Thursday, December 20, 2007

PRBB research: a cleaner air improves lung function

The exposition to pollution from diesel vehicles makes people with asthma worsen and the lung capacity of the general population decrease at a faster rate. These are the conclusions of two international studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which Nino Kunzli and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, from CREAL and IMIM-Hospital del Mar, have participated.

The first study analyses 4,742 Swiss people during 10 years and shows for the first time in adults that the improvement in the air quality slows down the lung function ageing. Kunzli says: “we knew that the lung function degradation in smokers is slowed down when they quit. Now we know that ‘quitting’ pollution has the same result”.

The second article studies the decrease in the lung function in 60 adults with asthma after walking for 2h on Oxford Street, full of buses and diesel vehicles, which liberate 100 times more particles than petrol motors. The study demonstrates empirically for the first time that even short exposures to diesel reduce lung function, worsen asthma symptoms and increase lung inflammation. According to Nieuwenhuijsen, “with 2.5 millions of asthmatics in Spain, where 30% of vehicles are diesel, it is important to know the risks of the exposition to this pollutant”.

Art and science go hand by hand

During the evenings, when it gets dark, a surprising phenomenon occurs at the inner square of the PRBB: the back wall of the conference hall becomes a big screen in which audiovisuals are exhibited. The show can be watched from the square or from the balconies.

As a result of the collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona Barcelona (CCCB), a cycle of projections starts this December. “Cultural reflections at the PRBB” is an open window to the art and culture, which allows us to enjoy CCCB productions of very diverse contents. The cycle starts with “The century of cinema”, homage to ‘the seventh art’ in commemoration of its 100th anniversary. For each new projection, there will be a presentation by the author or an expert, and a glass of cava will be offered to the assistants.

Alternating with the “Cultural reflections”, there will be also the projection of the series “One month, one artist”, a cycle that the CCCB dedicates to an audiovisual creator each month. From the PRBB we will also be able to enjoy this other initiative and to watch the work of authors with an interest to experiment and innovate with new formal and thematic languages.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Helping science whilst playing videogames

(another article from the December issue of el·lipse)

Researchers at the Research Unit on Biomedical Informatics (GRIB) at the IMIM and the UPF have invented a surprising and revolutionary computational initiative, the platform. This will allow those interested in participating to put their own videogame console at the disposal of high-level international science.

In only a few seconds, users can download the program from the website onto a 1 GB pen drive and insert it into their Playstation 3 (PS3). The PS3 will then be connected to the PS3GRID server, which will use the powerful Cell processor included in the new console to make scientific calculations. To go back to a videogame, you just need to restart the PS3.
Thanks to the Cell processor, molecular calculations will be carried out 16 times faster than with a normal PC. According to Fabritiis, "the combined computational force of all the PS3s reaches the features of a powerful supercomputer, given that there are now 3 million PS3s in the world". And this big calculation capacity is essential for the simulation of the behaviour of microscopic biomolecules, which needs the designing of complex algorithms.

The project is already under way and at the moment there are some 130 machines connected, all of which are located outside Spain. But more are needed in order to increase the calculation capacity. This initiative will allow society to be a participant in the exciting world of basic biomedical research.

“The fly” returns to stardom

(article from the PRBB newspaper el·lipse, December issue)

It is the biggest genomic comparison in history, and it has allowed to start understanding the evolutive processes that have taken place during the last 100 years in Drosophila, the most used insect model organism.

The IMIM researchers Charles Chapple and Roderic Guigó, director of the Bioinformatics and Genomics programme of the CRG, have been co-authors of the article in Nature that compares the genomes of 12 out of the 1,500 species of Drosophila. The study, done by an international consortium of more than 100 institutions, has revealed, amongst other things, sequences that have been preserved through the years and that are probably important for the organism. Within the consortium, Charles Chapple has studied the genes that codify for selenoproteins. This part of the study has given rise to an unexpected finding.

Selenoproteins are implied, amongst other things, in the protection against oxidative stress and toxic effects of selenium. So far it was thought that these proteins were essential for animal life. But this study identifies one of the analysed species, Drosophila willistoni, as the first animal which does not contain selenoproteins. Why this organism has lost selenoproteins is still a mystery, but the group has already started to study the possible reasons and consequences.

The major difficulty of the project, says Chapple, was that “the amount of data was inhuman”. But it’s been worth it. Taking into account that about 61% of the human genes implied in diseases have an equivalent in Drosophila, this study can be an important step to their understanding.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Doing one’s beat for the Earth

Everyone!!!! Please add to your favourites (or even better, sign up with them to receive 2 emails per month with the news) and take a look at it every month. As they say, all you have to do is do it. And the videos are very funny!!

Notes on the 1st European Forum on Science Journalism

So, the time has come for me to tell you about the highlights of the 1st European Forum on Science Journalism that took place in Barcelona last week… There were about 250 people from all countries in Europe and so much going on, I don’t know where to start!

Perhaps I will start by the very beginning; the opening ceremony on Sunday December 2, at the CosmoCaixa Science Museum. I had not been there for years, since long before it was renewed in 2004 – it is really amazing, a very nice museum both inside and outside. Definitely worth visiting if you’ve never been there – and revisiting if you already have!

The forum itself started the next day, with the introduction of Quentin Cooper, from BBC Radio4, who fantastically livened up the two days of conferences. An important basic realisation of the forum was that “To be is to be perceived” – and pretty much all we perceive nowadays, we do through the media. So, it follows the importance of our* field. For example, Hans Peter Peters, a researcher and communicator from Jülich Research Centre, showed a few examples of occasions in which the media had made people familiarise themselves with science concepts – such as cloning during the Dolly years, or plaque tectonics during the ’95 Japan earthquake. But the media has not only a role in ‘educating’ the general public in science, but also in guiding policy makers.

Steve Miller, professor in science communication at UCL, was in charge of presenting the results of the Special Eurobarometer on Scientific Research in the Media. (He appeared a second time during the meeting, graphically explaining to the audience his last Nature publication about giant extrasolar planets, without a powerpoint presentation and using a balloon and an orange instead!). The results of the Eurobarometer were quite encouraging: most people do trust the media coverage of science and are mildly interested in it. BUT most people (and this was the journalists’ main problem, too) found science difficult to understand. So this is one of the bottlenecks, and as Steve mentioned more ‘News and views’ pieces in the specialised journals would be very useful to give journalists a better idea about the article they were reporting on. Other useful initiatives would be more educational science programs in TV; programs for journalists to spend time (e.g. 1 month) with scientists, in their labs; and media training for scientists, who mostly complained of a lack of support. In essence, trying to ‘bridge the gap’ and bring both communities closer together.

But according to Tim Radford, writer at The Guardian, there isn’t such a great difference between science and journalism. They both require the same process: your boss asks you to do something (or you have an idea), you research into it, you write it up, and you try to publish it!  (having been a scientists before a would-be-journalist, I can agree with that!)

We heard talks about science communication at very different levels. More than 1 billion people have access to internet nowadays, and there was a whole section dedicated to science in the internet, in which Sabine Cretella, from Wikimedia, called for all experts (scientists) to add or edit information about their subjects in wikipedia, which is, she said, “as good as its editors are”. We saw how to deal with science and children from Marc Goodchild, from the children’s BBC programs, who knows children learn through doing and who is betting for teaching science through consoles and other media the children like and trust. We also had the opportunity to see different ways to deal with the hot issue of climate change from TV stations from Sweden, Australia and the UK, where they took advantage of social networking and the knowledge that people generally only change their habits when their mates do. One website and one sentence I really liked from this session: and “We are the people we have been waiting for”!

Alan Leshner, the CEO from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), summarised what we learned at the forum by saying that “understanding the nature of science is more important than knowing the details”. People must understand what is scientific and what is not, what does it mean to do research, the scientific process, etc. These are the important concepts, and not the molecular details.

Finally, we heard some ’success stories from EU research’. Moderated by Patrick Vittet-Philippe, from the EC, we heard EU-funded researchers talking about their investigations into intelligent sensors integrated into textiles, smart safety technologies for safer road transport, the Noah’s ark project to save Europe’s cultural heritage from climate change, the Earth observation system CarboAfrica, and the TARA environmental observatory adventure through the Arctic drift.

This exciting forum was organised by the EC. And what are they doing for science communication? Well, first of all, any scientists getting EC grants for research must commit to communicate to the public and the media their results. And there’s soon to be a call for proposals for precisely the things that the forum showed are most needed: training the journalists in science and training the scientists in communication.

(… I might need both types of training ….! :)

*(allow me to include myself in this community I am just joining!)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sign the petition for OA

Here’s a petition for the EU to guarantee public access to publicly-funded research results. Please join!! Whether you are a scientists, a librarian or a member of the public, you have the right of accessing this information (and if you are a scientists, then you also have the obligation of sharing your results).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Believe what you see? Think twice

On November 8, I mentioned a talk taking place in Barcelona entitled “Artistic creation and brain”, and that the speaker would be introduced by Mara Dierssen, a neuroscientist who works at the CRG and who had recently organised a ‘brain fair’ about the illusions of the brain. Well. Here’s an excerpt of what happened on that day (taken from the PRBB newspaper I write, el•lipse):

It is possible to see a hand which is obviously fake and have the feeling that it is your own; or to think that your nose is more than 1’5 meters. The more than 350 visitors to the scientific fair “Brain illusions”, celebrated last October 28 at the Sala 2 Razzmatazz, are now conscious of how the perception of our body is something easy to manipulate.

This fair, which took place within the context of the Science Year, was organised by Mara Dierssen, from the CRG, and was financed by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) and the CRG. The centre also helped with the organisation, together with science journalist Guillermo Santamaria, who worked on the production, and several neurobiology, interactive communication and physiology research groups who came to be part of this initiative.

The fair had several aims. On the one hand, to bring neurosciences to the streets, through experiments that surprise and make one question things. Secondly, to get scientists and patient associations closer, in order to establish contacts: this objective was met with a future collaboration between UPF researchers and an association of autistic children. Finally, to emphasize the close relationship between science and art, several unknown young music groups were given the chance to play in public (incidentally, they had been discovered by Mara and her collaborators via MySpace!). During the celebration there was also a première of a music theme composed by a girl with Down Syndrome (DS). This fact inspired collaboration between the Catalan Foundation for Down Syndrome and the rock group in which Dierssen sings. Children with DS will write the lyrics of the songs, and the group will compose the music.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

SciDev: science, technology and the developing world

Here’s a website to add to your bookmarks. SciDev: News, views and information about science, technology and the developing world. For all the science news you won’t find in the general media, but that affect a great deal of people and should be of interest to us all. Also, this week it’s SciDev 6th anniversary! A big congratulations from here.

And if you are interested in science communication, SciDev offers a very complete guide full with articles, links, etc. that is very worth checking out here.

BTW, I will soon post a summary of the 1st European forum on science journalism that I attended yesterday and Monday – there were quite a few interesting people and some food for thought!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Vote for the best of the web

I have seen that The Scientist is organising a ‘competition’ for the best Laboratory and Video Web Sites, in order to recognize lab leaders and members who devote their time to developing creative and informative Web sites.
There has already been a pre-selection by 7 judges, based on 60 nominations received, of the top 10 web sites that use cutting edge online tools to collaborate, communicate and broadcast their research. Is yours amongst them? You can check it (and also browse around the web sites and have a vote) here.
Winners will be announced in early December at