorious, also internalize such hazing and come to think of it as just the regular pressure of working in academia.

It is therefore not surprising that the mental health of graduate students have not been discussed very much except in the recent years. While it has long been a subject of humor, such as PhD Comics and memes such as Shit Academics Say, it is only recently that the severity of the problem has been brought to light. In 2013, a series of articles regarding graduate students’ mental health was published on the GradHacker blog. In a guest post, Nash Turley, then a PhD candidate in evolutionary ecology at University of Toronto, looked at studies focusing on the major mental health issues graduate students face – anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, going as far back as 1997, and deduced that “mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students.”

Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology by , described the mental health issues among graduate students as a “crisis”, highlighting the prevalence of anxiety and depression. After surveying 2,279 graduate students representing 26 countries and 234 institutions, the study found that graduate students are six times more likely to suffer from moderate-to-severe depression compared to the general population. The study also found that female, trans and gender-non conforming (GNC) students were significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their cis male counterparts. Among the students with anxiety and depression, more than half did not felt valued by their mentors and half did not agree that mentors provided emotional support (only a third said yes). The study proposed some short term solutions, such as providing trainings to faculty and administrators by mental health professionals, similar to the NIH’s “train the trainers” program. For a longer term solution, the authors advocated for “a shift of the academic culture to eliminate the stigma and to ensure that students are not reluctant to communicate openly with PIs.” The notion of suffering has been internalized by graduate students to the point that in a latest study conducted among five hundred economics graduate students across eight institutions, the students who scored worse than average on a mental-health assessment tended to think that their mental health was better than average; among those who reported having suicidal thoughts, 26% assumed that their psychological well-being was better than the norm. In both studies, the major driver of such mental health issues seemed to be a combination of financial worries and the professional pressure to publish, both of which are products of the tight budget climate and the “publish or perish” nature that academia has recently taken on.

Alyssa DiLeo, a second-year graduate student in the Neuroscience program, is well aware of mental health issues graduate students face; she has faced them personally as well. “Graduate school is a hard transition for many people and even more difficult when they don’t have a support system. Mental health issues are also highly prevalent in graduate students. Levecque et al. published a study in May of 2017 reporting one in two PhD students experience psychological distress and 1/3 of graduate students are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. An online survey of graduate students in a recent March 2018 study by Evans et al. reported that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. After taking a few years off before entering graduate school, I’ve definitely found myself struggling to transition from an employee to a graduate student and was finding it hard to find the right support.” She became aware of an initiative called Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS) at MIT while attending a Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE) event at Harvard, and was inspired to start a REFS program here at Sackler called sREFS (sackler Resources for Easing Friction and Stress).

The goal of the sREFS initiative is “to provide an easily accessible outlet for graduate students to talk about conflicts, issues, or stressors in their lab or personal life.” Currently, there are few options that Sackler students can peruse if they are having mental health issues – the Wellness Center which puts out events for the whole TUSM community, the Student Advisory Council of the Wellness center (which just got a Sackler rep on their board), or their friends and other graduate students at certain social events. Mentoring circles, another peer-based support system started by Sackler students and alumni for networking and career development, could be another option. However, Alyssa noted that while Mentoring Circles provided “a great networking resource with experienced mentors”, “sREFS aims to create a more one on one private conversation between students about mental health in graduate school.” This initiative also hopes to serve as the first contact for first year students who may have questions about the school or its programs, courses, etc. Additionally, sREFS will be trained on mediation and conflict management skills that may prove valuable in their own labs or workplaces post-graduation.

The sREFS initiative is a pilot program, proposed by Alyssa in conjunction with Sharon Snaggs from the Wellness Center, and has gained the support of the Dean’s Office and the Graduate Student Council. The process to become a sREF involves an 8-hour training spread out over 8 weeks, and is modeled after MIT’s REFS program. While the MIT program offers a certification after 40 hours of training provided by professionals, the sREFS initiative has a smaller scope and is more flexible given the student body size and available resources at Sackler. Once trained, sREFS will be expected to hold office hours for one-on-one conversations, and sREFS are also mandatory reporters and are liable to report any cases of harassment or similar incidents to the administration. At the inaugural meeting on Thursday, Nov 29, Alyssa mentioned that the only exclusionary criterion for becoming a sREF is enrollment as a PhD student, since continuity and consistency are important for this initiative to succeed. The sREFS will be allowed to keep anonymized and confidential notes only after getting consent from those who are speaking with them. These notes may also help identify the common issues prevalent among Sackler graduate students and help sREFS recommend programs to administration to tackle such issues. In case of any conflict of interest, sREFS may recuse themselves from certain cases; Alyssa would like to see at least one graduate student from each program volunteer as sREFS to avoid such conflicts. Given that this role incurs emotional stress on the volunteers, sREFS can also take time off from the initiative.

Interested students are asked to email Alyssa at Alyssa.DiLeo@tufts.edu to receive an application packet. The application deadline is Jan 15, but is also flexible since the initiative would like to be as inclusionary as possible. The sREFS initiative is also looking for volunteers to fill in positions on the executive board to help with logistics and planning. Unsurprisingly, all the current volunteers are female, as emotional labor most often falls on women in this patriarchy, and it would be great to see the male graduate students do their part as well in this timely, community-based initiative.

Coffee & Conversation with Dr. Laverne Melón

Written by Alyssa DeLeoNEURCoffee & Conversation is a series of informal chats with women faculty on campus, hosted by Tufts GWiSE. 

Our last Coffee & Conversation of the year featured Dr. Laverne Melón, a post-doctoral fellow in the Maguire lab and a TEACRS scholar. She will joining Wesleyan University as a faculty professor in neuroscience in the Fall. Laverne was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when she was 10 years old. In high school, Laverne helped establish the science club, which she insists was the most poppin’ after school extracurricular at the time, and she knew she wanted to work in research before even knowing what that was. The science club gave her and her peers the chance to support each other in the search for research experiences and ultimately lead her to volunteer in a cancer genetics lab at Columbia University. As she reflects on her first experience in science, she also acknowledges that it was also her first exposure to the sexism and racism that exists in scientific institutions. It’s difficult to turn a blind eye to these situations when all you want to do is put your head down and do the work in front of you. But, she didn’t let this taint her passion for the field and her experiences spoke to her resilience, which would be noted by several scientists later in her career.

Laverne went on to earn a BA in neuroscience at Middlebury College, a MS in Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton, and a PhD in Addiction Neuroscience at IUPUI after her lab at Binghamton moved. She lost a Binghamton fellowship in the move and had to teach at IUPUI, which she found frustrating as anyone does when they’re forced to do something. However, Laverne began to enjoy the process and her career path in academia became increasing clear. Laverne has been a post-doc in Jamie Maguire’s lab for the last 4 ½ years studying effects of stress on reproductive health and the role of the GABAergic system in alcohol addiction. As she moved into her post-doctoral years, she was really fueled by a research question which she presented to Jamie along with some data to score her current position. Now, she’s fielding multiple offers for faculty positions and learning to navigate this new part of her career.

As always, we chatted about how early life experiences brought our guests to their current positions, how crucial the role of mentors played in this trajectory, and the vital importance of self-advocacy. But, we kept coming back to this idea of producing good, reproducible science and how that is only possible if the field really cared about the people behind the data. It’s no secret that scientific institutions have not been the best advocates for the health of their workforce. Levecque et al. published a study in May of 2017 reporting one in two PhD students experience psychological distress and 1/3 of graduate students are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. An online survey of graduate students in a recent March 2018 study by Evans et al. reports graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. SIX times! It’s exceeding clear that health of scientists across fields and levels are struggling in this environment. This begins by hiring scientists that are more than a good researcher, but are inspired teachers, passionate mentors, and expert managers who are in touch the health of their lab.

As Laverne is beginning the next chapter of her career, she’s considering taking on an administrative position as a director of inclusion and diversity in addition to her faculty appointment. She intends to use her status to implement institutional changes to allow for better science through caring, supporting, and mentoring the next generation of scientists. When Laverne started to work in science, she admitted she tried to assimilate as much as possible, but it gets exhausting. It’s difficult to integrate into establishments and systems that have been hostile to the existence of women and minorities in science while trying to stick it out until you can get to a position to make changes. She’s been able to tap into her mentoring network over the years for support and instructed us to be vulnerable in our insecurities to allow these organic mentorships to grow.

If you’re interested in getting involved with GWiSE, follow us on Twitter @TuftsGWiSE, like us on Facebook, or email us at tuftsbostongwise@tufts.edu. Our next Coffee & Conversation is October 19th, 2018 at 5PM in Jaharis 913.

Green Labs: How to be environmentally sustainable in biomedical research

The main responsibility of a biomedical researcher is to produce novel, trustworthy science that will improve human health. We may not be doing enough towards this goal, however, if we consider our research results to be our only impact on the human condition. How we conduct our research is just as critical as the results of our research, especially when it comes to the environmental footprint that research laboratories leave behind on university and medical campuses.

In 2013, Tufts University published a campus-wide report to assist the university in building a sustainable future. Working groups focused on three relevant sustainability areas—energy and water use, waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions—to develop actionable goals for reducing Tufts’ environmental impact. Regarding how laboratories and medical facilities factored into this impact, all working groups came to the same conclusion: “[these spaces were] singled out…as the greatest source of opportunity for increased sustainability across all Tufts campuses due to their large production of waste and heavy use of water and energy.”

Tufts is not the only university facing these issues. Harvard University labs consist of  20% of physical campus space but account for 44% of their energy use, and MIT labs take up less than a quarter of campus space but account for up to two-thirds of their energy use. So, if scientists like to talk the talk when it comes to best practices in advocating for governmental and community support of sustainable practices, how can we commit to similar support within our own institutions?

Many universities, including Tufts, have implemented Green Labs initiatives in order to develop environmentally friendly research laboratories using a classic sustainability framework: reduce, reuse, recycle. Based on resources from Tufts’ Green Labs Initiative and similar programs at other institutions, here are some starting points for making laboratories and research facilities more sustainable.


REDUCE

Energy: Labs can significantly reduce energy usage by maximizing the efficiency of their ultra-low temperature (ULT, or -80°C) freezers, as in one year, a single ULT freezer uses the same amount of energy as an average American household. Frequent de-icing, regular upkeep, and maintained organization all decrease the amount of work and time (and thus energy) required by freezers to decrease temperature to the set point. To encourage these approaches, Tufts joined the International Freezer Challenge in 2017, which rewards best practices in cold storage management”. Of note, three Sackler labs–the Munger lab, the McGuire lab, and the Bierderer lab–participated. Additionally, a less universally advertised, but possibly more effective, approach to reducing energy usage by ULT freezers is changing their set temperature. The University of Colorado at Boulder has accumulated a significant amount of information demonstrating that maintaining ULT freezers at -80°C may not be necessary, as many sample types are capable of being stored at -70°C without any significant loss of quality. Though seemingly trivial, this ten degree difference has huge implications for lowering energy usage , which also translates to reduced energy costs (Figure 1). By rough estimation, Tufts could save close to $50,000 per year on electricity if all ULT freezers in Jaharis, M&V, Stearns, South Cove, and Arnold were adjusted from -80°C to -70°C.

†Number of ULT freezers was calculated by presuming 5 freezers per floor in Jaharis 6-9 and 10 freezers per floor in Jaharis 3-5. This estimate was extended to the remaining buildings on the Sackler campus.

Figure 1. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for ten-degree increase in ULT freezer temperature.

Closing and/or turning off chemical fume hoods when not in use also mitigates electrical expenditure. At the Medford campus, undergraduate student Emma Cusack led a “Shut the Sash” initiative last year in order to reduce energy use and cost. Based on consultations with the Tufts’ Office of Sustainability about her work, it is estimated that lowering sashes of all 123 chemical hoods on the Sackler campus from 18” to 6” when not in use would result in yearly energy expediture savings of around 40,000 kWh and energy cost savings of over $200,000.


Figure 2. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for reducing sash height of chemical hoods. 

Lastly, powering down non-essential lab equipment overnight and incorporating timers into power sources are also simple but meaningful methods of lowering energy usage. The latter method is especially helpful to maintain convenience along with energy efficiency, as incubators and dry ovens are shut off overnight but can still be ready-to-use upon arriving in lab, for example, if set to turn on in very early AM.

Water: A traditional autoclave requires 45-50 gallons of water per minute when in use, and this massive usage is due to the need for continuous addition of water for cooling steam condensate before draining into sewers. Equipment like Water-Mizers use real-time monitoring of drain temperature to add water for cooling only when needed, reducing water usage by at least half. Also, being mindful of when sterilization is actually required for equipment and using dishwashing services as an alternative also contributes to lowering water usage.

Within labs, addition of low-flow aerators to faucets and switching vacuum sources for aspirators from faucet-style to vacuum-style can also can significantly reduce water usage. Finally, being conscious of when it is really necessary to use distilled or deionized water, as the process wastes water that does not pass the filtering thresholds, can also contribute to making water usage by labs more efficient.


REUSE

Materials: Styrofoam shipping containers and freezers packs can accumulate quickly in labs, given the frequency at which supplies are ordered and received. However, they are not necessarily easy to get rid of in sustainable ways. Many labs end up reusing some fraction of the styrofoam boxes and freezer packs they receive for experiments, which seems to be the most common and easily practiced alternative to throwing these shipping components away.


RECYCLE

Materials: Another approach for sustainable disposal of styrofoam and freezer packs is recycling them. A handful of life sciences companies do sponsor recycling programs for styrofoam containers, including Sigma-Aldrich, Qiagen, and New England BioLabs (which has run such a program for over thirty years), but most companies do not, given the cost of such programs. Alternatively, for-hire companies specializing in styrofoam recycling can be contracted by universities, but again the associated cost can be a deterrent. Even rarer are return programs for freezer packs, as the combination of contamination concerns and the cost of re-sterilizing seems to discourage their implementation.

The amount of plastic materials that biomedical research labs use are also quite high, though recycling used materials such as pipette tips, serological pipettes, conical tubes, or microcentrifuge tubes is often not convenient or feasible due to biological contamination. However, containers for materials (i.e. cell culture media bottles, pipette tip boxes) can be sterilized and disposed of much more easily. In the case of pipette tip boxes, several companies–such as Fisher Scientific, USA Scientific, Corning, and VWR–do sponsor programs where discarded boxes are collected or received via mail for recycling.


While achieving greener laboratories first requires implementation of sustainable practices like those listed above, the success of such efforts ultimately depends on institutional support and researcher engagement. Even if such resources and programs are offered by companies or research institutions, scientists need to be made clearly aware of their existence to take advantage of them. Accordingly, university- or departmental-level promotion of and encouragement for sustainable practices could substantially increase researcher interest and participation. Implementing reward-based systems, including financial incentives, for labs that ‘go green’ could also help motivate investigators to commit to practicing sustainable science.

In being more conscious of the environmental footprint that biomedical research leaves behind, scientists can clean up our own backyard and stand on firmer ground when encouraging others to do the same.


Thank you to Tina Woolston and Shoshana Blank from the Tufts Office of Sustainability and to Stephen Larson and Josh Foster from Tufts Environmental Health & Safety for providing information and resources on chemical hood numbers, energy usage, and costs.


Resources

Tufts University: http://sustainability.tufts.edu/get-involved/tufts-green-labs-initiative/

http://sites.tufts.edu/tuftsgetsgreen/2017/07/28/the-green-labs-initiative-an-overview/

University of Colorado: https://www.colorado.edu/ecenter/greenlabs

EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

Laboratory Fume Hood Calculator: http://fumehoodcalculator.lbl.gov/index.php