Category Archives: Science & Environment

The science and ongoing research of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

On Tuesday, April 14, Dean of Students Myrna Hernández informed the campus community that the scheduled vaccine clinic happening on campus was cancelled due to a recommendation made by the FDA and the CDC. The recommendation asked all federal and state clinics offering the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine to halt any further distribution. This announcement left many students in limbo, as they were expecting to get vaccinated that week. However, it also left many others especially those who had already gotten the J&J vaccine wondering if their personal health was at risk.

The New York Times reported that over seven million Americans had already received the J&J vaccine before distribution slowed to a halt last Tuesday. Seven of those who were administered the vaccine  have suffered from blood clots, primarily in the brain. However, it is yet to be scientifically proven that these vaccines are the actual cause of the clotting. Europe recently suspended distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine for similar reasons. The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be authorized for public use in the United States.

For those who have already gotten the J&J vaccine, there are steps that can be taken to ensure your safety and to stay informed. The New York Times also reported that the risk of clotting, if it is indeed caused by the vaccine, is extremely low (nearly one in a million). If the opportunity arises, experts recommend getting the shot regardless of perceived threat, since the probability of being infected by COVID-19 is still much higher than the probability of developing a blood clot. The unverified clotting phenomenon seems to primarily affect women between ages 18 to 48, but other age groups are still at risk. The CDC advises people who have had the J&J shot in the past three weeks to contact a doctor if they experience one or more of the following: severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or difficulty breathing.

The science and mechanisms that explain and lead to the clotting are still being investigated by researchers. However, researchers in Europe, studying the AstraZeneca vaccine, have stated with confidence that the clotting could be caused by the immune system reacting too strongly to the vaccine. The body begins to produce blood platelets at levels that lead to clotting (platelets cause clotting in anyone, not just those who have received the vaccine). In technical jargon, the disorder is called vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia. COVID-19 itself is known to cause serious clotting as well. Scientists say that the root cause of the disorder is likely some incredibly rare biological trait that would take years to uncover.

No clotting cases have been reported for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It is important to listen to your body before and after receiving the vaccine. These clotting cases are extremely rare, and if given the opportunity, experts still recommend getting vaccinated.

MiSTEM holds the third annual (Overcoming) Failure Dinner

Raisa Raofa

Contributing Writer

 

On April 15, Minorities in S.T.E.M. (MiSTEM) hosted the annual (Overcoming) Failure Dinner. MiSTEM is an organization that advocates for the representation of minority groups in S.T.E.M. fields as well as holds discussions on the issues faced by those from minority communities. The organization also works to provide a safe space for these students. The dinner started in 2019 by the organization, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was held online this year.

The dinner lifted its curtains with the incoming MiSTEM president, Katiasofia Gonzales ’23, introducing the organization. It followed with a personal story shared by President Sarah Bolton. “You took my summer internship because you were a woman” was something Bolton heard regularly from her male peers in college. Followed by her failure on a midterm in a physics class her sophomore year, she started to think that she was not good enough for physics and needed to change to a different major. She explained how she dealt with the situation and how it shaped her as a person. Bolton emphasized that this experience helped her recognize whose voices were being heard, and who was present for discussions about this inequality.

Dr. Ivonne García, the inaugural chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the College, also shared her personal experience with failure and how it changed and shaped her life path. During her speech, she mentioned one of her professor’s comments that completely tore her apart. It affected her so negatively that she not only had to leave law school but also had to start learning to walk and drive all over again. “I was learning to walk and drive again as a 26 year old woman,” García said. However, she also mentioned how she found things she loves doing, like her current job in Wooster. 

MiSTEM then introduced Kara Melrose, the S.T.E.M. Success Initiative coordinator. She shared a story from her very first job at a school in New Orleans where she was teaching middle school science. While teaching, so much of her time and energy was spent on controlling the students and trying to gain their respect that she was barely teaching the students any science or math. Melrose then shared how that experience helped her to become the mentor that she is today.

The moderators of the event were outgoing co-presidents of MiSTEM Emma Saxton ’22 and Emma Davidson ’22. Both presidents shared their individual stories of failure and how it illuminated their lives. In order to provide students and faculty a more intimate and safe space to talk about their experiences, the event moved on to breakout rooms. Each room consisted of several faculty members and students who could share their own accounts of failure, how they overcame them and the impact these experiences had on their lives. This event was great for bringing together all attendees and to help everyone feel a little less alone as minorities in S.T.E.M.. 

Senior S.T.E.M. majors discuss I.S. results and give future students advice

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor

 

Kendra Devereux, Environmental Geoscience

What is your topic?  

My I.S. is titled: Climate Change Impacts go Beyond the Surface: Groundwater Recharge Rates and Aquifer Resources across the Contiguous United States. In my study, I use previously-developed regression equations to calculate current precipitation rates, evapotranspiration rates and runoff rates at 800 meter resolution. I was then able to calculate groundwater recharge rates. To display my results, I used ArcGIS to do the calculations and create various maps.

How did you choose your topic?  

I chose this study while participating in a virtual summer R.E.U. program with Rutgers University’s Ocean Data Labs. My R.E.U. advisor gave me a few options for a project I could continue into the school year as my I.S. topic. Understanding where our water resources are the most stressed across the U.S. was interesting to me because I felt that it held broader implications. 

What was the most difficult part of the study?  

The most difficult part of the study was the tedious work I had to do in ArcGIS to make my maps. I spent many long hours figuring out how to gather all of the necessary datasets and trying to get the methods to work in ArcGIS. This process was very frustrating, but it was also rewarding when I finally finished a map and got to see all of my hard work pay off. 

How have you grown and developed as a researcher/student/person from this process?  

As a student and researcher, I feel that this project has taught me how to work independently to solve problems. There was a lot of trial and error in this study, but I learned to have fun with the process and learned that patience is necessary in research.

What did you find and how is it relevant or significant?  

My study displayed — with a high degree of specificity (800 meters) — which regions of the U.S. have higher rates of precipitation and recharge, and which have lower rates of precipitation and recharge. Additionally, by pairing these findings with changing large-scale precipitation patterns over the U.S. and regional dependence on groundwater, I was able to present which areas in the U.S. may have problems with agriculture in the future due to having either too little or too much precipitation and groundwater recharge. These findings are highly relevant to global food systems because they suggest that agricultural production will shift to new areas within the U.S. and to other countries.

What words of wisdom do you have for upcoming seniors?  

Pick a topic you are truly interested in. I.S. doesn’t have to be this big, stressful, scary thing. It can be a lot of fun if you are working on something you care about. 

Georgia Hopps-Weber Chemistry & Art History

What is your topic?

My I.S. is titled: Preserving Keith Haring’s Legacy of “Art for All” through the Study of the Chemical Degradation of Daylight Fluorescent Paints and their Constituent Rhodamine Dyes.  In the lab, I explored the degradation of Day-Glo and Radiant brand red paints and their constituent dyes and optical brighteners under UV-A (ultraviolet) blacklight and LED white light. On the art history side of things, Keith Haring used Day-Glo paints to make a substantial number of paintings, sculptures and murals in the 1980s, and then displayed them in galleries with white lights, club-like galleries lit with blacklights and outdoors. I wanted to see if the paints responded differently to UV vs. LED lighting in order to make recommendations for future display of these works.

How did you choose your topic?

I knew I wanted to work with Dr. Sobeck since she has done a substantial amount of research on the chemistry of paint. While Dr. Sobeck was on sabbatical last year, she began doing research on Day-Glo pigments, and as soon as I saw how bright and exciting the fluorescent paints were, I knew that I wanted to work with them! I decided to apply my chemistry findings to works done by Keith Haring because he created such a large number of Day-Glo works and his art fills me with so much joy!

What was the most difficult part of the study?

The most difficult part of the study was finding a balance between my lab research and literature research on Keith Haring. I wanted to finish my lab work in the fall semester, but this left very little time to work on my art history sections during the spring semester.

How have you grown and developed as a researcher/student/person from this process?

I have grown so much as a researcher and person working on this project for the past year and a half. Before working on I.S., I was really intimidated by the idea of doing research of any kind.  I now feel confident in my abilities to work in the lab, problem solve and communicate my findings to others. 

What did you find and how is it relevant or significant?

I found that both Day-Glo and Radiant brand red paints showed little to no change when exposed to LED lights for a prolonged time, whereas the same paints lost fluorescent intensity and changed hue when exposed to UV-A blacklights. This suggests that it is safer to display artwork containing daylight fluorescent paints under LED lights, and if blacklights are required to create the full effect, or to honor the original intentions of the artist, then they should be used in a limited amount.  

What words of wisdom do you have for upcoming seniors?

My advice to upcoming seniors is to choose a topic that you are really passionate about, and to be okay with not knowing the answers sometimes! Although there were some stressful moments during this process, I enjoyed almost every hour I spent in the lab, reading about Keith Haring and writing my I.S. because I just loved my topic so much.

 Oria Daugherty – Biology

What is your topic?

My I.S. was focused on exploring reforestation strategies at Fern Valley Field Station, which is land that was donated to the College and is undergoing reforestation. I was looking at how “coarse woody debris”— basically, logs, stumps, branches, etc.— impact wildlife populations, particularly snakes and small mammals. I found that simply adding this debris to areas of reforestation increases the abundance of small mammals, which could be a good sign for future reforestation projects.

How did you choose your topic?

I worked with my advisor, Dr. Lehtinen, to find a topic that matched both my interests in sustainability and the environment, as well as his long-term goals for the field station. This is a project that can carry over into other years, and will hopefully serve as a demonstration for various reforestation practices that might be possible elsewhere.

What was the most difficult part of the study? 

It was tough collecting the data, because I had to go out in the evening to set up traps, and then get up early the next morning to check them, identify anything that was captured, and release it. Sometimes it was tough being out in the field and feeling like I wasn’t getting a lot of data for what felt like a lot of work. Spending a week cleaning over sixty metal traps wasn’t too fun either!

How have you grown and developed as a researcher/student/person from this process?

I think this research process really showed me how tedious “doing science” can really be — everyone always thinks about scientific inquiry in a very broad way and sees the result. What people don’t recognize is all the tiny details and tasks that go into conducting research, especially field research where there are many variables outside of your control.

What did you find and how is it relevant or significant?

I did find that there is a statistically significant difference in the presence of small mammals in areas where coarse woody debris is present, compared to where it is not. This could prove to be significant for reforestation projects where quickly increasing wildlife biodiversity or abundance is the goal.

What words of wisdom do you have for upcoming seniors? 

Trust the process! Know that you are going to be frustrated, and whatever is happening, your advisor has probably dealt with it before. They can help you, and you should be willing to ask them for help. Recognizing that you aren’t completely alone in the process sooner will make your life easier, I promise!

Daniel Halbing – Physics & Philosophy

What is your topic?

My topic was titled The Effect of Varying Paneling Characteristics on Soccer Ball Flight. My project tested the predictability of seven different soccer match balls (professional level) by using initial shot data to create a theoretical flight path for each shot and then comparing the actual observed flight path to this theoretical flight path. Since each of the balls was constructed very uniquely, with varying surface roughness, seam counts, raised features etc., the goal was to find which characteristics of a soccer ball’s surface (paneling) makes the flight more or less predictable.

How did you choose your topic?

My idea for my topic came largely out of my desire to try to make my I.S. about something I would be truly passionate about. Soccer is one of my life’s passions (you could even say obsessions), and through this topic I was able to combine my love of physics with my love of soccer.

What was the most difficult part of the study?

The most difficult part was my data analysis, as I had to go through an average of 250 frames of video per shot on goal and select the ball in each frame of video. I ended up with about 70 shots on goal collected, so in total I analyzed approximately 17,500 frames of video.

How have you grown and developed as a researcher/student/person from this process?

I grew tremendously throughout my I.S. process, especially during this pandemic year. As a researcher, I learned how truly adaptable you must be while doing research, since unpredictable challenges ranging from video files corrupting unexpectedly to being quarantined for close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 can occur out of the blue. I also grew a great deal as a person. This pandemic year took its toll on everyone mentally and combined with I.S., it took a lot of mental fortitude and determination to continue when sometimes it felt like nothing was going right.

What did you find and how is it relevant or significant?

My conclusion was that, due to changes between turbulent and laminar airflow around a ball in flight, shots with high spin rates tend to be more predictable the more perfectly spherical a ball is. On the other hand, shots with low spin rates tend to be more predictable the less perfectly spherical a ball is. This obviously provides a paradox for manufacturers, as a ball must perform well in both high spin and low spin situations. It was found that the Adidas UEFA Nations League Match Ball did the best job of bridging the gap between the two situations. This conclusion is significant because it shows that while it seems impossible to make the perfectly predictable soccer ball, it appears that the features of the Adidas UEFA Nations League Match Ball is what manufacturers should model their match balls after.

What words of wisdom do you have for upcoming seniors?

Find a project you love for your I.S.! Some days it really is hard to find motivation to work on I.S., but if it is a project you are genuinely interested in, it will never feel like a responsibility; it will feel more like an opportunity!

Your questions answered: the COVID-19 vaccine, virus variants and more

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor

 

What is in the vaccine?

There are three main types of the COVID-19 vaccine. First, the mRNA vaccine consists of certain materials from the actual virus. These materials prompt our cells to create proteins that are unique to COVID-19. The virus’ DNA is still present in our bodies, but our body now has copies of proteins that enable it to destroy the DNA and fend off future attacks. The second type, protein subunit vaccines, injects harmless COVID-19 proteins into our bodies, as opposed to contracting the entire virus that causes the illness. Our bodies respond by creating antibodies to fight any future invasions. The third type, vector vaccines, contain different viruses that can be thought of as a shell. Inside the shell are COVID-19 proteins that hitch a ride in the shell (hence the term vector).  

What is the difference between the three vaccines?

DO NOT wait for a specific brand of the vaccine. The best vaccine is the first one available to you. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a two-shot process. Shots are administered three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine also consists of two shots, but given four weeks apart. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine only requires one shot. DO NOT compare efficacy rates! These are not a measure of effectiveness. Efficacy is a ratio taken from trials that measures the fraction of those who got COVID-19 with the vaccine versus those who got COVID-19 with the placebo. The J&J vaccine is not “worse” than the other two.

What does the vaccine do? 

The vaccine is made to support our bodies in the process of developing immunity to the

virus that causes COVID-19. It is meant to protect us from the virus, so we don’t have to get COVID-19 itself to create antibodies. As the CDC puts it, “Vaccines train our immune systems to create proteins that fight diseases, known as ‘antibodies,’ just as would happen when we are exposed to a disease but – crucially – vaccines work without making us sick.” Our bodies are left with a supply of memory (T- and B-lymphocytes) that can help fight the virus in the future.  

Am I getting the actual COVID virus injected into my body? 

No. None of the vaccines that you can receive right now contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

What are the side effects?  

Side effects include pain, redness and swelling in the arm where you got the shot, exhaustion, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea overall after the shot.

Are side effects good?

Side effects mean that your body is building protection and should subside after a few days, according to the CDC.

Will I need to get this vaccine again or is it a one and done thing?  

The CDC reports that they are still learning about how long the vaccines can protect people. However, experts have made educated guesses on this question. Some say the vaccines will last at least six to eight months. Once again, there is no set answer to this question yet, and federal health officials have not come out with any definitive answer.

Will the vaccine protect me from other variants?

Variants are mutations in the original COVID-19 virus’ DNA. Each of the vaccines currently in play are less effective against the variants discovered thus far. In short, continue to follow public health guidelines and wear a mask.

Why should I get the vaccine?

The science is sound. You are protecting not just yourself, but others as well. Each of us has a responsibility to our community that goes beyond personal freedoms. The shot is a small sacrifice to make. Do not make public health personal or political. Please.

Do I still have to wear a mask once I am vaccinated? 

Yes. You should wear a mask and practice social distancing when in public, gathering with multiple households of unvaccinated people, or visiting someone who is at increased risk from COVID-19. Still avoid larger gatherings and if you travel, and watch out for symptoms associated with the virus.

Can I pass the vaccine to others even though I am immune? 

People who are immune can still be contagious, that is why it is so important to keep following masking and social distancing rules in public and around others, especially unvaccinated people.  

What can I do after I have been fully vaccinated?

Once you are fully vaccinated, you are able to gather indoors with other vaccinated people without social distancing or masks. You can also spend time with unvaccinated people from any age from other households without masks or social distancing.

Will the COVID-19 vaccine alter my DNA?

No, COVID-19 vaccines do not interact with your DNA in any way. The mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. The vector vaccine uses a different, harmless virus to deliver important instructions to our cells to start building protection. The vaccines do not go into our DNA in any way.

Does the vaccine insert a microchip in me?

No.

“Visions of the Future” poster collection and space exploration

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor

 

For two years, I had never set foot in the bottom floor of the physics department’s building (turns out that is where we keep the shrink ray machine). The faculty put up all of the senior/junior thesis posters down there. But, lining an entire wall in the main hallway is a full collection of the jointly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Lab’s (NASA-JPL’s) Visions of the Future poster series.

One afternoon, I spent the better part of ten minutes studying each one, comparing them to visions I have filed away from reading sci-fi novels and watching television shows like The Expanse. Pacing down the hallway, I noticed two things:

  1.   I would give up my earth-bound life to stand on Europa for one day as Jupiter engulfed my field of view.
  2. Where’s the Moon poster?

The goals of space exploration are being overrun by a sentiment of escape — a sentiment I had just fallen victim to in a matter of ten minutes as I closed my eyes and saw Jupiter swing overhead. Heavy space tourism themes characterize each individual poster, hinting at the sentiment of escape.

NASA and JPL have taken us to the Moon — and, yeah that’s about it. Amusingly, the Moon does not even have its own poster in the collection. The collection instead focuses only on the places we as humans have not been to: Mars, Venus, Europa, or anywhere that is not the one other place humans have actually set foot. They even have a poster for one of the recently discovered TRAPPIST exoplanets some 40 light-years away. Something as simple as the lack of a Luna-themed poster is indicative of a much more worrying phenomenon.

Here is some background on the creation of the Visions of the Future poster series:

A creative team of visual strategists at JPL, known as “The Studio,” created the poster series, which is titled “Visions of the Future.” Nine artists, designers and illustrators were involved in designing the 14 posters, which are the result of many brainstorming sessions with JPL scientists, engineers and expert communicators.

The design is supposed to mimic those of the national parks posters created by the Works Progress Administration. Joby Harris, the illustrator, said that they wanted to make the planets and moons seem like far-off destinations.

I am not trying to minimize the scientific and technological advancements NASA and JPL have made on behalf of the world. However, the Visions of the Future posters offer a glimpse into the mindset our storied space agency has with respect to space exploration now. Their mindset is escapist and disconnected from the history they claim to build upon as we “return to the Moon by 2024.”

Where is the poster of the Apollo 11 crew standing on the Moon or an illustration of a moon cafe called Aldrin Coffee (you’d get a real Buzz)?

The poster of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, depicts a group of space tourists on an underwater viewing platform watching something that says to me the creators of the poster drew more inspiration from Europa Report than they did the actual Galilean moon. A giant space octopus hotel is more sensationalist than it is scientist.

However, space is really difficult. Viewing the potentially terraform-able planets and moons as “destinations” like the national parks implies that “The Studio” and the experts they consulted think of what they do as enabling the rest of us to take a space vacation.

The glaring oversight of or wanton disregard for our own Apollo era missions to the Moon only confirm the sort of been there, done that mindset we have towards landing on our own Moon. Getting back to the Moon won’t be easy, but it will probably still be the first tourist destination beyond low-earth orbit.

Perhaps the only way to convince the general public that space exploration is worth their time and money is by confronting them with sensational illustrations of who we want to be. For now, the poster series is representative of the idealism we, and now JPL, stuff the space turkey with. The simple fact that they focus on tourism is evidence that space is some sort of escape; when in reality space would be the scariest, hardest vacation you might never return from.

Yet, I still look forward to the day when we can write: “out of office, experiencing the charm of gravity assists.”

The clear and obvious tourism themes that characterize every single one of the posters indicate that our space agencies subconsciously view venturing out into space as an escape from Earth. Not to mention the oversight or wanton disregard for the only place we’ve set foot on: our own Moon.

If we allow the tourist destination themes present in these posters to permeate our thinking, we run the risk of not just forgetting our pale blue dot, but of going to space for the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with imagining worlds unknown, but there is something very wrong with wanting to escape to what can only be imagined.

Inequality and Racism in A.I.

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor

 

Timnit Gebru, a highly respected artificial intelligence (A.I.) ethicist, finished her Ph.D. thesis and was promptly hired by Google as part of their campaign to increase algorithmic scrutiny. Google, along with many Big Tech Companies have always pushed inclusive narratives. However, in December of 2020, Gebru was abruptly fired from her A.I. ethics research position. The company cited a paper in which she took issue with their minority hiring practices and language models, both of which lead to discriminatory biases. Many critics and fellow researchers cite this incident as further evidence that Big Tech companies do not truly care for underrepresented peoples. The hiring of researchers like Gebru is merely a front.

Gebru became a S.T.E.M. celebrity when she posted a well-written opinion piece on Facebook in response to exclusionary practices she witnessed while attending a conference in Barcelona, Spain. It reads: “I’m not worried about machines taking over the world. I’m worried about groupthink, insularity and arrogance in the A.I. community. The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit the few while harming a great many.

This post and the responses it received led Gebru to start a group called “Black in A.I.” A prominent ethics researcher that already worked in Google took Gebru in at Google where she would eventually be hired.

Beneath these public relations and front-page stories are actual examples of artificial intelligence drawing conclusions or carrying out its tasks with abhorrent racist results. For example, Google Photos (one of their many apps), is capable of sorting through pictures you may upload to their service. If you have 50 pictures of flowers in your upload folder, Google Photos will sort those 50 flower pictures in a folder labeled “flowers.” In 2015, a Brooklyn, N.Y. resident used the service to sort some photos a friend had sent their way. There was an entire folder labeled “gorillas.” This person opened the folder only to find 80 pictures of a Black friend.

Neural networks are responsible for analyzing huge amounts of data (the pictures you might upload to Google Photos) and determining what those photos are of based on training data. That training data is how the neural network learns to classify a picture of a flower as a flower. However, machines – especially artificial intelligence, are a direct reflection of the human that created it.

Something that scientists and engineers frequently fail at is communicating the complexities of the work they do. However, when it comes to blatantly racist technology, we cannot just accept “technical difficulties” as the reason. We have to hold scientists and engineers to a higher level of accountability when it comes to these issues; and even more so when the issues come to light. The groupthink that the mostly white males engage in at Google and other tech companies is directly reflected in their work. It was while confronting this that Timnit Gebru was fired by Google.

Ethics matter, especially in a field driven by scientific advancements. The cases of Gebru and Google Photos are merely drops in an ocean of misconduct by artificial intelligence experts and the companies that develop the technology. The bias that permeates artificial intelligence systems and the undercurrent of exclusion that runs through tech companies must be addressed. These are not isolated events, nor are they confined to Silicon Valley. We can not write off inequity to technical difficulty or allow the developers of artificial intelligence to suppress the likes of Timnit Gebru