Waste Not: A new project supported by the European Journalism Centre

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Seems like all I think about these days is waste: why there's so much of it, how dangerous it is to human and ecosystem health, and what we can do about it--and with it. My recent feature in Nature explored the products that can be made out of human waste, and now, thanks to a major Innovation in Development Reporting grant from the European Journalism Centre, I have the opportunity to both broaden and narrow my focus on that topic. Broaden because I will be looking beyond toilet waste to all sorts of urban organic waste, including human waste. And narrow because I will be investigating specifically how this waste can serve as a resource for farmers, who are struggling with issues such as soil degradation and fertilizer and feed scarcity. In doing so, I hope to show how cities--long disconnected from the agricultural countryside--can contribute to their own food quality and security.

This is going to take a while, but I hope it will be worth the wait. In the meantime, please enjoy this interview I did with Joanna Bostock of my all-time favorite radio show, FM4's Reality Check, on the many uses of poo:

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I was a scientist (OK, maybe more like a lab assistant) for 10 days

SJP 2017 at Race Point Diana Kenney
Some of the fellows (from both the biomedical and environment tracks) on a field trip in Cape Cod. (Credit: Diana Kenney)

I loved school. That's one reason why I became a science journalist--so I could keep learning a wide variety of new things at a breakneck pace. And I do! But school was so much more, um, organized, supervised, and full of positive feedback than journalism is. These days, when I'm deep in the muck of a complex story (as I am right now), I still miss that. 

Recently, I found a way to get my fix. The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, hosts the Logan Science Journalism Program, which treats journalists as scientists for 10 days. I went on the polar program to Toolik Field Station in Alaska in 2010; this year, I was in Woods Hole for the biomedical program (there is also an environmental track). Under the careful watch of two scientists and two teaching assistants, six of us pipetted, centrifuged, microscoped, and made Powerpoint presentations.

Credit: Diana Kenney
Yes, we gave PowerPoint presentations. This is me saying that aneuploidy is a bad thing.

 It was all the things I used to love about school, and, in some ways, it was way better. Classroom labs usually try to lead students to an answer that is already known, which makes them anticlimactic. But in our MBL labs, we didn't know what we would find, and neither did our teachers. It was as if they had up and moved their labs to Woods Hole for two weeks and hired us on as lab assistants. As a result, the results thrilled us--even if they wouldn't thrill you (that's why I'll spare you the details, as well as spare myself the pain of writing them out).

One of our teachers complimented us at the end, saying that we would make good scientists. Of course, we know that. Most of us chose journalism because that's what we want to do, not because we think we couldn't hack it in other fields. (Secretly, we may even think that most scientists couldn't hack it as journalists.) This program didn't make me doubt my choice of career, but it did give me a new appreciation for the thrill of the scientific hunt, which is not so different from the thrill of the journalistic hunt after all. We're after the truth, just with different tools.

You might also like to read:

Credit Chelsea Wald
Our teaching assistant shows us how to use an old centrifuge safely.

Operating instructions: A haiku of gratitude

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Just another summer day in the Vienna Woods

* * *

For best results: Keep
Brain in cool, cozy dwelling
Cherished friends nearby

* * *

It often happens that my most intense periods of work are during the hottest times. And so it was this year as well. The past month and a half have been at times brutally hot in Vienna. My un-airconditioned apartment has regularly reached 30 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, my dear neighbors allowed me to work in their comfortable basement apartment. The result is my latest piece in Nautilus magazine, about the longstanding debate over where color categories come from. Have you ever wondered whether blue is the same in every language? If so, this story is for you. The haiku above, on the other hand, is for my neighbors. Thanks for everything!


The Art of technology: "Behind every chip stands a human being"

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In March, bioengineer Peter Ertl invited me to his lab at the Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna. Peter, whom I first met at the Halloween party of a mutual friend, had spoken to me about the professional value of Viennese balls for a story in Science Careers. After that, we were both curious to learn more about the other’s work.

It turns out that Peter oversees a fascinating and wide-ranging program of research that aims to bring lab-on-a-chip systems to many areas of biomedicine. He works his many students and postdocs hard, but he also expresses genuine concern for their well-being and their futures. One way he encourages them to get perspective on their work as well as blow off steam is by creating art projects out of the lab’s discarded chips, which they do at an annual dinner.

I asked Peter to tell me more about one piece of collaborative student art, entitled The Human Chip Project, pictured above. Here is what he said.

The students tried to express their thoughts and ideas in these paintings using high technology – very expensive, actually, paintings. One of the chips is around 1,000 euro, so this [artwork] is around 100,000 bucks, right there.

We’re using very nice materials like gold, platinum, nano-fullerenes – all the stuff that is expensive and very, very noble. Not the copper but the rest.

There are lots of memories, lots of tears I can see here too.

[Some of the chips in the painting are] smart implants to measure bone healing kinetics. The idea was to penetrate the bone with electric fields to a couple millimeters, to measure the density and porosity, particularly in fibrosis patients.

Up there, I think that was the allergy on a chip. That was actually about babies. If you take a plasma sample and can predict [the potential for allergies] to different foods, that would be a nice way to help out.

This is our stem cell project, where we have micro- and nano-structured surfaces, and we see how stem cells react to different environmental cues. This is a completely new design that we actually wanted to patent: a double-triple interdigitated interdigitator, which was a fun simulation turned into a beautiful publication.

Never got anywhere, but now at least we have it on an artwork.

In the end [a project] did work or did not work, but most of the time it’s a lot of pain, lot of effort, to actually set up these chips.

We have lots of chips and behind every chip stands a human being.

It’s important for students to express their need for creativity, not only in the lab but also outside it. Art is part of what we do despite the fact that it’s technology.


What does it take to be a forensic scientist?

 

This week, I profiled forensic soil scientist Lorna Dawson for Nature. Her route into the profession was serendipitous, but not just anyone could do it -- her toughness and resourcefulness made her a perfect fit. 

Even as a student she was foiling miscreants. As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University and a graduate student at Aberdeen University, Dawson sailed a dinghy as part of a two-person team. “You have to secure your boat to make sure it couldn’t have been tampered with the night before, like shackles loosened and things like that,” she says. One year, she won best of eight on the Scottish circuit, becoming champion. “It’s all about strategy, as well as how fast you can sail.”

The sport also helped her practice extreme calm under pressure, which is necessary for testifying before a jury. “It is challenging, because there’s no training you can do that would give you that background,” says soil forensic scientist Rob Fitzpatrick, Dawson's counterpart in Australia. “They really hit you hard. They’re very clever people, these barristers.”

One of the first times she presented evidence in court, the expert for the defense confronted her in the toilet. “Watch out, I’ll give you a hard time,” Dawson recalls her saying. “It’s just a game, anyway.”

Taken aback, Dawson still managed to come up with a powerful retort. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a game for the victim,’ and I walked out.”