While COVID-19 ravages the world, scientists are still trying to unravel the unique mysteries of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and why it so deadly to so many. Among those seeking answers are U.S. scientists from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Marylandwho published a study in the journal Blood.https://ashpublications.org/blood/article/136/18/2080/463611/Direct-activation-of-the-alternative-complement
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists knew that the spike-like proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 latched on to cells targeted for infection. Recent research shows the spikes grab a substance called “heparan sulfate,” a large, complex sugar molecule found on the surface of cells in the lungs, blood vessels and smooth muscle that make up most organs. After binding with the cell, SARS-CoV-2 uses another cell-surface component, the protein known as “angiotensin-converting enzyme 2” (ACE2), to break into the cell.
The havoc begins here.
When SARS-CoV-2 ties up heparan sulfate it prevents another substance - factor H - from doing its job of regulating chemical signals that both trigger inflammation and keep the immune system from harming healthy cells. Without factor H protection, cells in the lungs, heart, kidneys, and other organs, can be destroyed by the very defense mechanism nature intended -the immune system.
JHU researchers discovered that “factor D,” a protein in the immune system, enables SARS-CoV-2 to turn the immune system against itself and damage healthy cells. When factor H is functionally dismantled by factor D, the immune system attacks healthy cells, as autoimmune diseases do.
The immune system’s response to chemicals released by killed cells could be responsible for the serious organ damage and organ failures in severe cases of COVID-19.
"Previous research has suggested that along with tying up heparan sulfate, SARS-CoV-2 activates a cascading series of biological reactions -- what we call the “alternative pathway of complement” – or APC, that can lead to inflammation and cell destruction of healthy organs if misdirected by the immune system," explained study senior author Robert Brodsky, M.D., director of the hematology division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "The goal of our study was to discover how the virus activates this pathway and find a way to inhibit it before the damage happens."
According to Brodsky, the APC is one of three chain reaction processes involved in splitting and combining of more than 20 different proteins -- known as “complement proteins” -- that usually get activated when bacteria or viruses invade the body. The end-product of this complement cascade is a structure called the “membrane attack complex” (MAC).
To discover exactly how the virus activates the APC cascade and blocks factor H from connecting with the sugar, the researchers used normal human blood serum and three subunits of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to disable the complement regulation by which factor H keeps immune response under control.
"When we added a small molecule that inhibits the function of factor D, the APC wasn't activated by the SARS2 virus spike proteins," explained Brodsky.
He uses an automobile metaphor to explain Factor D and Factor H co-activity.
"If the brakes are disabled, the gas pedal can be floored without restraint, likely leading to a crash," he explained. "The viral spike proteins disable the biological brakes (factor H) enabling the gas pedal (factor D) to accelerate the immune system and cause cell, tissue and organ devastation. Inhibit factor D and the brakes can be re-applied and the immune system reset."
The good news is that there are already drugs in development that can block factor D’s nefarious work. Although still in testing, it appears that one such drug - ravulizumab - blocks the complement attack triggered by the spike proteins.
To be clear, these drugs are not vaccines aimed at halting the community spread of the virus. Rather, they are aimed at helping to prevent the worst organ damage in those who acquire COVID-19.
By: Randolph Fillmore
Randolph Fillmore is a science and medical writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology and mass communications at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, USA. He is the director of Florida Science Communications (www.sciencewriter.ink , a member of the National Association of Science Writers in the U.S. since 1994, and has recently joined the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
Source: Getty Images
Whether it be from supermarkets, restaurants or our own kitchens, people throw away a lot of food. Or rather, they feed it to animals.
In many countries Canada, close to 40 per cent of total food loss comes from these later stages of the supply chain1. While cycling food waste towards animal feed may seem like a noble approach to handling this challenge, the question remains: is food waste safe for animals?
Food waste materials are defined differently, depending on where they come from within the supply chain2. The term “food loss” refers to waste generated during food processing and manufacturing (many of these items are safely diverted to animal feed in the form of by-products). The term “food waste” refers to items discarded at retail or consumer levels. These carry a higher risk for harbouring contaminants and disease.
Feeding uncooked food waste to animals not only puts their health at risk, but also the entire food chain – especially if that food waste is contaminated with meat products. In 2009, 25 to 35 per cent of the global pork supply was wiped-out from African swine fever – a highly transmissible viral disease that has been linked with feeding food waste to pigs 3. In 2001, more than six million lambs, pigs and cattle died during the European foot-and-mouth disease epidemic which was linked to the feeding of uncooked food waste to animals.4. Other diseases like vesicular exanthema (a swine disease similar to foot-and-mouth), trichinosis (caused by parasitic roundworms in pigs), and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. “mad cow” disease) have also had devastating effects on livestock industries. All been linked to improper feeding of food waste products
Raw food waste can also harbour infectious organisms worrisome to public health, even if the food waste is plant-based. The risk of plant-based food waste being contaminated with Salmonella, for example, may depend on the type of plants it came from. A study published in Frontiers of Microbiology found that certain vegetable plants tend to be colonized by Salmonella more than others5. So, even if raw food waste is free of meat contaminants that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for our animals.
Heavy metals and toxins are another risk factor to be considered before feeding food waste to livestock. A survey of European household and restaurant waste found that the levels of lead, cadmium and dioxins exceeded allowable limits for livestock feed6. These compounds accumulate in the food chain and can negatively impact human and animal health.
From animal feed, to animal welfare, to public health, all stages of the food supply chain are connected. That’s why many countries have implemented strict regulations around the use of food waste as animal feed. And while the practice of feeding food waste to our animals has decreased, it has not been eliminated. A survey from the United Kingdom estimated that 24 per cent of small producers continue to feed uncooked household food waste to their livestock3.
In Canada, feeding raw household or donated food waste to a producer’s own animals is allowed. It is the exception to the rules, as long as it isn’t contaminated with meat and the resulting animal products to anyone else7. These exceptions are confusing and send conflicting messages about the safety of the practice and raise concerns throughout the food industry.
This article first appeared in The Western Producer
By: Janna Moats
Janna Moats is a Professional Agrologist and science writer based in Saskatoon. She obtained her Master of Science degree in Animal Science from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked across various sectors of the agriculture and agri-food industry. Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jannamoats
The grey nurse shark ( Carcharias taurus), a coastal species on the ICU's Red List as critically endangered. A public domain photo by Richard Ling.
Here's how sharks are "finned."
After hauling them aboard their vessels, the fishermen cut off their fins, then toss them back into the ocean. Still alive, they sink to the bottom where they're either eaten by other predators or die of suffocation.
About 100 million sharks are believed to be taken by fishers each year, most of them for their fins alone.
It's an industry estimated to be worth US$400 million a year.
The blue shark (Prionaceglauca). Photo by Mark Conlin/NMFS.
If one were to believe official trade records over the past twenty years, most fins traded on world markets have come from more abundant "pelagic" species (ones which live in the open ocean) like the blue shark (above).
The leopard shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). An ADV photo by Jeffrey N. Jeffords.
Using advanced techniques in barcoding and genetic tracing, scientists are now painting a different picture. By analyzing more than five thousand fins from markets on three continents, they still found a lot had come for those "pelagic" populations.
But they also found "an additional 40 'range-restricted' coastal species" which did not show up in previous records. These populations live closer to shore and do not range as widely as those in the open oceans. With local jurisdictions providing little protection for them, their populations now face "dramatic declines" and are "typically less abundant."
However, even the more common deep-sea species have been falling victim to "chronic exploitation" by fishers who are "collapsing" their populations, too.
New DNA tracking techniques are revealing a greater number of threatened and coastal sharks from stockpiles of intact shark and processed fins (pictured). Image credit: Paul Hilton.
So, if we want to conserve sharks and curb the "unsustainable global trade in shark fins," conclude the researchers, "stronger local controls of coastal fishing are urgently needed."
Their study was published this summer in the proceedings of The Royal Society.
But this is hardly the first cautionary tale pointing to the plight of Earth's marine life in general and sharks, in particular. Another research paper published in 2017 warns, they face "possibly the largest crisis of their 420 million year history. Many populations are overfished to the point where global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of species have an elevated risk of extinction."
By: Larry Powell
Hi, I’m Larry Powell, an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada.
I belong to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Canadian Association of Journalists.
I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization.
This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This often arms me with “hot-off-the-press” stories the moment the embargo is lifted.
This summer, I joined an international team of writers, telling animal “tails” in the online journal, “Focusing on Wildlife - Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth.”
I publish the blog, PlanetInPeril (PinP), where science gets respect! You can email me at: PlanetWatch1@yahoo.ca.
Rock Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario) in the fall. Image © James Wheeler via Gallery.World (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license).
Fall is a beautiful season, filled with golden hope and burgundy possibilities. The green colour of leaves changes to a colourful mix of yellow, orange, and red. Have you ever wondered why? If you have (and even if you have not but are wondering now), let’s take a look at the science behind the fall foliage.
Leaves develop over spring and summer, and in the fall, they start to age. But there are complex processes behind this. They include changes in the pigments that give them colour. The green leaf pigment chlorophyll breaks down, while carotenoids (yellow) are retained, and anthocyanins (red) are produced.
In the fall, nutrients and other components that support leaf health are withdrawn. This process leaves yellow carotenoids behind, causing the bright yellow and golden appearance seen in many fall leaves. However, we often see yellow leaves with scattered green patterns. These patterns are caused by fungi infections. Fungi produce a plant hormone, cytokinin, that inhibits the aging process and causes some of the green chlorophyll to remain.
The red colour palette of fall leaves is produced right before the leaves fall to the ground. The red pigments are thought to protect plants from photooxidative damage (that is, damage from sunlight), support nutrient redistribution, and defend against aphids.
But what happens to the green leaf pigment, chlorophyll? Prior to 1991, we did not know. A breakthrough came that year from Austria when Bernard Kräutler from the University of Innsbruck identified the first compound that is a result of the chlorophyll breakdown. In fact, over the next twenty-six years, Kräutler and other scientists identified about 20 more compounds, many of which were found to exhibit different colours. These findings helped explain some of the shades of yellow, pink, and red seen in leaves.
Albert Camus once said: “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” Whether these fall flowers have carotenoids, compounds of chlorophyll breakdown, or anthocyanins, I will still spend my weekend raking the leaves.
By: Olena Shynkaruk
Olena Shynkaruk, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as a science communicator includes grant writing, manuscript editing, copywriting, and working as a contributing writer for Lab Manager magazine. Feel free to connect with Olena on LinkedIn or email her at email@example.com.
The genetic controls that govern creation of the placenta (left) are similar to those that go awry to touch off cancer. Illustration: Almas Khan, created in BioRender.com
Cancer is a devastating disease marked by defective cells that multiply out of control and go on to invade our bodies. But what if I told you the processes that make cancer so dangerous are normal features of an organ necessary for us in the beginning of our life?
That organ exists for a short time and is usually discarded after we are born. It barely registers in people’s minds beyond that of potentially consuming it for so-called health benefits. Even science has long ignored this multifunctional organ which plays a role in the development of each and every one of us.
That organ is the placenta.
The placenta starts to form when cells from the growing fetus quickly invade and remodel the mother’s surrounding tissue, including reworking blood vessels to aid the growing fetus. This is similar to how a tumour starts to form and triggers blood vessel development to feed its growth.
While the placenta is forming, its cells work hard to inhibit parts of the immune system so the growing fetus isn’t rejected by the body. Various ‘immune evasion’ strategies used by the placenta are also used by cancer cells to prevent growing tumours from being destroyed by killer T-cells. One of these is to recruit regulatory T-cells (T-regs) near the tumour site to suppress killer T-cells that would otherwise destroy the cancer cells.
The placenta has also been found to recruit nearby T-regs to evade the immune system.
The image below shows the similarities between a solid tumour and a placenta at a structural level with blood vessel remodelling and immune modulatory level.
Credits(Constanzo et al. 2017)
Similarities don’t stop at development but occur even at a genetic level. Many tumour suppressor genes (TSGs) which code for important proteins that work to prevent out-of-control cell division in cancer are usually turned off when the placenta is being formed.
Not only that, but chemical markers known as methyl groups, which regulate genes and usually turn them off (but not always), occur in much lower numbers in cancer cells and those that form the placenta. In fact, many studies have found genes expressed in lung cancer, breast cancer, and various other forms of cancer to be similar ‘placenta-specific’ genes.
So, what does this all mean?
Several studies show that cancer rates are higher in placental mammals, that is, those such as cats, cattle, humans and many others that grow a placenta as part of their reproductive process. There is a similarity of genetic control in both in the placenta and in various cancers these mammals get.
An emerging hypothesis states that genes and molecular pathways which allow for placenta formation may somehow become reactivated later in life in cancer.
The placenta provides a rich paradigm to study so-called aberrant processes in a normal context of complex regulation, even with fast growth. It provides some compelling clues as to why things can go so wrong later on.
By: Almas Khan
Almas Khan a MSc student in the University of British Columbia’s(UBC) Bioinformatics program. She is studying epigenetic of the placenta and its relation to birth outcomes. She also received her BSc in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC. Outside of the lab, she likes baking, tea, yoga, and reading investigative journalism pieces and fantasy novels
Compassionate psychelics: easing anxiety and depression in the dying
This article discusses topics relating to end-of-life depression and anxiety. If you require mental health support, please see the resources at the bottom of this article.
In August 2020, four terminally ill patients were granted permission to use psychedelic therapy in Canada. They were given psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of what are popularly called “magic mushrooms,” to help ease their anxieties and depression at end-of-life.
End-of-life care involves helping someone remain comfortable at the end one’s life. Physicians will use palliative practices, that is, those aimed at alleviating things like pain and shortness of breath and providing support through death for patients with life-threatening conditions. Palliative care doctors use this kind of treatment when a condition is deemed unfixable.
Dr. James Downar is a researcher and head of the division of palliative care at the University of Ottawa.
“There are times when you can’t actually fix the problem—but you may be able to reduce the effect it has on a person,” he says.
Most will remember psychedelics as a relic of the 1960s. They are often associated with this decades’ many counter-culture movements, particularly among hippies, musicians and cultists alike.
When taken in high doses, psychedelics have strong effects on a person’s perception of the world. Users might experience hallucinations and confused senses, tasting colors and smelling sounds. On the flip side, people might also experience what is known as a “bad trip.” This can manifest as an intense fear or paranoia.
These substances can also induce rich, spiritual-like experiences, which is a big part of why they got so popular in the 60s. Early users would often report feelings of connectedness, love, and compassion for others—feelings that would remain long after the hallucinations disappeared.
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly how psychedelics work. But there is a surprising number of studies that suggest they might be able to help treat mental health. Some experts hope to leverage these spiritual side-effects to help people overcome conditions such as depression and anxiety.
This is what makes the drugs so appealing for palliative care.
“Our interest in palliative care is relieving suffering,” Downar says. “What is becoming increasingly apparent is that suffering can occur on many different levels.”
One of those levels is known as “existential suffering.”
“One of the most concerning things about disease is its ability to rob you of doing the things that you enjoy,” Downar explains. “These can be things like work, art, hobbies—all things that give people joy and meaning in life.”
When a person thinks they will never again experience meaningful activities, they can fall into a deep depression. This is the core of existential suffering, he says.
Downar explains that psychedelic therapy can help people come to terms with their distress, reduce their existential suffering, and help them find meaning at the end of life.
This interest in psychedelics as a therapeutic tool may be surprising, but it is not new. Use of the drugs has a long and surprising history in Canada. So, why did it take so long for them to pick up steam in the medical community?
Psilocybe cyanescens Wakef mushrooms, commonly called “Wavy Caps,” are one of the many species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin. Source: Vancouver Mycological Society.
The story of psychedelic therapy in Canada is almost as “trippy” as the drugs themselves, stretching from rural Canada to Los Angeles, threading through the lives of a Swiss scientist, a British war veteran, and a prolific science fiction author.
This is not an exhaustive history of psychedelics in Canada. But below is an outline of some of the surprising connections that surround these powerful substances. So, let’s take a trip, shall we?
This story begins with the arrival of Dr. Humphry Osmond. Osmond was a British World War II veteran who after the war worked on the psychiatric unit at St. George’s Hospital in London, England. There, he developed an academic interest in mind-altering drugs and substances.
Osmond and two colleagues began experiments with mescaline, the psychoactive component of peyote cactus. After two years of study, they found that this chemical would induce symptoms similar to those observed in people with schizophrenia.
Osmond’s use of chemicals ran counter to traditional therapeutic approaches. His colleagues were keener on psychoanalysis—the process of treatment and diagnosis through open conversation between therapist and patient.
As a result, Osmond moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan in October 1951 and took over as clinical director of the now-defunct Weyburn Mental Hospital.
At the time, this hospital had a reputation as one of the worst asylums in North America, explains Erika Dyck, a medical historian at the University of Saskatchewan. But Osmond felt that here he would have more freedom to continue his explorations with mind-altering substances. He was right.
The 1950s was a period of great change for Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas, premier of the province at the time, advanced what was considered a radically progressive agenda, one that ultimately laid the groundwork for universal healthcare in Saskatchewan and in Canada.
Douglas’ progressive attitude towards healthcare made the province an attractive place for health researchers.
“People were coming to witness this experiment unfolding,” explains Dyck. “It became a trading zone for ideas that were infused with a political vision for the future, for what kinds of things we can expect for our healthcare system.”
This is the context in which Osmond would begin his experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
LSD is a synthetic hallucinogen accidentally invented by Albert Hoffman in Switzerland long before Osmond arrived in Canada. Hoffman consumed a small quantity of the drug while synthesizing it, leading to mild symptoms, including dizziness and restlessness. Once he identified LSD as the source of his symptoms, he took a remarkable next step – self-experimentation. Hoffman went on his first trip.
He was anxious and afraid at first, as his hallucinations were understandably unexpected. Eventually, his anxieties went away and he was left to enjoy a kaleidoscope of colors dancing before him. He later wrote on how the experience was a net positive.
Years later, Osmond spent his time trying to understand how and why LSD had such a powerful effect. He hypothesized that it could be used therapeutically in the Weyburn Mental Hospital.
One of Osmond’s patients stated that while under the influence of LSD he learned to address his life problems with new-found conviction. This, in turn, helped him find a more positive outlook on life and forge better relationships with himself and others. These feelings continued long after the immediate effects of LSD disappeared.
Parallel to these experiments, Osmond also learned about another potential use for LSD in end-of-life care.
Osmond became good friends with the famous science fiction author Aldous Huxley, who lived in Los Angeles—far from the winds of Saskatchewan – but they bonded through regular letters which document Osmond and Huxley’s evolving perspective on psychedelics. Together, they explored the spiritual nature of the substances, and Huxley introduced Osmond to the potential power of psychedelics for end-of-life care.
Huxley told Osmond about the profound experience he shared with his wife Maria, who was suffering from cancer. As her health deteriorated, she was spending more time unconscious. But Huxley and Maria both had an affinity for psychedelic drugs. Together, they had spent a lot of time learning from the Indigenous communities in the United States who often used psychedelic substances in healing rituals to help overcome anxiety at end-of-life.
“This was a way to help release the mortal bonds of life,” Dyck explains.
On Maria’s deathbed, she and Huxley consumed psychedelics together. Huxley later described to Osmond how the psychedelic substances helped both him and Maria find peace in these final hours. The experience was so profound, Huxley requested the same treatment as he was dying, and finally died of throat cancer on November 22, 1963.
Psychedelic research largely halted after the 1960s. The “hippie” movement came and went, and the substances were seared in the public consciousness as dangerous, addictive, and unpredictable. This era left behind a lasting stigma that continues to make some palliative care physicians reluctant to embrace the drugs, Downar explains.
Medical historian and Canada Research Chair Erika Dyck. Photo: University of Saskatchewan
Some elements of psychedelic therapy also do not fit the model of healthcare that Canada has adopted, Dyck says.
Many psychedelic-trained psychiatrists would be necessary to help people use the substances safely and to maximize the chance of positive outcomes. This makes it difficult to widely adopt the therapy, especially since there are many other medications that can help treat depression or anxiety—many of which require much less professional supervision.
Downar says that “micro-dosing,” a method of consumption involves taking small amounts of the psychedelic substance, might be a way to mitigate this. Small doses can stimulate the brain but not enough to induce strong hallucinations, allowing psychedelics to be used with less direct supervision. More research needs to be done before this can made a reality.
In some ways, palliative care is the perfect place to explore psychedelic therapy, as end-of-life can be a time for finding deep meaning and reflection. Palliative therapies must concern themselves as much with the spiritual as with the physiological elements of dying, Downar says.
Can psychedelics be transformative for carrying out palliative care? That remains unclear, but Downar says it is worth exploring if it can reduce end-of-life suffering.
If you need resources or assistance surrounding mental illnesses, please visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s websiteto learn more. You can also find palliative care resources on the Canadian Hospice and Palliative Care Association website.
This article is based on research conducted by Erika Dyck, PhD. Learn more about her work.
By: Eric Dicaire
Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.
Winning the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada People’s Choice Award for Science Online is a significant achievement. Winning the award a second time confirms that Let’s Talk Science has the formula for enduring quality.
But where did their scicomm journey begin? Vanessa Nelson, Vice-President of External Relations at Let’s Talk Science recounts the organisation’s humble inception and shares their plans for their future.
Nearly 30 years ago, President and Founder Bonnie Schmidt recognized that elementary school educators were receptive to support for teaching science and technology and making it engaging for their students. She saw that teachers struggled with garnering and keeping children’s interest in the sciences.
“It can be challenging to engage children and youth in science,” Nelson says. “It requires a little bit more connection and understanding to engage kids. They need to understand and see relevance.”
According to Nelson, Schmidt started working directly in classrooms, volunteering with educators and finding ways to “show kids how exciting STEM could be.”
Since 1991, Let’s Talk Science has grown from two or three volunteers like Schmidt to more than 70 people located across the country. The team now collaborates with more than 50 colleges and universities across Canada. The charitable organization relies on funding from governments, corporations, foundations and individuals to provide resources and programming at no charge.
Their focus? Creating interest in science that lasts so kids stay in the subjects longer … and develop the skills that they need to thrive and succeed.
A key activity for Let’s Talk Science is promoting careers in science.
“Be it from a hairdresser right up to a laboratory researcher: all of those [careers] require some sort of STEM skills and critical thinking,” Nelson says.
Volunteers go into classrooms (now virtually) and, in addition to delivering hands-on and curriculum aligned STEM activities, take the time to tell students about their studies or their working life, how they got there, and what their next steps might be. To further support career exploration, the Let’s Talk Science website has a dedicated career section for children and teachers that showcases unique current and future careers in science.
“If a kid doesn’t know that a job exists, how are they going to think to go into that field?” Nelson says.
“I think every parent and teacher should be exposing kids around them to a range of career resources to give them an idea of what's out there, where a STEM education can take you."
Let’s Talk Science is largely supported by its base of 3,500 volunteers.
COVID-19 and a new game plan
COVID-19 has changed the organization’s traditional outreach approach and their typical audience focus. They have transitioned to virtual outreach and online involvement in classrooms, and geared resources towards families.
In some cases, this means adapting content that fits a less formal learning environment.
“We’re here to provide support and learning and engagement for education, no matter where it's taking place,” Nelson says.
In the last nine months, the organization has developed an even greater appreciation of the value of STEM learning for innovation and finding solutions to complex human problems.
“COVID made STEM learning more relevant than ever,” Nelson says. “Every solution or approach to responding to the pandemic, be it medical, engineering, or design, comes through a STEM lens.”
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Vanessa Nelson says.
Encouraging a generation of critical thinkers
STEM and critical thinking go hand in hand, and Let’s Talk Science fosters these skills in all of their resources.
“How do you make sure that you have the understanding and the learning (children) need to make decisions and to think critically about topics? Our goal has never been to influence decision-making, but rather provide the scientific literacy that kids need.”
The need for children to learn how to make sound scientific decisions and learn how problem-solve and innovate today and in the future is more important than ever as misinformation online surges.
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Nelson says.
Let’s Talk Science aims to arm students with the skills they need to make decisions about climate change, viruses, and other real-world problems. It does not exist to advocate for a particular cause or to take a stance.
Instead of focusing on vaccine denial, they talk about how vaccines are developed and how they work so that youth can understand.
“Then, kids don't need an advocacy position being taken,” Nelson says. “Provided with sound science learning, youth are well equipped to make sound decisions for themselves.”
Building on this approach, in the coming years the organization will increase its focus on climate - not just climate change. What is climate and how does it work? What is its influence on our lives? How is it impacted by our actions?
Let’s Talk Science has an ongoing project that allows classrooms to collect data to monitor the environment in the classroom. This allows the classes to monitor carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, humidity, and temperature and see how their actions affect these variables.
“What happens if you open a window? Do CO2 levels go down? This helps students understand the impact of their behaviours.”
The Let’s Talk Science team believes it is critical to translate science and research using concepts that children relate to.
“I think there’s a really strong need to make science learning accessible,” Nelson says. “It can become very technical.”
“A chemical formula may not mean a heck of a lot to a kid,” Nelson says. “But if you show them that it's how their Kool-Aid gets made … that's relevancy.”
By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs
Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a recent journalism and French graduate from Carleton University. She spends her free time reading or getting outside. Her favourite subjects to learn and write about are conservation, sustainability, and trees. Born and raised in Toronto, Adenieke recently packed up and moved to Paris, France to teach English for the school year.
New research shows, two closely-related species of wild cats in Ontario, Canada, may face starkly different futures. Is this "survival of the fittest?
Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis)
Bobcat (Lynx rufus). Photos by US Fish & Wildlife Service.
To the untrained eye, the two species might pass as overgrown house cats. They're actually "felids" or mammals belonging to felidae, a family of wild cats.
Both live side by side, north of Lake Huron (see map).
Researchers at the University of Trent in Peterborough, Ontario, looked at bobcat and lynx numbers, movements and behaviour over three winters.
Their findings seem to show the bobcat holding an edge over the lynx in the struggle to survive, if not thrive in their rapidly-changing world.
The scientists are unable to give hard numbers. But, "harvest records" which document the numbers taken by trappers, offer an insight.
The lead author, Robby Marrotte, tells PinP, "We've noticed that the number of lynx harvested on traplines has decreased compared to 1960-80, while bobcat harvest has increased."
(Ironically, while trapping has been known to diminish populations of fur-bearing animals, harvest records can also act as a sort of census - the more of a given species trapped, the higher their populations are likely to be.)
But there's more than just numbers at play here. Bobcats have also managed to expand their Ontario range northward, into territory previously occupied by the lynx.
And, while no regional breakdown is given, an earlier, large study on ungulates and predators in 2004, found the range of the lynx, continent-wide, had shrunk by a staggering 40% from its historical range.
So why is this "world of the wildcat" unfolding as it is?
The lynx is a "specialist," more dependent on the unbroken or homogenous cover of the boreal forest. It's therefore more vulnerable to human intrusion such as land clearing.
The bobcat, on the other hand, is a "generalist" who can better cope with a more open habitat and young, deciduous forests which often evolve after activities such as logging and road-building.
So it is the bobcat, not the lynx, which is likely to be found in areas affected most by a human footprint.
And then, there's the matter of diet. The lynx feeds almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare and is vulnerable when hare populations crash. The bobcat on the other hand, preys on a variety of species, so has more to choose from.
The lynx has much larger feet, giving it a distinct advantage over the bobcat while hunting in deep snow. But deep-snow terrains are shrinking as manmade "global heating" does its work. This could remove yet another advantage from the lynx as time goes on.
The two species do interbreed, but rarely. (The researchers never observed their footprints coming anywhere close to one another along snowmobile trails they used in their studies.)
But, if bobcat numbers do increase, along with interbreeding, it's speculated this, too could contribute to the lynx's undoing. It could lead to gene dominance by the bobcat and even extinction for the lynx.
However, researcher Marrotte believes, talk of extinction is premature.
"I wouldn’t say extinction or extirpation just yet. Right now, all it takes is a few good winters and denser snowshoe hare populations and the bobcat will move out and the lynx will eventually move back in. In the next decade, there might be more snow on the northern shores of Lake Huron, because moisture level will increase. This could temporarily benefit the lynx, but eventually this snow will just start melting earlier and the bobcat will be able to move in again."
So, ultimately, it all comes down to this.
"The story of the bobcat and the lynx is one of the loss of a unique, boreal specialist due to anthropogenic change," concludes the study, "and eventual replacement by an adaptable generalist."
Dennis Patrick, a language assistant at the Stellat’en First Nations, seen here during the Elk-Tech event in Sept. 2019, describing the work he does at the First Voices program. (Photo: Peter Pulsifer, 2019).
Languages are essential in helping us navigate through and understand different cultures and their views of the world. The loss of a single language means losing valuable cultural knowledge.
By the end of the century, it’s estimated that more than 40 per cent of the 7,000 languages spoken today are at risk of disappearing.
Canada, which has between 60 to 100 Indigenous languages, faces pressures from commonly spoken languages such as English, as well as a variety of social, political, and historical factors.
A 2016 census reveals that more than 260,000 people speak an Indigenous language on a conversational level. The most commonly spoken Indigenous languages include Inuktitut (from the Inuit language family) as well as Cree and Ojibway (from the Algonquian language family).
In recent years, a growing number of Indigenous youths have shown an interest in learning their ancestral languages. In addition to being an Indigenous right, allowing youth to learn their native languages carries benefits such as revitalizing their cultural identity. Communities where the Indigenous language is more widely spoken also report lower youth suicide rates.
In the spring of 2019, professors Erik Anonby and Kumiko Murasugi from Carleton University’s School of Linguistics became the co-leaders of the Endangered Language Knowledge and Technology (ELK-Tech) group.
Based at Carleton University in Ottawa, ELK-Tech unites experts and researchers from a variety of disciplines such as Indigenous studies, linguistics, as well as computer sciences. Their goal is to collaborate with Indigenous language communities to adapt and develop digital tools to help language learning and documentation.
Most recently, Anonby, Murasugi and their partner, professor David Mould, a Carleton computer science professor and fellow leader of ELK-Tech, were among several Carleton research teams granted funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF). Along with $64,000 granted by CFI, a matching grant of more than $32,000 offered by Carleton and an additional $64,000 to be funded by other partners, will contribute to help set up the ELK Centre, a physical space for the initiative.
“The goal at the centre is to bring together all the people who will be working towards the goal of language maintenance and revitalization,” said Murasugi.
While the launch date for the ELK Centre is to be determined, Anonby confirmed that the University has set aside space for the centre.
Murasugi also mentioned their focus is on technology and to develop digital tools that will be useful in the daily lives of Indigenous and minority language speakers.
Technology, Anonby said, is one of the main causes behind language endangerment “as part of globalization.” In terms of the internet, despite increasing language diversity, English is considered the dominant language. The more time people spend on English-dominated websites, the more their use of Indigenous languages – and by extension, their connection to the natural world – slowly declines.
On the other hand, Anonby and Murasugi acknowledge that technology can be an effective tool for language revitalization and documentation.
“It offers potential for strengthening languages if it's used in ways that are meaningful for communities and are technologically and linguistically grounded or supported,” Anonby said.
While technology is an important tool, it is not the sole solution.
“Another key part of that is community involvement and community guidance in the design and use of the tools and also the control over the data that's collected through the use of the tools as well,” Anonby said.
Allowing communities to guide the process of strengthening their languages is an important part of this project.
“It's not just us doing it and saying, ‘oh, look what we've developed’,” Murasugi said. “It's doing it in collaboration with the communities and asking them and discussing what would be useful to them and how we can help provide those tools.”
The tools in question involve more than just automatic learning and language preservation in a digital database They also include encouraging collaborative learning and documentation.
“Because digital technology can be a solitary enterprise, we want to encourage people to use these tools together,” Murasugi said.
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges and restrictions in terms of research and communication. As a result, the ELK-Tech team, as well as other organizations and programs focusing on language revitalization efforts such as First Voices, will be forced to modify how they interact and collaborate with Indigenous language communities in ways that work best for them. Especially communities with limited technological access.
Due to the threat posed by COVID-19 on Indigenous and minority language communities, Anonby mentioned there is a growing urgency for language revitalization efforts. Elderly, fluent speakers of these languages are especially vulnerable, which makes their cultural and linguistic knowledge even more valuable. The ELK Centre initiative aims to help pass this vital knowledge down to future generations before it's too late.
“Language is a living phenomenon. The work that we do is especially focused on strengthening language as something living within language communities,” Anonby said.
By: Matthew Guida
As a native Montrealer, I graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Film Studies. I am currently studying for my master’s degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. My interest in journalism began while attending Concordia. I was a frequent contributor to the university’s independent newspaper, The Concordian. I further honed my skills and experience by working as a List Writer for the entertainment news website Screen Rant. Since I started attending Carleton University, I have strived to further improve my skills as a journalist in not only print, but also in the fields of data, investigative and broadcast journalism. In the past year, I have also developed a growing appreciation for radio journalism and podcasts. My current interests lie in studying the future of the journalism industry, writing and researching pop culture and social media trends, as well as furthering my career in the field of journalism.
The concept of human races has been around since 1735 when Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus proposed a classification system placing humans into four distinct “races” based on perceptions of skin color and geography.
However, over the last eight decades, many biologists and physical anthropologists have increasingly argued that race is, and has always been, an artificial social construct rather than a scientific fact. They maintain that the continued use of the race concept hinders scientific truths about human diversity and that race should not be used as a variable in science-based endeavors, especially in medical research.
Should science writers and science communicators - important links between scientific minds and nonscientific minds - get actively involved in the campaign against using the race concept to explain human diversity?
Looking at the science may be helpful.
We all know that genes hold the “blueprints” for life. Alleles, located on specific genes, produce a variety of observable characteristics, called “phenotypes.” We and our genes live in “gene pools,” a term used to account for all of the phenotypic variations in a given population. Genes “flow” in and out of gene pools as people wander the Earth and, sometimes, produce offspring with people who are phenotypically greatly different than themselves.
When genes and the traits they carry “flow” in and out of a gene pool the result can be a mosaic of physical features, combinations of features which may or may not conform to stereotypic characteristics typically thought of as representative of one “race” or another.
It useful to remember that the distribution of phenotypes in the premodern world was more geographically restricted than today because oceans, mountains and great distances did not allow people to easily “mix” their genes. Phenotypes tended toward local similarity.
In 1989, when I was a graduate student in anthropology and also the media relations person for the American Anthropological Association, anthropologist Leonard Lieberman and colleagues published “Race and anthropology: A core concept without consensus.” The authors maintained that the race concept was losing credibility as it was based on "imaginary clusters of traits."
They also pointed out that there is often as much - or more - phenotypic variation within perceived races than between them. To speak accurately about human phenotypic diversity, the authors advocated the model offered by Frank Livingstone in 1962 when he said (now famously) "there are no races, only clines."
A cline, first described by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in 1938, is a construct for explaining how phenotypes, such as skin color, eye lid shape, hair texture and blood types, even genetic susceptibility to diseases, vary in prevalence within populations and over a geographical gradient. A cline can show how traits – when considered one-by-one rather than together– may be strongly represented here, but gradually appear less often, or eventually not at all, there.
A cline can also be used to demonstrate the prevalence and geographical patterns of genetically based diseases, such as the sickle-shaped red blood cell trait that can cause sickle cell anemia, and Tay-Sachs disease, a rare nervous system disorder. A cline can show high prevalence of the sickle cell trait in West Africa and some areas of the Middle East, but also shows how little the trait appears, if at all, in East or South Africa.
Lieberman and colleagues added that cline could not be used to replace race – it is a greatly different, yet accurate concept.
In 1970, Thomas Kuhn suggested in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that a paradigm, a mental model, is prerequisite to perception. Kuhn said that once a paradigm is constructed, anomalies, or "minor breakdowns" within the paradigm, create tension in the model. "As time goes by and new demands are made on the lexicon, conditions may be encountered that defy description," Kuhn said.
Kuhn concluded that a conceptual paradigm shift can be expected when anomalies become “incommensurate” with the concept. Such is the case for race.
All classifications are dependent upon descriptive language, yet the lexicon often becomes inadequate to the descriptive task as contrary new concepts and theories are validated. New words must come into use to support descriptive accuracy. If “race” defies valid scientific description, that reality also makes demands on the language we use to describe human variation.
If race is not a legitimate concept and, therefore not a useful variable for science, should it be a legitimate concept for science writers and science communicators?
The argument for science writers and science communicators to get involved in the no- such-thing-as-race effort is that, like scientists, we are obligated to present valid scientific explanations of the world and of ourselves. That responsibility should probably include presenting accurate scientific models for explaining human diversity.
The argument against science writers and communicators enlisting in the “no-such-thing-as -race” effort is that we are not charged with the responsibility of correcting scientists - should they use the term. We are charged only with accurately reporting on the information scientists generate.
By: Randolph Fillmore
Randolph Fillmore is a science and medical writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology and mass communications at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, USA. He is the director of Florida Science Communications (www.sciencewriter.ink), a member of the National Association of Science Writers in the U.S. since 1994, and has recently joined the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
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