Thursday, August 13, 2015

How Does the Brain Work?

By Paola Salazar

 The Curiosity Challenge

Why is the sun yellow? Why do grass and dirt have a stronger scent after it rains? How and why do my nails keep growing? What is a black hole?


A while back, we offered children and teens an opportunity to submit questions related to any topic in science, tech, engineering and mathematics that they may have, and here we've done it again. 
  
The Curiosity Challenge for ages 5-14 encourages curiosity.  We ask the students to enter their question about the world in whatever form - essay, poem, drawing, photograph.  All good science starts with our curiosity and questions of the world around us.  This series of blog posts will highlight some of the questions we have received through the Curiosity Challenge and some answers to them.


We’ve reached out to graduate students and researchers in each field, and have begun getting some great feedback on some the questions we all wonder at some point in time.


So without further ado, here’s round one of the Curiosity Challenge Q&A!


How Does the Brain Work?

Alex Lee, Age 11


[http://chinwag.com/files/images/general/brain_works.jpg]


A long time ago, long before there were dogs or monkeys or people, the planet was mostly covered in very simple organisms like worms. As the worms got bigger, they realized they had a problem - the head of the worm might want to go in one direction, but it had no way to communicate with the tail of the worm to get the tail to go in the same direction.


The worms figured out that they would be much more successful if they had a special kind of cell that communicated between the head and the tail to coordinate movement. We now call these kinds of communication cells "neurons." As animals became more and more complicated, they got more and more neurons and the neurons had to be connected in more complicated ways in order to successfully control the body.


The brain is the end product of that process of evolution - a highly sophisticated organ that coordinates your movement and your thoughts. Our brains now do many other things, like keeping memory and emotion. We still don’t fully understand how these things work in the brain though. If you become a neuroscientist, one day you could figure out how the brain works and add to what we know!

Responder: Communicating Science @ MIT (commit.mit.edu), a student group at MIT

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Catching a Sea Perch



by Eric Bender
The underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) run by offshore industry or the Navy or scientists are usually big brawny fellows, designed to grab a valve on an oil platform at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico or scan remote areas of the Pacific sea floor or pluck cargo from the Titanic. But you can build a model ROV that fits inside a milk crate and zooms through water in basically the same ways.

That's exactly the role of MIT's Sea Perch project, which builds these small educational wet wanderers, and exactly what teams of middle and high schoolers accomplished Wednesday at the MIT Museum.

At the start, about half the kids said they were enthusiasts for science and engineering, and the other half cheerfully said they had been forced to come by their parents. Ably led by Kathryn Shroyer, mechanical engineer and Sea Grant educator, they all plunged together into designing and building their own Sea Perches.

To keep the exercise within three hours, Shroyer had painstakingly pre-assembled the most complicated components. Each team received a set of four motors tucked into film canisters, waterproofed, topped with propellers, and hooked up via a long thin power cable to a battery and a control box. That let the groups focus on creating their own frames, and connecting the motors and floats.

Most teams came up with a similar design theme for their pocket submersibles: small, fast and
maneuverable. Pieces of PVC and flotation were soon flying through the air. The kids rethought and rebuilt their frames, and bandied about names like Hot Dog Mark 1 and Magical English Kangaroo.

Each team then marched its contender down to first floor of the museum, which was awash in a Dive into Ocean Science exhibition for Earth Day. Here, the team members would work their way through the crowd, gently lower their contraption into a large aquarium tank and smile
and puzzle as it bumped and scuttled around the tank. After a few minutes, each team would pluck the ROV from the tank and head back to the lab to fiddle with flotation and weights and make other tweaks.

Back down into the tank again, the kids would look again to spot what now worked and what didn't really. And like the operators of fullscale ROVs, they got splashed sometimes.
 Photos courtesy Kathryn Shroyer, MIT Sea Grant




Thursday, April 23, 2015

Safety first

by Mary Alexandra Agner

The Volpe Center's railroad simulator and its control room.

Anxious about air travel? Apprehensive about automobile recalls or the reliability of the next bus you board? Concerned your cruise ship may stall in the Gulf? The Volpe National Transportation Systems Center is working to make your transit options as safe as possible.

For the Volpe Center's first appearance in the Cambridge Science Festival on Tuesday, four staff members presented "transportation ideas worth sharing" about passenger safety during plane, bus, car, and ship travel. The event culminated in a tour—with hands-on participation—of the Center's plane, car, and rail engine simulators.

After director Robert Johns gave an overview focused on the history and mandate of the Center—"advancing transportation for the public good"—two speakers addressed aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

Kathryn Bernazzani discussed aircraft wake turbulence, explaining the concept of a wake vortex—a horizontal tornado off the plane's wing occurring during flight—with a clip from Die Hard 2. Getting more serious, she discussed the damaging effects of wake vortices from a leading plane on a trailing plane, and how the vortices persist after the plane has flown past. With NextGen's increase of closely-spaced parallel runways, the effects of one plane's wake on another pose more of a hazard. Bernazzani and her colleagues are working to mitigate that through updated requirements for safe following distances assigned to types of planes.

Ruth Hunter focused further on safety issues raised by the changes to existing airport, air traffic control, and airplane behavior outlined in NextGen, all designed to increase airport capacity. Hunter works with a multi-discipline, multi-agency review group looking at how common anomalies, such as sudden stops and missed departures and arrivals, are decreased by NextGen. The group's first step was to model existing anomalies. Hunter showed a number of real events, recorded from radar, GPS, and other data, which could be autonomously detected by software that would alert humans as the event occurred.

Brian Sumner's discussion of mobile apps moved the topic of safety from air travel to buses and automobiles. Sumner is part of an effort creating tablet and phone apps, free for public use, which provide safety ratings of cars, car recall notification, and safety records for drivers and vehicles from bus lines—all gathered from national agencies. Additionally, the team built an app to aid government employees tasked with inspecting trucks and buses on highways. Sumner reported over 10,000 downloads of this app for the Android operating system alone.

In the final presentation, Kam Chin shared ship-tracking software, bringing up a web page displaying over 50,000 ships based on their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder data. He showed how to overlay ship history onto a world map, and to access a ship's heading. The software is used by a number of U.S. government and foreign organizations to track events at sea.

Mary Alexandra Agner writes nonfiction, poetry, and stories in Somerville, MA.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Personalized Medicine: Our Human Genome

Our genome is the “code of our bodies.” Every cell in our system contains a complete set of DNA that contains “recipes” which influence every aspect of an individual. These genes work together to create each piece of who we are, this includes everything from eye color, hair color and hand size to which diseases a person will get or is susceptible to. The first gene sequences were completed in the late 70’s and since then genome sequencing has been revolutionized. Recently, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been able to curate a person’s entire genome sequence for personalized treatment. This personalization of medicine gathers ones genetic information and family’s genetic history to better diagnose and treat diseases.

Personalized medicine can help diagnose many different types of cancers, some forms of Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS and many other diseases. This range to cure seems to be limitless. Over the past 20 years the price of genome sequencing has gone down from a few million dollars to a few thousand dollars, making it much more accessible to patients. The increase of genomic data and understanding of how genes contribute to diseases improve clinical decisions and patient care. With more research, genome sequencing can also contribute to other area of science and innovation.

The Brigham Research Institute (BRI) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will host a symposium on “The Future of Genetics in Healthcare: From Sequencing to Treatment” highlighting science from our community in areas such as DNA sequencing, precision medicine, global phenotyping and more. Speakers include Calum Macrae M.D PhD, Robert Green M.D MPH, Tamarra James-Todd PhD and Raju Kucherlapati PhD. Join us this Thursday, April 23 to learn more from experts in one of the leading healthcare fields and hear about how the science of today will impact patient care in the future.

Register for the event here.


Piece by Alessandra Maahs Co-op Intern at the Brigham Research Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with a focus in Biology and Communications.

Monday, April 20, 2015

One More Cup of Coffee


by Katie Oleksak

Coffee, one of life’s finest staples. It controls me, annoys me, and causes me to be late to obligations and short of cash but I love it. Living in Dunkin’ Donuts nation and socially acceptable coffee shop culture, I wonder whether the 6 o’clock news stories of coffee’s antioxidant and anti-aging affects are simply appeasing us so that we do not feel bad about our bean-wielding lives? Possibly. But in any case, on Sunday I received much more than I bargained for in “One More Cup of Coffee,” a two-hour interactive session at the Cambridge Science Festival, rich with science, samples and coffee freaks like myself.

I arrived at the MIT Museum just in time to hear Harvard researcher Daniel Chasman describe some exciting science behind the physiology of coffee on the brain. A crowd of all ages had gathered and was plenty attentive although it was not even allowed at the sample tables yet. If there was any doubt that feeding your daily habit causes short-term or long-term effects on your body, Chasman’s talk, rich in biology and medicine, would have removed it. Although research continues on the health benefits of coffee drinking, habitual drinking—duh, I didn’t think there was another way—does lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and increase metabolism. This even goes for decaf! Additionally, some major genes that play a role in behavior and psychological patterns are influenced by coffee, in a good way!

Sanjiv Chopra, a liver specialist Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, assured the crowd that the research on coffee shows that benefits outweighs the bad, and the best things you can do for yourself to increase longevity are to exercise, get plenty of Vitamin D, meditate, eat nuts and, you guessed it, drink coffee. He further elaborated on coffee’s antioxidant effects and its ability to decrease risk for heart attack, atrial fibrillation, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline, suicide and certain cancers. Java is the most consumed beverage in the world for a reason.

Sandy Pentland, a professor at MIT, followed up with interesting facts about how the coffee break increases socialization, trust and trouble-shooting among co-workers, therefore increasing productivity. The smell of coffee alone in the break room can initiate this process. So much for the water cooler, head to the coffee pot! Also, he suggested, coffee itself can increase rapid eye movement sleep and decrease incidence of mental illness.

Samples always draw a crowd and this event did no less, as local baristas and brewers from Aeronaut Brewery, Barismo, Darwin’s Ltd. and Flour Bakery shared their secrets about cold and hot drip roasts. I’d give a special bonus for the talk from the co-founders at Aeronaut about their collaboration with Barismo on a coffee milk stout—a coffee-infused beer!

The speakers were smart, well-informed and engaging. Sampling was allowed for 5-10 minutes between speakers, and it didn’t hurt that Flour Bakery was giving out chewy double-chocolate walnut espresso cookies to go along with their French roast.

In my experience, Cambridge is rich with open-minded, intelligent, coffee-loving folk. Sitting through “One More Cup of Coffee”, I felt lucky to live here. For those of us held hostage by the bean, don’t feel guilty or alone. Simply help yourself to one more cup of coffee!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dissecting the dead and alive—virtually!—at MGH


by Judith Lavelle

At the Paul S. Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation, you can see demonstrations of a state-of-the-art virtual dissection table at 11AM and 4PM every weekday during the Cambridge Science Festival.


A high-tech alternative to traditional cadaver dissections, the Anatomage is finding its way into medical schools as a teaching device. But its capabilities don’t end there. At Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors use the technology to view three-dimensional images of their patients’ bodies—whether these patients have been recently admitted to MGH or showed up a century earlier.


I learned about the latter case from Russell Museum docent Jodie Grossman, who led a group of festival-attendees on a tour through the Ether Dome—the national historical landmark where the first public anesthetized surgery took place in 1846. There, she introduced us to MGH’s spokesmummy, Padihershef. We don’t know much about Padihershef’s life and afterlife before he was gifted to MGH by the city of Boston in 1823. But a recent 3D scan of his remains has given us a bit more information.

Grossman explained that Padihershef was the first mummy on American shores. When he arrived, egyptologists and other scholars determined his name and his possible profession (stonemasonry) from the hieroglyphics on his sarcophagus.

Of course, he’s a rare gem even today, but at the time, MGH’s founders took advantage of the novelty and sent Padihershef off on a national tour to garner support for the institution. Since then, he’s been away from his home in the Dome two more times—for another fundraising tour and while on loan to a museum in Springfield, Mass., in the 1980s. It was there that he must have received what Grossman calls “plastic surgery.”

Back at the museum, she brought Padihershef’s scan up on the Anatomage (on the left) and showed us what she meant.

 The scan reveals a number of predictable and surprising discoveries. With her finger tracing his crooked back, Grossman points out that the mummy’s vertebrae look healthy—indicating that the “slouch” occurred post-mortem after decades of standing. This was understandable. What researchers didn’t expect to find was a broom handle stuck through poor Padi’s torso. The researchers deduced that the curator at the Springfield museum must have inserted the handle as an attempt to cure Padihershef’s poor posture. Grossman says that curators at MGH worry that removing the broom handle will do more harm than good, so for now, Padi is stuck with it.

In patients slightly younger than Padihershef’s 2600 years, doctors can use three-dimensional images to find other things that shouldn’t be there. Grossman showed us an example of a patient’s three-dimensional skull, complete with a detailed network of blood vessels within and around the cranial cavity. She “sliced” open the skull to reveal a cerebral aneurysm—a balloon-like enlargement of an artery. Thanks to new three-dimensional techniques like this one, doctors can diagnose and treat this and other life-threatening conditions with even more precision.

Check it out yourself this week at the Cambridge Science Festival!

 

 The Anatomage displays a cerebral aneurysm in a patient’s cranial cavity.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sound practice for songwriting

by Eric Bender


We might picture songwriters at work sitting at a piano or holding a guitar, but more and more artists who work with musical technology are inspired by sounds, says Michael Bierlyo, Chair of Electronic Production and Design at Berklee College of Music. “You can think of someone like Bj√∂rk, who is fascinated by sounds and uses that as a gateway to create songs,” he says.

You also might think of Nona Hendryx, an internationally famous singer whose career began with the Bluebelles, who had a hit with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962. Hendryx’s extraordinary career as songwriter and performer is still going strong, and she is still experimenting with the latest music technologies. “Nona is totally hooked up with technology, with writing music with computers,” says Bierylo. “She is the technology diva.”

Hendryx coaches and collaborates with Berklee students, and she will join them with Bierylo and other faculty onstage in “Songs from Sounds” on Saturday April 25. This concert of sound-inspired songs will be performed for free at the MIT Media Lab at 20 Ames Street, starting at 8 pm (rather than the 7 pm listed in the Festival's printed program).

Bierylo, who is also a longtime member of the band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, notes that the concert will be held in the Cube, the Media Lab's legendary core meeting/working space, with quadraphonic sound and two large screens for video. “It will showcase the type of things we can do, really focused on the idea of using science to explore sound that will inspire songs,” he says. For a preview, see this 2013 performance at Berklee, also shown in these pictures by Claire Steger.




Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Welcome to the Robot Zoo!

by Eric  Bender

Harvard Microrobotics Lab’s Robobees, MIT Personal Robot Group’s Dragonbot and Olin Robotic Team’s Damn Yankee
The Science Carnival that kicks off at noon on Saturday April 18 at Cambridge High School's field house is sort of like the Big Apple Circus of Science, except that it's way bigger and free.

Okay, there are no trained horses and probably no clowns, but you can walk inside an inflatable gray whale and a 300,000-times-scale model of a human white blood cell at the Carnival. You can also check out demonstrations of everything from deriving your own DNA to 3D-printing your own trinket and from superconducting magnetic levitation to walking a glider.

But be sure to save time for the Robot Zoo, which will draw a diverse population of robots and their builders.

You can elbow your way through the crowds in the Zoo to find the pioneering firm iRobot and a few of what it describes as its “cool, practical” robots. You can watch videos of robots at work, as in the exhilarating demo reel from Above Summit, a “drone-focused multimedia production studio”. Or you can cheer on robots themselves at play, and chat with their builders at educational groups such as US First Robotics and Play-Well TEKnologies.

Moreover, you can talk to researchers who are building strange and wonderful new robots.

Among them, some of the most ambitious projects are underway at MIT's Personal Robots Group, which will bring kid-friendly research robots. Dragonbots are intriguing little animals stuffed with clever electromechanical parts and an Android phone that acts as a brain and presents a face to the world. “Tega is a new robot platform designed to support long-term, in-home interactions with children, with applications in early-literacy education from vocabulary to storytelling,” says the group. Tega incorporates a camera, the ability to run on batteries for up to six hours, and even higher levels of cutely anthropomorphic behavior than its predecessors.

You'll find a different set of tough robot design challenges under the tall blue sails of the Damn Yankee, a two-meter-long model for the Olin Robotic Sailing Team’s quest to build an autonomous sailboat that eventually can voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. “You can tell this guy where to go and it will go there—give it a GPS coordinate and it determines everything else,” says co-team-leader Amanda Sutherland. Olin College's student-run team is now modifying a small daysailer with technologies tested on the Damn Yankee, and aiming to send the boat across Massachusetts Bay from Gloucester to Provincetown this fall. “The point is to prove that sailing is a robust enough platform to be used for sustainable research on the water,” says Sutherland.

“We also hope that our program will get more people in elementary schools and middle schools excited about working in teams,” she adds. “You can pull together everybody’s skills so you end up with something awesome.”

Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory “makes robots in ways that other people don’t necessarily think of making robots,” including printable robots and robots made of soft materials, says graduate student Michelle Rosen. “That raises the question, what is a robot? I like to ask that question to visitors at our booth, which is interesting to them and to me.”

Maybe most engagingly at the Zoo, the lab will show its insect-inspired, insect-size robots, which eventually may swarm in with sensors that aid in search and rescue or other tasks in challenging environments. Look for the flapping-wing Robobee, the beetle-like Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot and a centipede-imitating millirobot. Look closely, because they are tiny. “It's exciting for kids to actually touch and get close to these robots,” says Rosen.