An off-line event about online science literacy

This essay was first published in The Newsletter of The National Association of ScienceWriters Summer 2007 issue (Volume 56, Number 3).

As a Peace Corps volunteer on an Internet-free South Pacific island in the late 1990s, I spent countless hours swinging in a hammock reading the fine print of the Control of Communicable Diseases Manual. With every mosquito I slapped away, I pondered the possibilities for getting sick and whether I’d ever get back to my job as a magazine editor in Cleveland.

By the time I left Vanuatu, I had contracted dengue and nursed my wife through malaria. But I had also been bitten by the health reporting bug, and so when we found our way to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was delighted to discover Dr. Tom Linden’s graduate program in medical journalism. Through that program, I earned a master’s degree writing a 12,000-word narrative article about acute HIV and an increase in HIV among college students in the state.

In between Peace Corps and grad school, though, I started blogging. And that’s how I met Bora Zivkovic.
Bora was a doctoral student at N.C. State University, where he studied Circadian rhythms in Japanese quail. But his dissertation was lagging, because he spent seemingly every waking moment writing his various blogs about politics, science and education. When I started reading his science blog, he was beginning to earn international attention for the connections he made among the current research in chronobiology.

Two of Bora’s blog entries caught my attention. The first was a long but fascinating post about malaria and jet lag. From my Peace Corps experience, I knew that mosquitoes came at me in the mornings and at night. But from Bora I was about to learn that the malaria parasite, too, had it’s timing, and that Plasmodium’s cycle could be thrown off by jet lag.

“[J]et-lagged individuals may be warmer than the surrounding locals at midnight and thus more attractive to mosquitoes at that time,” he wrote, summarizing recent journal articles. He went on to list his hypotheses about why this might be, and he explored each hypothesis in turn. His entry included pictures and diagrams and even footnotes. This was not the blogging I was used to.

This was science blogging.

Through Bora – he joined the Science Blogs network, and renamed his blog A Blog Around the Clock – I discovered other scientists using blogs to explore science, discuss their research into the full spectrum of topics, and refute public misconceptions about evolution and other hot-button topics. These science bloggers, through their linking and commenting, have created a vibrant online community.

That second post of Bora’s was a call for someone to organize a conference for those science bloggers: “[I]t would be so cool to meet each other face-to-face and share a beer and stories.”

We met for coffee one day. “Let’s just do it here in Chapel Hill,” I suggested. Six months later, in January 2007, we were hosting the inaugural North Carolina Science Blogging Conference at UNC, welcoming more than 140 scientists, journalists, teachers, bloggers and others.

Our invitation had been simple and straightforward: join us for a day of discussions about how we can use blogs to promote the public understanding of science.

To start that conversation, Dr. Hunt Willard, director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, talked about how the 1960s race to the moon riveted the nation. “The science of the space race was on the television all the time,” he said, and yet most listeners and viewers didn’t understand the science. “I still can’t explain how a rocket works.” Still, the nation was engaged then.

But in an age of multimedia overload, how to engage the public now about complex areas of science such as Willard’s exploration into genomics?

The science bloggers in the audience felt strongly that the academic publish-or-perish tenure model needs to be shaken up to encourage younger scientists to share their research findings and observations online before formal publication of results. (In conjunction with the conference, Bora edited a peer-reviewed anthology of the best science blogging from 2006.)

In a breakout session on open source science, Drexel University chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley facilitated a discussion about how primary scientific information can be disseminated via blogs, wikis and other non-traditional vehicles. Bradley does that with the collaborative Useful Chemistry blog at Another breakout session, led by American Scientist editor Rosalind Reid, explored ways to illustrate blog posts so that visual learners could understand the science. (That’s what Bora did with his malaria entry.)

Meanwhile, the high school teachers who’d driven in from rural parts of North Carolina were eager to learn how blogs could help them engage their students in out-of-classroom science learning, and an editor from a major New York media company was pondering how to incorporate blogs into a new medical news section of the paper’s site.

The science blogging conference didn’t cause a sea change – a blog about celebrity gossip is the most popular blog in 2007, after all. But every day there are more and more blogs about global climate change, advances in medicine, marine science and other science topics, written by expert scientists or even well-versed non-scientists.

And that’s why we’re having another NC Science Blogging Conference, on Saturday, January 19, 2008. Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, will host this time around, and a generous grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is helping to improve the conference program. Conference details and registration information are online at

This Spring, his dissertation still not finished, Bora landed a job with Public Library of Science as their new online community manager, proof that blogging about science – or any topic – cogently and consistently, can pay.

Foreword to Step to Freedom

The following essay appears as the Foreword to Step to Freedom, a memoir of my father’s service with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic from 1965 to 1967. Visit this page for more details about the book.

On a rainy October day in 1999, I stood with my wife, Erin, waiting beside the grass airstrip of a South Pacific island. The plane that was coming to get us meant our Peace Corps service in the Republic of Vanuatu was coming to an end.

The day before, in the yard of Vaum Junior Secondary School and Liro Primary School, a hundred students had lined up in the hot afternoon sun to shake our hands and thank us for helping to build up their education. Their parents had feted us the night before, bestowing on us flower leis, pandanus mats and their gratitude for our health education and community development work in their villages.

It had been a fantastic experience.

Finally, after a seven-hour delay, the VanAir Twin Otter plane approached from nearby Ambrym Island, landed and came to a buzzing stop near the small cinder block building that was the Paama airport. With a quick wave to the crowd, we climbed aboard for the first leg of our journey home to the United States of America.

On the plane, banking past Paama, I was too tired for tears. What I thought about was Idaho, when I was 10 years old. My father, Joseph, would take all of the sofa cushions and line the floor of the dining room, where we would play a version of floor hockey with wooden spatulas and spoons and a Wiffle ball. By then, I’d already wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. In that same dining room Dad regularly showed his Peace Corps photos on the bare white walls, using a finicky slide projector and a Zuiker penchant for storytelling. The Peace Corps never had so good a recruiter.

Over and over, Dad told me and my brothers stories of his time as a Volunteer in the Crossroads town of Santiago de la Cruz, in the Dominican Republic in 1965 through ’67. His colorful slides showed poor people with smiling eyes, working on a project he’d promised would dramatically change their town and improve their lives. They were building a school.

Since he was usually behind the camera, only a few of Dad’s slides included him. One that did shows him kneeling in the crystalline Caribbean Sea. He is skinny, his eyes are narrow, and he holds a snorkel and diving mask. Thirty years after that picture was snapped, I’d look at it again and feel as I were looking at myself exiting the Pacific Ocean.

The physical similarities between us are uncanny — viewers of this photograph easily mistake the lean, quiet-looking man for me. As I’ve aged, my voice has come to resemble my Dad’s, my feet look more and more like his and his dad’s before him, my chest is hairy and my scalp promising a baldness, though that’s still years ahead (I hope).

We share other traits, too. We were both Peace Corps Volunteers on tropical islands. Although Dad was single when he went, and I traveled with Erin, we experienced similar things: riots in the capital, dysentery, scurrying creatures in the night, homesickness and hurricanes, but also work challenges, participatory rural appraisals, new friendships and cultural discoveries.

Step to Freedom chronicles the strides my father took as a young man eager to leave his home in Chicago for a poor corner of the world where he might make a difference. I can easily imagine Dad telling the story of his Peace Corps experience to his father, Francis, who would then retreat to Studio 3, his office, to record that story of adventure and perseverance and ultimate success. Even though he was typing my father’s story, my grandfather was also sharing his own, weaving in a life philosophy surely forged through his experiences in the tumultuous first half of the Twentieth Century. Francis was the son of an immigrant from Holland, and as a young man in the Great Depression and later the father of nine children, he learned all about hard work and self-motivation in the face of adversity.

Frank the Beachcomber, as he called himself, would later show me in Studio 3 his jars of shark teeth collected in Florida, and teach me to roll clay between my fingers just so to create a figure of a Canada goose for a mobile. As he did this, he imparted his love of adventure and storytelling and devotion to craft, whether for shell jewelry or photography or writing.

(My grandfather, with not even a high school education, wrote another book, the story of his childhood on a farm in northern Wisconsin. I plan to publish that book in early 2006.)

A copy of the Step to Freedom manuscript sat in my closet for many years. Yet only in the last 18 months did I finally read it, as I converted the original typewritten manuscript into this book you’re reading.

As I read the story, I was amazed at even more similarities between our experiences. Before I’d read of Dad’s thoughts on the importance of local promoters to community development, I relied on the energetic Johnny Bruce Tomatelu, my counterpart on Paama. Like Dad, I have an indelible vision of a beautiful, sensuous local woman bathed in water and light. (See my poem, To Play With Puppets). At the end of my service, I told a village gathering that they’d given me a home away from home, just as Dad told his Dominican friends: “Everyone has one country that they are a part of, but I am lucky enough to have two.”
Never have I been more proud to be the son of my father, and to have walked in his footsteps.

Twice Dad had come to visit me in Vanuatu, to see the black sand beaches and hilltop trails I walked. In May 2004, as a graduation gift for earning my masters degree in medical journalism, Dad took me with him on a return visit to Santiago de la Cruz, his first time back since he’d taken my mother there in 1969. We drove into the Crossroads, parked, and walked up a slight hill into the school he’d built. Instantly he was surrounded by teachers and students eager to meet him and to look through the picture albums he’d brought. For the next week, he showed those pictures nonstop as men and women crowded around, giggling as they recognized themselves in the photos. (See for a gallery of those pictures and snapshots of our 2004 visit.)

Many of the people I met on that trip are the characters in this story, the faces from the Idaho slide shows. I met Teofila and her daughters, Percio Diaz, the children of Antonio Moreaux, and even Bob Parks, who traveled from his home in Guatemala to meet Dad on this reunion trip. But the most important person in Step to Freedom is my father. In this story, and in his life since, he’s given me a roadmap for my own life.

Thank you, Dad.

Anton Zuiker
July 30, 2005
Durham, North Carolina

Two at the Top

Right now, somewhere in the world, some man or woman or child is no doubt at the seashore, poking into the rust-colored shell of a crab. “A dead crab?” they wonder, ignorant about the nature of skeletons.

Most people, says Carolina biologist Jennifer Taylor, aren’t familiar with molting, the process by which a crab wiggles free from a shell that’s become too small as the crab’s inner organs have grown. That discarded shell on a beach � the exuvium � gets easily mistaken for the remains of a dead crab. While the exuvium is the crab’s skeleton, the crab lives on, with a quickly hardening new and larger shell forming around its body.

But even biologists, it turns out, didn’t completely grasp the significance of the molting process. At least not until Taylor, a graduate student, published her research in Science in July 2003.

Seven weeks later, Julie Canman, at the time another Carolina graduate student, published a paper in Nature. Her research into the way cells divide showed that key instructions for how one cell becomes two come from the chromosomes.

Two students with two keen observations, published as two journal cover stories in two months. Not a bad summer for Carolina. And not a bad summer for science.

...

Endeavors Magazine, Winter 2004

Special Delivery (Destination: the brain)

Seven children, a fifty-minute drip, and a thimbleful of genetic elixir: such are the elements of a gene therapy trial that could lead to longer lives for children with the rare Canavan disease.

It all hinges on the work of Jude Samulski, a Carolina scientist who has over the last twenty years tailored a virus that swiftly but harmlessly sneaks into human cells and becomes one with DNA. His lab has fine-tuned adeno-associated virus (AAV) to be a “viral vector,” a minute delivery vehicle that will swap good genes for bad. Conceivably, this gene therapy can allow the body to stop and even reverse the effects of diseases such as muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, and the neurodegenerative Canavan disease.

Samulski has devoted his career to mastering AAV. (See Endeavors, Fall 1998, Star Bright, Cell Deep.) With a current Canavan gene therapy trial and one for muscular dystrophy on the way, his commitment to AAV is paying off: labs around the world now use Samulski’s viral vector.

Adeno-associated virus is a non-pathogenic parvovirus discovered as a contaminant in laboratory stocks of adenovirus, itself a candidate for use as a gene therapy viral vector. Because it can’t replicate without genes from “helper” viruses, and because it’s partial to a specific place in human chromosomes, AAV seems heaven-sent to be a viral vector.

And that’s what the parents of those seven children prayed for this summer.

...

Endeavors Magazine, Fall 2003

Stalking SARS

In the struggle of human against virus, it pays to be prepared.

In early June, after months of press conferences and university lectures stressing vigilance to the emerging global SARS epidemic, North Carolina’s state epidemiologists and UNC Hospitals staff had reason to mobilize. A contract UNC-Chapel Hill employee, having visited a sick relative in a tainted Toronto hospital, came down with severe acute respiratory syndrome while on the job. State health officials quarantined the man’s coworkers, caregivers, and family in a successful effort to control the infection.

… Read more in the Fall 2003 issues of Endeavors Magazine.

The Tough Case of Fragile X

When twelve-year-old Sam May visits Chapel Hill each year, he becomes the center of a genetics dream team. Deep inside each of his X chromosomes is a mutation � a mutation responsible for the delay in Sam’s cognitive growth. But Sam clearly understands that the Carolina researchers awaiting his visits are learning valuable lessons from him.

…

Endeavors Magazine, Spring 2003

Helping Africa Tell Its Story

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, December 2002

by Anton Zuiker

In recent years, Botswana, a country of 1.6 million people, has enjoyed one of Africa’s – and the world’s – fastest-growing economies. Since its independence from Britain in 1966, it has been a stable, democratic presence amid the strife in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola. Maybe because of that, it rarely gets much attention from Americans.

Government and academic leaders there would like to see that change. And Jae-won Lee thinks he can help.

Use the Internet to tell your stories, he says. If Botswana can do this, it might become the center of African news that all the world heeds.

Lee, a distinguished Cleveland State University professor of journalism, won a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Botswana, where he’s spending this semester as a visiting professor of media studies at the University of Botswana. His mission is to show budding journalists there how, using the technology of the Internet, to tell the country’s story more loudly and to more people. Lee goes well prepared; in 1987, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies gave him a National Teaching Award for excellence in journalism teaching.

Botswana is aggressive in pursuing a national ambition, says Lee. “It wants to be a player at the regional level.” Like other countries in southern Africa, Botswana relies heavily on income from diamond mining (it’s the world’s largest diamond producer), and it is haunted by one of the world’s highest AIDS infection rates. Lee will use his time in the country to see how prepared the nation is to grab more headlines.

News media are undergoing rapid changes, he says. Social realities are more complicated, too. “We need a variety of reporters with different backgrounds,” like religion reporters who are preachers and medical reporters who are physicians. A preacher knows the Bible, and physicians know medicine. “In other words, they can get to the relevant material more quickly.” Lee encourages his journalism students to be goal directed, to “prepare [themselves] cognitively by being a double major.”
The Internet, of course, offers numerous new ways to gather and spread news. “The Internet is an equalizer,” says Lee. “Whether you attend Harvard, Princeton or CSU, you have the same Internet linkage.” He hopes to show students in Botswana how to use the Internet to their advantage, too.

One of two classes Lee is teaching is an undergraduate course in news writing and reporting. Through this he’ll reinforce the importance of globally shared journalism ethics and skills, notably the style and substance of the Associated Press wire service. But he’s open to learning how cultural differences can inform objective journalism practices, as well. How, he asks, do universal values clash with local values? Western media tend to focus on conflict, while Confucian-oriented Asian media write for harmony. And some Asian reporters accept cash for covering press conferences, he says, while that’s verboten to Western journalists. “It’s a never-ending debate.”

Lee’s other course, a seminar for seniors and working journalists, delves into “localizing international news and internationalizing local news.”
“If they do it right, there could be a major news service based in Botswana,” he says. “Indeed,” he wrote in his Fulbright application, “UNESCO’s 1981 MacBride Commission Report ? suggested that less reported parts of the world would immensely benefit from presenting regionally based news services.” A Botswana-based news service would collect news from throughout Africa and then dispense it to media outlets on the continent. Presumably, such wire stories would find themselves more easily into North American papers.

“If you want to communicate globally,” Lee says, “you need to expand your reach, both conceptually and practically.” A Cleveland newspaper story about the rapid transit authority is meaningless to an African audience, he says. “But you can’t assume anymore that your audience is just Clevelanders.” Similarly, an article in one of Botswana’s five independent newspapers about the country’s political system would have to explain early the advisory role of tribal chiefs. With a larger audience in mind, journalists in both Northern Ohio and Botswana can learn to make their stories more pertinent to global news consumers.

Lee, a CSU professor since 1973, is keen to find innovative ways of looking at the realities of the world. “Innovation is about the thinking. I’m in the conceptual business,” he says.

In an earlier Fulbright project, Lee traveled to his native South Korea for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. The Korean organizing committee had asked him to help in the media center, where 10,000 journalists from around the world congregated. While working with these reporters, Lee says he realized that these achieving men and women – some covering their eighth or ninth Games – needed medals of recognition just like the athletes. So he set about creating the biennial international Olympic Media Awards, to encourage substantive Olympic coverage, rather than simple medal-counting dispatches. (Lee’s Korean funding source dried up, but he’s hoping to find additional support in order to relaunch the awards.)

Botswana has the resources and talents to achieve its goals, says Lee. But the AIDS epidemic there – 39 percent of the population are infected with HIV, according to the UN – is a massive challenge. This made American news lately: in an editorial in late September, the New York Times called Botswana “a nation facing disaster.” With the help of international aid agencies, Botswana might have a chance in that standoff.

Meanwhile, Jae-won Lee will tour the country, looking for the ways to nurture the Botswana press.

If all goes well, Lee hopes to initiate an ongoing relationship between CSU and the University of Botswana. Soon, CSU professors could be shuttling to and from the Botswana capital, Gaborone, and Botswanan students could be riding RTA to learn about American newsgathering techniques.

And some day, maybe, your morning paper will include the dateline African News Service, Gaborone?

Beyond the Genome

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, October 2002

by Anton Zuiker

Decoding the human genome was a good start. But now the real challenge begins. Genes may be the blueprints for life, telling our cells how to grow and divide, but it’s what cells do with those instructions that determines whether we will be healthy organisms or lifelong DEPENDENTS of the pharmaceutical companies.

In the past, a disease needed to progress into illness before physicians could catch it. Increasingly, though, diseases are being targeted at the cellular level, even before they cause sickness. For many diseases, we now believe, are the result of that process going mysteriously berserk or breaking down. Understanding how the process is supposed to work, and how to tell when it has gone awry, is no simple task, however, given the vast array of proteins at work inside a single cell. How do you begin to sort out what is going on in there, with some things going on underneath or behind other things?

Well, there’s been some progress. The expensive confocal microscope is providing exciting new images. Specific parts or proteins in the cell have been labeled with visible chemical tags so that, as the cells metabolize, reproduce or change according to their genetic instructions, researchers can RECORD the process. Using lasers, the confocal microscope takes pictures, as it were, of minute slices of the cell. A computer connected to the microscope then reconstructs the pictures into a colorful image of the cell, with the fluorescent mitochondria looking like a galaxy in outer space. Seen on a computer screen, the two-dimensional images of the cell, when rapidly shown one after the other, seem to rotate and move; the brain perceives this as three-dimensional.

Kent State University biologist Doug Kline recently used a confocal microscope to record where mitochondria – stained with a fluorescent chemical – were situated inside a bovine kidney cell, and where they moved over time. (Think of the visualizations that accompany a song when you listen to MP3 music on your computer.)

Upstairs, inside Kent’s Cell Imaging and Visualization Center lab, is a giant ImmersaDesk projector, not unlike a large screen projection television. Kline’s cell images can be programmed into yet another computer, and then displayed on the ImmersaDesk. A viewer dons special 3-D glasses, and suddenly the cell is there in full, holographic view.

“There’s an enormous educational use to all this science as well,”says Kent biologist James Blank, director of the school of biomedical sciences. “We’re using the technology to provide students with novel experiences.” Last year Kline worked with students at Kent Roosevelt and Streetsboro high schools. Using Internet connections and cheap 3-D glasses (like the kind you used to wear to watch horror movies), those students could see the Kent researchers’ cell experiments in progress, and interact with the researchers to ask specific questions about what they were seeing. Those pictures will be collected into a library of images that will be available to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection; you won’t need 3-D glasses, because Lee and his assistants will convert the images into a format showing the dimensions of the cell.

But those students took home another lesson, too: Never again will they be able to groan, over their trigonometry homework, that all this pointless math has nothing do to with real life. For these amazing images would not be possible without not only computers but math.

Austin Melton, professor of mathematics and computer science at Kent, who points out that the math involved in deciphering the human genome was so extensive, it had to be divided among numerous computers. Similarly, says Melton, the textbook on how a cell does what it does, and why, will be written in complex formulas and computer programs. In other words, it is good old computational math that will take biological science to the next level. And Melton and his colleagues, biologists Blank and Kline and physicist Mike Lee, are leading that charge. With their cell visualization and imaging project, they could very well be crafting the ways we’ll comprehend cells in the future.

Like physicists discovering smaller and smaller particles of matter, biologists are finding that there are countless proteins and procedures at work within a cell. Take the simple process of a cell’s breaking down a molecule of sugar. To write out the chemical formula that reflects the chain reaction of protein responses in that digestion would fill a classroom white board; but that much is already known, and already documented in scientific databases around the world. What the Kent State team is doing is much more ambitious.

Instead of just modeling known cell activities, they’re attempting to understand the laws of nature and physics that drive a cell, and to predict, with mathematical visualizations, the way a process will play out at the cellular level. “We don’t even know what some of the smallest parts of a cell will look like, so we’re building a mathematical model to predict what they’ll be like,” says Melton. And soon enough, he says, other groups of researchers around the world will come around to this approach.

KSU’s Cell Imaging and Visualization Center project is being funded by a $1.2 million federal appropriation and other grants from the Ohio Board of Regents; nearly $2 million more could be on the way, SAYS Senator George Voinovich, WHO toured the CIVC in July. “I was blown away with what they’re doing,” he told WKSU radio at the time, relating how the image of a human cheek cell stained in red and displayed in 3-D is so different from the science he encountered in school. “With what I saw today, I might have been a physicist.”

In time, says Melton, the KSU team will have a legitimate virtual representation of an entire cell that will allow researchers to replay, and study, a cell’s normal functions as well as test what a cell would do when introduced to some new disease or medication. This research, he says, will eventually help medical technicians detect cancer at a much earlier stage than was ever dreamed possible, making it much easier to nip the disease in the bud.

If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, such images – each constructed from thousands of lines of computer code – will be beyond price.

Genealogy Meets Genetics

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, July 2002

by Anton Zuiker

The fact that something called DNA is passed from one generation to another may not have been known to that armchair scientist-cum-renaissance man Thomas Jefferson, but it would loom large for his descendants and those of his slave woman Sally Hemmings. Indeed, DNA testing is now being used almost routinely to prove – or disprove – paternity. And, if an historic collaboration now under way between two institutions here proves fruitful, DNA could become an exciting new tool in one of northeast Ohioans� favorite pastimes: tracing family trees.

The idea originated with Duncan Neuheiser, a professor of health management at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Having made numerous trips to Iceland – where a national genetic data bank is being assembled for purposes of tracking hereditary dispositions to certain illnesses – and having once met a woman tracing the pattern of alcoholism in her extended family, he found himself wondering one day what the value might be of combining medical records and DNA samples with genealogy. His colleague, Robert Elston, a genetic epidemiologist, agreed a lot could be learned.

So Neuhauser approached John Grabowski, a CWRU professor of applied history, who is also director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and this past March, some 50 family historians gathered at the WRHS to explore the implications of DNA for genealogy. That discussion, led by a multidisciplinary panel of experts recruited by Neuhauser and Grabowski, was also the first step toward deciding whether the historical society, already a premier repository of documents useful to genealogists, should establish a new kind of data bank.

“I was dragged into the 20th Century,” admits Richard Fetzer, the newly installed president of the Society�s Genealogical Committee and a well-traveled family historian. Self-described as an “old-time researcher who likes books and documents,” Fetzer says he recently began using the Internet for genealogical research and, in the process, noticed that many family history web sites are interested in DNA samples.

But what made a believer out of him was the venerable and conservative Mayflower Society. “They�re full-tilt into this,” he says, noting that they are using DNA samples from American descendants of the Mayflower passengers (among whom Fetzer is included) to try to pinpoint the counties in England where those first immigrants came from. And if it turns out your DNA didn�t make the trip on the famous ship after all? Well, you won�t be asked to turn in your membership card to that exclusive club, but it ends with you.

Similarly, a man who had been told all his life that he was a descendant of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone successfully used genetic testing (in which his DNA was compared with that of Boone�s known descendants) to confirm that he was indeed related to old Dan�l.

Fetzer finds less compelling, however, the idea of creating a database at WRHS for the use of future family historians. “How valuable it will be in the future, I have questions about,” he says. Would a family historian, after hunting down documentary proof, Fetzer wonders, feel the need of a scientific second opinion? As a matter of fact, he suggests, a little impishly, future family tree huggers who go the DNA route may get some big surprises, because life in the 19th Century was just like today.” Your real grandfather might turn out to be the guy who lived next door to the man you thought was the father of your father. Fetzer is not alone in warning amateur genealogists to think twice before jumping into the gene pool.

Others, including John Grabowski, see DNA as just another potentially useful tool. Genetic testing, he notes, is already being done on a daily basis. The Army collects blood samples from all its soldiers, the FBI from felons, funeral directors from their corpses. Ohio and most other states require a simple genetic test of all newborns to see if they are susceptible to Phenylketonuria, a cause of brain damage and mental retardation.

Medical records are routinely collected as a part of the Society�s genealogical database, says Mary Lou Bregitzer, who preceded Fetzer as genealogical committee president. One of the things people want to know is their family�s medical history. Bregitzer, who has researched four family lines, advocates digging up death records, which often state not just what a person died of but other conditions from which he or she had been suffering. Suicides, she notes, are often listed as “untimely deaths.”

Will a genetic database lead historians of the future to be less euphemistic about causes of death? “Absolutely,” says Bregitzer – much as, in just the last generation, we�ve become more open to discussing such once-taboo subjects as divorce, incest and sex outside marriage.

It�s fairly simple to collect a sample of someone�s DNA: A strand of hair, a swab of cells from the inside cheek, or a drop of blood all contain your DNA. Sarah Buxbaum, a genetic and molecular epidemiologist currently doing her post-doc at CWRU, says numerous Web sites are already peddling home DNA sampling and storage kits for as little as $20. (Of course the testing itself, which must be done by experts with high-tech equipment, is a good deal pricier.) But Jessica Berg, a CWRU law professor and bioethicist, says issues of informed consent and confidentiality, not to mention access, will need to be addressed if the historical society decides to assemble its own genetic data bank. Grabowski says the Society, regarded as the preeminent family history center in the Eastern U.S, would assure families that this highly personal information would be used only for genealogical purposes; a pair of law students at CWRU are currently exploring the legal issues.

Since the interest of future generations presumably would be be interested primarily in your paternity, a WRHS-CWRU data bank would most likely consist of genotyping, which looks for chemical markers on any of the more than 40,000 genes in your DNA. That�s where CWRU�s science expertise comes in. Another use to which larger genetic databases would probably be put, says Buxbaum, would be locating other branches of your family tree. (Genealogy is said to be the fastest growing hobby in the U.S. One recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans are interested in tracing their family roots, up from 45 percent in 1995.)

Genealogy committees throughout Cuyahoga County are working together for the first time, as you read this, to create a comprehensive index of the 1930 Census of the county – purchased by the historical society as part of the just-released 1930 U.S. Census – which includes handwritten records of some 1.3 million people. When this index is finished in about a year, it will be made public via the Rootsweb Web site (, one of a number of large clearinghouses of genealogy information on the Web.

As that effort continues, Grabowski and Neuhauser will be seeking funding to add information of perhaps even more value to the sons and daughters of our sons and daughters: the record of family connections each of us carries inside him or her, like, well, the rings of a tree.

Getting Small

by Anton Zuiker

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, June 2002

They are cutting-edge machines smaller than your fingernail. They have become crucial to the safe operation of bigger, complex machines like automobiles and airplanes. They’re known as MEMS, short for microelectromechanical systems. And researchers at the Cleveland Clinic are actively working on ways to use MEMS technology for the most complex machine of all – the human body. Soon, a patient will not only arrive at the Clinic in a vehicle whose efficient operation is made possible by MEMS, when she goes home from the Clinic, she may well have such a device implanted inside her to monitor her recovery.

The pursuit of the small could be the source of big innovations at the Clinic. And Shuvo Roy and Aaron Fleischman are the hospital’s dream team, for their job is just that: dreaming up ways to apply MEMS technology to biomedical needs.
In their labs at the Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, Roy and Fleischman are working with a vascular surgeon to develop sensors for monitoring the minute pressure changes within an aneurism. An implantable device now in the works will monitor the healing process after a spine fusion. Another effort is seeking ways to fit smart sensors onto surgical instruments, which could then differentiate whether a surgeon is cutting through soft tissue or a blood vessel. Indeed, it is MEMS for surgical tools and implantable devices that Roy and Fleischman expect to have the most impact on hospital patients not just at the Clinic but worldwide.

Roy and Fleischman studied MEMS at Case Western Reserve University, where both earned doctorates in electrical engineering and computer science. As they were finishing their research at CWRU, they each received multiple job offers and were set to part, Roy to the West Coast, Fleischman to the East. But then Fleischman heard back from the the biomedical and engineering department at the Cleveland Clinic, and, honoring his pact with Roy, asked the Clinic to hire his research partner as well. Since late 1998 the two have collaborated at the BioMEMS Laboratory, part of the Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute that annually spends $39 million on various medical research.

“MEMS is cutting-edge technology for the aeronautical and automotive fields,” says Roy. The goal of the BioMEMS team is to bring that technology to medicine. Roy predicts their research and development of MEMS devices will have a global impact within five-to-ten years.

Today’s automobiles are equipped with MEMS accelerometer sensors that react swifty to abrupt deceleration, triggering the inflation of airbags. Sensors near the engine measure pressure and temperature and monitor fuel consumption. Airplanes also rely on MEMS for many functions, from keeping the cabin pressurized to measuring airspeed to detecting ice build-up on the wings. Traditional electronics, and even MEMS made of silicon, wouldn’t last long inside a planes’s gas turbine engines, which can heat to 1500 degrees Centigrade. The research that Roy and Fleischman did at CWRU looked for ways to develop new MEMS from matericals such as silicon carbide that could be deployed inside those engines to monitor their performance and to help ensure correct fuel-to-air ratios by monitoring the chemical mixture of the exhaust, as well as to sound the alarm if any part begins vibrating more than it should..

Roy’S research suggested MEMS technology for “smart” ice-detection systems to warn pilots when an airplane’s wings are beginIng to freeze. His work was also used by NASA in considering ways to keep the space shuttle from icing up in orbit, and Roy helped the agency develop new sensors for its Mars probes as they hurtle through the harsh environment of space. At the Clinic, Roy isn’t working with icy spaceships or hot engines, but the human body isn’t any more welcoming of the tiny systems.

“I made the transition from one harsh environment to a different kind of harsh environment,” says Roy. The body is a much tougher setting to deal with, he says, becausE, unlike automobiles and jet engines, it has an active defense mechanism in its immune system which attempts to kill and destroy interlopers, regardless of whether they’ve been sent to help heal the body (think of the 1968 film The Fantastic Voyage.) Because of that hunt-and-destroy defense, bioMEMS devices must be coated with chemicals, biological material or polymers acceptable to the body. “These are not trivial problems,” says Roy.

In addition to the challenges of coating implantable devices, MEMS developers are also striving to find safe methods of telemetry that can allow a device to send signals to a receiver outside the body. “We need to address them not only because the technology is cool but because it must be safe for the patient.”

The proximity of the Clinic, CWRU and NASA-Glenn Research Center create a unique opportunity for collaboration here, says Roy, and thus give Cleveland a leg up on this kind of research and development. CWRU’s “clean room”, a dust-free and temperature-controlled lab space, is where Roy, Fleischman and other members of the Ohio MEMS-net consortium assemble their devices. A spin-off division of NASA became the Glennan Microsystems Initiative, which, among its goals, aims to develop tools for minimally invasive surgery. While most MEMS technology companies are based on the West Coast, Ohio might be considered the center of the bioMEMS field: Each September, Ohio State University hosts the pioneering BioMEMS and Biomedical Nanotechnology World Conference.

In a paper published last October in the journal Neurosurgery, Roy and Fleischman predicted the transformation of neurosurgery through MEMS technology. Possible uses include intracranial pressure-monitoring systems, spine monitoring systems, and neural prostheses that could control epileptic brain activity. Similarly, says Roy, the deep brain stimulation surgery performed at the Clinic (Live, January 2001) might very well evolve to include an implanted MEMS device to better control the involuntary movements of Parkinson disease.

Healthy persons might meet MEMS, too. Already such small devices are being used in sleep movement studies, where subjects wear “tilt monitors” to record nighttime tosses and turns. Athletes might use these sensors to control their posture, says Roy. “Not all bioMEMS systems have to be implanted,” he adds. MEMS sensors have been built into a sleep vest that can warn parents when a baby susceptible to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has stopped breathing. A healthy John Glenn, when he returned to space a few years ago, swallowed a bioMEMS pill that, as it worked its way through his gut, monitored the effects of weightlessness on his inner spaces.

Other researchers are applying mathematical models of ants and other animals to bioMEMS. Swarm theories that look at how these creatures, incapable of certain behavior on their own but able, as a community, to operate in ways that clearly show intelligence, might lead to smart devices that can mobilize a microscopic army to surround a tumor and destroy it. Drug-delivery devices could pinpoint areas of the body for drug therapy; one device can already dispense minuscule, but precise, doses of painkillers to treat lower back pain.

“We figure out how to solve problems,” says Roy. The Cleveland Clinic, he says, will never be in the business of selling its MEMS products (a technology transfer office passes on prototypes to start-up companies). “MEMS doesn’t refer to one technology. It’s a way of making things small and smart.” Some of Roy’s creations will be as small as a grain of rice.

A recent Clinic breakthrough, though it didn’t come out of the BioMEMS lab, won national attention earlier this year when Dr. Jay Yadav, an interventional cardiologist, announced the development of a thumbnail-size implantable heart monitor that, once anchored on the heart wall, will relay information about pressure changes in the heart’s chambers to a computer or monitor outside the body by the use of wireless telemetry. Technology that helps a plane engine run smoothly will help diseased hearts maintain optimal performance.

This R&D work isn’t cheap, notes Roy. But once a device has been designed and tested, millions can be manufactured at a relatively inexpensive cost, much like the mass-produced microchips that run our personal computers. The Pittsburgh-based MEMS Industry Group estimates that by 2004, there will be five MEMS devices for every person in the U.S.

And, if Roy and Fleischman are successful in the lab, many of those devices will be in or on Americans quietly monitoring patients’ health as they leave the hospital.

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