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Science Talk

Three Whiz Kids, Two Winning Projects And A Nobel Laureate

In this episode, Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology solo winner Isha Himani Jain and team titlist Janelle Schlossberger (who shared the win with Amanda Marinoff) discuss their projects. And lead judge Joseph Taylor, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, talks about the competition and his life and work. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this podcast include: www.siemens-foundation.org

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting December 5th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, some very smart kids and one very smart adult. We'll have interviews with the winners of this year's Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, and a chat with the competition's lead judge, Nobel physicist, Joseph Taylor, who also talks about his life and research. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. The Annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology rewards the nation's most talented high school scientists. Over 1,300 students competed this year with the competition coming down to six solo and six team finalists. The judging took place over the weekend with the winners announced at New York University on December 3rd and the team winners were Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff from Plainview, Long Island in New York, who worked on potential new tuberculosis medications. I spoke with Janelle immediately after the ceremony.

Steve: Hi Janelle, congratulations!

Janelle: Thank you, hello Steve.

Steve: Talk about what you guys actually did?

Janelle: Well, in our research, which is primarily organic chemistry, we synthesized two compounds that can potentially serve as antituberculosis agents and these compounds can target drug-resistant forms of the disease because they have a novel target, which is called the FITC protein.

Steve: And what does the FITC protein do, is it a receptor? What does it actually do within the context of the TB bacterium and the disease process?

Janelle: Well, the FITC protein is an essential cell bacterial's division protein and in order for the bacteria to divide into two daughter cells, the Z-ring needs to form, so if the Z-ring doesn't form, then the cell will elongate and ultimately die.

Steve: What's the Z ring?

Janelle: The Z-ring is this highly dynamic cytokinetic ring, where a lot of FITC monomers come together and as cytokinesis occurs and depolymerization takes place, which allows for the Z-ring to contract and the daughter cells to form.

Steve: Okay, so you are just basically interfering with mitosis. You are interfering with cell division, and so the infectious agent doesn't have a chance to grow?

Janelle: Right!

Steve: And how did you get the idea to attack TB from that end?

Janelle: Well, the lab that we worked in is primarily a cancer research lab and the compounds that they studied targets tubulin. After investigating several journal articles, we realized that FITC is a structural and functional homolog of tubulin, so anticancer agents such as the benzimidazoles and taxanes can now serve as antituberculosis agents.

Steve: And so why is the TB issue something that you became particularly interested in?

Janelle: Well, I was really interested in pursuing TB research because we often don't hear about it in the United States, but it actually infects one third of the global population, so it's really a tremendous problem.

Steve: And could this be a potential way to get into the problem of drug-resistant tuberculosis because it is a novel kind of therapeutic?

Janelle: Exactly! The benzimidazoles that we synthesized can form a foundation for almost a second generation of anti-TB drugs because they target a different protein; also the FITC sequence is conserved, and it has [a] similar sequence throughout all procaryotes, so the chance of developing mutations, which would be consequent to drug resistance, is not as probable.

Steve: Right, because it's such an important part of the cellular machinery, that is why it has been conserved and that's why it is particularly vulnerable.

Janelle: Right!

Steve: Could you talk about what your future plans are? Do you know what college you want to go to?

Janelle: Well, not yet. Decisions will come out in spring.

Steve: So, according to your little bio here, you are also a finalist in the Dupont Challenge Science Essay Competition. What was your science essay subject?

Janelle: It dealt with multiple sclerosis, and I had to write articles that dealt with a new study where they use Schwann cells to remyelinate the demyelinated axons in the central nervous system.

Steve: Did you do it like a review of that research?

Janelle: Yeah!

Steve: I see!

Janelle: It's a literature review. So I had read up a lot about multiple sclerosis, and I found that particular study—I think it had been done in Yale University—seemed really exciting and it could be a potential breakthrough and a mass research.

Steve: Well, congratulations again! And thanks very much for your time.

Janelle: Thank you, you're welcome.

Steve: The individual winner was Isha Himani Jain from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She found out something new and exciting about bone growth by studying it in zebra fish.

Steve: Hi Isha, congratulations!

Isha: Thank you—hi Steve.

Steve: So tell us about your project. You worked with zebra fish.

Isha: Right!

Steve: And first of all why are zebra fish such good model organisms?

Isha: There are several reasons for that. They are [the] most simplistic of the vertebrates, so I can use their simplicity to my advantage and manipulate various features of the zebra fish, and understand vertebrate bone growth as a whole. Also if you amputate their fins, they regenerate and this shows because they had clear embryos, but there is lot of reasons for that. There are fins, which [i]s what I looked at, formed by intermembranous ossification; it is similar to the way that the human skull and clavicle are formed. So there is a lot of analogs and lot of similarities between humans and zebra fish, so…

Steve: And what exactly did you discover and why is it important?

Isha: So, I established that bone growth of these segments occurs via pulses of growth and at the same time we are expecting a constant rate of growth, and so I looked at this data and I saw there is pulses; so it's really important because it's another way for us to regulate growth, for the fish to regulate growth. And, so, 15 years ago, Dr. Lampel showed that human stature and head circumference grow saltatorialy and that was a big deal in developmental biology then because it established that maybe there was this synchronizing hormonal mechanism. So, now my work is the first evidence of these pulses at the level of the cell and so it has implications in understanding the whole pattern of growth and the very fundamentals of these mechanisms.

Steve: And [by] saltatorialy you mean, in spurts.

Isha: Right, in spurts. So, they showed that, they did work on a 13-year-old, in humans and they showed that the growth occurred during 12 periods, each approximately 24 hours followed with interspersed rest phases of one to 100 days. So, I am seeing the same thing in zebra fish now, these pulses at the sub-cellular level and that's why it is so important to understand what is going [on] at different levels of organization.

Steve: And again, what kind of possible applications could this have?

Isha: Yeah! Well, say, I mean, as I understand that [the] fundamentals of bone growth, [it] is the first step to understanding bone disorder; so, for example, oculodentodigital dysplasia is a disorder in humans and is caused by mutation in connexin 43. So my recent work actually has been looking at this connexin 43 molecule and looking at the role for this zebra fish, because mutation in zebra fish causes a similar phenotype. So, again if I look at fundamentals of bone growth in zebra fish, we should be finding the fundamentals of vertebrate bone development as a whole.

Steve: That's great. And you have any idea where you want to go to school yet?

Isha: Not yet. Should go home and apply (laughs); but any one that has good bio research. I want to do bio and math so wherever there is [a] good biology and math program and wherever I can do research from the start.

Steve: Well, that's great and congratulations again.

Isha: Thank you so much, it was nice talking to you.

Steve: The lead judge of the competition was Joseph Taylor. He is professor emeritus of physics at Princeton. In 1993, he and Russells Hulse won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for their discovery of a binary pulsar system and its implications for the understanding of gravitation and general relativity. We talked about the competition and about his life and work.

Steve: Could you talk a little bit about what this whole process was like for you and the quality of research you saw?

Taylor: Well, the process, as you probably know, starts with the student projects being due in early October; and then the[re] [are] original [regional] competitions and leading to this national competition. We have a national judge selected to be an expert in the explicit field of each of the six individual and six team finalist projects and then a thirteenth judge, myself, as the national lead judge, so we get together starting Saturday of this weekend. We've already read the projects—the written reports that the students have prepared. On Saturday, we spend some time—quite a bit of time—going through the posters they've prepared presenting their material and in each case, we assemble around each of the posters in turn, while the primary judge for that project answers questions and explains fine points to the other judges who may not be experts exquisitely [explicitly] in that field. So, we begin to form our impressions at that time. Then, of course on Sunday, we hear each of the individual entrants and the teams present their work to the public in this auditorium and following each of those presentations, we go off to a separate closed room, where we can talk individually with the project members. So at that time, we can explore in depth the originality, the contributions to the project that each one of the students has brought and begin to form some impression of how we would rank the projects in the end. It's a wonderful experience for the judges. I think, we've all enjoyed it and we all felt that we weren't very hard at it. A lot of tough decisions had to be made in the end.

Steve: Is there anything that we can conclude about the future of American science based on this selection?

Taylor: Well, I would like to think that the answer is yes. After all, we are talking about a small number of individuals here and we have problems in science and mathematics training nationwide that a few superstar students are not going to be able to solve by themselves. But it is a very good sign that some students are very interested in these things and are willing to put the time and effort into excelling at them and we hope their great interests spread widely. I was thrilled last night to hear of the fact that the Siemens Corporation is donating to schools empty trophy cases with the stipulation that these cases must be filled with academic trophies rather than football, baseball, basketball and etc., trophies. I myself was a schoolboy athlete and loved those things, but I think there are other things that are important in life as well and should be strongly recognized in schools.

Steve: One thing [is] that, based on the finalists, it seems as long as America remains a nation of immigrants, that's going to be a really terrific thing for our sciences.

Taylor: Yeah! That's absolutely true. We see people here with a very wide range of backgrounds, family histories and parts of the world that they and their families originated in, and we've always been a melting [pot]part; we still are. It is to our great strength that we are.

Steve: Let's talk about your background. You said you are a schoolboy athlete, and I read your brief autobiography on the Nobel site yesterday. Why don't you tell us the story about the chimney—about your house chimney?

Taylor: I was a farm boy as a youngster on a peach farm in New Jersey, a plot of land on the Delaware River just across Delaware from Northeast Philadelphia. This land has been in my family since 1720 and it's a great place for kids to grow up. Because we were on the farm and not in town, my siblings and I were necessarily all our own best friends, I had a brother just a year and a half older than I. We did things together all the time as youngsters and we got interested in gadgets, in electronics, in machinery as youngsters. I think we got starting with farming machinery and then evolving to crystal radio sets and radios that we started to build out of the pieces removed from junk television sets and we became interested in—we learned the Morse code and taught ourselves that what was necessary to become licensed as ham radio operators. For that, of course, we needed to have antennas, [so] we strung wires in the trees and built things on the roof; our old Victorian farm house was easily adapted to many purposes not the least of which was holding up ham radio antennas. We had one very ambitious project that was attached to the chimney. The antenna rotated so that it could direct our signals into various parts of the world and one windy day, not only the antenna was blown down, but the chimney blew down as well, breaking it off flush with the roof and following that, we had a certain amount of grumbling, obviously from our parents, but also received lessons in bricklaying as we repaired the chimney.

Steve: Which probably come in handy in astrophysics eventually?

Taylor: It's good to know these traits. I don't know it well, but I learned it enough to be able to do some repairs anyway.

Steve: How many words of code per minute could you send and read?

Taylor: I learned the code at the level of about 35 words a minute as a youngster and although my ham radio interests were put on the back burner for about 35 years between 1965 and about the year 2000, I became interested again in ham radio—anyway active again in about 2000—and discovered that my code speed had hardly lost anything. It's sort of like riding a bicycle—if you learn it young you don't forget it, and I'm again an avid ham radio operator these days.

Steve: Do you want reveal your call signs?

Taylor: Kilo-One-Japan-Tango. (laughs)

Steve: For anybody out there who wants to get in touch with Dr. Taylor via ham radio! You got into the technical aspects of radio and became a radio astronomer and eventually you made this really interesting discovery concerning a binary pulsar; now you weren't out there looking for binary pulsars?

Taylor: We were out there looking for pulsars. This was just a few years after the first pulsar had been discovered by the group at Cambridge University in England. I had finished my PhD thesis at just about the time that discovery was made. I was looking for a new topic of scientific enquiry and got into studying pulsars right at the beginning. I had an idea as a young assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts of how to interphase a minicomputer. Computers were then just becoming usable and sort of standard [in] scientific laboratories; and what we then called a minicomputer was about the size of a refrigerator. (laughs) The idea was to interphase the minicomputer to the radio telescope more or less directly and to allow the computer to look through the data very carefully in a way that would isolate the signals from a pulsar. There were a dozen or two pulsars known at that time. We felt that we had a good [shot]chart at it being to able to discover another several times—that number may be 50 or so—and [we] could study their distribution throughout our galaxy, thereby learning something about the way pulsars are related to other types of stellar objects in the general scheme of galactic evolution.

Steve: We are talking about the early '70s right now.

Taylor: Yes, 1972 and[or] thereabout on starting the project. So, I applied to the National Science Foundation for a very modest research grant of about $30,000 that was going to buy us the computer we needed—which was then about $20,000—and buy us a few airplane tickets to back and forth to Puerto Rico because we wanted to use the Arecibo radio telescope, the very largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, still to this date. And, we did mention to the NSF in that proposal that it would be especially important if we could find a pulsar in an orbiting system—a binary pulsar—because then we had a chance to measure the mass of a neutron star, a very important quantity, which was theoretically thought to be approximately known, but we obviously needed an experimental proof of that and that has turned out to exactly what we were able to do.

Steve: So, you actually were looking for a binary.

Taylor: Well, it was a sort of a throwaway line in the proposal. We had no reason to expect that it was likely. We did know that most stars are in binary or more complicated stellar groups, but at that time zero pulsars were known to be affiliated with another star, even though 30-some pulsars were known. So, we wondered why. Obviously pulsars are created in supernova explosions, so it's not that unreasonable for an orbital pair to be broken up during the supernova, but it didn't seem likely that a 100 percent of them would be so broken up, and we were looking for the few that might not be.

Steve: And what was the implication of the discovery and the data that you could relate it to? I mean, the important thing was related to general relativity, so can you explain that briefly?

Taylor: As that happened, when once we knew what we had discovered a binary pulsar completing its orbit around the other massive object every eight hours, this was a remarkable orbit. The two stars were so close together that if either one had been an ordinary star like our sun, they would have been in contact or even inside one another, that was truly not the case; these were very dense, compact objects—neutron stars—and they were moving in an orbit at a mildly relativistic velocities, moving about one-tenth of 1 percent of the speed of light; that's an amazing velocity, 300 kilometers per second. And the orbits were highly eccentric, elongated ellipses and for this reason, we knew right away this would be a relativity laboratory. People quickly pointed out that it should lose energy owing to the generation of gravitational waves and a fairly simple calculation showed that we should be able to measure that, probably in five years or less and so we set out to do that.

Steve: And indeed your experimental results agreed with Einstein's predictions to within … ?

Taylor: Well, within three years; actually we had a measurement to within sort of 25 percent accuracy. Interestingly, the experiment is one which inherently rewards patience because the interesting quantity accumulates with time and it accumulates not linearly, but quadratically, so that after two years, you see a certain amount of [effect]; after four years, it's not twice as big but four times as big, after 16 years, you know, it grows exponentially, and so after 30 years or so since the discovery now— 30-plus years—we have an experiment that gives accuracies at the few tenths of a percent level; it's a remarkably accurate experiment.

Steve: We are asymptomatically approaching Einstein's prediction.

Taylor: And indeed the measured values agree within the experimental uncertainties precisely with what Einstein would have predicted in 1915.

Steve: I wish we could keep you around just for the people who send us their theses that they come up with. At Scientific American we get a lot of letters from readers who have proven Einstein to be incorrect in many ways.

Taylor: I receive one of those letters about every week. (laughs)

Steve: So you get them, too. There is a lot of tension in the world of science and religion right now, in certain respects. Now you grew up in a rather religious environment, but there doesn't seem to have been any conflict between your religious upbringing and the pursuit of knowledge through science.

Taylor: Yeah! I find no conflicts that bother me whatsoever. I mean, for me religion is a very helpful guide to one's life, gives one ground rules, sort of a personal code of ethics and philosophy of living together happily with other people. Science is evidence and experiential based, in fact spiritual things can be experiential as well and we don't take things in science on faith, we insist that they be built on evidence. I just don't find any conflicts that bother me.

Steve: Again, you grew up as a Quaker.

Taylor: Indeed, and I am a practicing Quaker to this day.

Steve: But there is nothing in your religion that precludes any kind of scientific information. There is no confusing your religious teachings with science, which seems to happen in some cases and that's what leads to the conflicts.

Taylor: I agree with that entirely. I mean, I think that does lead people to conflicts, and once one focuses on the fact that religious teachings and scientific knowledge do not address the same questions, I don't think there is really any problem.

Steve: It's a real pleasure to speak to you and I thank you so much for you time and for the really entertaining stories.

Taylor: My pleasure. It was fun.

Steve: For more on the Siemens Competition, go to www.siemens-foundation.org. You'll find a webcast of the ceremony and project descriptions for all the finalists.

Music

Now it is time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Divorce might be tough for families, but it is actually good for the environment because individuals use fewer resources than families do.

Story number 2: A small dose of buckwheat honey performed better than the cough suppressant in cough syrup, in tests with kids.

Story number 3: Young chimps outperformed college students in memory tests.

And story number 4: The Texas State Education Agency's Director of Science was forced out after forwarding an e-mail announcing a talk by a philosopher who has written about why intelligent design is not science.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. The Texas Ed Agency's Director of Science was forced out for allegedly being biased when her position calls for neutrality; of course, recognizing that evolution is science and intelligent design is not science is simply reality. What's probably really going on in Texas is that text book purchases are on the horizon, millions of dollars are at stake, so look for more fun evolution bashing in the days to come in the Lone Star State. (Stars at night are big …) And only 6,000 years old. (… deep in the heart of Texas.)

Story number 3 is true. Young chimps out-remembered human adults. The chimps involved had been taught to recognize the numbers one through nine. They and the humans were briefly shown individual numbers on a touch screen monitor. The numbers were then replaced with blank squares. The chimps and humans had to remember which number appeared in which location and then touch the squares in the appropriate sequence. And the young chimps did better than either their own chimp mothers or the humans did. The work appeared in the journal Current Biology,on page. (sounds of chimpanzee shouting)

And story number 2 is true. A small dose of buckwheat honey given before bedtime, provided better nighttime cough relief and sleep in children than no treatment or dextromethorphan known as DM, a cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cold medications. That's according to research published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The FDA recently recommended that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines not be given to children less than six years old, so the honey news is good news. The research was supported by the National Honey Board, an industry-funded agency of the United States Department of Agriculture for anyone interested in taking it with a grain of salt.

All of which means that story number 1 about divorce being good for the environment is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that divorced individuals use a lot more natural resources than do intact families. For more, check out the December 4th edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us podcast@SciAm.com and check out numerous features at the new SciAm.com Web site, including news, blogs, slide shows, and videos. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

"The stars at night, are big and bright,
deep in the heart of Texas,
The prairie sky is wide and high,
deep in the heart of Texas..."

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