Historically, Nepal has largely depended on agriculture to sustain themselves. Farmers, with livestock and a multitude of crops, could be found in each region - from the Himalayas to the hills to the Terai plains. Nepali people would cultivate just enough on the land to live from, to sustain their families. They would wait for Monsoon season to harvest rice, the largest staple food across the country, constituting approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s total calorie intake.
Nagarkot Hills. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
What was harvested was eaten. What was left over was given to the animals. Anything that was thrown away, they received from earth. The trash, in plainer terms, was organic. This habit of throwing away leftovers back onto earth carried on throughout the decades, despite the introduction of plastics, paper and metals. Not maliciously. Just without fully understanding the consequences.
Until three years ago, Mr. Basnet, the CEO of The Explore Nepal Ltd. organized a 15 kg clean-up of the Bagmati River, which flows through the Kathmandu Valley (KV) and separates two of the valley’s biggest cities: Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Every Saturday morning, volunteers would gather along the holy river to pick up garbage. Over and over again, dozens of volunteers would show up to do the tedious, cumbersome job. But to no avail.
Bagmati River in Kathmandu. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Mr. Basnet realized reducing 15 kg of waste would change nothing. The amount of trash flowing downriver would be just as much and even increasing alongside the massive influx of people moving into the city. He said a mindset change is needed from the ground up. This is why he started a campaign in 1977 to remove the heaviest polluting vehicles from urban roads. For a while, he seemed to gain some headway. But cars get old quickly and they use a lot of cheap diesel.
Today, The Explore Nepal Ltd., one of many green initiatives in the KV, has many functions. Their main objective is achieving sustainable agricultural practices by going organic. If it were up to Mr. Basnet, he would turn the whole country organic overnight. Unfortunately, he says it's not that simple. Most farms across the country started using pesticides when they were introduced and going back now would be extremely difficult. The risk is lost harvests, failed crops and, ultimately, food insecurity, and perhaps even starvation.
Imagine a normal day in the KV. Motorcycles zooming by, barely scraping your body. Buses exuding thick grey fumes that make you feel as though you are smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. Thirty honks or more a minute, an accident prevention technique used by every driver on two, three or four wheels I’ve come across. Mothers traversing big roads with babies in their arms and no stripes painted white to cross on.
Escaping the noise in the middle of city sounds like a feat. But actually, it’s possible. At less than one kilometre from Thamel, you can find one of Mr. Basnet’s inventions - Kantipur Temple House. As I walked into the hotel, an abrupt calm fell over me as I admired the Indigenous Newari architecture and intricate wood and stone carvings the building was built with to support local communities.
Kantipur Temple House. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The hotel is solar-paneled and has no TVs, bathtubs, AC or central heating to avoid consuming too much energy. There are electric fans for when it’s warm and electric blankets for when it’s cold. They don’t condone plastic bags and they don’t provide plastic water bottles. All the food consumed by guests comes from organic farms, including one Mr. Basnet owns called Organic Farm House Kapan.
His mantra has become offering “tourism that doesn’t cost the earth.”
Raj, a 31-year-old mountain guide, agrees. Having dedicated his life to a greener Nepal, Raj began an initiative known as ‘Let’s Clean Up Nepal,’ where he organizes events targeted at raising awareness on the issue to both locals and tourists. His hope is to climb mountains that are not filthy and garbage-ridden and walk through cities where the air is breathable and fresh.
But, like Mr. Basnet, Raj says, maximizing the number of volunteers, who clean up the streets is not the solution. Instead, a national mindset change is needed, which makes Nepali people throw garbage where garbage belongs - in trash bins.
A courtyard in Lalitpur. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The biggest irony I found upon arriving in Nepal was the number of people who follow Buddhism or Hinduism, two religions that encourage their followers to take care of the environment. Why then, I asked myself, was there so much trash everywhere?
I’m not a fan of pieces with personal reflections, but I’ve learned an important lesson I want to share. Raj told me that many Nepali people blame the government for roads that haven’t been constructed since the 2015 earthquakes, the lack of a recycling system, public toilets, affordable healthcare, rising costs, increasing air pollution, burning plastics, and I can go on. But, he told me, if we want change, we need to start with ourselves.
Raj divides his trash between plastics, glass, metals, and paper. He talks to fellow mountain guides and tourists about green living. He cleans up the mountains he treks through with tourists, knowing the result won’t be less trash. His hope is that when people watch him clean trash when it isn’t his primary job, they will at least think twice about throwing it anywhere they’d like. It’s his way of spreading awareness about how individuals can make small changes and become aware of what polluting the environment means.
In a world where travel has become affordable to many more people than it used to, it’s important that we think about ethical travel. What is the cost of travel on the environment? How much water are we consuming to “relax”? Are we packing in what we pack out when go trekking? How do we balance environmental consciousness with a country’s dependency on a thriving tourism industry?
The tourism industry contributes to the pollution that exists in Nepal today, as it does in many other countries. It is my responsibility, at the very least, to think about these questions and to pollute the least amount possible as a foreigner, who is merely passing through.
By: Astara van der Jagt
Astara van der Jagt’s career spans half a decade on four continents. Equipped with a degree in journalism and political science, she has done research on the power of social media in Kenya, worked as an au pair in Italy, and learned about the ethical reporting of marginalized communities in Northern Canada. Earlier this year, she moved to Nepal to produce a communications strategy focused on empowering the rural poor for Sana Kisan Bikas Bank Ltd., an agricultural development bank based out of Kathmandu.
From a young age, Astara was exposed to gender-based violence, extreme poverty and water scarcity. Although she has found ways to turn her own pain into power, she still has so much to offer those who do not have the passports, opportunities and support systems she does. This is why she has committed her life to finding methods to overcome these global problems through grassroots action, helping one individual at a time, all while spreading awareness through her photography, videography, and storytelling.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware that direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing has been enjoying a surge in popularity. Thanks to the relative affordability of DTC genetic tests, and the survival of a few powerful DTC genetic testing companies through the crucible that was the early-2000s market of DTC genetic tests, the rates of those taking such tests to uncover health or ancestral genetic information has continued to rise, resulting in about 15,000,000 people in the AncestryDNA database alone in April 2019. Alongside that rise in test-takers has been a rise in media coverage. Read More
Above is an excerpt from Part 1 where I round-up four collaborations that have received ink and clearly equate genes to culture by emphasizing and effectively sitting in the past to honour it in some way. Below, in Part 2, I share two collaborations that have received less ink and provide a spin on the typical collaborations that call back to the roots of the DTC genetic testing industry itself.
Ancestry + GustoTV
In November 2018 the show DNA Dinners premiered on Canadian television channel Gusto. Hosted by Tyrone Edwards this show’s basic premise is that guests of the show sign up to take an AncestryDNA test and then the guest is guided by a chef in learning about important and iconic ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques from the cultures suggested by their rest results. Each episode concludes with the creation of a recipe that takes elements from two cultures suggested by their AncestryDNA test results. That recipe is then fed to the guest and loved ones they invite.
While I have unfortunately been unable to view the show myself, the publications put out elsewhere make clear that the point is to connect the guests with their genetic ancestry through the medium of food. While food preferences can be impacted by genes, the cultural component is overwhelmingly significant and makes the connection to genetic ancestry one that occurs, in this show, through culture.
It also returns to the roots of the DTC genetic testing industry, calling back to some of the earliest public consumptions of DTC genetic testing, when such testing was done behind-the-scenes of a television show with the results later revealed live to the test-taker. However, it is also doing something the other collaborations are not focusing on. It is combining the cultures suggested by the AncestryDNA test to create a meal that represents multiple components of the test-taker’s ancestral cultural background, not in isolation from each other, but in collaboration and with the guidance from a chef from one of those cultures. That collaboration appears to be the point. While DNA Dinners is stepping on a well-trod path, they have spun it by adding food and emphasizing the occurrence of blended cultures.
A sample of the author's family's genealogical research, of which DNA has been one tool of many. Credit: Megan Berry
Currently, the most unique collaboration I’ve become aware of is the one between the oldest surviving DTC genetic testing company African Ancestry and independent bookstore MahoganyBooks that culminates in book lists divided by the rough focus of Country, Culture, or Consciousness. For some context, both companies cater to an African American audience. African Ancestry focuses on providing matrilineal and patrilineal genetic testing for individuals in the African diaspora—specifically those in America—with the goal of connecting those individuals to their genetic ancestral origins. MahoganyBooks focuses on providing books “written for, by, or about people of the African Diaspora.”
Besides its focus on a specific population rather than All The Populations, this collaboration is also unique in that the conflation of genes with culture is not nearly as prominent as it is in the above collaborations. The African Ancestry Get Rooted Book List does equate genes with culture—the language of “roots” and the division of book lists by country, culture, and consciousness makes that equation clear—but I see this equation as less egregious than it is for the other collaborations because it focuses explicitly on a specific population that is linked not by genetics (which vary) but by experience (as African Americans). An experience, I should note, that I do not share because I am a white Canadian.
The descriptions of the book lists also do some heavy lifting to make the experience the focus rather than the genetic ancestry, and its assumed associated culture. The Culture book list refers to “mov[ing] the culture forward,” an effort emphasized by the Consciousness book list referring to the “past inform[ing] the future” and “expand[ing] your perspective.” Even the Country book list says “you’ve found a connection to your country of ancestry. Explore the place and the people,” phrasing which emphasizes the connection as well as the present time and the living people there (see here). Rather than emphasizing exploring the historical experiences of your genetic ancestors and their likely culture, the present and the future are the important parts. How the people who are living in the place your genetic ancestors came from live currently, what they are like currently, what that place is like currently is the focus. It’s current and forward-thinking. Rather than looking to the past for understanding the past (and if you’re lucky, the present), the collaboration emphasizes using the past for guidance in understanding and advancing the future.
It’s a shift the other collaborations barely touch, and in not acknowledging the future of the people taking the tests and trying to engage with their ancestry through those tests, it seems to me that the collaborations are the poorer for it.
There you have it, a round-up of some of the most prominent and a couple less prominent collaborations orbiting the equation of “genetics = culture” with varying levels of devotion. People want to connect with their ancestries and open the black box of their family histories, yet the complexity of genetics and our conceptions of self and family make this a much more fraught endeavor than perhaps initially assumed. It demands an interdisciplinary collaboration knowledgeable about genetics, selfhood, and family, and able to communicate that knowledge to ensure the worrisome paths these collaborations tend to walk down have strategically placed signposts to make clear what is fact, what is not, and what is unknown.
By: Megan Berry
When not working for a Calgary non-profit, Megan N. Berry is playing DnD, watching Let’s Plays, and writing and researching whatever catches her interest (the history of eugenics, 1950’s Tupperware parties, metal music in the 1980’s, etc.). She previously earned her MA in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University and York University after researching how DTC genetic ancestry test-takers reacted to and revealed their results on YouTube videos for audience consumption. She previously earned a Bachelor of Communications from Mount Royal University, writing on sustainability metaphors.
Once a frozen tundra, solid ice in the Arctic more than twice the size of France size of has melted into sloshing water during the last 40 years. And with that melt, factors of climate change have proceeded. Ocean sea levels have risen and created more volatile weather patterns worldwide, as we have seen with record-breaking heatwaves this summer. Coastal land is being eliminated. But financially, this ice loss creates an untapped business opportunity.
Southern entrance to Auyuittuq National Park. Credit: Angsar Walk
Almost one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered petroleum reserves lie in the Arctic, according to the research last done by the United States Geological Survey in 2008. Vast mineral resources are also there to be discovered, the Geological Survey of Norway told The Associated Press.
The Canadian government is openly interested in the Arctic resources, as are other countries attached to the Arctic, such as Russia and the United States. Countries not attached that are world powers, such as China, are also interested.
As for companies, there are several Canadian mining companies active in or near the Arctic, including Baffinland Iron Mines and Dominion Diamond Mines.
But with this interest in extracting resources in the Arctic, comes concern about climate change. It is due to melting ice that more natural resources are available. So the question worth asking is: will increased resource extraction in the Arctic make climate change worse?
According to Stephan Schott, a professor at Carleton University who specializes in natural resource development and alternative energy, the answer is nuanced.
“It depends on what is being extracted,” Schott said.
According to him, we depend on natural resources to construct renewable energy. Mining iron and copper gives us the metal to construct wind turbines, amongst other alternative energy sources.
“That connection is not being made,” Schott said in reference to how mining helps create renewable energy.
As a researcher at ArcticNet —an organization that brings together scientific researchers and members of the Inuit community to study climate change— Schott says that mining in Canada is strictly monitored by the Canadian government, making it less prone to create environmental damage.
Oil, however, is a different subject. Spills risk destroying Arctic ecosystems and habitat, and the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic for oil drilling will make any type of cleanup delayed.
The difficulty to access oil in the Arctic in comparison to other regions has led oil corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil to not pursue drilling.
But Schott, who does not endorse Arctic oil drilling, says that oil companies will come back if demand returns.
The Government of Canada, who describe the Arctic as “one of the Earth’s last frontiers for natural resource development”, are still working on a response regarding the climate change risks to resource extraction in the Arctic at the time of this article’s publication.
By: David Lochead
After growing up in Ottawa and living in Halifax for my early-twenties I have come to back to Canada’s capital to take my Master of Journalism at Carleton University.
While writing is what I am experienced at, I have always enjoyed science. There are endless studies or articles based on it that make me go ‘whoa, that’s cool’.
But what drives me to be a part of SWCC is this subject’s importance. Whether it is getting a better understanding of climate change or the technology we adapt, science is involved.
Before taking my Master’s degree, I graduated from Dalhousie with Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Development.
Outside of work, I love spending time outdoors, whether through sport or activity.
The general public are afraid of my research organism. It’s hard for me to blame them, since I study a stinging fire ant. I often watch for the moment when dread fills the face of my audiences.
While some people don’t want to hear about my research at all, others are quite keen to talk about the most gruesome parts of it. How badly do the stings hurt? How often do you get stung? Is it dangerous? Could they kill someone?
Myrmica rubra, the invasive European Fire Ant. Photo by Tom Murray.
The pattern continues when I am conducting general insect outreach. When I interact with interested non-experts, lately they only want to talk about the singular giant hornet recently caught in West Vancouver.
Original tweet by Valerie Walsh (@ValeriaWalsh)
While the (one) hornet is certainly interesting, there are probably more important insect issues in Vancouver, like the Japanese beetle. The Japanese beetle is an extremely important invasive species, and several have been found in Vancouver. Regardless, I am repeatedly discussing the same topics: honey bees dying, stinging insects, and of course, that (ONE) giant hornet. Further evidence of the pattern is apparent in the “Read More” sections of this giant hornet article.
Unfortunately, fear gets attention, and the public are definitely afraid of insects and arthropods. Fear of spiders is significantly more common than fear of other arthropods, however, arachnophobes commonly also fear bees, beetles, and butterflies or moths (Gerdes 2009). So why are humans afraid of creepy crawlies? Several possibly explanations exist:
This is an intuitive explanation for biologists. It basically states that some arthropods were dangerous to our ancestors, so we evolved fear (Seligman 1971). Most insects and spiders are not actually a threat to human health (Foelix 1996). Even so, there is an asymmetry to the costs and benefits of fear- there is no harm in avoiding a harmless insect, but there is harm in approaching a dangerous one (Haselton & Buss, 2006).
The disgust hypothesis suggests that the fear of spiders is transmitted culturally because they were historically associated with disease and infection (Davey 1994). Moths, beetles, flies, and cockroaches commonly infest stored food, but the disgust hypothesis was formed around arachnophobia specifically. It is possibly that a fear of spiders has remained culturally common and acceptable, leading to a cultural transmission of fear that defies logic (Gerdes 2009, Wenegrat 2001).
Rapid, uncontrollable movements commonly produce fear (Bennett- Levy & Marteau, 1984; Schneirla, 1965). Unpredictability is associated with fear of many "creepy" animals including spiders, snakes, cockroaches and rats (Armfield 2007). This hypothesis can be applied to some arthropods for which fear is highly illogical, such as moths.
How does fear affect science communication? I asked other scientists studying “scary” organisms their thoughts on fear in sci-comm:
Andreas Fischer is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, studying spiders:
“I do not think that spiders and teaching about spiders would be that interesting if they were regarded in a similar manner as e.g. crabs… It is the perfect icebreaker in any public outreach setting to start off with spider fear, then educate how they are actually misunderstood and then flip to the more fascinating aspect of these animals.”
(More on arachnophobia by Andreas)
Taylor Brophy (@taylor_brophy) is a recent MSc graduate from the University of Alberta, who studied slugs:
“…the disgust of slugs seems to help us get our message out. It draws support and aid pretty well as people want these pests gone. Moving forward I’m uncertain on whether our results and conclusions will fall on such interested ears”
Angela Chuang (@arachnonaut) is a PhD student at the University of Tennessee studying spider behavior:
“Everyone wants to share their crazy spider stories or express their feelings about spiders… from an optics point-of-view, I suspect many have a hard time justifying their fear of spiders to a tiny female biologist who is telling them how harmless most spiders are.”
Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) is a marine conservation biologist and science writer who studies sharks and other cartilaginous fishes. He has a large twitter following, and tries to change the conversation surrounding fear:
“…sarcastic mockery helps diffuse it. I post fearmongering news articles with rephrased titles like “fish seen in water” or “shark eats fish without bothering anyone””
Overall, a pattern among scientists studying “creepy” organisms emerged: it may be easier to gain public attention, but it can be difficult to communicate details.
Whatever approach you take, it is apparent that much of human fear is due to ignorance or false information. It may be the solution to fear in science communication is just… more science communication.
If scientists can take a moment to understand why the public is fearful of their research, they may have more success in educating them, and helping them overcome those fears. This may mean adding an element of patience to your science communication, even when faced with this classic entomologist scenario:
Tweet by Dr. Miles Zhang (@ymilesz)
By: Danielle Hoefelle (She/They)
I am a student in the Masters of Pest Management program at Simon Fraser University. I study the foraging and communication of an invasive pest, the European Fire Ant. My science interests include ecology, entomology, animal behavior, and animal/human interaction. My personal interests include biking, drag, feminism, weird art, and cats.
I am currently an outreach facilitator for SFU’s Science in Action, where I create and run programs for children of all ages to learn about insects. I am fascinated about the communication of science to non-experts. I am extremely curious about pseudoscience and misinformation, and how people come to believe in it. I think a lot about how to make science and scientists more approachable.
I am a queer woman in science, something which I have made a point of highlighting in my communication and outreach work. I feel strongly about making science a place where everyone feels welcome, and I think representation is an important part of that.
Armfield, J. M. (2007). Understanding animal fears: A comparison of the cognitive vulnerability and harm-looming models. BMC Psychiatry, 7, 68.
Davey, G. C. L. (1994). The “disgusting” spider: The role of disease and illness in the perpetuation of fear of spiders. Society & Animals, 2, 17−25.
Foelix, R. F. (1996). Metabolism. In R. F. Foelix (Ed.), Biology ofspiders (pp. 38−67). New York: Oxford University Press, Georg Thieme Verlag.
Gerdes, A. B. M., Uhl, G., & Alpers, G. W. (2009). Spiders are special: fear and disgust evoked by pictures of arthropods. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(1), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.005
Seligman, M. E. P. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior Therapy, 2, 307−320.
Wenegrat, B. (2001). Theatre of disorder: Patients, doctors, and the construction ofillness. New York: Oxford University Press.
In Part 1, we told you about important new scientific findings that may make it easier to predict where, when and by how much the disease will make its presence felt in future.
Now, Canadian researchers have concluded, while we may live far away from the topics, we cannot afford to be complacent. Changes in both our lifestyles and our climate could see not only malaria, but other mosquito-born diseases become established here.
The malaria mosquito, Anopheles albimanus. Photo by the Centres for Disease Control.
Mosquito-born diseases (MBDs) like dengue fever and malaria aren't currently established in Canada, partly due to our harsh climate. But global warming combined with increasing international travel, could change all that.
New research by a Canadian team from the National Microbiology Lab, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHA) and two universities finds, given "an evolving situation" due to climate change, mosquitoes native to Canada "may become infected with new pathogens and move into new regions within Canada." But exotic species may move in, too, bringing diseases like malaria and dengue fever along with them, from afar.
"With high levels of international travel, including to locations where the diseases are present," states the report, "there will be more travel-acquired cases of MBDs."
The team therefore stresses a need for active surveillance, a high level of awareness and mosquito-bite prevention to guard against a worst-case scenario.
Victoria Ng, PhD. Senior Scientific Evaluator at the Infectious Disease Prevention & Control Branch for Public Health Agency of Canada.
A spokesperson for the study, Dr. Victoria Ng of the PHA tells PinP in an e-mail, "I think one of the biggest impacts of climate change for exotic MBDs in Canada will be the increase in travel-acquired cases as well as the potential for limited autochthonous (local) transmission of diseases where there is climatic suitability for mosquito vectors and reservoirs."
But these latest findings are not universally accepted. An expert who has contributed to other studies of malaria in Canada, Lea Berrang Ford (formerly with McGill University - now with the University of Leeds), is not too concerned.
In an e-mail to PinP, Prof. Berrang Ford concedes, climate change could create more favourable conditions for the disease. But he believes there are factors other than temperature, such as a strong health care system that'll make a resurgence unlikely.
While Dr. Ng agrees, other factors may make MBDs unlikely in Canada. But, she adds, "There's always the chance that, given a combination of suitable conditions occurring concurrently over time and space, that establishment could occur." She cites the introduction of West Nile virus in Canada some 20 years ago as a case in point.
While Canada is considered, for all intents and purposes, malaria-free, you might be surprised to learn, this has not always been the case. Known then as "fever and ague," the disease ravaged two early European settlements which later became known as Niagara-on-the-Lake and Kingston. While rarely fatal, it also affected those working on the Rideau Canal in the 1830s to such a degree, construction was seriously delayed. As a matter of fact, from 1780 to 1840 it became so pervasive, few newcomers were spared.
Malaria IS one of the deadliest diseases in human history.
Some authorities describe gains made in controlling it, worldwide since the turn of the century as "one of the biggest public health successes of the 21st century." But since then, the World Health Organization, has scaled down that kind of rhetoric.
“This year’s report (2018) shows that, after an unprecedented period of success in global malaria control, progress has stalled….no significant progress in reducing global malaria cases was made in reducing cases from 2015 to 2017. There were an estimated 219 million cases and 435 thousand related deaths in 2017.”
And an international partnership which allocates funds to combat the disease, believes it's still not certain what the future holds. "The Global Fund (TGF)" says, even more money, beyond the substantial amounts already spent, will be needed, just to keep it at bay.
By: Larry Powell
Larry lives in Shoal Lake, Manitoba where he publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), “where science gets respect.”
Visit "Is Malaria the real Grim Reaper? - Part 1" to learn about the new scientific findings in Malaria research.
Credit: DNA by Thomas Hawk
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware that direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing has been enjoying a surge in popularity. Thanks to the relative affordability of DTC genetic tests, and the survival of a few powerful DTC genetic testing companies through the crucible that was the early-2000s market of DTC genetic tests, the rates of those taking such tests to uncover health or ancestral genetic information has continued to rise, resulting in about 15,000,000 people in the AncestryDNA database alone in April 2019. Alongside that rise in test-takers has been a rise in media coverage talking about everything from privacy issues, to the reactions of white nationalists to unexpected results of genetic ancestry tests, to the effect on the modern-day family, to stories of adoptees and missing people who were found through either DTC genetic testing or other genetic tests, and even fertility doctors who used their own sperm to impregnate patients without their knowledge.
Rightfully, such issues have gotten significant ink. Parallel to the media coverage of such world-rocking experience has been the media coverage of collaborations big DTC genetic testing companies have undertaken to increase the number of people purchasing and taking their genetic tests (sensibly so, as they are for-profit companies). These collaborations navigate the choppy waters of genetics, selfhood, and family with varying success, each of which demand attention and strategically placed signposts that respect those waters while providing tools for uncovering fact from fiction from unknown. Below, is a round-up of four collaborations that have received ink and clearly equate genes to culture by emphasizing and effectively sitting in the past to honour it in some way. In an upcoming post, I will share two collaborations that have received less ink and provide a spin on the typical collaborations that call back to the roots of the DTC genetic testing industry itself.
Just a couple months ago in May 2019 23andMe and Airbnb announced a collaboration to take advantage of what they assert to be a rise in “heritage travel.” Heritage travel is exactly what it sounds like; traveling to places associated with your heritage. In this collaboration’s case heritage is narrowed down by taking a DTC genetic ancestry test from 23andMe then navigating through their identified ancestral populations to Airbnb Homes and Experiences, or Airbnb’s pages specifically constructed to correspond to the populations 23andMe identifies.
The point, the companies articulate, is to help customers learn more about themselves and their ancestry, and to give them the tools they need to connect to a local culture that is already connected to them through their ancestral roots. This is often the point of the collaborations, to use the equation of genetic ancestry = culture to draw customers in with the claim that they’ll learn about their ancestral cultural roots because they’ve learned their ancestral genetics. Criticisms have been made of this equation, pointing out that genes are not culture and asserting that they are culture, even indirectly, helps prop up the idea of unscientific concepts such as race being scientifically legitimate, even without mentioning the word race. Race is socially relevant and very real in that sense, but biologically real? Not so much. Acting as though such classifications are biologically legitimate is, to put it lightly, worrisome.
Last year during the 2018 FIFA World Cup 23andMe teamed up with Fox Sports, the 2018 FIFA World Cup broadcaster in the United States to start a “Root for Your Roots” campaign that encourages 23andMe customers to return to their results report and reference a new feature that shows countries in the tournament with which they have the strongest genetic connection.
Stepping away from the complex issues inherent in the practice of using current national and territorial boundaries to classify people genetically, this campaign creates a combative attitude based on genes despite assertions that they’re “celebrat[ing] diversity.” It equates genes with a nationality, and in turn a national culture (the advertising video says you don’t have to know the culture or language), then uses that to position customers as allies towards a particular population and thus implies, for the World Cup at least, that they’re opponents to everyone else. It’s benign, until you remember that centuries of discrimination have framed populations different from yourself as opponents in a fight for resources and power, and thus a dangerous precedent is set in a benign manner.
Before the collaboration of 23andMe and Airbnb was the collaboration between Ancestry and Go Ahead Tours to create Ancestry Tours. Again, these are exactly what they sound like. They’re genealogy tours that are accompanied by an Ancestry Genealogist and include an AncestryDNA kit and a pre-trip family history review. In the vein of earlier genealogy tours, the Ancestry Tours position the genetic ancestry testing as an element of the tour rather than the driving force.
In the same vein as DNA is used by family genealogy enthusiasts, as identified by Alondra Nelson in The Social Life of DNA, DNA is used here as a tool buttressed by genealogy research done using historical records. It is not everything, it is one part of everything. Which, depending on your perspective, may make the common equation of “genetics = culture” less egregious because it’s flanked by the equation of “family history research and records = ancestral culture.”
Having received more criticism is the collaboration between AncestryDNA and Spotify to create a Spotify mix drawing inspiration from your genetic origins. Introduced in September 2018, this collaboration does not assert the importance of genealogy and historical records like Ancestry Tours does. Instead, it asserts the importance of genetics as a tool for linking you to a culture—specifically, its music.
It’s a tool of discovery, more than anything else, allowing people to “experience their culture and not just read about it” according to a quote from Vineet Mehra, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Ancestry. But, as is the theme here, this discovery comes with a worrisome thread. As Sarah Zhang from The Atlantic neatly summed up when the Ancestry/Spotify collaboration was announced, these collaborations assert a deterministic element to genes and the idea of picking and choosing which genes are important and which are not, making it easy to divide populations and assert superiority over another while ignoring all the facts. Reifying difference and social constructs such as race isn’t the claimed point of companies such as Ancestry, rather the point is self-discovery and a connection with a culture you may not have previously had in practice but nevertheless had in your blood. Unfortunately, you cannot engage in such self-discovery or connection unless you take the test conveniently offered by Ancestry, or 23andMe, or MyHeritage, or any of the other DTC genetic testing companies in the industry.
The author's AncestryDNA results as of July 2019 on a map showing her likely ancestral migration patterns (which match with earlier genealogical research by the author's family) in the dotted lines on the left, and her genetic ancestry as determined by AncestryDNA in the solid lines on the right. Credit: Megan Berry/AncestryDNA.
Stay tuned for my next post, where I will share two collaborations that provide a spin on the typical collaborations of the DTC genetic testing industry itself.
Tourmaline in pegmatitic granite. Credit: James St. John
New technology in batteries is sparking renewed interest in once overlooked mineral deposits in Canada.
As demand for batteries rises and the technology improves, there has been a huge upsurge in demand for resources such as cobalt, lithium and nickel, which are used to power everything from electric cars to phones.
Canada possesses many of these battery minerals, although it remains to be seen whether there are any deposits large enough to warrant commercial mining.
In the past deposits of these minerals were overlooked or seen as secondary to resources such as gold and silver. In Cobalt, ON, miners once dug past huge veins of cobalt in search of more precious silver. Now new prospecting may revitalize these dormant mines and the local economy.
But the need for new sources of these battery metals is pressing, and not just for economic reasons.
Currently, most of the world’s cobalt supply comes the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is often used and reports of human rights abuses are rife.
The result is that prospecting for these metals in Canada has increased significantly, with a rash of new start-up companies drilling for test samples and raising finance. A report by industry consultant PwC, for instance, says the number of small Canadian mining firms invested in lithium has risen from just one in 2015 to 10 last year.
It may all come to little effect. The price of both lithium and cobalt peaked last year, and only one lithium mine has resulted so far.
But although it may be years if ever before any new mines open in Canada, the possibility offers the chance for a more socially-conscious source of battery material.
Regardless of whether these prospecting efforts bear fruit, it is a reminder that new technologies not only change the daily life of users, they also shift multi-billion-dollar supply chains.
By: Kevin Martine
My name is Kevin Martine. I’m a fourth year journalism student at Carleton University. In the past I have written for both CIM Magazine and CapitalCurrent.ca. I’m excited about science journalism because I love reading about new technological achievements. I know that so many of the scientific discoveries and advancements made in the last few decades would have seemed impossible when my parents were growing up. I hope the future has many more such advancements in store for me to report on. I’m also minoring in economics, and I’m interested in how scientific learning can be applied to improve real world human welfare. I also love to read and I’m an avid follower of science fiction. Growing up, I was always curious and full of questions about the world around me. I like science journalism because I hope to answer the questions of people like me.
Secrets of malaria exposed. Science peels back the layers which obscure our understanding of one of the deadliest diseases known to man.
Findings published recently by a research team from the US and UK reveal, parasites that carry malaria, can mature inside their mosquito hosts way faster, at lower temperatures, than earlier thought.
Lab tests showed (at between 17 and 20 degrees C), it can take as little as 26 days from the time mosquitoes have had an infectious blood meal, to the time the parasites grow and becomes capable of transmitting the disease. For decades, it’s been assumed it would take about twice that long…some 56 days.
A malaria mosquito, the Anopheles stephensi. Source: CDC.
For more than 50 years, medical experts have been relying on a guide known as the Detinova model to try to map the future course of the disease. But that model did not fully take into account just what implications those cooler temperatures could have. Neither did it fully explore the impacts of routine fluctuations in daytime temperatures, which can also play a role.
"Ring" stage (in blue & pink) of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum in human red blood cells. Image by Eric Hempelmann.
Unlike previous studies, now described as “poorly-controlled,” two major malaria mosquito species were tested this time (including Anopheles stephensi, above).
“These novel results challenge one of the longest-standing models in malaria biology," states the study, "and have potentially important implications for understanding the impacts of future climate change."
Study co-author Jessica Waite, Ph.D. Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. The Pennsylvania State University.
"What we hope is that our work will help make better predictions about where, when and possibly how much malaria to expect. We believe our work provides a much-improved estimate for models of malaria." She also believes it'll help governments better direct their financial resources to aid areas that need it most.
Her team consisted of experts from the Universities of Pennsylvania State in the US and Exeter in England. They acknowledge, there's still a need for more tests, both in the lab and the field.
Larry lives in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, where he publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP) “where science gets respect.”
The findings appeared recently in the journal, Biology. Letters by The Royal Society.
Coming up: “Is Malaria the real Grim Reaper - Part 2"
The possibility of malaria finding a toe-hold in Canada are explored. The results might surprise you!
Nagarkot, a village in the hill region of Nepal, located on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Nepal is highly exposed to natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, and droughts, which is mainly due to its geography and climatic conditions.
In 2005, the World Bank released a Global Risk Analysis report that stated that the county is a ‘hotspot for geophysical and climatic hazards.’
The country is divided into three regions: the mountains (Himalayas) in the north, the hills in the middle, and the plainlands (Terai) in the south.
Each region is prone to environmental disasters for different reasons.
In the hills, landslides are common due to extremely steep slopes, high intensity of rainfall and unplanned human settlements. Landslides are even more likely when roads or irrigation systems are constructed without sound measures, which disrupt an already fragile ecosystem.
The mountains cause a different problem. The Himalayas’ snow-capped mountain tops and glaciers flow down to the hill and Terai regions, causing flooding that damage villages and crops.
However, sometimes, the opposite happens. The Terai regions suffer from droughts caused by irregular Monsoon rainfalls, which are supposed to last for three months between June and August, and supplies 75 per cent of the annual rainfall.
This year, Monsoon season came one month late. Two-thirds of Nepal’s farmland is rain-fed, making it the most important part of the year for farmers to plant their crops. Among the products cultivated during the rainy season is rice, Nepal’s most consumed staple food, supplying 40 per cent of the population’s food calorie intake, and contributing 20 per cent to the total agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Newari women planting rice in Bungmati, a village 10 km south of the heart of Kathmandu. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Recent decades have been characterized by population increases and industrial growth. As a result, the Kathmandu Valley (KV) has suffered from environmental degradation and increased pollution.
The KV consists of three districts: the Kathmandu District, Lalitpur District and Bhaktapur District. Between 2001 and 2011, the total population of the three districts increased from 1.6 to 2.5 million.
However, investments in infrastructure, water disposal, wastewater management, and the reduction of air and water pollution have been lacking. Simply put, the rate of industrialization has not been able to keep up with the masses of people entering the KV due to environmental disasters, the civil war that lasted ten years and ended in 2006, and economic opportunities.
Alongside the influx of people, the KV has lost much of its agrariable land mass to planned but, more often unplanned, built-up areas. This has reduced the government’s ability to be prepared when environmental disasters do strike.
2015 was a prime example. Nepal suffered from two massive earthquakes, measuring 7.8 and 7.3 on Richter’s Scale respectively. Locals still regularly refer back to this ‘terrifying time,’ when the walls of their homes came tumbling down and thousands lost their lives. 8,790 died, to be exact, and 22,300 people were injured. Half a million homes were destroyed and even more were damaged. Today, many homes are still held up by wooden poles, or need rebuilding.
The building pictured above is home to Kathmandu’s LivingGoddess, a young girl who is believed to be the reincarnation
of Goddess Taleju, and is worshipped by both Bhuddists and
Hindus. Her home, too, is held up by wooden poles.
2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The widespread destruction of the earthquakes combined with the tethering
The KV is in dire need of trees and it seems that there is no shortage of initiatives pushing for greater environmental sustainability. The Nepali government, for one, has proposed to plant 50 million trees during the next fiscal year, starting on July 17th, 2019. The national campaign has been named the “Year of Plantation,” yet no accompanying scientific plan has been proposed to date.
Alongside the continued development of urban infrastructure responding to the needs of modernized societies, a scientific plan would help to minimize the negative impacts industries can have on the environment. Since space is very limited in the KV due to population density, unplanned settlements and large influxes of people, it is hard to imagine where millions of trees will be planted. The government has yet to release their geographical strategy.
Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Encouraging students to feel alive may change how people ask questions and make discoveries
The schism between humans and the so-called "external" environment melds when people partner with nature. Science pertains to our personal living experiments that exceed reading textbooks. Young students who "major in a field" such as geology, biology, chemistry, or medicine, for example, perceive these to be separate disciplines.
Stepping out of our offices, lab benches, and classrooms can foster compassion and curiosity for others who sense they have a destination in mind, but along the way, are permitted to be full of uncertainty. Their vital signs and physiology – pulses, tissue branching morphogenesis, and emotions – are not to be dismissed. Their interior realities have somehow developed from embryonic cells to process stimuli and sense of their sentience. Rather than asking people to enter a major or expertise in a field, what if scientists first learn to sense their human aliveness in the process of revealing data will make nature thrive?
Nature is full of uncertainty and unpredictability. In the face of mystery, people can be quick to apply their false certainty to resolve what seems to need helping and fixing. Imagine if scientists cultivated a culture of curiosity and compassion as a practice for younger trainees. It may yield biological clues to how we can care for our own emotional and social well-being in doing the work of science, reconciliation and collective human fulfillment.
Our lives revolve around social relationships, and if people allow themselves and others to connect in our shared uncertainty, humans may recognize the courage we inherently have in the face of uncertainty and in crisis.
A misunderstanding is how science is thought to be a discipline of certainty. On the one hand, science presents time-tested, reliable methods and may yield reproducible data, yet it evokes unforeseen emotions and subsequent questions. Science is about adaptation, curiosity, and most certainly, an experience exploring the territory of uncertainty. Humans who form hypotheses and conduct experiments are uncertain, holding paradox and contradictions.
Uncertainty moves us to ask questions about our place in the universe. Our interrelated lives search for innovations and belonging. Some scientists and physicians are trained to embody self-sacrifice and exhaustion to seem earnest and diligent. Young researchers are hard-pressed to act knowingly to be "leaders" before realizing their own vibrant lives already contribute value in a constellation of unknowns.
In nature, people can sense wonder for their own evolving bodies, guiding questions, and search for meaning. Nature encourages people to look at themselves, an interconnected stranger, and human emotions as integral to finding answers rather than trivial and separate to the process. Encouraging scientists to play and to distill a set of nature-inspired leadership practices fosters curiosity about how life works.
Science shapes how we understand and interpret our connected experiences and the way we treat people. Inviting people from a young age to listen to the veracity of intuition can inform children to be playful, self-aware, adaptive, and capable of asking for help in every life stage.
A false comport of certainty leads people to feel unsafe, isolated, and disengaged in the biosphere. A student who faces poverty and homelessness faces one truth, while medical students also endure unsustainable stresses of exhaustion and a starvation to know their focus will expand our human awareness. A magnetic field, human nervous system, and gravitational force change human relationships at the molecular level. Living matter roils hot and cold at the interior core of humans and Earth, both spin and form intentional relationships with beings across forms and scales to sense we are alive and helping.
By: Corinne Gardner
I am Corinne Gardner, a facilitator and an author who choreographs collaborative, nature-immersive play workshops for humans. I am passionate about the evolution and emergence of humans and organisms across scales. I cover seemingly disparate science and nature topics, including human potential, adaptive strategies, women’s gynecology, and forest ecology. Why? Our life experiences are interconnected! Being aware that our needs, humour and emotions are not superfluous or trivial, but rather intrinsically human, makes us more capable of experiencing pain and pleasure – we must befriend ourselves. You can see my work at https://corinnegardner.home.blog.
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