The New York Times, January 20, 2009, by Natalie Angier — With the inauguration of an administration avowedly committed to Science as the grand elixir for the nation’s economic, environmental and psycho-reputational woes, a number of scientists say that now is the time to tackle a chronic conundrum of their beloved enterprise: how to attract more women into the fold, and keep them once they are there.

Researchers who have long promoted the cause of women in science view the incoming administration with a mix of optimism and we’ll-see-ism. On the one hand, they said, the new president’s apparent enthusiasm for science, and the concomitant rise of “geek chic” and “smart is the new cool” memes, can only redound to the benefit of all scientists, particularly if the enthusiasm is followed by a bolus of new research funds. On the other hand, they said, how about appointing a woman to the president’s personal Poindexter club, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology? The designated leaders so far include superstars like Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, and Eric Lander, genome meister.

The Rosalind Franklin Society, a group devoted to “recognizing the work of prominent women scientists,” has suggested possible co-chairwomen for the panel. Its candidates include Shirley Ann Jackson, a nuclear physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University. Others have proposed Jacqueline Barton, a chemist and MacArthur fellow at the California Institute of Technology. Or, given the increasing importance of brain research, how about a prominent female neuroscientist like Nancy Kanwisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Carla Shatz of Stanford University?

“People say, oh, we shouldn’t have quotas, but diversity is a form of excellence, and there are plenty of outstanding women out there,” Jo Handelsman, president of the Franklin society and a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview. “You don’t have to lower your standards in the slightest — you just have to pay attention.”

Some would like to see novel approaches to treating systemic problems that often work against women’s scientific ambitions. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden of the University of California, Berkeley, have gathered extensive data showing stark male-female differences in the family structure and personal lives of academic researchers at the top tiers of the profession.

Surveying outcomes for 160,000 Ph.D. recipients across the United States, the researchers determined that 70 percent of male tenured professors were married with children, compared with only 44 percent of their tenured female colleagues. Twelve years or more after receiving their doctorates, tenured women were more than twice as likely as tenured men to be single and significantly more likely to be divorced. And lest all of this look like “personal choice,” when the researchers asked 8,700 faculty members in the University of California system about family and work issues, nearly 40 percent of the women agreed with the statement, “I had fewer children than I wanted,” compared with less than 20 percent of the men. The take-home message, Dr. Mason said in a telephone interview, is, “Men can have it all, but women can’t.”

From a purely Darwinian point of view, expecting a young woman to sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement is simply too much, and yet the structure of academic research, in which one must spend one’s 20s and early 30s as a poorly compensated and minimally empowered graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, and the remainder of one’s 30s and into the low 40s working madly to earn tenure, can demand exactly that.

Nor do all young men in science accept the notion that their lab bench must double as a sleeping cot while their wives take care of the kids. In a new survey of 19,000 doctoral students at the University of California, Dr. Mason and her colleagues found that while two-thirds of the respondents either had or planned to have children, 84 percent of the women and 74 percent of the men expressed worry about the family-unfriendliness of their intended profession, and many had changed their plans accordingly. While 40 percent of the male science graduate students and 31 percent of the women said they had begun their Ph.D. programs intent on pursuing an academic career — still considered the premier path to science glory — a year or more into their studies, only 28 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women still hoped to become research scientists at a university.

Dr. Mason and other legal experts suggest that President Obama might be able to change things significantly for young women in science — and young men — by signing an executive order that would provide added family leave and parental benefits to the recipients of federal grants, a huge pool of people that includes many research scientists.

Whatever the impediments, women have made great strides in most areas of science. According to Joan Burrelli of the National Science Foundation, whereas 50 years ago women earned a piddling 8 percent of the science and engineering doctorates, by 2006 they claimed a 40 percent share. In 1973, only 6 percent of the Ph.D. scientists employed full time in academia, business or elsewhere were women; by 2006 the number had risen to 27 percent. Over that same time frame, women’s share of full professorships in the sciences quadrupled, to about 20 percent. Yet the stats vary sharply from field to field: 26 percent of full professors in the life sciences are women, but in physics, 6 percent.

For many female physicists, the mystery of women’s slow progress through their ranks is nearly as baffling as the research mysteries they confront in the lab. Of course, only 6 percent of physics professors are female; only 4 to 6 percent of the matter in the universe is visible. “Sound familiar?” Evalyn Gates, the assistant director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, said wryly.

She has urged her colleagues to attack the problem of low female numbers as they would any scientific problem, by systematically gathering data, checking their detectors, factoring out background noise. Yes, girls and women leak out of the pipeline in comparatively greater numbers than males for every scientific discipline, she said, but they fall out of physics first and fastest. Why should it be, she said, that almost half of high school students in Advanced Placement physics classes are girls, but women earn only a fifth of bachelor’s degrees in physics? What turns girls away from physics so early?

Some have suggested that girls just can’t handle the advanced math of physics. Yet in an analysis of high school students’ performance on standardized math tests, published last summer in the journal Science, Janet Hyde and her colleagues found no gender differences in average performance, and even at the uppermost tails of achievement the discrepancies were minor and inconsistent: among whites who scored in the top 1 percent, there were two boys for every girl, whereas among Asian top scorers, there was one full girl for every nine-tenths of a boy. Besides, said Dr. Gates, female students earn half of the bachelor’s degrees in another math-heavy discipline called — mathematics.

Others have insisted that women just don’t like physics, perhaps because it seems cold and abstract, concerned with things rather than the flesh-and-blood focus of female-friendly fields like biology. But such reasoning, Dr. Gates said, cannot account for the fact that women earn half of the undergraduate degrees in chemistry, which is not quite plush toy material. “Something different is going on with physics, and we don’t know what it is yet,” she said. The culture? Bubble-headed television shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door?

The difficulties are not confined to America. Surveying some 1,350 female physicists in 70 countries, Rachel Ivie and Stacy Guo of the American Institute of Physics found that, worse than family balance issues or lack of day care options, was the problem of public perception. The women were passionate about their work. They didn’t choose physics; physics chose them. Yet 80 percent agreed that attitudes about women in physics needed a serious overhaul.

As long as we’re making geek chic, let’s lose the Einstein ’do and moustache.

Alice Waters (Evan Sung for The New York Times)

The New York Times — The first “kitchen cabinet” was President Andrew Jackson’s team of close but unofficial advisers. Now the chef Alice Waters is leading a campaign to persuade President-elect Barack Obama to create a literal kitchen cabinet.

In a letter to the president-elect, Ms. Waters — joined by Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet, and the New York restaurateur Danny Meyer — urged Barack and Michelle Obama to set an example for the nation on culinary issues like the naming of a White House chef and growing organic vegetables in the White House garden.

“A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter,” the letter said. “Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation.”

Earlier this month Ms. Waters joined 90 prominent food and agriculture leaders to suggest candidates for secretary of agriculture.

I spoke with her today about why an Obama kitchen cabinet should focus on issues involving the kitchen.

Q – Why is the selection of the White House chef important to you?

A – We hope to see that position redefined and just broaden the perspective of what could be done in that place, both for the nourishment of the family but also for the meaning and deliciousness of meals for guests. The symbolic impact is something profoundly important. Even if you don’t taste the food, if you’re hearing this idea that good food should be a right and not a privilege, then that message is getting across. We’re talking about local seasonal food supporting the people who are taking care of the land. You’re inviting the guests to dine on the very best of what America has to offer. This could inspire a rediscovery of our gastronomic heritage and biodiversity.

Q – What qualities do you want to see in a White House chef? Should you be a candidate for the job?

A – It’s not a job I could do, but I could certainly help to find someone or evaluate who is there. I want them to consider somebody who thinks about food as being connected to nature, to time and place, who understands where food comes from. I’m not thinking of someone who is a celebrity chef. Sometimes the celebrity gets in the way of a focus on real food. I think it should be somebody who just really understands the philosophy.

Q – Is it really practical to grow food on the White House lawn?

A – I’d love to see a garden sprout up that’s positively and beautifully connected in some way to what happens inside those kitchens. That’s not something that can happen overnight. It takes time to develop. How do you utilize a kitchen garden properly and engage with historic societies? There are so many considerations. I think we could be an invaluable resource for whoever is there, and add and help define priorities.

Q – Why do you think this administration would be willing to consider your proposal?

A – I think this is an unusual president. I think it’s somebody who cares about what he eats and what his family eats, somebody who understands the issues of obesity and understands the issues of the environment. We’re trying to bring food out of that place of fueling up and into a place of nature and culture.

Q – How do you think the culinary decisions of the White House change our views of food in this country?

A – Americans don’t have deep gastronomic roots. They wanted to get away from the cultures of Europe or wherever they came from. We stirred up that melting pot pretty quickly. Then fast food came in and took over. We have to bring children into a new relationship to food that connects them to culture and agriculture. I think the demonstration of that idea at the White House could be profound. I can imagine the people who work there eating there. The whole idea of making a sort of democracy within that kitchen is of great interest to me. It would be a team of people, not just a head chef handing down orders. I can’t tell you how influential it could be.

A Pitch to Obama:

The connection between food, health and the environment

The New York Times, by Kim Severson — The fact that a Secretary of Agriculture has yet to be named has some chefs, farmers and animal welfare advocates wondering whether food and farming have been shoved to the Obama D team.

To help move the process along, nearly 90 notable figures in the world of sustainable agriculture and food sent a letter to the Obama transition team, offering their six top picks for what they called “the sustainable choice for the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.”

The hope is that the new secretary will be less aligned with industrial agribusiness and commodity farming than secretaries past. And if he or she embraces the connection between food, health and the environment, well, that’s all the better.

The letter lays out a tall order:

“From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, global warming and air and water pollution, we believe our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a vision that calls for: recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment, biodiversity and the health of our children while implementing policies that place conservation, soil health, animal welfare and worker’s rights as well as sustainable renewable energy near the top of their agenda.”

It was signed by 88 people, among them: Michael Pollan, Judy Wicks, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Wendell Berry, Eric Schlosser, Anna Lappe, Frances Moore Lappe, Paul Willis, Dan Barber, Michel Nischan, Ann Cooper, Marion Nestle, Peter Hoffman, Winona LaDuke, and Michael Dimock.

For those playing along at home, here’s their list of the six top picks for Secretary of Agriculture. Keep in mind that yesterday, Rep. John Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, a potato farmer, said he was being considered. (And no, the effort to nominate Michael Pollan never got off the ground):

1. Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.

2. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.

3. Sarah Vogel, former Commissioner of Agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.

4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.

5. Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for
Agriculture and Trade Policy.

6. Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

The New York Times, January 20, 2009 — The brains of vertebrates are asymmetrical, both structurally and functionally. This asymmetry is believed to increase the efficiency of information processing – one hemisphere is specialized to perform certain functions, so the opposite is left free to perform others. In the human brain, for example, the left hemisphere is specialized for speech. This has been known since the 1860s, when the French physician Paul Broca noted that the aphasia (or inability to speak) which is a common symptom of stroke is associated with damage to a discrete region of the left frontal lobe.

Very little is known about how such asymmetries develop. But now researchers from UCL report a molecular mechanism by which a small population of premature neurons in the developing zebrafish brain is actively pulled from one side of the brain to the other. This cellular “tug-of-war” breaks the anatomical symmetry of the embryonic nervous system, so that cells initially located on both sides end up in a left-sided structure. The findings, which are published in the journal Neuron, shed some light on the evolution of handedness.

Steve Wilson and his colleagues at UCL’s Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology screened lines of zebrafish for mutants exhibiting symmetry in a part of the brain called the epithalamus. One component of the epithalamus is the light-sensitive the parapineal nucleus, which is normally found only on the left side of the brain. The precursor cells which form this nucleus are initially located on both sides of the embryo, but those on the right migrate across the midline and condense to form the left-sided nucleus.

The genetic screen identified one strain of mutants in which the parapineal nucleus develops symmetrically. This line has a mutation in the gene encoing fibroblast growth factor 8 (Fgf-8), a molecule which plays multiple roles in the developing nervous system, including patterning the anterior-posterior axis. Because Fgf-8 is essential for inducing formation of the cerebellum, zebrafish carrying mutations in the gene lack this structure, and are therefore called acerebellar (or ace) mutants.

Analysis of the dynamics of Fgf-8 activity showed that the gene is initially expressed on both sides of the embryo, in a small cluster of cells just in front of the position at which the parapineal nucleus will form. Later, just before the parapineal cells on the right initiate their migration across the midline, the activity of the gene increases subtly on the left side. One of the four known Fgf-8 receptors was also found to be expressed at increased levels in parapineal cells. These results therefore suggest that the cells are responsive to an Fgf-8 signal during their leftward migration.

To test this prediction, the researchers blocked Fgf signalling in normal embryos, just before the onset of parapineal cell migration. This was found to disrupt the migration of the cells; the parapineal nuclei had an appearance like those in the ace mutants – they were not clustered together, but instead consisted of a few cells scattered on both sides of the midline. Furthermore, blocking Fgf signalling during migration arrested the movements of the cells en route, suggesting that continuous Fgf-8 activity is required.

These findings were further confirmed by the addition of exogenous Fgf-8 to ace mutants. Plastic microbeads soaked in an Fgf-8 solution implanted on the midline or on either side of it at an early stage of development restored the migration of parapineal cells, so that the nucleus developed normally. Surprisingly, it was found that the nucleus developed on the left side in approximately three quarters of the embryos, regardless of which side the Fgf-8-soaked beads were placed. This suggests that, once parapineal cells begin their migration in response to Fgf-8, an additional signal is required to specify the direction of their movements.

Earlier work had shown that the leftward migration of parapineal cells is dependent on left-sided expression of another molecule called Nodal. Asymmetries still develop in zebrafish with disrupted signalling, but the side of the body on which they develop is randomized – approximately 50% of the mutants are “left-brained” and the rest are “right-brained”. Thus Nodal is involved in lateralization – the side on which an asymmetric structure develops – and not symmetry, but is likely to be the additional signal required for the leftward migration of the parapineal nucleus. In the present study, the resear

IST’s Green Energy Machine (GEM) is a new generator available to businesses for $850,000 which literally runs on trash. (Source: Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks)

New generator is simple — just park it in your company’s parking lot, and start collecting trash to feed it.

DAILYTECH.COM, January 19, 2009, by Jason Mick — Small startup IST’s generator is hungry — for your trash. While some companies have turned to solar or wind power to cut their power budgets and green their campus, IST’s solution is twofold: cut your waste disposal costs, while also producing green power and heat.

The generator, called the Green Energy Machine (GEM), takes up three parking spaces and can easily be placed in a lot. The generator does require a slightly special diet. Metal and glass have no energy content and thus IST encourages people not to put them in the generator, but rather recycle them. However, food, cardboard, plastics, agricultural wastes, all can go in.

The generator consumes up to 3 tons of trash daily and can provide electricity and heat for a 200,000 square foot building with 500 people. It is expected to return the investment, via cuts in disposal, heating, and power costs within three to four years. (Source: Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks)

While a bit finicky, the generator is definitely green. It uses gasification, which releases less carbon emissions and other airborne emissions than combustion. Gasification is a popular target among a number of alternative energy startups who hope to use it to create power from biomass, what IST has ultimately achieved with the GEM.

The generator first shreds the trash and turns it into pellets. It then feeds the pellets to a gasifier which produces synthetic gas, primarily composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The syn gas is then burned in a natural-gas microturbine, which IST says is the most efficient.

The machine shreds the trash (no glass or metal allowed) and turns it into pellets. It uses these pellets to create synthetic gas, which it then burns, producing less emissions than standard combustion. (Source: Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks)

Stu Haber, president and chief executive of Waltham, Mass.-based IST, describes, “Normally, when we tell people what we’re doing, they say, ‘You can do that? I had no idea that was possible.”

The machine can convert 95 percent of up to three tons of waste daily into green energy. The remaining 5 percent is converted to ash, which can be safely disposed of. IST estimates that some business’s waste collection bills are as high as $200,000 a year, so a GEM may show a good return of interest, purely from the cuts in collection fees. With three tons of trash daily, the generator can produce a good deal of heat and electricity for a 200,000 square-foot building holding about 500 people, the company’s target-size for the units’ locations.

IST is aiming for a modest start, hoping to sell 5 to 10 units this year. Mr. Haber states, “The first GEM will be the hardest one to sell.”

While companies largely rely on state grants or tax incentives to provide the financial motivation for new installations, Mr. Haber believes the GEM is viable with no government support. Yielding 120 kW and twice that amount in heat a day, from 3 tons of trash, the generator can save a lot of money.

The GEM costs $850,000, but that investment will be returned in 3 to 4 years, the company believes. However, to soften the cost of adopting the solution, it is providing leasing options for those interested. And while, IST says that it really doesn’t need it to be viable, it notes that there’s a 10 percent federal tax credit for biomass alternative energy, which applies. All the factors add up to a promising outlook for businesses considering the GEM, says Mr. Haber. He states, “Everybody loves the fact that they’re helping the environment, but because we’re talking to businesspeople, I have to assume that they’re interested because of the very quick payback.”

IST is not without competitors in the burgeoning field, though. The U.S. Army is testing trash-fueled generators in Iraq, while being slightly disappointed of the results of its own design. Ze-Gen, based in Boston, Mass., is looking to implement a similar gasification process to IST, but to do it through a collection scheme and centralized plant. The key tradeoff here would be the increases in efficiency of a larger generator, versus the losses in power transmission.

Other companies like Oregon’s InEnTech are looking to plasmification to produce the most synthetic gas possible. And still others like Coskata are looking to feed the output to microbes to create cellulosic ethanol. However, in terms of a purely biomass solution IST appears to be the first hitting the general market.


The New York Times, January 20, 2009, by Cornelia Dean — Sea level rise fueled by global warming threatens the barrier islands and coastal wetlands of the Middle Atlantic States, a federal report warned on Friday.

The report, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Survey and other agencies, is one of a series examining the potential effects of a rising sea level on the nation’s coasts.

The rise in sea level is accelerating, the report said, because warmer water occupies more space and because of runoff from melting inland glaciers and ice sheets. The Middle Atlantic States are particularly vulnerable because the rates of rise are “moderately high” there, the region is subject to storms, it is densely populated and much of its infrastructure is in low-lying areas.

The report, which is available at climatescience.gov, says that in the 20th century, rates of erosion in the region varied from 2.4 millimeters to 4.4 millimeters a year, or about a foot over 100 years. In the future, the report said, “it is virtually certain” that coastal headlands, spits and barrier islands will erode faster than they have in the past.

If sea level rises at a rate of seven millimeters a year or about two feet per century, “it is likely that some barrier islands in this region will cross a threshold,” and begin to break up, the report said. The islands forming the Outer Banks of North Carolina are particularly threatened.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations climate effort, estimated in its most recent report that sea level might rise by about as much as two feet by 2100. Many experts regard the estimate as optimistic.

Even a modest acceleration of sea level rise will have a negative effect on the region’s coastal wetlands, the report says, adding, “It is likely that most wetlands will not survive” a two-foot rise.

In natural environments, wetlands survive rises in sea level by shifting inland to higher ground. But in the Middle Atlantic States, the report notes, valuable infrastructure like buildings and roads stands in their way.

The report said public officials should consider the vulnerability of coastal areas and take action when necessary, for example, by limiting development in vulnerable areas. But it noted that there was great uncertainty about the timing and extent of the effects of sea level rise and that the region had conducted “only a limited number of analyses and resulting statewide policy revisions” to address the issue.