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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

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

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.

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.

Coffee, Conversation & Intersectionality

Guest Post by Alyssa DiLeo (Neuro)

If you’ve listened to Beyonce’s self-titled 2014 album, you’ll recognize the definition of a feminist as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. What this definition misses is the importance of intersectionality, a framework that attempts to identify the intersecting social factors, like race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, class, and education, that impact marginalized populations. At GWiSE’s November Coffee & Conversation, we welcomed PhD student Molly Hodul, who attended a Harvard event addressing Intersectionality in STEM and discussed what she learned and how to an active ally in the fight for social justice.

Historically, feminism has mainly served white women who centered and upheld their own voices instead of prioritizing experiences of all women and women identifying populations. This can most easily be seen in the history of voting rights in the US. Non-white men and freed male salves were “allowed” to vote in 1870 through the 15th amendment, but Jim Crow and voter suppression laws kept many from exercising their right. The 19th amendment in 1920 gave the right to vote to women, but similar restrictions applied to poor or non-white women. Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote and keep their tribal affiliation until 1924. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the poll tax was prohibited and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected voting rights for racial minorities. Here, it’s simple to see how race, gender, and tribal association affected marginalized groups, both separately and together.

Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 in her paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, but many black activists had advocated for intersectional principles. Sojourner Truth made parallels between her abilities and those of men in her speech to the Women’s Convention in Ohio in 1851. Audre Lorde said in a 1981 speech “ I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.”

Around the same time, Shirley Malcom conducted the Double Bind study that showed that discrimination of minority women shifted from race based to gender based as they moved into post college training or graduate school. Over 40 years later, women of color are facing more subtle obstacles and microagressions in academia. Overt racist and sexist laws may not be in place anymore, but academic institutions can make statements through their action or inaction in the face of discrimination. Historically, science has also been used to uphold patriarchal white supremacy, something we’re still seeing as the alt right co-opt genetic studies for their agenda, which causes mistrust among minority populations. The failure of science to credit and teach the work of underrepresented minorities in science also adds to this problem.

So, what can scientists and scientific institutions do to actively be an ally for social justice? For one, we can acknowledge our own biases; Harvard has some great implicit bias tests here. When we are real about our bias, we can begin to unlearn these automatic associations we make about groups of people. Intersectionality must focus on the most vulnerable and others must work to uplift and amplify their voices. Most importantly, we, and by “we” I mean white people, must go into our communities and teach these intersectional principles because that is where the work needs to be done. As the holidays approach, find the courage to speak up to that “old fashioned” grandparent or racist uncle. Be a scientist and fight ignorance with facts.

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.