Previous Cafés

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March 2016

Around the Science World in 80 Minutes: speed meet & greet with science grad students

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March 2016

Crystals, Currents, and Climate: What happens when polar oceans freeze and melt?

Nicole Jeffery, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Why is there life in sea ice? I'm not talking about the living flotsam caught in a mass of ice crystals rising to the ocean surface during the winter freeze. Maybe that's how life gets there in the first place. But why does it grow and even thrive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth? The key is salt. Salt changes water and ice in very fundamental ways, and, yes, one of the implications is an expanded capacity for sea ice to host microscopic organisms. There are other consequences to the presence of salt. Some help define the role of sea ice in polar seas, while still others shape the Earth's climate.

When I first started working on sea ice I knew next to nothing about it. I didn't know that icebergs are not considered “sea ice,” even though they happen to be floating in the ocean. It hadn't occurred to me that an ice cube made from seawater was definitely not the same as the ice cubes in my drink. In fact, the week I started working on sea ice, I mixed up a solution of water and table salt and tried to make ice cubes from it. While maybe not the most scientifically rigorous of experiments, it gave me a chance to touch, see, and even taste the difference. It was a start. I'm a theoretical scientist and rarely get the opportunity to experience my subject first hand. For the most part, I rely on the experience of field scientists, their descriptions, observations and intuition, and to that I add physical laws and theory. Salt changes the structure of ice on a microscopic scale, opening channels and creating pockets of high salinity fluid where microorganisms can live. But for life to really thrive, these microorganisms need access to a ready supply of nutrients, not salts per se, but other chemicals found in the ocean. What physical mechanism drives the resupply of ocean water into the ice? Well, it has to do with salt.

Now picture the Arctic or the Antarctic oceans, with the same microscopic processes occurring over millions of square kilometers in a seasonal cycle of growth and melt. Sea ice formation separates salt from fresh water. On such a large scale this has significant impacts on the ocean structure and behavior. Seawater is layered, with an upper ocean exposed to atmospheric winds, temperature, and solar radiation, while deeper waters are denser and more protected, flowing slowly from foreign oceans and carrying with them their own unique signatures of temperature and salinity. Sea ice and salt, in particular, play an important role in determining the nature of these layers. The layers, in turn, help determine where sea ice forms and how quickly it melts.

Now consider the Earth itself – oceans, ice, land, and atmosphere all participants in the interplay of climate. If you've ever looked at satellite pictures of the Earth then you'll know that the oceans look black from space and sea ice white. These two extremes mark the difference between light that has been absorbed by the ocean, heating the Earth, and light that has bounced back to space. Fundamentally, the presence or absence of sea ice has a direct impact on the energy balance of the Earth. Then again, a sea ice cover can insulate as well; it reduces the cooling of the upper ocean during the long winter night. To further complicate matters, there's salt. Concentrate enough in surface waters—and sea ice is really good at that—then this water will sink to the protected deep waters, carrying with it and storing heat. What does this mean for understanding climate change, if we only measure warming solely by increases in surface temperature? Join me as we discuss sea ice, salt, and climate, from the micro-scale to the regional scale to the global Earth scale.


About the Presenter

Nicole Jeffery

I am a scientist with the Climate, Ocean, and Sea Ice Modeling group (COSIM) at the Los Alamos National Lab. In my day to day work, I try to understand sea ice, how it forms in the ocean, moves and deforms with the currents and winds, piles up along the coastline, or is forced below the sea with the weight of a heavy snowfall. Lately I've been working on “things” in the ice: black dust from forest fires that are carried thousands of miles to eventually fall with the snow on the ice bed; microscopic ocean algae that freeze when the ice first forms and then, miraculously thrive in this protected though extreme environment; and, of course, salt which affects everything. My goal is to better understand the role of sea ice in the Earth's climate system. I'm not a climate expert. But there was a moment not too long ago that I first realized, yes, I am a legitimate sea ice scientist.

I grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada. We're known for our wheat and our hockey players. The area was once a great sea bed which accounts for the fertile soils and remarkably flat countryside. It also accounts for the winds, the seemingly constant winds that pass unimpeded through the prairies and whatever windbreaker you happen to be wearing. Did I mention the 40 below winters? My upbringing didn't engender a deep love of snow and ice but perhaps a wary respect.

I always knew that I would go to college, and I have my parents, particularly my dad, to thank for that. My father was a professor of philosophy at our local university, and growing up, that university was like our playground, familiar and safe. He worked into his contract free tuition for all five of his children and was trying to swing it for at least one of his grandchildren. After high school, I remember the certainty that registering for classes was the clear next step, but only a vague notion of what I wanted to study and an even vaguer notion of where this might lead. I spent my first year as biology major, then switched to chemistry, and then, finally, to physics. Basically, I preferred math to memorization. Each change seemed profound to me at the time, but I can honestly say that today, in my present work, I use absolutely all of it.

Grad school was wonderful. I fell in love with Vancouver, Canada – the ocean, the mountains, the mild winters! The chronic frostbite on my toes started to heal. Physics got harder and more esoteric. I started working towards a Masters in theoretical particle physics with applications to 2D quantum gravity. What?! Yes, I finished it, but today, I have no idea what it means. Even at the time, I had very little perception of the broader implications for the work. What was I hoping to achieve? How could I build on work that lacked a clear purpose? How could I find meaning in this work? It was at this point that I needed a formal education pause. So, off I went to a small town outside of Tokyo and spent the next two years teaching English. When I returned to grad school, it was with greater purpose and a better understanding of myself. I chose a project in physical oceanography this time, which combined fluid physics with organic chemistry and biology. It was tangible and meaningful and it opened the door to climate science and my work today.

There have been many more detours since then – life events, new interests, and opportunities. All of them have conspired to make me a sea ice scientist. Last year, I was invited to the northernmost tip of Alaska in early spring before the sea ice thaw. I wore three layers under my parka, two ski worthy pairs of snow pants plus long johns and my field experienced companion still gave me an extra parka to wear on top. I was grateful. We took a snow mobile out to the ice pack where I drilled my first ever ice core. Yes, I thought to myself, I have arrived.

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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March 2016

Are We Alone? The high-tech search for signs of life on Mars

Nina Lanza, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Could life have ever existed on Mars, either in the past or the present? That’s the question that the Curiosity rover is trying to answer right now as it roves on the surface of Mars. Everything that we know about life comes from Earth, so scientists use what we know about life on Earth to try to understand how life could exist in the environments we find on Mars. Although it would be pretty great if we found Martians with Curiosity, we’re not actually looking for them; instead, we’re looking for environments that could support them. Life on Earth requires a number of things, the most important of which is water. Thus, a big part of the mission is finding signs of water, both past and present. Although liquid water is scarce on the martian surface today, we can observe landforms such as enormous river channels and smaller gullies that look like they were formed by liquid water flowing on the surface. In addition, we have found minerals on Mars that only form in the presence water and also include water in their chemical structures. But how much water was there, and for how long? And where did it go?

To help answer these questions, we sent Curiosity to a large crater near the martian equator called Gale that has a Kilimanjaro-sized mountain of potentially water-formed sediments in its center. In the one Earth year that we’ve spent in Gale, we’ve learned that there was definitely water there, likely in the form of a lake, and that it was drinkable by human standards. In my research, I’ve been looking for rocks that have come into contact with water and developed coatings or rinds on their exteriors. While this is commonplace on rocks in the New Mexico environment, it’s very rare on Mars. These rocks can provide us with information about how much water was present and for how long it was there. In addition to looking at data from Mars, I also do laboratory experiments on terrestrial rocks to better understand what coatings and rinds might look in our martian data.

There are 10 instruments onboard Curiosity, and I work with one in particular called ChemCam. This instrument is on the rover mast and uses a rock-vaporizing laser and a camera to gather information about the chemical composition of rocks and soils. ChemCam doesn’t need to be very close to a rock to analyze it—it can zap a target up to 23 feet from the rover and tell us what it’s made of! We also have a copy of ChemCam in our laboratory here in New Mexico that I use to take data on terrestrial rocks that can help us interpret the ones we’ve analyzed on Mars.

In this Café, we’ll talk about the goals of the Curiosity mission, what some of our big discoveries have been, and what the rover is up to right now. I’ll also tell you about what it’s like to operate an instrument on a rover and take you through a typical “sol,” or martian day.


About the Presenter

Nina Lanza

Lanza

I first discovered space when I was seven years old. My parents took me to a local university in Boston, Massachusetts, where we lived to look through a telescope at Halley’s Comet. I could hardly believe my eyes—I have never thought of the sky as anything but a dome, but here was a three-dimensional object coming from somewhere other than Earth. I was hooked! From that point on I wanted to know everything about space and what was out there.

Although I have always loved to learn, I had a lot of trouble doing well in high school. I didn’t think of myself as being good at math or science, so I never thought I would be able to have a career in science. But my interest in space never waned. At the end of my senior year in high school, I saw a planetarium show about the latest (at the time) Mars lander and mini rover from NASA, the Pathfinder mission. I was floored by the beautiful, high resolution color images from the surface of Mars; it looked like it could be a place on Earth, and like somewhere I could go to one day. I knew I had to work on a mission to Mars, even if I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

After high school, I went to Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Even thought I didn’t think I had any particular talent for science, I still chose to major in Astronomy because I wanted to know more about space. During my senior year, I took the required senior astrophysics seminar. Usually this class was about stars, but that year the professor decided to do an entire class about Mars. That’s when I realized that in order to study the martian surface, I needed to know something about rocks. But I still thought I wasn’t good enough to do science professionally, so I didn’t apply to graduate school.

After college, I took a few years off to work and ended up as a post-baccalaureate student at LANL. Although I started in an astronomy group, I ended up getting another job with a group that had built an instrument on a satellite orbiting Mars. It was while working with this group that I finally got up the courage to apply to graduate school. But instead of going to school for astronomy, I applied to geology programs because I wanted know more about what I saw in pictures of the martian surface. Before graduate school, I had never taken a single geology course, but I didn’t let that stop me from starting. I did a master’s degree at Wesleyan University in CT and then came back to New Mexico to do a PhD at the University of New Mexico. I chose UNM because my advisor there was on the team for an instrument called ChemCam on the next Mars rover to launch, Curiosity. When I got the acceptance letter, I didn’t wait to hear from another grad school; I knew this was my chance to work on a Mars rover mission.

That was eight years ago, and I’ve worked on ChemCam ever since. During the time I was working on my PhD, the rover Curiosity and all of her instruments were being prepared for launch in late 2011. The timing was perfect: I successfully defended my PhD and then went to Florida to watch the rover launch from Kennedy Space Center. During that same week in Florida, I also got married at the Titusville, Florida courthouse (in front of a model of a Saturn V rocket).

Since then, I’ve been working as a postdoc at LANL on ChemCam. I am living my dream of working on a mission to Mars, and I’m glad every day that I didn’t let my fears of not being “good enough” at math and science stop me from doing what I love. It turns out I’m good at scientific research, but I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t given myself the chance to try. Because I gave myself a chance, I now shoot lasers on Mars from a spaceship for a living—pretty much the greatest job ever, if you ask me!

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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February 2016

TBD

Manny Juarez, Design Plus, LLC

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February 2016

Explorers of the Final Frontier: Planning the first human mission to Mars

Suzanne Montaño and Stephen Johnstone, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Mars exploration started with spacecraft flying by the planet in the 1960s, and continued with martian satellites and the first landed spacecraft, Viking I and II, on the surface in the 1970s. The first Mars lander/rover combination, Pathfinder and Sojourner, launched in 1996, followed by the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, the Phoenix lander in 2007 and the Curiosity rover in 2011. There has been at least one active rover on Mars for the past 12 years, so Mars really is ruled by robots. Each one of the 7 successful lander/rover missions landed in a different region of Mars. These landing sites were based mostly on the scientific goals of each mission, like the search for water and past or present life on the surface. We’ve proven our capabilities to send rovers to Mars, and we could just continue with robotic exploration, but robots are slow-moving and lack the intuition needed to make on-the-spot decisions. To truly understand Mars, we need a human mission.

Getting a crew of astronauts to Mars definitely has its challenges, and NASA and the broader space community are actively working to solve all the problems associated with sending humans farther from Earth than they’ve ever been. The first step to planning a Mars mission is picking a landing site. Since we already know so much about the martian surface from satellite observations and lander/rover missions, we are at a point where we can start to decide exactly where on the planet would be best for a crew to set up a base camp. Unlike lander/rover missions, where scientific goals were the main drivers for choosing a landing site, we must now consider environmental factors that will ensure astronaut survival. While it’s possible for humans to survive on Mars, it will be more similar to living in an extreme environment on Earth than to normal life we enjoy here in New Mexico. Mars is cold like Antarctica, mostly waterless like the Atacama Desert, covered in volcanic sand like Hawaii, and bombarded with life-threatening radiation, which is unlike anywhere on Earth. All of these things will make life on Mars difficult, not to mention the lack of breathable oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere.

How do we pick a landing site that will keep a crew of astronauts alive long enough to build a base, perform research, and eventually return to Earth? We can use everything we’ve learned from previous lander, rover, and orbiter missions to choose a region of Mars that will be the most advantageous for a crew and their spacecraft to land and live safely. This Café will mirror a workshop recently held by NASA to begin suggesting candidate landing sites for human Mars missions based on resource availability, scientific merit, and ease of landing. We will be using maps that summarize decades of robotic research of Mars to plan a human settlement that will provide access to water, oxygen, fuel, shelter, and building materials. NASA has been researching Mars for more than 50 years with the hope of someday sending humans to explore firsthand, and it’s finally time to start planning where on the planet to send astronauts when they leave Earth in the next 20 years.


About the Presenters

Suzanne Montaño

While my path to becoming a Mars rover engineering team member might seem pretty straightforward, getting to where I am now both professionally and personally has taken a lot of trials, errors, and eventually triumph. My family and I moved all over the east coast and southeastern parts of the country, from New York to Texas to Florida to Virginia, when I was a kid. With all the changes that come with moving, I searched for something I could rely on as a constant in my life. I ended up discovering two things I loved and that I could get involved with no matter where we moved: sports and school. I was always on a sports team, which helped me make friends and stay busy in every new city. I had fun in every sport I tried (although my talents were definitely lacking in some of them) but something just “clicked” with running and soccer that made want to try my hardest to be the best I could be.

Math and physics were the two school subjects I could really wrap my head around, with rules, logic, and puzzle-like problems that I felt brought me the best understanding of the world around me. Another high school experience – a trip to Space Camp – helped me realize that I was on the forefront of many decades of advances in human spaceflight and that I could actually contribute to the cause of getting astronauts to Mars. Armed with the knowledge that I enjoy running, playing soccer, studying physics and math, and learning about space, I looked for a college where I could participate in all of those things. I ended up attending Florida Tech, which encompassed all my passions and had the added bonus of being minutes from the Atlantic Ocean.

As an undergraduate student I studied space science and got to explore the different areas of research that I might like to get involved in after college. I used my school’s telescope to track planets in other star systems and I had two summer internships that helped me shape my passion for Mars research. My research and internships showed me: 1) I’m not cut out for telescope work, 2) I enjoy studying Mars, 3) Doing computer coding is fun and rewarding. Meanwhile, I competed in soccer, cross country, and track at Florida Tech just in case I wasn’t busy enough with astrophysics and differential equations. Throughout my undergraduate experiences I learned that space scientists could get paid go to graduate school and do research for a professor while earning an advanced degree. I liked studying Mars, and my NCAA eligibility had run out, so I decided to focus on finding a university that would allow me to get involved with fellow Mars scientists. I knew a Mars rover was getting ready to launch right around the time I graduated with my Bachelors degree in 2011, so I did some research to find out which universities were involved. That led me to UNM, where I began work as a scientist on the Curiosity rover’s ChemCam instrument while researching a martian meteorite nicknamed Black Beauty for my Masters degree.

Getting involved in operations for Curiosity was by far the best part of my time as a student at UNM. I got to see how a real Mars rover works on a day-to-day basis and I even got to choose which rocks the rover would shoot with its laser! I quickly realized that my favorite part of working on Mars is mission operations, so I connected with the LANL Curiosity team to get a job controlling the engineering aspects of the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity. My current work combines my favorite things: Mars, physics, math, and coding. And even though I’m no longer on any sports teams, I can use my experience from running and soccer to encourage teamwork and perseverance during every rover planning day.

Stephen Johnstone, NASA-JPL: ChemCam Mission Operations Lead, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Mars Science Laboratory

I've been fascinated by anything related to space since I was a kid watching the Moon landings and the Shuttle program. This interest motivated me to pursue things that were mechanical and complex in nature like cars, airplanes, and rockets. As a result, I studied aviation, engineering, and science in college. I have advanced degrees in space science and engineering and have a commercial pilots certificate and have logged 4000+ hours in many different types of aircraft. I've had the privilege to work on more then 10 spacecraft projects, and I'm currently leading the operations for the Mars Science Laboratory chemical instrument at LANL. Also, I have applied to be an Astronaut twice with NASA and made it into the 3rd round of consideration in 2012.

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January 2016

The Brain of the Zombie: Can neuroscience explain gruesome zombie behavior?

Russell Morton, University of New Mexico College of Medicine

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Have you ever thought about what controls our emotions and behaviors? Why do we get angry when our older sibling touches us, or why do we become incredibly anxious and nervous when someone we are attracted to enters the room? How do we walk, ride a bike, or flick on a light switch without even thinking about it? Our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information about the world around us, and somehow our brains interpret all that information and generate a response to our environment. How does that gelatinous material between our ears control our emotions and behaviors?

Neuroscience is the study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Our brains are made up of millions of individual specialized cells called neurons that come in hundreds of different shapes and sizes. Neurons receive information from other neurons via chemical compounds know as neurotransmitters. In response to neurotransmitters an electrical signal is generated by ions called an action potential. Action potentials travel through the neuron at lightning speed, and induce the release of neurotransmitters onto other neurons. This communication between neurons is how our brains transmit information from one part of the brain to another or from our brain to our muscles.

Early neuroscientists studying the anatomy of the brain revealed that specific areas of the brain receive visual information from the eyes, and other regions receive sensory information from the rest of the body. Additional regions of our brains control even more complex behaviors and emotions. Some areas of our brains are responsible for the formation of memories or habits, while others are responsible for anxiety or fear. What makes the brain so amazing is that most of these regions are interconnected. It is the connections between different brain regions that can trigger a very specific memory just by the smell of fresh apple pie. It is the activity of entire networks within a region and their communication with other networks in other regions that create the human consciousness.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to record the activity of multiple neurons from animals or humans during certain behavioral tasks. With this new technology, we have begun to understand how our brains encode information. Using this knowledge neuroscientists have created devices that can convert visual or auditory signals to electrical signals that can be transferred to certain brain regions to restore vision or hearing in blind or deaf patients. Neuroscience has also been able to harness the activity of certain brain regions in paralyzed patients allowing them to control robotic arms. We now have the ability to control the electrical activity of neurons with light using proteins isolated from algae. The world of neuroscience is incredibly exciting because we are able to do things today that were considered science fiction only a few years go.

Our gelatinous brains are the motherboard of consciousness producing our complex human behaviors. In this Café, we will learn how the brain controls emotions and behaviors, but with a focus on the Pop Culture Star of Science Fiction; Zombies. We will discuss the neurobiology behind what motivates the living dead, why do they act the way they do, and how new technologies in neuroscience can help control zombie behavior.

Listen to an interview of Dr. Morton discussing his career. Albuquerque Teen Leaders Gus Pedrotty and Jimmy Schneebeck conducted the interview.


About the Presenter

Russell Morton

Morton

Growing up I had no concept of what a scientist was or what they did. I was born and raised in the college town of Fort Collins Colorado, but going to college rarely crossed my mind. Neither of my parents had a college degree, nor was university tuition financially feasible for our family of three kids. The first time I really thought that college might be an option for me was when my older sister received scholarships to attend an out-of-state university.

These ambitions were nearly cut short the summer before I started high school. While hiking with friends we decided to cross a small stream at the top of a 40-foot waterfall. I slipped on the wet rocks above, falling off the waterfall onto the rocks below. After search and rescue carried my unconscious body two miles out to a helicopter, I spent three hours in the emergency room, 9 hour in surgery, but I was still alive. I had suffered countless lacerations, a cracked skull, two cracked vertebrae, two broken collarbones, seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a completely shattered femur. Additionally, a six-inch pocketknife was imbedded into my hip and had broken my pelvis. After almost two weeks in the hospital, I spent one month in a wheelchair, and six months on crutches. Finally, with the help of countless hours of physical therapy, my orthopedic surgeon took my crutches and told me to walk out of his office. I walked away with a serious limp, half of a fake hip, a metal rod down my leg, and a newfound fascination in biology and medicine.

Still today I am amazed that the doctors were able to piece me back together and that my body had the capacity to recover. In high school, I began taking more biology classes including anatomy and physiology, and my interest in medicine began to blossom. Through grants, scholarships, and loans I found my way to the University of Colorado in Boulder where, like most pre-med students, I majored in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. My years at CU were filled with rock climbing, cycling, skiing, and tons of learning.

I received my first real taste of research when my Developmental Biology professor convinced me to do a senior research project in his laboratory. My curiosity about biology and the human body had started me down this path, and research opened a whole new door for me. Research is purely driven by curiosity and I soon realized that every experiment I did gave us answers that no one else in the world knew. Thanks to my undergraduate mentor I recognized my obsessive curiosity and decided to stay in science instead of pursuing medicine.

After graduating from CU, I moved to Denver to work in a microbiology lab studying M. Tuberculosis, where I was exposed to the world of bacteriology. The following year life took me to Washington, D.C., where I worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) researching therapies for diabetes. A year and a half later I entered graduate school through a partnership program between the NIH and George Washington University with enthusiasm and interest in cell biology. However, my first year there I was introduced to neuroscience by my future advisor. The ability of neurons to use electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other on a millisecond time scale amazed me. For my graduate research, I had the unique opportunity to work at a lab at the NIH researching how neurotransmitter receptors are regulated in individual neurons.

Now, as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, I am researching how fetal alcohol exposure changes the way neurons communicate with each other and how those changes affect the network of neurons that control behavior.

I am a true believer in “work hard, play hard” and a career in science conforms to that philosophy. Experiments do not fit well into a nine to five schedule, but in science there is flexibility that allows for mid-day runs. Science is a long, hard road but the excitement of the first experiment with unexpected results makes the hard times easier. I am lucky to wake up every day and have the opportunity to ask questions, figure out the best way to answer those questions, and ultimately test those questions.

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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January 2016

Who is Roy G. Biv?: Principles of Light and Optics

Imelda Atencio, Kirkland Air Force Base

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Have you ever looked up at the sky and wondered why it is blue, or why there is a rainbow after it rains, or why you can burn ants with a magnifying glass, or why distant stars appear bigger in a telescope? We are going to explore and answer those questions in this hands-on presentation. Light and how we can use light in research and our daily lives is fascinating. We can collect light from a distant star in our telescopes, and use instruments to tell us what types of gasses make up that star. Isn’t that awesome?

To first understand light we need to understand that it behaves like a wave. It actually behaves like a particle as well, but that is another presentation. The focus of this presentation is on the basic principles of light and optics. We will explore how light behaves when it propagates through air and what happens when it enters a different material like water or glass or reflects off a mirror. As an optical engineer, my job is to guide the light collected from a telescope and direct it to various instruments using lenses and mirrors. I can accomplish this by understanding the principles of light and its interaction with optical components, which I will share with you.

This presentation builds on light's behavior as a wave, starting off with the definition and demonstration of a wave and wavelength. Progressing on to dispersion and how a rainbow is formed, then to the definition of reflection and refraction, the equations that define these characteristics, and demonstrations and hands on activities that allow students to explore, reinforcing the concepts. Once these principles are understood we can put them together to demonstrate how an image is formed through lenses and/or mirrors leading to how a telescope basically makes an object appear closer. The presentation will conclude with a brief description and demo of the concept of diffraction.

2015 is the Year of Light, so I think it is quite appropriate to bring this presentation to Café Scientifique students. Light is so important in our daily lives. Without the understanding of light and the interaction with optics and electronics or Photonics (optics married with electronics) we would not have cell phones, barcode readers in practically every store, laser eye surgery, digital cameras, laser light shows, communications via fiber optics….. and the list goes on. The field of Optics/Photonics is vast, providing careers spanning from designing optical instruments, to communications, to designing lasers in varying wavelengths for applications from medicine to military uses. The sky is the limit! Dream Big and pursue your Dream!


About the Presenter

Imelda Atencio

Growing up in Dixon, a small town in northern New Mexico, where the skies were dark and the stars are bright, I dreamt of becoming an astronomer and sitting on top of a mountain with my telescope. Books on astronomy and telescopes were my constant companion, and I spent countless hours learning the constellations. One defining moment sticks in my mind still to this day. A comet was visible in the early morning hours and my mother, bless her heart, accompanied me outside to view it. This was a huge encouragement to me in my quest to be an astronomer. From Albuquerque High School I went to Pomona College in California. That was both a culture shock and way too expensive, so I returned to New Mexico to attend New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. About half way through my undergraduate degree, I realized that I loved the instruments astronomers use more than the physics and entered a new program at NMSU in electro-optics.

Upon graduation, I wanted to go to graduate school but did not have the funds. During a CO-OP experience with NASA, I discovered that both businesses and national labs had programs to send their employees to graduate school. So I took a position as an Optical Engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque in 1987. Starting out as a programmer in techniques applied to high resolution images of space objects, I positioned myself to apply for a program to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona's Optical Sciences Center. This was one of two programs in the country at the time that one could get a degree in optical sciences. Most programs in optics were, and still are, through the Physics and/or Engineering colleges. I entered the Master’s program, but soon converted to the PhD program with the consent of my AFRL sponsors. The main reason was that I wanted the ability to one day teach at a university. The one drawback to the AFRL program was that it only provided enough time to complete the required courses and take the necessary tests, but not enough time to complete a PhD dissertation. But passing the tests qualified me for a Master’s degree in Optical Sciences.

Upon return to AFRL my boss, who had supported my PhD pursuits and promised a full year to work on the dissertation, had moved up and was no longer my boss. The current boss was not willing to give me the time, so I started on a topic working on my own time. During this time I took a position at the Starfire Optical Range (SOR), a premier telescope facility at AFRL, and also had my son who was born prematurely and required specialized care. The dissertation was put on hold. Through the incredible support of the SOR director and many others I was able to restart my dissertation with a new topic that doubled as work, and was able to complete my PhD in Optical Sciences in 2003. I spent nineteen years of my career at the SOR, a facility known for world class research in adaptive optics, a technique to correct for atmospheric turbulence effects in images. Thus I achieved my dream of sitting on top of a mountain with ‘my’ telescope.

With my son in high school and healthy, I decided to broaden my career and spent two years as the Technology Transfer Lead in the Technology Outreach Branch facilitating collaborations between AFRL scientists and engineers and industry and academia. Currently I am a Section Chief in the Laser Division overseeing research in new high power laser development.

I have been involved in outreach and mentoring activities around the state of New Mexico for about 20 years. Coming from a small town, I always told myself that if I made it as a professional scientist/engineer I would encourage others. Hence I am passionate about mentoring students of all ages and introducing them to the joys and opportunities of math and science.

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January 2016

The World's Largest Trout: A Mongolian Expedition

David Gilroy, Taos High School

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Welcome to Mongolia, the land of “no fences”, monasteries filled with monks chanting, and home to thousands of nomadic pastoralists and their herds of sheep, horses, cows, cashmere goats, camels, and yaks. I felt at home in Mongolia because, generally, Mongolians love spending time in the outdoors. Pop stars sing about their beloved river valleys and you can find hip-hop videos with wildlife footage in Mongolia. This love of nature is no mystery, in addition to a strong nomadic lifestyle, Mongolia is home to many natural wonders including the majestic Altai mountains, the Takhi (only remaining truly wild) horse, one of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world, and, while we’re talking “big”, the world’s largest trout, the taimen.

Like almost all other large, freshwater fish, the taimen population in only a fraction of what it once was. Freshwater fish are in peril, especially large fish. It is reported that two-fifths of the world's fish are freshwater species — and of these, 20 per cent are threatened, endangered, or have become extinct in recent decades. The construction of large hydroelectric dams, mining and industrial pollution, and overfishing have all contributed to its disappearance through much of its native range. Fortunately, Mongolia’s Pacific and Arctic-drainage rivers are largely undeveloped and still provide a refuge for the taimen. Because of its massive size and unique feeding habits, anglers are drawn from around the world and will pay thousands of dollars for a chance to catch a taimen in the wilds of Mongolia. While rich in livestock, rural Mongolia is poor in cash and so the economic value of a thriving taimen population further drives efforts to conserve them. This giant trout, and the rivers they are found in, were the focus of an international conservation project and my graduate school research from 2004 - 2008.

Nature conservation is essentially the act of keeping the species and ecosystems that we need and love from depletion or complete disappearance. To conserve any species we first must understand it. Fundamental aspects of taimen biology, especially growth characteristics, were well studied in the later half of the 20th century. Yet little was known about taimen movements, population dynamics, and their general ecology. Under the umbrella of the Taimen Conservation Fund, our team of research scientists was tasked with filling in some of the blanks on taimen ecology to help guide fishing companies, conservation managers, and policy-makers in keeping the fish thriving. How many taimen are there in the rivers? Do their populations change over time? How do different types of fishing affect taimen? What type of river habitat do they need? Do taimen migrate and if so, how much? What do taimen eat? Answers to such questions are important to protecting any animal. To help tackle these questions, our team used traditional fisheries techniques such as catch-release angling and mark-recapture to estimate population density. Modern technologies, such as telemetry and GIS allowed us to track their movements and stable isotope analysis was used to illustrate food web relationships.

Nature conservation is essentially the act of keeping the species and ecosystems that we need and love from depletion or complete disappearance. To conserve any species we first must understand it. Fundamental aspects of taimen biology, especially growth characteristics, were well studied in the later half of the 20th century. Yet little was known about taimen movements, population dynamics, and their general ecology. Under the umbrella of the Taimen Conservation Fund, our team of research scientists was tasked with filling in some of the blanks on taimen ecology to help guide fishing companies, conservation managers, and policy-makers in keeping the fish thriving. How many taimen are there in the rivers? Do their populations change over time? How do different types of fishing affect taimen? What type of river habitat do they need? Do taimen migrate and if so, how much? What do taimen eat? Answers to such questions are important to protecting any animal. To help tackle these questions, our team used traditional fisheries techniques such as catch-release angling and mark-recapture to estimate population density. Modern technologies, such as telemetry and GIS allowed us to track their movements and stable isotope analysis was used to illustrate food web relationships.

Our research efforts were able to answer many important ecological questions and make some interesting discoveries in addition. In this sense, our work was successful for adding to the greater body of scientific knowledge. We presented our findings to numerous audiences including local school groups, national environmental managers and international conferences of scientists. A rare species, threatened in much of its native range, is now better understood. If that understanding leads to greater chances of survival for the taimen, and the continued benefit to the people that value it, then science will be successful in a practical sense as well. An additional conclusion that I made during this project, and similar research through the years, was that true and lasting success in nature conservation requires people to care about future generations, to plan well, and to be able to work together.

Welcome back to Mongolia, the land of now “some fences”, monastery chants being muffled by the construction of skyscrapers, and home to nomadic pastoralists leaving their herds of sheep, horses, cows, cashmere goats, camels, and yaks for jobs and a more stable life in the cities. Booming international trade, a rush to exploit gold and other minerals, a desire to become energy-independent, and the general push towards economic development now is driving Mongolia in the direction of the rest of the developed world. Wild species and their ecosystems are facing increasing stress from development. The questions we leave with today are not only biological, but largely social and require innovations in industry, economics, education and policy. Can our economic decisions align with conservation goals? What is important to us, as individuals and as communities, and how do we keep the species and environments that we need and love around for future generations?

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November 2015

How's Your Air? The art and science of measuring and presenting local air quality

Andrea Polli, University of New Mexico

Presenter's Bio

About the Presenter

Andrea Polli

My father was a mathematician and computer scientist and I wrote computer programs as a child. In college, I studied art but also took engineering courses. At that time, the late 80s, a lot of people were fascinated by the images of mathematical expressions of chaos. I wrote many programs using chaotic algorithms. I created several algorithmic music compositions based on a mathematical formulation called the Lorenz attractor because I thought (naively!) that a mathematical formula that could create an interesting and beautiful image should also be able to create interesting and beautiful music.

I was also making paintings and drawings at the time, and was frustrated with the way these works didn't seem to have the beautiful intangibility that I found in mathematics. The other thing that took me away from painting and drawing is that the final result didn't see to me to unfold the way a computer program would. In graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was lucky to find a mentor, composer and artist George Lewis, who one day happened to catch me in the computer lab and was interested in what I was doing when none of the other faculty were.

Now I focus on public awareness of climate change and sustainability. Ten years ago, most people might have heard the term climate change, but thought it was the idea of a few fringe, radical scientists. I made a video in 2004 in which I interviewed an important climate scientist talking about the importance of the issue. Now, when I show this video, the parts arguing that climate change is real seem unnecessary. How did this change happen? Because journalists, authors, filmmakers and artists were able to get the word out to the public and change general perception. Art has a way of creating powerful metaphors, metaphors that change the way people think about and understand themselves and the world. Journalists in fringe media often pick up on these projects first, then the mainstream media catches up.

Some artists talk about not wanting to know the science associated with nature. They say that knowing this ruins the spiritual experience of nature, but I don't find this to be true for me, especially in the case of atmospheric phenomena. There are so many complex factors, so many precise conditions that need to be true for any particular phenomenon to manifest, such a delicate balance, and knowing a little about the balance adds to the magic.

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November 2015

What will the world be like in 2025?

Terry Wallace, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Bio

About the Presenter

Terry Wallace

I grew up in Los Alamos, and some of my earliest memories were of my father taking me out camping and exploring mines looking for minerals. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado hold hundreds of wonderful places to find minerals. I felt certain I wanted a career that would let me explore even more geology. However, geology was pretty boring in school in the early 1970s – lots of memorization and descriptions. I really liked physics and mathematics because there was little memorization, and there always was a “right answer.” When it came time to go to college I went to New Mexico Tech and majored in geophysics and mathematics. Frankly, it was a blast. I got a job the first day I walked on campus in Socorro taking care of the seismic stations operated by Tech to monitor earthquake activity in southeastern New Mexico. Analyzing the wiggles on the seismograms was really interesting, and it told us something about geology; the wiggles were caused by earthquakes, which are the groans of an Earth that is alive. I could just see mountains growing and valleys forming with each and every earthquake.

After getting my undergraduate degrees, I headed for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech was the center of the universe as far as seismology was concerned – it was the home of Charles Richter, the inventor of the Richter scale. It was a perfect place to ask “why” and learn the tools of science to unravel the mysteries of geology. Every week there was a seminar about the latest earthquake, whether it be in Japan or Africa. Computers were just coming into widespread use for modeling complex natural phenomena, and I found myself in the wave of discovery. I completed my PhD by specializing in understanding the seismic signals from underground nuclear explosions. This was during the height of the Cold War, and seismology was the only way the U.S. could guess at what the Soviets and Chinese were doing in their weapons programs. It was exciting to be involved in science that made a difference to the nation.

After graduation I became a professor at the University of Arizona. I chose the UofA so I could return to a place of wonderful mountains and minerals. I worked on seismic experiments all over the world, but in particular in South America. I deployed seismograph stations and ran experiments for a decade in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. I fell in love with the Andes – truly imposing mountains that mark the tremendous geologic upheaval along the west coast of the continent.

After 20 years at the UofA I got the chance to come home to Los Alamos and become the Division Leader of Earth and Environmental sciences. It was a very different challenge to lead a large division of talented scientists rather than “doing” science myself. However, it was very rewarding to be involved in overseeing Earth sciences from hydrology to volcanology. In 2006, I became the Principal Associate Director for Science, Technology and Engineering at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I was responsible for all basic science programs at LANL, and coordinated the activities of nearly 4600 scientists, technicians, and support staff. In 2010, I took over responsibilities for Global Security efforts at LANL. My job includes building support for the work of LANL scientists, which means I interact with members of Congress and the Senate and many other federal agencies and laboratories. Each day brings new challenges and surprises. My career has come full circle in some ways. I have kept my passion for teaching and learning about mineralogy over the years and am an avid collector of silver minerals. In 2009, a new silver mineral was discovered and it was named after me, Terrywallaceite.

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November 2015

Art, Science and Technology Meet Humanitarianism: (x)trees: an experiment with data visualization, sound and projection art

Agnes Chavez, STEMarts

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Many people don't think art and science are related. They see art as a decorative tool and science as a useful tool. But in the 21st century the two are merging much the way it was in the Renaissance period in the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, who was both an artist and scientist.

The new technologies of this century, such as mobile devices and GPS, would not exist without quantum physics; the design and interfaces that make it part of our society would not exist without the artist. The artist also explores the world in a non-utilitarian way; that is, the artist creates work that helps us to think critically and question the world around us. Since the beginning of time, the artist and scientist have both focused on the existential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? and How does it work?

You are living in an exciting time. Science is exploding with new discoveries and understandings about our universe. Science needs creative thinkers and visualizers to design technologies, systems, and tools that give meaning to this new understanding. Artists now have exciting new tools to create with, such as projectors, arduinos, 3d printers, and laser cutters, which allow them to visualize and interpret the world in new perspectives. Thanks to science we are also able to see deeper into the micro- and macrocosm which expands our view of who we are and how we relate to each other. We now know that on a subatomic level we are all connected, made of the same particles that existed in space after the Big Bang.

Why is this important? In spite of all our new technologies and understanding of the universe, we still live in a world that is strife with conflict, scarcity, and humanitarian crises that threaten our wellbeing and survival. I believe that we are at a time in our human evolution that requires a strong collaboration between art and science and all disciplines that are now divided into subject areas in schools. Quantum physics and new technologies, combined with imagination and creativity, can provide solutions to many social and humanitarian problems if we put our minds to it. When we combine the artistic mind and the scientific mind with the goal of bettering the world, the results can be empowering.

In this presentation I will take you behind the scenes of one of my art installations called (x)trees, a projection installation that experiments with data visualization, sound, and projection art to create participatory environments. The goal of this piece is to raise awareness to the increased depletion of trees in the world, which in turn leads to extinction of native plants, animals, and indigenous cultures. I will talk about how I collaborate with programmers to create a forest of trees generated from data and projected in real time on to buildings. The program mines data from the internet that contain key words that I designate such as “trees” and “climate change.” Whenever the code finds a tweet or text message containing these words it generates a branch. Message by message, the trees grows dynamically in real time with a soundtrack designed to inspire balance with nature.

For the demo you will have the chance to change the key words and see how the messages change to understand how data can be mined and visualized. You will play with the code to change colors, size, and other variables in the image to understand how code can be written to visualize data. The goal of the presentation is to demonstrate how an artistic process can educate and raise awareness of scientific and environmental issues, with the hope of inspiring social change. I will also have a demo of the Tagtool app from the Projecting Particles series to show how we paint and animate with light to explore particle physics concepts.


About the Presenter

Agnes Chavez

I think I was an artist, humanitarian and entrepreneur since I was 5, always drawing my dolls and pets, talking to animals and worrying about their safety. I felt deep sadness when I heard racist comments. I designed elaborate board games and mini-golf courses, charging a penny to my friends to get in. I hated math and science, but now I understand it is because of the way it was taught. I became interested in math and science later as an adult because they are necessary to understand new technologies, like computers, apps, programming art, and holography which I LOVE. I learned very recently that if we took away quantum physics, all the technologies we use today like mobile devices and GPS would disappear and we would be thrown back to the time of horse & buggy. Wow! How did we live without them?

I was raised by a family of immigrants from Cuba who are warm and loud and expressive and told me I should always do what I love because that was most important in life. They raised me with a hard work ethic and positive attitude that ‘Todo es posible’ and to always follow your dreams. They also taught me a love for progress and future thinking. I learned later that this is common for immigrants that leave their country and family behind to come to America. This future thinking has a lot to do with my love of science and technology, problem solving and experimentation.

I have an amazing grandmother and a mother that taught me that dancing is like breathing, a necessity to express the joy of the spirit and the love of life. I always thought it was just my family that thought this way until I went to Cuba for the first time when I was 52 and discovered that the whole country lives through dance and ‘Todo es posible’ even in the face of extreme hardships under a communist regime. Growing up with a family that experienced loss from the political situation in Cuba, and being an artist with liberal friends and mindset, I developed a strong interest in justice and equality for all people and the importance of social change.

All these things influence what I do and how I do it. I first became interested in science because of my fascination with Einstein’s theory of relativity and the mysterious connection between energy and mass, time and space. My drawings always explored those concepts, but then I discovered holography in the 80’s in New York City and learned you could paint with light and space. Ever since then I have been obsessed with understanding how light works and the idea of other dimensions and energies that we can not see, now called dark matter and dark energy.

I came to Taos from New York when I was 24 and discovered the spirit that exists in nature. I became aware of the environmental crisis, and science and nature became a central focus of my work. Taos was also where I discovered my love of teaching as a way to raise awareness about important things that need to be changed to make the world a better place. (x)trees was my first art piece which attempts to marry my fascination with light and new technologies with my need to help protect the environment. I later created the Projecting Particles series when I decided to delve deeply into my true love, particle physics. I created the STEMarts LAB at the same time to include youth in this exciting process of exploring art, science, and technology.

Although I am not a scientist, science theories influence and inform everything I do. I believe that we have to explore how things work on a deeper level in order to better design everything we see in the world around us. The artist and scientist both devote their lives to this exploration, one through the scientific method and objectivity, and the other through subjective visualizations and multi-sensory experiences. I believe that we are at a time in our human evolution that requires a strong collaboration between art and science and indeed all disciplines that are now divided into subject areas in schools. Quantum physics and new technologies combined with imagination and creativity can provide solutions to many social and humanitarian problems if we put our minds to it.

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October 2015

Genes In The Kitchen: GMOs and the quest for sustainable agriculture

Tawanda Zidenga, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Cassava is a staple food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. It forms starchy roots that you have probably seen in the produce section at Smith’s (as yucca). It is tolerant to some of the toughest growing conditions, including drought and poor soils, which is the reason it has been a good food security crop in Africa. It is also a potential biofuel feedstock and has been used in the starch industry. However, there are a few issues that affect the usefulness of this crop. It forms compounds that break down to release cyanide, which is toxic. It is a poor source of everything else that is not starch, which is not very convenient nutritionally. And, related to the cyanide, cassava also has a very short shelf life (about three days), which makes storage and transport to markets problematic.

We have done work to reduce the toxicity of cassava as well as to improve on its shelf life. Our approach has been to use the tools of genetic engineering to modify the many traits and improve the crop. For example, we used a gene from a weed known as Arabidopsis (a favorite of plant molecular biologists) to help increase the shelf life of cassava from 3 days to two weeks.

Needless to say, this places us at the center of the debate over genetically modified organisms (or GMOs). In this Café series, we will discuss some of my work in the context of the large discussion on genetic engineering. This discussion will start with my work in cassava and focus on the idea of GMOs in general – why it is necessary to make them, the cool science involved in making them, the possibilities they create, and why there is so much controversy around the idea of genetic engineering. We may, depending on interest, also talk a bit about my work in algal biofuels.


About the Presenter

Tawanda Zidenga

I grew up in a rural village in the midlands of Zimbabwe. As a teenager I was the designated cattle herder in the family, one of the best chores you could have at the time because you’d spend loads of time immersed in nature in the pastures. That kind of life worked well if you were good at reading nature, but it also helped in developing strong observational skills and curiosity. I think those were the beginnings of the steps that would lead me to the science laboratory. It certainly made me a better student of the environment around me. But how did I get from rural Zimbabwe to the science lab?

As with most journeys in life, it was a combination of many things, most of which I had no control over – the right push from parents, a little hard work, a few missteps, many awesome teachers and mentors, and quite a lot of ‘chance encounters of the right kind.’ After primary (elementary) school my parents sent me to a boarding school a few miles away from home. Those years at boarding school opened my mind to a wider world than I had known, and career options I could never have imagined became possible. My math teacher, James Njerere, has to be one of the best teachers I have ever had. His method of teaching was to start with people – with the scientists and mathematicians who had worked on the things we were learning. That truly changed the world for me. It was like being allowed into a select club of thinkers. At about that time I got interested in biology, and using the style that Njerere had transferred to us, I read up on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection. These were world-changing ideas to me.

After high school, I enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe to study for a degree in Crop Sciences where I met Ian Robertson, then a professor in the department, who taught agricultural biotechnology. He took me into his lab as an intern, introduced me to cassava, and coached me to be a scientist for the rest of my years at college, with enough freedom to dream. Much like my teacher back at boarding school, he taught science with stories of people involved in the work. During my work with Ian Robertson, I became very interested in the potential for biotechnology in solving agricultural problems of places like my village. Ian Robertson encouraged me to talk about my work in different platforms around the country, which did well for my communication skills. Soon I joined an online forum on GMOs ran by Dr. C. S. Prakash at Tuskegee (who became one of my mentors). In 2003, Dr. Prakash helped me to attend the BioVision Life Sciences Forum in Lyon, France and a biosafety workshop in Kenya; my first trips outside the country and my first international science meetings. I also became a contributing writer with Information Systems for Biotechnology, based at Virginia Tech. Later that year I was invited to Ohio State University as a visiting scholar. I stayed beyond the six months to join the graduate program, later completing a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular Biology with Dick Sayre, working on cassava to improve its shelf life as part of the Gates Foundation Biocassava Plus program. Since then my career has taken me to Los Alamos, working on cassava, potato, and then algae.

Currently I am a postdoctoral associate at LANL, working on enhancing photosynthesis in an algal strain known as Nannochloropsis salina. Whenever I start taking it all for granted, I remember the village boy from years ago.

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September 2015

Rio Rancho Teen Leader Start-Up

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September 2015

"White Hat" Hacking Café

Neale Pickett, Canonical, Ltd.

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

In early 2009, Iran's uranium enrichment program - widely believed to be aimed at developing a nuclear weapon - was set back at least two years and billions of dollars by a computer virus from the United States.

The New Zealand-based Megaupload site has millions of dollars of equipment and money frozen while the U.S. tries to convince New Zealand to send the company’s founder - accused of Internet piracy of music, movies, and other copyrighted materials - here to appear in court.

The online organization WikiLeaks hacked into and then published sensitive government documents and secret diplomatic cables. Julian Assange, the Swedish citizen in charge of WikiLeaks, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, surrounded by London police, since August 2012. It is widely believed that if he leaves he will be arrested and find himself in a U.S. prison. He is also a wanted man in Sweden.

Here we have a diplomatic fiasco involving four national governments. What do these situations have in common? All are significant developments within the last few years that began on the Internet and boiled over into high-profile real-world political scandals.

When I presented this Café in 2010, I had to make up a science fiction story about a kid whose Facebook account was hacked. Since then, hacking as a serious political force has become a reality. The battlefields of the future will include the Internet, and the hacker armies attacking and defending are in high school classes right now.

In this Café, we will experience HACK, an online training simulator. You will learn the basic skills you need to view the world through the eyes of a computer security expert. Even if you don't want to do this professionally, just knowing what a "buffer overflow" or "phishing attack" is will help you be aware of computer security any time you use a computer to write a paper, plan a birthday party, or order dinner.

Everything in this Café will be legal, and you'll learn how to legally and ethically continue studying the field of hacking and computer security.


About the Presenter

Neale Pickett

I have been interested in computer security ever since I watched my dad spend a week piecing back together a deleted file on my mom's computer. I had assumed that deleted meant gone for good. I thought to myself, if deleted files are still around, what other ideas did I have about computers that weren't right? I decided to find out.

In high school, I ran an Albuquerque BBS (like a web forum, but before the internet) called "Andra," and picked out my hacker name: “zephyr.” I was involved in some minor tinkering around with very early networks as “zephyr” and worked with a friend to set up a system that would allow people in Albuquerque to send messages all over the world with just a computer and a modem. That same friend and I, with two other people from our high school, won the first Supercomputing Challenge, run by LANL and Sandia.

In college, I learned about PGP encryption and how to send emails anonymously on the internet, and I got involved with online protests against the "Communications Decency Act," a law which would have made it a crime to provide internet access to a 19-year-old sending emails to his 16-year-old girlfriend.

After school I worked briefly for LANL; I left just before the firestorm over Wen Ho Lee and the Case of the Missing Hard Drives. I moved to Seattle and worked as the chief architect for FreeInternet.com, which was briefly the second largest internet provider in the USA. I then went to Watchguard Technologies, and wrote firewall software for medium-sized companies.

While in Seattle, I became involved with a worldwide cryptography and anonymity organization called the "cypherpunks." I organized two protest marches against the illegal jailing of a Russian computer hacker named Dmitry Sklyarov, who was later released and allowed to go back home to his wife and son.

When I came back to LANL in 2005, my experience made me a good candidate to deal with network computer security. I now work as a Systems Reliability Engineer for Canonical, publishers of Ubuntu Linux. I also run the white hat (good guy hacker) site dirtbags.net, and run Capture The Flag contests around the country to train computer security professionals.

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April 2015

Solar Panels and Electric Cars: Can it be the future for Taos?

John Gusdorf, Renewable Taos

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March 2015

Ants' immune Cells and Robots: How can they find things when no one is in charge?

Melanie Moses, University of New Mexico

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

It was in Costa Rica that I became fascinating with ants. I was mesmerized by these small insects laboriously traversing trails to cut and carry a small piece of leaf back to their nest, over and over, every day, uncountable numbers of ants recycling the majority of the leaves in the rainforest each year. For a hundred million years these creatures have been quietly dominating all of earth’s ecosystems, unrivaled in their success, at least until humans came along.

Ant nests are built with no one in charge. Unlike the movie Antz, the queen directs none of the activity of the workers—she is deep underground, an egg laying machine, that can live for over 20 years, possibly producing millions of new ants for the colony. The elaborate structure of an ant nest emerges from the interactions of many, many tiny workers, each following a set of rules—how to communicate, when to take out the trash, when to swarm on an enemy. The rules are fine tuned by evolution so that each ant responds appropriately to her nestmates and to her environment --producing an intricate adaptive dance with no choreographer. This has happened in colony after colony for eons.

We’ve taken the mathematics developed to understand how ants navigate and communicate to find seeds, and applied to understand how immune cells in your body navigate and communicate to find viruses or cancer cells. We can watch immune cells move as they search for signs of disease. Their movement patterns appear random, but when you observe large numbers of them, there is a statistical similarity between their movements and those of the ants. By understanding how these cells move and communicate within your body, we can test in computer models how different drugs and vaccinations can affect immune response. This kind of modeling lets us connect the microscopic dynamics of cells to outcomes we care about in the macroscopic world—disease progression, the onset of allergies, and even the probability that an immune system can detect and destroy cancer cells before tumors form and spread.

In other research, we model the behaviors that we think explain how ants cooperate, and then we import those behaviors into robots to see if they actually work. We see this as a way to test our hypotheses about ants. If we can replicate ant-like behaviors in our robots, then we know we’ve understood how ants do what they do. When we are wrong, and our robots spin in circles and crash into each other, how we fix those problems suggests new hypotheses about how the behavior of ant colonies emerge from the actions of individual ants. And, of course, robots are amazing technologies to play with. One day we hope to send our robots to Mars to search for signs of life!

Understanding how cooperation emerges in complex systems requires a new kind of science. Most of the successful history of science is based on reductionism—that’s the idea that to understand something, you have to look closer and closer at smaller and smaller parts, like looking through a microscope. Much of our modern technology and advances in medicine have been made with this approach. But this approach does not help us to understand how the small scale connects to the big picture.

We use computer models to combine the detailed view from a microscope with the broad view from space. This new approach is a way to simultaneously see the forest and the trees. Zooming in to follow the path of an individual ant or T cell or robot; zoom out to see the pattern formed when all those paths interact. This way of thinking can help all of us to navigate our increasingly complex world.


About the Presenter

Melanie Moses

Moses

I cannot imagine a better career than the one I have. Every day I wake up to work on problems that I think are interesting, exciting, challenging, and important. I get to choose what to study and how to study it. I am privileged to teach, learn from, and collaborate with brilliant students and colleagues. As a professor, I can follow my scientific curiosity wherever it leads me. I know that I am incredibly fortunate to work in a profession that allows so much creativity and independence.

So, how did I get here? The road I took to get here is as meandering as the trails of ants that I study. If I had studied only one discipline, built up my research skills step by step toward an envisioned career, I would have gotten here faster, but I would lack the perspective that I gained from so many courses and experiences that led me to explore unorthodox ideas.

I was told as a child that I was good at math. I attribute this not to any innate mathematical talent, but to the fact that my grandmother would call me on the phone every day to play math games. She taught me logic puzzles, and elementary word problems, algebra, and geometry, all before I was 9. Soon after that, I said I wanted to be a scientist to cure the kind of cancer that she died from. I didn’t pursue a degree in medicine, and I haven't cured cancer. But that question still motivates me – how can we use science and mathematics to understand our world and make it a better place.

As an undergraduate, I had a scholarship that required I study computer science, although I was always drawn to other courses—philosophy, science, linguistics. I craved a diversity of approaches. After I graduated from college, I worked as a computer scientist for several years. I found it utterly boring.

Deciding that I wasn't cut out for life behind a computer screen, I packed up and moved to the rainforest in Costa Rica. It was an amazing experience to go from being a computer scientist to living in the jungle in a thatched roof hut with no electricity, surrounded by the natural rhythms of rivers and birds and monkeys howling in the trees. It was in Costa Rica I became fascinating with ants.

Although I was inspired by the evolutionary marvel of ant colonies, I also discovered in Costa Rica that digging in the leaves could uncover the dreaded rainforest hog nosed pit viper. And so I ruled out a career as a field biologist!

I decided to go to graduate school to study the ecology of ants—how it is that they communicate, cooperate, and interact with their environment. I wanted to understand the rules they had evolved to produce a form of cooperation so vastly superior to humans who all too often rely on hierarchy, domination, violence, and coercion.

I also wanted to think about the bigger ecological picture and how our modern industrialized society affects global ecosystems. Ants are a small system of which we can ask big questions. And ants can tell us a lot about ourselves.

The study of ants has lead me far away from the first questions I encountered in the rain forest. Ants have led me to ask questions about human societies, about cells in our immune systems, and most recently about how we can build swarms of ant-like robots to explore moons and asteroids and other planets.

You never know where scientific curiosity will take you!

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March 2015

Planet of the Microbes: The unseen majority that rules your world!

Cheryl Kuske, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

As a human, you are a minority organism in the biological population that resides on planet Earth. When it comes to the total mass of living organisms on the planet, or to the diversity of those organisms and how they make their living, the microbes rule. ‘Micro’ means small, and microorganisms (microbes for short) are the living organisms we humans cannot see with our naked eye.

In this discussion, I will introduce you to them. We will tour their diversity and functions across the planet. I’ll illustrate the vast array of lifestyles they have developed that control everything from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the survival and productivity of plants and animals on this planet. Complex microbial communities live everywhere on the planet... literally everywhere. In fact, even you are coated with microorganisms. Think about this: your body houses over 100 times more microbial cells than your own cells. You are walking around with a great deal of microbial baggage! This resident microbial community—termed the "human microbiome"—significantly affects your health, and can control other features about you, including your weight and your mood!

After our survey of the microbial planet, I’ll describe recent research using molecular biology techniques, termed DNA sequencing, through which scientists are discovering just how important Earth’s microbial communities are for plant life, animal life, and human health. I’ll describe ongoing projects in my lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory, through which we are discovering thousands of new organisms and showing just how complex and important the processes conducted by microbial communities in the soil under our feet are to our survival and the planet’s global cycles.

We will also discuss how molecular biology and high performance computing are allowing us to unravel the roles of complex soil microbial communities that work together with plants to cycle carbon and nitrogen on the planet, with a focus on how they may be responding to climate changes and land use practices in arid lands.

We’ll finish with a perspective and discussion on how to engage in science, how to find ways to participate in and contribute to in science at many levels.


About the Presenter

Cheryl Kuske

Kuske

I have been fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the natural world as far back as I can remember. I remember collecting rocks and shells and tearing apart flowers and fruits to see what was inside. I was fortunate to grow up in coastal North Carolina during a time when the beaches were relatively empty and the estuaries and wetlands were abundant and rich with life. From frogs and turtles, to sea cucumbers and starfish, to snakes and alligators, to carnivorous plants, I was able explore them all in canoe and muddy sneakers. I began college at the University of North Carolina in human health, but switched to plant and microbial science at North Carolina State University, primarily because of the enormous diversity and variability of life styles that plants and microorganisms represent. I have continued an active interest in biological diversity and novel biochemical traits that lead to unusual biological lifestyles in plants, fungi, and bacteria. Collectively, they produce most of our known natural pharmaceuticals and antibiotics and many industrial enzymes. Some fungi are agricultural pathogens that have changed the course of human history.

Through an undergraduate research job, I realized that a career in research was where I belonged. One of the joys of research is that you are constantly pushing beyond what is known in order to discover something new or find a new way to remedy a problem. No two days are alike, and there is no time for boredom. After my BS degree, I attended graduate school, first at North Carolina State University (MS degree) and then at the University of California at Davis (PhD degree), to study fungi and bacteria that cause diseases in ornamental plants and fruit trees. In between these two stints in graduate school, I worked for three years at Monsanto in St. Louis, where they were just beginning to find ways to engineer plant genomes. I met my husband while at Monsanto, and after graduate school in California, we moved to Los Alamos, where we have lived for 25 years. After a couple of years in a postdoctoral research position, I established my own research program in environmental microbiology.

I am driven in science by a strong desire to understand how complex biological systems work, and by the creativity it takes to tease out an answer. Science can solve complex puzzles, and biological systems are very complex. They are physics and chemistry in action!

A career in research is rarely an nine-to-five job; it is a way of life. But there are many ways to participate in science that can fit multiple lifestyles. In my generation, many women did not go into research careers because of social or family expectations, but I see that changing with a broadened acceptance of women in science and shared responsibilities for children/home life. I am an advocate for science exploration at many levels, and I hire young people into my program when I can, to expose them to the joys and realities of research.

Outside of my research career, I try to be outdoors as much as possible. I feel extremely fortunate to live in northern New Mexico. This is a very, very special place! I have always been a hiker, canoeist, and cyclist. Before we started a family, I was also an avid whitewater kayaker. Our two children, who are now teens, continue to be focal point of my non-science life, and our family likes to hike, ski and bicycle together.

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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February 2015

Are you kidding me? Is it true that more than 50% of U.S. rivers, lakes, bays and estuaries are impaired?

Ricardo González-Pinzón, University of New Mexico

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

There are a few truths upon which all humans on this planet agree. One of those is that our very existence depends on water! Thankfully, some might think, 2/3 of our planet are covered by water. It is less clear for everyone, however, that only ~3% of all water available is freshwater (rivers, lakes, some groundwater). From that 3%, ~69% is not easily accessible because it is on icecaps and glaciers, ~30% is groundwater and only ~0.3% is surface water, i.e., the water that you see in rivers, lakes and swamps. To give you a better idea, only ~0.00018% of all the water available in this planet runs at a given time through rivers, ~0.008% is available on lakes and ~0.9% is part of our underground reservoirs. These surface and ground waters available provide services to all humanity. Now, keep in mind that to sustain human development (current population is ~ 7.3 billions) we have dramatically changed the way we use (and abuse) our water resources.

The most recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that from all the water bodies currently assessed in the U.S., 54% of the streams and rivers, 68% of the lakes, reservoirs and ponds, and 78% of the bays and estuaries are impaired. The ‘impaired’ status indicates that a given water body is “too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet the water quality standards set by states, territories, or authorized tribes”.

In this Café Scientifique, we will discuss how and why freshwater resources are getting polluted and what we can do to assess and mitigate our impacts on these resources. We will explore these topics by digesting a key concept: the water quality of a freshwater ecosystem is affected by natural and anthropogenic processes. By natural processes we mainly refer to the flow of water (hydrology) and the biochemical processes that occur simultaneously in the aquatic ecosystems. By anthropogenic processes we mainly refer to the addition and removal of inorganic (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) and organic substances (animal and human wastes, etc.).


About the Presenter

Ricardo González-Pinzón

González-Pinzón

As a national of Colombia, I grew up in the middle of incredible water resources (foggy mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans). Water was part of everything I enjoyed and was also part of most of the things I feared. Water was life, hope, fun and relaxation. However, water was also a synonym of illness, tragedies and desperation (did you know that in Colombia a water avalanche killed about 20,000 people one night in 1985 after a volcano erupted?). These observations made me want to know more about humanity’s most precious resource, how it cycles, how it gets out of control sometimes, and how it can be used to improve people’s lives. Early in my teen years is when I became consciously perceptive of the world around me and I realized that some of the water places I used to visit were sadly polluted. Something was wrong with this and I wanted to know what. Was it the population growth? Was it the increased number of industries and farms present? What was it I wondered, and what can we do to reverse the damage?

I remember during high school I thought I had three gifts: 1) being able to write poems and songs, 2) being a ‘great’ soccer player, and 3) being able to think critically and get involved in (peaceful) debates. I wanted to pursue all of these lines in my life and I wrote about 100 poems and songs before my 20s, I played soccer every single day after school time and also during the weekends, and I pushed myself to learn more about how humans can build physical and non-physical conditions to improve their well-being. Before finishing high school, I realized that Mario Benedetti and Pablo Neruda were far more passionate about writing poems than I was, I figured that Pele and Maradona were much more ‘classy’ at playing soccer than I was at similar ages (you are right, Messi was unknown by that time), but I remained tirelessly interested in asking questions and finding answers. Then, I decided I wanted to be an engineer: I would have to write, anyways, I would have to have the vision of a soccer midfielder to anticipate problems, and I could use my curiosity and imagination to help change the world for the better.

I decided to study Biosystems Engineering with the idea of helping to promote sustainable development (did you know that about 35% of all the water we use is for irrigation?). Because I was always motivated, I was successful during my undergraduate studies. I obtained the second place in my country in the Quality Examination of Higher Education (Biosystems Engineering chapter). This distinction and another scholarship supported my plan to continue my studies at the Masters level in Water Resources Engineering. By that time, I was awarded an Excellent Graduate Student distinction and began working as a lecturer of Hydraulics in the Department of Civil Engineering at the National University of Colombia. Of course, I continued to play soccer!

In 2009 I decided I wanted to study a Ph.D. because I needed to know much more about water resources. I had read publications from several U.S. authors and thought I wanted to study here. One thing was clear, if I really wanted to study in the U.S., I would have to learn English first! Then… I sat in front of a computer 4-5 hours a day repeating words like a parrot and reading and watching news in English. I did that for 6 months and then presented the standard tests for international students seeking to study in the U.S. (TOEFL and GRE). I was awarded a grant from Education USA (a program funded by the U.S. Department of State) that allowed me to take the exams and to submit applications to 5 U.S. universities. Later, I was offered a Ph.D. assistantship at Oregon State University. Hooray! But, wait a second, I thought, is this true? Is it true that I am the first member in my family that will be pursuing a Ph.D., and will I be the first living far away from our beloved country? Yes! Then I’d better be the best student I can be, I thought.

I finished my Ph.D. in Water Resources Engineering in 2013 and in the process I had the opportunity to run field and lab experiments and to attend conferences in different states (i.e., Oregon, Wyoming, California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia) and countries (i.e., Spain, France, Italy, Austria). I was awarded three research grants during my Ph.D. to support my ‘business’ trips (I call them fun trips). During the less than 4 years that I spent doing my Ph.D. on topics related to water quality modelling, my wife and I raised our daughter, Silvia, who is now almost 5 years old. I am happy to tell you that I found a job in what I wanted to do (and for what I worked hard) since I was a teenager, this is, being a professor at a research university. I am very fortunate to be working at UNM in Albuquerque. I work in the great and growing Department of Civil Engineering with colleagues that are truly passionate about their teaching and research endeavours (check us out at http://civil.unm.edu). After a year and a half of becoming New Mexicans, my family and I love this land of enchantment and are proud to call it home. Of course, I continue to play soccer and I joined the team “Universitarios” in the Albuquerque Soccer League. We are ranked # 1 in our league! These days I do not write too many poems, but I write scientific articles, which reflect my passion for what I do (is not that the reason for writing, anyways?). You can check out more about my work at http://gonzaric.people.unm.edu.

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February 2015

Get a CLEW! Challenges and Opportunities at the Climate-Land-Energy-Water Nexus in the Southwest

Andrew Wolfsberg, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Turn off the lights, lower the temperature, and dim your screen as you read this if you want to save some water. Fix that leaky faucet, take a shorter shower, and xeriscape your yard if want reliable energy to power your car and light your house. These are small examples that play into the interdependence of water and energy. There is a fascinating tradeoff between electrons and those funny molecules that bear a Mickey Mouse resemblance and are truly the basis for life, and vice-a-versa. Add climate change, increasing demand for both water and energy, and the way both cultivated and natural land cover is changing and you find yourself at the heart of the Climate-Land-Energy-Water (CLEW) nexus. The dependence of energy on water and water on energy is becoming increasingly important and challenging here in the west where energy needs continue to rise and water availability is decreasing.

To get our minds around what this Climate-Land-Energy-Water nexus is all about, we need to consider a suite of interrelated processes, all of which are in a state of change. First, let’s consider the Climate. 2014 was recently deemed the hottest year on record. We may be looking at even warmer years ahead. That means less precipitation comes as snow; the elevation of the snow pack in the mountains is higher; what snow there is melts earlier in the spring; and ultimately, more evapotranspiration occurs so less runoff from the snow melt and from the rain that occurs at lower elevation and later in the season finds its way to streams, reservoirs and aquifers. Additionally, warmer temperatures mean greater demand for electricity to run air conditioners and rapid population growth in the southwest and western states increases demand even more for all forms of electricity.

Land change is occurring in both crop producing and natural systems. More mouths to feed means more crops to grow, and agriculture uses a LOT of water. In times of drought, farm plots go fallow and food prices go up. Another dynamic of great concern here is the mortality (dying off) of ponderosa pines in the arid southwest. The warmer temperatures stress the trees, which then die directly or they become susceptible to beetle infestation and/or wild fire. The end state is that watersheds are projected to look a lot different in the near future and the impact will be seen in the timing, quantity, and quality of water that goes into streams, lakes and aquifers – the natural system delivery points to the energy systems in this nexus.

Energy needs water and Water needs energy! You have seen the headlines lately about hydraulic fracking to liberate natural gas and oil from tight geologic formations. Whether you are for it – energy security, or against it – environmental impacts, each well requires around five million gallons of water – that’s about six Olympic pools of water for each well. With 10,000 wells permitted in Texas last year, that’s a lot of water. But it is nothing compared to the water required to cool power plants or to create biofuels. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, a single large power plant can withdraw an Olympic sized pool’s volume of water every minute. There are a lot of power plants in this country (and around the world) and there are a lot of minutes in a year. It actually gets a little more complicated than comparing swimming pools in the energy industry. The power plants that withdraw the huge volumes of water need a reliable, massive, and continuous supply, but they put much of the water back in the river or lake, but often at a higher temperature or at a worse quality, thus impacting critical environmental concerns such as fish habitats and ecosystems. In more arid regions, closed loop cooling towers are used, so less water needs to be available for withdrawal, but the water that is used is fully consumed in the process through evaporation. Droughts occur everywhere in this country and when they do, the large water volumes for the once-through cooling as well as the water the supply for the consumptive cooling towers is put in peril. In times of drought, groundwater overdraft is also a big issue. Close to home, the Colorado River just hasn’t had the annual flows in many years to supply water for all of the users who have legitimate claims. Thus, groundwater has been used to a far greater extent. This masks the total impact that would occur in surface waters, but creates a serious problem for the future when groundwater just won’t be available due to present day ‘mining’. And, just to add another challenge, capturing CO2 at coal or gas burning power plants may be great for slowing down climate change, but, ironically, it requires a lot more water.

Now, reducing energy production due to water availability issues would be really bad because energy is needed to treat and move water for all sorts of uses. Take for example California. It snows and rains in winter and spring in the northern and more mountainous part of the state where few people live. Most people live in the arid southern part of the state and need water year round. Almost 20% of the electricity used in California is to move, treat, and heat water. In cities and states across the country, one of the primary concerns is the increasing energy demand to treat water and provide reliable water for households and industries.

So where does this nexus take us? With increasing demands on both water and energy and potentially diminishing water, some change is needed. This takes us into adaptation strategies that you may be right at the center of. First, we can look to technology. Your generation can start searching for methods to produce electricity with far less water requirements for cooling, maybe by increasing the efficiency of dry cooling, maybe a new method to produce crops cheaply with far less water, maybe with a widget or idea none of us have even thought about. Same goes for extraction of natural gas and oil. Scientists today are investigating the use of other fluids instead of water like CO2 to pump down wells and liberate fossil fuels. Next, you can start looking at other sources of water, rather than the high-value fresh water in lakes, streams and aquifers. Perhaps power plants and fuel extraction can use treated sewer water or water we classify as brackish – coming from subsurface reservoirs but not fit for drinking due to its high salt content. This brings us right back to technology. You may be at the forefront of developing methods to treat water or desalinate brackish or sea water cheaply to make it fit for use in energy production, or maybe even for irrigating crops and drinking. We have a pretty good idea how to do it, but it is tremendously expensive. New sets of eyes on the problem and new perspectives may get us over the bar and usher in a whole new relationship between water-thirsty energy production and energy-intensive water treatment and distribution.


About the Presenter

Andrew Wolfsberg

Wolfsberg

It has been my experience that life is a series of opportunities, some of which you create and some of which just come along. The trick is to make good choices once the opportunities present themselves. When I was 18, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do. I figured I was supposed to be a scientist of sorts, but I had no clue what the other options were – Los Alamos is kind of heavy on scientists and light on investment bankers and artists. So, when it came time to apply for college, I was influenced by one thing. I had enjoyed my high school chemistry classes. Stressing out that my entire life was going to be determined by the fact that I liked chemistry in high school, I applied to U.C. Berkeley and was resigned to figure out what chemical engineering was some time later. We didn’t have the Internet back then, and frankly, I didn’t know how to figure out what a chemical engineer actually was. Then, opportunity knocked. I received a small card in the mail that said “Come to the University of Arizona, Study Hydrology, Get in-state tuition.” I asked my dad – a LANL Nuclear Chemist - what Hydrology was. He told me it was mix of geology, physics, math, and chemistry focused on water-related challenges, with all sorts of interesting real-world problems to solve. Finally, something tangible. I could help find water resources or clean up contaminated groundwater systems. And, I could dabble in several disciplines but not have to specialize in any. This made a lot more sense than chemical engineering (though I still hadn’t done any research on what it was).

So, over Spring Break, two buddies and I piled into dad’s car and off we went to Arizona to check out the school. University of Arizona is a party school, and we were in heaven. It also had the only undergraduate curriculum in hydrology in the nation and had a department loaded with world class hydrologists. These guys literally wrote the books on the subject. When I went to visit the professors in the department, I realized that they had pioneered much of the science. They figured out how to use radioactive isotopes to age-date ground water; they figured out how to best drill wells and evaluate how much water they could produce; they figured out how to develop computer models to optimize the spacing and pumping rates of wells to supply water for a city. This seemed like cool stuff and I was hooked. Then came my next opportunity. One day, I was working away at my student-janitor job when an upper classman in the hydrology department came up to me and said that a hydrology consulting firm in town needed some student help and there might be some field work involved. To make a long story short, two weeks later it was almost Christmas break and I was in Wyoming working with a crack team of hydrologists and geophysicists studying if and how a pond of nasty power plant effluent was leaking to the groundwater. It was 30 degrees below zero, we were drilling through 2 feet of ice, my feet were freezing, and I was in heaven.

With the practical experience I had gained in consulting and an undergraduate background in hydrology, I was actually quite marketable to big name graduate schools. So, I went up to Stanford to visit and the first thing I saw was a lake on campus with students windsurfing and sunbathing on the beach. True to form, I signed up immediately. California then went into a drought and I didn’t see water in that lake again for the next 7 years. But, I did learn a few more things on the path to a Ph.D.

When I finally completed that process, I took the next logical step. I dropped everything and my wife and I bought open-ended plane tickets that would take us to East Africa, Nepal, and Thailand. One day, we were hanging out in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania when an aid worker, who heard I was a hydrologist, asked us to evaluate his well design to provide drinking water for a proposed orphanage. I was at first nervous about whether I could actually be of any help. But, when we arrived on site, it became clear that the most important advice we could impart was to have him put up some access control where the drinking water came out and provide an alternative location for people to bathe and do laundry so as to prevent contamination and disease spread. The lesson I learned that day has stuck with me ever since – not all solutions to problems need to be highly technical. Nine months later, after an amazing set of experiences ranging from climbing Kilimanjaro in Africa to trekking to over 20,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas, and usually on only a few dollars a day, we finally made it to Bangkok and needed to find a way home – we were running out of money. Fortunately, the cheapest flight home was out of Bali, Indonesia, so we spent 2 more months traversing the Indonesian Archipelago seeing Komodo Dragons, experiencing a fascinating culture, and scuba diving on World War II shipwrecks.

Spending a year traveling around the world was an opportunity we created. I resisted the temptation to use that new Stanford certificate and start making money, realizing this was the one chance in my life to seize a critical window of time. We spent less than $15,000 each, yet, we changed our lives. A new car could certainly wait. I celebrated my 30th birthday on top of a volcano in Bali where we hard-boiled eggs in the steam vent. Then, we decided it was time to get on with our lives.

Instead of being challenged by trying to find a cheap bus ticket from Uganda to Tanzania (yes, they did have chickens in the back and goats tied to the roof!), we are challenged 20 years later with raising an 11 year old and 13 year old, and it is just as rewarding. You’ll learn something about the water-energy nexus and what I do in my job at Los Alamos National Laboratory when we get together and you’ll see that I find a substantial reward in applying everything I have learned in school and in life to the complex challenges our society and your generation faces.

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January 2015

Around the Science World in 80 Minutes: speed meet & greet with science grad students

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January 2015

Game Night!

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November 2014

When proteins go bad...

Eva Chi, University of New Mexico

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

What do the Ice Bucket Challenge and brain injury in football players that have been in the news recently have in common with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases? The Bucket challenge raised over one hundred and fifty million dollars for the ALS Association (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and chronic traumatic brain injury (e.g., concussions) have been discovered to cause brain encephalopathy. What all these conditions have in common is that each disease is associated with a good protein going bad.

In this Café Scientifique presentation, we will talk about what makes a “good” protein and how their structures give rise to their biological functions. A hands-on activity will illustrate the fact that the protein structures can be disrupted very easily. We will then talk about what is known about the structures of the proteins in disease states and a common structural feature that is shared by all protein aggregates that causing diseases. Students will participate in a second hands on activity to build a “good protein” model that is rich in alpha-helix and then “misfold” the protein into a beta-sheet structure. As a class, the students will “aggregate” the beta-sheet rich protein model to produce a long protein fiber, precisely the protein structure found in disease brains. Despite the large body of research that has been done and is currently been done, many questions remain about these protein misfolding diseases. We will conclude the presentation by discussing the future and opportunities in the field.


About the Presenter

Eva Chi

Chi

Growing up in China, I was a child who always had questions. I was fascinated by the colors of the sky, the seemingly still but ever changing clouds, the passage of seasons, and all the life around me. My best source of knowledge at that time was my father. “Dad, why is the ground white over there?” “Salt that had dried.” “Dad, do we look the same to flies as they do to us?” Pausing briefly, my dad smiled at me. “You will find out someday when you learn science.”

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a scientist. I knew that in order to answer my ceaseless questions, science was the only option. Years later in high school I had the opportunity to look at thousands of flies during a summer program conducted through a developmental genetics lab at the University of California, San Francisco. As I examined the flies that were lying underneath my microscope lens, unconscious from the carbon dioxide blowing over them, I remembered my childhood musings. Then I realized – flies are not all the same! They look different from each other if you look at them closely enough. I learned from a biology class that their different looks - number of bristles, shape, color, and shade of eyes - are due to the different genes each carried. But as some of my questions were answered, more questions arose. What exactly are genes? How do they make flies look different? To find the answers to my questions, I knew I had to look deeper into science.

Chemistry is a jewel I unearthed in high school – it shed light on a dimension of the world, so tiny and fundamental, that had been hidden from me. For the first time, I realized that it is possible to understand the world around me. That desire to understand and at the same time to apply my knowledge drove me to study chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The same desire and curiosity led me to pursue a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was during my Ph.D. dissertation that I caught the “bug” of doing research. In my lab at the University of New Mexico Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, we study the phenomenon of protein misfolding and their roles in neurodegenerative diseases.

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November 2014

Attack of the Super-bugs, The global threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Harshini Mukundan, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

In the early 1900’s, microbiologist Paul Ehrlich envisioned a ‘magic bullet’ that could target and specifically kill pathogenic microbes. His systematic and persistent search for this drug resulted in the identification of ‘salvarsan’ as the first antimicrobial agent for the treatment of syphilis. Despite significant side effects, salvarsan and modified derivatives were the most sought after cure for the treatment of infectious diseases for almost forty years. In 1928, Alexander Fleming accidentally identified the antimicrobial properties of penicillin in his laboratory, the golden era of antibiotics was born, and the human condition took a dramatic turn for the better. It is widely accepted that antibiotics have been the most important factor contributing to the jump in life expectancy observed in the 20th century. Paul Ehrlich’s dream for a ‘magic bullet’ had indeed come true.

For the past seventy years, humans have achieved a remarkable degree of survival from common bacterial illnesses. But as with any new technology, we have abused the use of antibiotics as well, and this has resulted in the global rise in anti-microbial resistance among pathogens today. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have identified the emergence of antimicrobial resistance as one of the most serious health threats of our time. To quote Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the US CDC “We talk about a pre-antibiotic era and an antibiotic era. If we're not careful, we will soon be in a post antibiotic era. And, in fact, for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”

Each year in the United States alone ~ 2 million people acquire drug-resistant infections, and ~23,000 die of such diseases. This number is rapidly increasing every day with the increased emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains among common bacteria. As of 2008, the costs of dealing with such infections were predicted to be ~ $35 billon in the United States alone. For instance, Staphylococcus aureus is a common soil bacteria that infects wounds. In some parts of the world, more than 80% of these bacteria are methicillin-resistant (MRSA), making them unresponsive to standard medications and consequently life-threatening.

The unnecessary and uncontrolled use of antibiotics and the use of antibiotics in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease and for promoting growth are only some of the reasons for the rapid increase in antibiotic resistance today. To prevent the world from entering a post-antibiotic era in the very near future, where even common infections can prove life threatening, urgent and immediate change is mandatory. It is a change that is not just limited to politicians, policy makers, and health care providers, but is a responsibility of each and every one us. The choices we make and the responsibility we show can slow down the emergence of antibiotic resistance and ensure viability of these miracle drugs for future generations.


About the Presenter

Harshini Mukundan

Mukundan

I am a scientist and team leader at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the development of diagnostic and surveillance strategies for emerging infectious diseases and drug-resistant organisms. Every small incident in your life leaves its mark on you, and that mark influences your decisions in every phase of life. Growing up in a developing country ravaged by disease has clearly left a mark on me, as is evident from my chosen vocation.

I was born in Chennai, a busy city in Southern India, to a moderately affluent family with good access to medical care. Despite that, I suffered from mumps as a child, and knew children that suffered from other infectious diseases that could have easily been prevented by vaccination. Affixed in my memory is the image of our gardener, coughing persistently as he worked. I did not know then that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that would claim his life a decade later. I also remember abuse of antibiotics, without prescription control within the community, one of the major reasons for the upsurge in drug-resistant organisms today. I have seen this abuse continue in many forms throughout the world, and am increasingly alarmed at increased rate of evolution of anti-microbial resistance today. Fighting antimicrobial drug resistance both in the laboratory and at the community level is one of the driving forces of my life today.

As a child I was interested in the performing arts (still am): dancing and drama were attractive options. But when I did very well in 10th grade, my family and friends encouraged (forced?) me to pursue an undergraduate degree in science. I enrolled as an undergraduate in microbiology at the University of Delhi in 1992, (yes, I am that old) and found myself enjoying it. My education was primarily theoretical, with some controlled laboratory work, but no research experience whatsoever. I enjoyed what I learned, but was not passionate about the science.

After my undergraduate degree, I still wavered between science and the performing arts and decided to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology (while performing at drama clubs and learning Indian dance). My masters program changed my outlook on science. I was fortunate enough to do my dissertation work at the very reputable National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, India. Working in a research institution on real world problems was challenging, inspiring, and exciting. I enjoyed laboratory work and practically lived in the lab during that time, resulting in a highly appreciated masters thesis project.

At this juncture in my life, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Biomedical Sciences. I came to the University of New Mexico in 1998, to pursue my Ph. D in Biomedical sciences. Studying in the United States was a completely new experience. I enjoyed the open and questioning culture, the casual approach to teaching and the helpful nature of my professors and teachers. My graduate work was entirely different from what I had done so far and my first introduction to human physiology. My project characterized the molecular mechanisms of gender differences in the manifestation of hypertension. Five publications and a challenging defense later, I had a Ph. D in Biomedical Sciences.

I then joined QTL Biosystems Ltd in Santa Fe as a staff scientist in 2003. For two years, I worked on developing hand-held sensors for detection of biowarfare agents. It was an amazing experience, translating the lessons learnt in school to actual applied products. But in two years, I realized that I needed the freedom to cultivate my scientific curiosity, to ask new questions and explore the unknown or unusual. This freedom is not easily obtained in an industry environment. So, I decided to join the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow in 2006. My childhood experiences motivated me to obtain a NIH post-doctoral fellowship to study tuberculosis and develop methods for its effective diagnosis. Since then, I have been working on the development of assays for the diagnosis of tuberculosis, traveling to endemic populations, meeting and working with people in the field. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my work and the challenges it presents. Pursuing unusual findings and atypical results have resulted in new approaches that may allow for the detection of biomarkers associated with bacterial diseases directly in the infected patients, and we are currently working on the clinical evaluation of these assays in human trials. Traveling to high disease burden populations in many areas of the world has been an eye-opening experience, teaching me how fortunate we are to live in a developed economy such as the United States.

I enjoy mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows, and watching a new era of inspired scientists rise. My ultimate goal is to develop better diagnostics for infectious disease, especially ones that have developed resistance to antibiotics, and to develop a global awareness for increasing drug-resistance. It is likely that we may be in the pre-antibiotic era within the next century if rapid and strong efforts are not undertaken to curb the global abuse of antimicrobial agents, and promoting this awareness to the best extent that I can remains my goal. Well, if you aim for the stars, you may reach the moon.

I still dance and perform every year and really enjoy it. I have been married for 17 years now and balancing my personal life (with two adorable children) and my career is one of the greatest challenges that I personally face!

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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October 2014

Modeling the Human Visual Cortex: Measuring the Speed of Sight

Garrett Kenyon and William Shainin, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Despite the extraordinary advances in scientific knowledge over the last century, such as the splitting of the atom, the deciphering of DNA, the cloning of new individuals from single cells, and most recently, the discovery of the Higgs particle at the superconducting supercollider at CERN, the nature of the computations occurring in the brains of essentially all animals, including humans, remains shrouded in mystery. Since the invention of the modern digital computer, processing speeds have approximately doubled every 18 months.

But even the largest and fastest computers available today are still unable to execute many seemingly simple tasks that can be easily performed by a small child, such as describing an image or video clip in a few words, for instance, 'That's my brother and my dog playing fetch.' Why is it so difficult to program a computer to do such things? Why have the computations performed inside the brains of animals and humans been so difficult for scientists to figure out? What's taking us so long? The truth is that, despite all the advances in science and technology that have been achieved over the last few decades, the brain remains a stubborn exception. We have virtually no idea how the brain works, even the brains of small animals, nor do we have any idea how to program a computer to look at the world and act accordingly based on what it sees, at least not with anything approaching the skill exhibited by, say, a cat or a mouse, let alone match the visual interpretation skills of a human being.

In this Café, we'll look at how scientists are trying to solve the problem of how the brain performs such simple tasks and, by extension, the problem of how to program a computer to do the things that animals and humans do very well and which computers do very poorly. We'll also look at how scientists use an experimental approach called 'psychophysics' to precisely measure how humans do apparently simple things like see and hear. We will demonstrate a psychophysics experiment designed to measure the speed of sight, or how long a person must look at an image before "seeing" what's there. As it turns out, by carefully measuring the speed of sight, scientist are able to infer a great deal about what might be going on inside the brains of humans and other animals when they look at the world and process what they see.


About the Presenter

Garrett Kenyon

Kenyon

One afternoon thirty years ago, when I was a young PhD student in physics, I became a born-again neuroscientist. My conversion wasn't something I had planned for, nor was it something I had been expecting. It simply happened. I was walking down the hall to the department office when it hit me. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my scientific career. I was going to study the brain. But I wasn't going to study the brain the way I figured a biologist might go about it. I was going to study the brain the way I figured a physicist might go about it. I would ignore all of the biological details I felt I could reasonably ignore, the bloody, gooey, slimy details that I suspected most biologists dealt with every day. Instead, I would try to understand the essence of how neural circuits compute. What makes a neural computer different from a digital computer? What was the secret of neural computation? What allows humans and other animals to do things that even the most powerful computers are currently incapable of?

Thirty years later, I find myself supervising students who harbor similar dreams. Working together, we use powerful digital computers to simulate neural circuits, in order to investigate how biological neural systems compute. We also compare our computer simulations with experimental measurements of real neural systems. Using a technique called psychophysics, we are currently making careful measurements of human perceptual performance on difficult speed-of-sight object detection tasks. Such experiments allow us improve our computer models, by telling us in what aspects of our models seem to be on the right track and in what ways our models might need to be rethought. One day, perhaps the performance of our models will match the performance of human subjects over a wide range of psychophysics experiments. If so, it's possible that we would then have an answer the question that I posed to myself thirty years ago. How do neural circuits computer? In the meantime, computational neuroscience is a fascinating field of study that combines computer programming, mathematical analysis, and good old fashioned biology, including, as it turns out, some of those bloody, gooey, slimy details that I thought I could ignore.

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October 2014

The World's Largest Trout: A Mongolian Expedition

David Gilroy, Taos High School

Presenter's Essay and Bio

David Gilroy – scientist, teacher, philospher and more

Welcome to Mongolia, the land of “no fences”, monasteries filled with monks chanting, and home to thousands of nomadic pastoralists and their herds of sheep, horses, cows, cashmere goats, camels, and yaks. I felt at home in Mongolia because, generally, Mongolians love spending time in the outdoors. Pop stars sing about their beloved river valleys and you can find hip-hop videos with wildlife footage in Mongolia. This love of nature is no mystery, in addition to a strong nomadic lifestyle, Mongolia is home to many natural wonders including the majestic Altai mountains, the Takhi (only remaining truly wild) horse, one of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world, and, while we’re talking “big”, the world’s largest trout, the taimen.

Like almost all other large, freshwater fish, the taimen population in only a fraction of what it once was. Freshwater fish are in peril, especially large fish. It is reported that two-fifths of the world's fish are freshwater species — and of these, 20 per cent are threatened, endangered, or have become extinct in recent decades. The construction of large hydroelectric dams, mining and industrial pollution, and overfishing have all contributed to its disappearance through much of its native range. Fortunately, Mongolia’s Pacific and Arctic-drainage rivers are largely undeveloped and still provide a refuge for the taimen. Because of its massive size and unique feeding habits, anglers are drawn from around the world and will pay thousands of dollars for a chance to catch a taimen in the wilds of Mongolia. While rich in livestock, rural Mongolia is poor in cash and so the economic value of a thriving taimen population further drives efforts to conserve them. This giant trout, and the rivers they are found in, were the focus of an international conservation project and my graduate school research from 2004 - 2008.

Nature conservation is essentially the act of keeping the species and ecosystems that we need and love from depletion or complete disappearance. To conserve any species we first must understand it. Fundamental aspects of taimen biology, especially growth characteristics, were well studied in the later half of the 20th century. Yet little was known about taimen movements, population dynamics, and their general ecology. Under the umbrella of the Taimen Conservation Fund, our team of research scientists was tasked with filling in some of the blanks on taimen ecology to help guide fishing companies, conservation managers, and policy-makers in keeping the fish thriving. How many taimen are there in the rivers? Do their populations change over time? How do different types of fishing affect taimen? What type of river habitat do they need? Do taimen migrate and if so, how much? What do taimen eat? Answers to such questions are important to protecting any animal. To help tackle these questions, our team used traditional fisheries techniques such as catch-release angling and mark-recapture to estimate population density. Modern technologies, such as telemetry and GIS allowed us to track their movements and stable isotope analysis was used to illustrate food web relationships.

Nature conservation is essentially the act of keeping the species and ecosystems that we need and love from depletion or complete disappearance. To conserve any species we first must understand it. Fundamental aspects of taimen biology, especially growth characteristics, were well studied in the later half of the 20th century. Yet little was known about taimen movements, population dynamics, and their general ecology. Under the umbrella of the Taimen Conservation Fund, our team of research scientists was tasked with filling in some of the blanks on taimen ecology to help guide fishing companies, conservation managers, and policy-makers in keeping the fish thriving. How many taimen are there in the rivers? Do their populations change over time? How do different types of fishing affect taimen? What type of river habitat do they need? Do taimen migrate and if so, how much? What do taimen eat? Answers to such questions are important to protecting any animal. To help tackle these questions, our team used traditional fisheries techniques such as catch-release angling and mark-recapture to estimate population density. Modern technologies, such as telemetry and GIS allowed us to track their movements and stable isotope analysis was used to illustrate food web relationships.

Our research efforts were able to answer many important ecological questions and make some interesting discoveries in addition. In this sense, our work was successful for adding to the greater body of scientific knowledge. We presented our findings to numerous audiences including local school groups, national environmental managers and international conferences of scientists. A rare species, threatened in much of its native range, is now better understood. If that understanding leads to greater chances of survival for the taimen, and the continued benefit to the people that value it, then science will be successful in a practical sense as well. An additional conclusion that I made during this project, and similar research through the years, was that true and lasting success in nature conservation requires people to care about future generations, to plan well, and to be able to work together.

Welcome back to Mongolia, the land of now “some fences”, monastery chants being muffled by the construction of skyscrapers, and home to nomadic pastoralists leaving their herds of sheep, horses, cows, cashmere goats, camels, and yaks for jobs and a more stable life in the cities. Booming international trade, a rush to exploit gold and other minerals, a desire to become energy-independent, and the general push towards economic development now is driving Mongolia in the direction of the rest of the developed world. Wild species and their ecosystems are facing increasing stress from development. The questions we leave with today are not only biological, but largely social and require innovations in industry, economics, education and policy. Can our economic decisions align with conservation goals? What is important to us, as individuals and as communities, and how do we keep the species and environments that we need and love around for future generations?


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September 2014

Matter vs. Antimatter, Why are we here?

Vincenzo Cirigliano, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

The macro-cosmos of stars and galaxies and the micro-cosmos of subatomic particles are intimately connected, more than you might think! The story of this interconnection is full of twists and mysteries, and it seems that the more we learn, the more we are puzzled. One of the greatest puzzles has to do with the crucial imbalance between matter and antimatter in the Universe. In fact, we have learned that every fundamental particle in Nature has a corresponding antiparticle: when the two meet, they annihilate into a burst of radiation. The Big Bang produced particles and antiparticles in equal numbers, so, as the primordial soup cooled, they should have wiped each other out, leaving behind an empty Universe. There would be no...us!

But that's not what happened! Instead, an excess of ordinary matter survived over the antimatter, from which the stars and galaxies bedazzling our night sky and we ourselves were formed. How did this happen? Can the known laws of physics explain it? What can subatomic physics experiments teach us about this great mystery of our Universe?

In this Café, I will guide you through the fascinating interface between the physics of subatomic particles at extremely small scales and the physics of the cosmos at extremely large scales. We will get to know this strange twin of matter, called antimatter. We will revisit the early dramatic moments of our Universe's history. And we will learn about the key ingredients needed to create the lopsided Universe we live in.


About the Presenter

Vincenzo Cirigliano

Lanza

I first became interested in science when as a teenager I watched "Cosmos," the documentary series by Carl Sagan. That experience had a deep influence on me; that’s when I realized that science is cool, and I wanted it to be part of my life. Later on, an uncle of mine made me read a book by Steven Weinberg, “The First Three Minutes.” In this book, Weinberg describes the Big Bang and how subatomic particles shaped the evolution of the early universe in its first three minutes of existence. Though I could grasp only a small fraction of the contents of that book, I was deeply fascinated by the connections between subatomic particles and the Cosmos.

Wanting to learn more, I decided to study physics in college and I ended up being a theoretical physicist, working 10,000 kilometers away from my hometown in southern Italy! Today, it is that very same desire of “wanting to know more” that drives my work.

I collaborate with several colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory; together we pursue a broad research program aimed at understanding the laws of nature at very short distances, 10-17 new particles and interactions? How can we uncover their existence? How have they shaped the evolution of the universe, and how do they affect the life and death of stars? centimeters or smaller. We ask questions such as: Are there

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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September 2014

The Race for an HIV Vaccine

Ruy Ribeiro, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Your immune system is composed of more cells than there are stars in our galaxy. Hundreds of billions of cells of different types that are always busy, continually circulating to the far corners of your body, vigilant, looking for intruders like particles, bacteria, viruses, and proteins. The immune system is like a police force making sure no strangers are found inside the organism. When an intruder is detected, the immune system mobilizes an impressive array of defenses to contain, kill, and eliminate that threat. This is what keeps us safe from the microbes out there.

What happens, then, when an intruder, in this case a virus, is able to sneak in and directly attack some of the immune cells that are crucial in organizing the fight? This is exactly what the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does. A gigantic war without quarter is engaged, which, without intervention, can last many years. Inevitably the virus eventually wins.

When I started researching the behavior of HIV, over 17 years ago (before you were born?!), this was the state of affairs: HIV was a death sentence and the world was scared. Since then, with human ingenuity and perseverance, many of the mysteries of the life cycle of HIV were studied and understood. Many highly specific medications were invented that attack HIV in different ways. And now it is possible for a person infected with HIV to be treated and to live a long and (almost) normal life. But the virus is never gone…

So the questions of the moment are: can the war against HIV be won? Can we cure HIV? Can we help the immune system defeat its worst enemy?

In this Café, we will explore the science of HIV, why it is so difficult for the body to eliminate and why it is important to develop a vaccine for it. The format, with questions and answers, will allow us to discuss at your will aspects of epidemiology, immunology, and vaccines that you feel are most interesting. As always, active participation by all will be the key to the success of this discussion.


About the Presenter

Ruy Rubiero

When I was a teenager in Portugal, I was especially interested in space, stars, and the Universe. In fact, one of my hobbies was being an “amateur astronomer.” One very cold and damp December night, when I was 17, we went out to see the impressive Geminids meteor shower. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, as I lay gazing at the show of lights streaking the dark sky, I decided on the spot to study physics in college. The five years of my degree were very exciting. I learned a lot about the physical word and the laws of nature. But, just as important, I had a lot of fun with the tight knit group of friends that I made. The amazing thing is that all these people, rich and poor, men and women, outgoing and shy, with good grades or average, actually became scientists in all kinds of research areas: astronomy, particle physics, biology, solar energy, satellites, environment… One of them even became a Crime Scene Investigator for the Portuguese police!

I would definitely study physics again, if by some twist of the laws of nature I was transported back to my senior year in high school. This may seem strange, since I work in a much more biological/medical field today. It happened like this. In my senior year at University, as I studied more and more esoteric areas of physics, like general relativity, cosmology, and quantum electrodynamics, I realized that the physics that I liked the most was that of our daily lives: light, sound, and dynamics. So I felt lost, because I did not know what to do after graduation (I have now learned that this is very common!). Eventually, I applied for a fellowship and went to the University of Oxford in England to do a Ph.D. in “Mathematical Biology,” studying HIV infection and treatment with Professor Martin Nowak. Graduate school was even more fun than university. (By the way, both were hard work, but work and fun are not incompatible!) And I never looked back.

When I graduated, I applied to come to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which I had learned was one of the best places in the world to pursue my research. Here I work with an amazing group of people who have a passion to understand infectious diseases and the immune system, and realize that this work can have impact in improving lives across the world. But what strikes me the most is the diversity of people I encounter. Nothing seems to be a barrier to become a scientist. Some people are older, some have children to care for, some are from far away, some do not speak English that well, some are well off, some just get by, some have parents who are scientists, some have parents that never finished high school. As for me, I was lucky to come at the right time and after 3 years I became a staff member. My work centers on understanding how different virus, such as HIV and hepatitis viruses, work and how the body fights them. I work in collaboration with scientists from many parts of the world, and develop models and computer simulations to help interpret data from experiments and clinical results conducted in New York, Thailand, Australia, etc. I work hard, but I love to take off and go hiking or skiing or having my friends over for dinner. I love cooking, but only for other people!

In the end, I am a scientist simply because I love to learn and I like to know how things work. And in these years, I have learned that science gives us a great perspective on the world and empowers us to have real impact on the issues we care most about. That in itself is a great benefit of being a scientist!

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April 2014

Matter vs. Antimatter, Why are we here?

Vincenzo Cirigliano, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

The macro-cosmos of stars and galaxies and the micro-cosmos of subatomic particles are intimately connected, more than you might think! The story of this interconnection is full of twists and mysteries, and it seems that the more we learn, the more we are puzzled. One of the greatest puzzles has to do with the crucial imbalance between matter and antimatter in the Universe. In fact, we have learned that every fundamental particle in Nature has a corresponding antiparticle: when the two meet, they annihilate into a burst of radiation. The Big Bang produced particles and antiparticles in equal numbers, so, as the primordial soup cooled, they should have wiped each other out, leaving behind an empty Universe. There would be no...us!

But that's not what happened! Instead, an excess of ordinary matter survived over the antimatter, from which the stars and galaxies bedazzling our night sky and we ourselves were formed. How did this happen? Can the known laws of physics explain it? What can subatomic physics experiments teach us about this great mystery of our Universe?

In this Café, I will guide you through the fascinating interface between the physics of subatomic particles at extremely small scales and the physics of the cosmos at extremely large scales. We will get to know this strange twin of matter, called antimatter. We will revisit the early dramatic moments of our Universe's history. And we will learn about the key ingredients needed to create the lopsided Universe we live in.


About the Presenter

Vincenzo Cirigliano

Lanza

I first became interested in science when as a teenager I watched "Cosmos," the documentary series by Carl Sagan. That experience had a deep influence on me; that’s when I realized that science is cool, and I wanted it to be part of my life. Later on, an uncle of mine made me read a book by Steven Weinberg, “The First Three Minutes.” In this book, Weinberg describes the Big Bang and how subatomic particles shaped the evolution of the early universe in its first three minutes of existence. Though I could grasp only a small fraction of the contents of that book, I was deeply fascinated by the connections between subatomic particles and the Cosmos.

Wanting to learn more, I decided to study physics in college and I ended up being a theoretical physicist, working 10,000 kilometers away from my hometown in southern Italy! Today, it is that very same desire of “wanting to know more” that drives my work.

I collaborate with several colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory; together we pursue a broad research program aimed at understanding the laws of nature at very short distances, 10-17 new particles and interactions? How can we uncover their existence? How have they shaped the evolution of the universe, and how do they affect the life and death of stars? centimeters or smaller. We ask questions such as: Are there new particles and interactions? How can we uncover their existence? How have they shaped the evolution of the universe, and how do they affect the life and death of stars?

Contact the presenter - remember to include your email address if you want a response.

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March 2014

Around the Science World in 80 Minutes: speed meet & greet with science grad students


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March 2014

At the Crossroads: Will future infrastructure systems be world-wise or world-weary?

Dr. Timothy McPherson, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

There’s an old Roman idiom, “All roads lead to Rome”. Although this idiom has come to mean there are many paths to any destination, the Romans also believed it to be a statement of societal strength. They were central to the ancient world because all roads led to the city. One of the oldest and longest surviving societies in European history understood well the value and importance of infrastructure. The Romans were known for their road and water infrastructure, some of which still exists in working order today. These systems interconnected the Roman city-state to a disparate set of communities and helped Rome be a central part of European history for two millennia. History is replete with examples of societies that thrived, but then faltered due to their failure to build resilient and sustainable infrastructure systems.

Thousands of miles of road, pipeline, powerline, and telephone line criss-cross the United States. These systems have many descriptions that range from blight to lifeline to technological marvel. Regardless of where you fall on that continuum, your communities and lives depend on these systems. These systems provide fundamental services such as conveyance of food and goods, the provision of water and removal of waste, energy for heating, cooling, and cooking, communication with friends and family, and access to workplaces. Infrastructure systems also enable the modern conveniences that each of us has become so dependent on. It is hard to imagine our 21st US infrastructure is coming under increasing scrutiny. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) grades the quality of U.S. infrastructure every four years and the results are typically not very good. U.S. infrastructure graded by ASCE consistently gets low marks with an overall grade of D+. New Mexico infrastructure fairs better than the nation with an aggregate grade of C, but is that sufficient to sustain the state in the near or distant future? Century society existing without these systems, but the quality of

Age of infrastructure, shifting operational requirements and component maintenance are without question long-term challenge for system operators, but equally challenging are shifts in population and economic activity, increases in extreme weather, and concerns for terrorist activity. For example, the population of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area increased by over 40% from 1990 to 2000. This is a dramatic shift that would challenge even the most foresighted system operator. Other parts of the country are facing the opposite problem – i.e., how do they maintain their systems as population wanes? When you add in shifts in weather patterns and the growth and decline of economic activity, one has to wonder if future systems will be the technical marvel they are today... or will they be degraded and collapsed. When and where should we make investments in infrastructure in this complex decision making environment? Can we make those decisions wisely or will every bridge be a “bridge to nowhere”?

In this Café, I’ll talk about the state of infrastructure in the United States, threats to these vital systems, and possible paths forward to more resilient infrastructure systems. I’ll also discuss the value of mathematics, science, and engineering to this important goal.


About the Presenter

Tim McPherson

My family was lucky enough to live in Hawaii for a brief period when I was in grade school. When you live on an island, you become very familiar with the connection between nature and human development. Nature surrounds you. Our house was on a marina. A large storm drain discharged into it nearby and after every storm a wash of flotsam spewed from it. The detritus sometimes had an item of value – a soccer ball or baseball, but it was largely non-biodegradable trash. The rain was bathing the community, but all that trash had to go somewhere and regretfully it was into the local natural resources. We moved back to the mainland after a few years and again my forays into local natural areas were stricken by human activities. A creek ran through my neighborhood. It was a natural playground for all the kids in the neighborhood – wide with three-foot diameter trees crossing it. Sitting on one of those trees one day, I couldn’t help wondering how so many trees came to cross that creek. Their roots were uprooted next to steep eroded banks. It had to be one of the large storms or tornadoes that occurred infrequently. Something unusual brought those trees down.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that you could have a career studying the relationship between developed areas and the local environment and how best to manage the interaction. All of my experiences with people who worked in areas close to science were about medicine. My parents were physicians and most of our family friends were physicians, so it seemed like the primary path forward. I have two brothers with medical degrees and most of the talk around the dinner table was medicine related. It was interesting (albeit sometimes gross dinner conversation), but I was pretty miserable about the prospect of a career in medicine. When I got to college I wandered around through various fields and settled on economics as it seemed to have applicability in every field of endeavor. A class in Public Finance introduced me to the concept of externalities - a cost of production not borne by producers or consumers of the good – and its importance in environmental management and things clicked. My academic career from that point has had emphases in economics, environmental science and environmental engineering and a slow migration to a place where I can study those questions I asked myself sitting on a tree over a creek.

Today, I work with a research team of 30 physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and economists studying the health and long-term viability of infrastructure systems. We help decision makers prepare for disasters and evaluate long term planning options for infrastructure and community resilience. We do this by researching the coupling between natural, engineered and social systems to understand the tradeoffs within and between these complex systems. We have studied threats to infrastructure systems and the communities they serve, how to prepare for natural disasters, how to best integrate renewable energy technologies, how to build smart infrastructure systems, and how to promote public health and economic well-being.

My current research focuses on the protection and promotion of communities through simulation- based water resource planning and engineering. I build computer models of water infrastructure dynamics and test their response to events. I have modeled the hydrologic and hydraulic response of flood control systems, stormwater management systems, sewage systems and water distribution system resilience and sustainability. I have been fortunate to work with people who have dedicated their lives to this pursuit and I learn something new almost everyday.

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February 2014

The Secrets Held Within A Bone

Amy Wyman, New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

It is a late Fall afternoon and two hikers are enjoying a brisk walk in the mountains. They are miles from the nearest the town and miles from the nearest person. They go around a curve in the trail when suddenly they stumble across human remains. Who is this person? How did they get here? How did they die?

These are a few of the questions that forensic investigators are faced with, and the body has numerous clues that help answer these questions. By using forensic tools and mathematical equations, we can determine the sex, age and race of an individual. We can also identify trauma and natural diseases by examining the condition of the bones. With a group of Forensic Anthropologists and Scene Investigators from the Office of the Medical Investigator, we will learn about skeletal remains and examine several cases.


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February 2014

Algae Biofuel- Is pond scum the next oil boom?

Jose Olivares, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Algae is credited with being the source of much of the biomass that helped create our current oil reserves over the past several billion years. This organism, which is broadly found in nature in many forms, encompasses over 100,000 different species. It is one of the most diverse classes of organisms, varying in size from the microscopic scale to meters long. More importantly, many algae species have evolved to be very efficient photosynthetic machines, taking inorganic carbon and sunlight and converting it to chemicals, such as lipids and sugars. In fact, algae have been a source of nutrition since ancient times in many civilizations.

Today the prolific nature of this organism and its ability to produce high biomass and lipid yields is of interest once again for the production of oil that can be converted into transportation fuels and commodity chemicals. But we cannot wait several billion years to collect the products of nature’s processes. So we are starting to replicate the next oil boom in the laboratory and transferring this technology to large algae farms and oil production factories that will produce our next source of algae-derived petroleum.

In this Café Scientifique discussion, we will explore the biology of these organisms, which allows them to replicate so efficiently, along with methods for used in cultivating and harvesting these from ponds. We will also discuss how we are recreating nature’s forces to efficiently and in a very short time (minutes) convert the biomass into crude-oil, which can then be used to derive diesel, gasoline, jet-fuel, and other products.

We will discuss the how this new source of biofuels fits into our 'carbon economy' and its impacts on the overall utilization of fossil fuels as a source of energy, green house gas emissions, and the environment.


About the Presenter

Jose Olivares

I grew up in a small village outside of Madrid, Spain, one of seven children. My father owned a small hotel and restaurant, the clientele of which mainly consisted of weekend visitors from the city. At the time, the town, Soto del Real, had a modest population of 900. The one schoolhouse in town had just two classrooms for about 50 children, one class for boys and one for girls. I did not find school particularly interesting and, therefore, spent a lot of time playing and working alongside my family. I had a very humble start in life, and if it weren’t for one extraordinary individual, it could have turned out completely different.

Phyllis Turnbull was a Professor of Spanish from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, who would regularly visit and live at her house across the street from the family hotel. I believe I first met her when I was four years old. I remember asking her for cowboy boots from America; she traced my feet on a piece of cardboard and later sent me a pair for Christmas. She and I had a special connection, but when I was nine, she truly changed my life: Phyllis sponsored my travel to live and study in the U.S. for several years.

After several years studying in the U.S., I graduated from high school in Binghamton, N.Y., as class valedictorian, after which I attended Wilkes College to study chemistry and biology. I recall having always had an interest in machines and understanding how things work, but my passion for science began mostly in high school. The American families I lived with truly cultivated my interest in science and helped inspire my career choices. One memory is when I was allowed to take apart an old television to learn more about how it worked. Another was that my American grandmother gave me a subscription to Scientific American, and I remember reading an article about the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE) and thinking that might be an interesting place to work someday!

Since that time I have had a wonderful career both in research—most notably analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry—and in management. Currently, I am the Bioscience Division Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Executive Director for the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB), a nationwide consortium I helped create to tackle the challenges of algal biofuel development and production.

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January 2014

Are We Alone? The high-tech search for signs of life on Mars

Nina Lanza, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Could life have ever existed on Mars, either in the past or the present? That’s the question that the Curiosity rover is trying to answer right now as it roves on the surface of Mars. Everything that we know about life comes from Earth, so scientists use what we know about life on Earth to try to understand how life could exist in the environments we find on Mars. Although it would be pretty great if we found Martians with Curiosity, we’re not actually looking for them; instead, we’re looking for environments that could support them. Life on Earth requires a number of things, the most important of which is water. Thus, a big part of the mission is finding signs of water, both past and present. Although liquid water is scarce on the martian surface today, we can observe landforms such as enormous river channels and smaller gullies that look like they were formed by liquid water flowing on the surface. In addition, we have found minerals on Mars that only form in the presence water and also include water in their chemical structures. But how much water was there, and for how long? And where did it go?

To help answer these questions, we sent Curiosity to a large crater near the martian equator called Gale that has a Kilimanjaro-sized mountain of potentially water-formed sediments in its center. In the one Earth year that we’ve spent in Gale, we’ve learned that there was definitely water there, likely in the form of a lake, and that it was drinkable by human standards. In my research, I’ve been looking for rocks that have come into contact with water and developed coatings or rinds on their exteriors. While this is commonplace on rocks in the New Mexico environment, it’s very rare on Mars. These rocks can provide us with information about how much water was present and for how long it was there. In addition to looking at data from Mars, I also do laboratory experiments on terrestrial rocks to better understand what coatings and rinds might look in our martian data.

There are 10 instruments onboard Curiosity, and I work with one in particular called ChemCam. This instrument is on the rover mast and uses a rock-vaporizing laser and a camera to gather information about the chemical composition of rocks and soils. ChemCam doesn’t need to be very close to a rock to analyze it—it can zap a target up to 23 feet from the rover and tell us what it’s made of! We also have a copy of ChemCam in our laboratory here in New Mexico that I use to take data on terrestrial rocks that can help us interpret the ones we’ve analyzed on Mars.

In this Café, we’ll talk about the goals of the Curiosity mission, what some of our big discoveries have been, and what the rover is up to right now. I’ll also tell you about what it’s like to operate an instrument on a rover and take you through a typical “sol,” or martian day.


About the Presenter

Nina Lanza

Lanza

I first discovered space when I was seven years old. My parents took me to a local university in Boston, Massachusetts, where we lived to look through a telescope at Halley’s Comet. I could hardly believe my eyes—I have never thought of the sky as anything but a dome, but here was a three-dimensional object coming from somewhere other than Earth. I was hooked! From that point on I wanted to know everything about space and what was out there.

Although I have always loved to learn, I had a lot of trouble doing well in high school. I didn’t think of myself as being good at math or science, so I never thought I would be able to have a career in science. But my interest in space never waned. At the end of my senior year in high school, I saw a planetarium show about the latest (at the time) Mars lander and mini rover from NASA, the Pathfinder mission. I was floored by the beautiful, high resolution color images from the surface of Mars; it looked like it could be a place on Earth, and like somewhere I could go to one day. I knew I had to work on a mission to Mars, even if I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

After high school, I went to Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Even thought I didn’t think I had any particular talent for science, I still chose to major in Astronomy because I wanted to know more about space. During my senior year, I took the required senior astrophysics seminar. Usually this class was about stars, but that year the professor decided to do an entire class about Mars. That’s when I realized that in order to study the martian surface, I needed to know something about rocks. But I still thought I wasn’t good enough to do science professionally, so I didn’t apply to graduate school.

After college, I took a few years off to work and ended up as a post-baccalaureate student at LANL. Although I started in an astronomy group, I ended up getting another job with a group that had built an instrument on a satellite orbiting Mars. It was while working with this group that I finally got up the courage to apply to graduate school. But instead of going to school for astronomy, I applied to geology programs because I wanted know more about what I saw in pictures of the martian surface. Before graduate school, I had never taken a single geology course, but I didn’t let that stop me from starting. I did a master’s degree at Wesleyan University in CT and then came back to New Mexico to do a PhD at the University of New Mexico. I chose UNM because my advisor there was on the team for an instrument called ChemCam on the next Mars rover to launch, Curiosity. When I got the acceptance letter, I didn’t wait to hear from another grad school; I knew this was my chance to work on a Mars rover mission.

That was eight years ago, and I’ve worked on ChemCam ever since. During the time I was working on my PhD, the rover Curiosity and all of her instruments were being prepared for launch in late 2011. The timing was perfect: I successfully defended my PhD and then went to Florida to watch the rover launch from Kennedy Space Center. During that same week in Florida, I also got married at the Titusville, Florida courthouse (in front of a model of a Saturn V rocket).

Since then, I’ve been working as a postdoc at LANL on ChemCam. I am living my dream of working on a mission to Mars, and I’m glad every day that I didn’t let my fears of not being “good enough” at math and science stop me from doing what I love. It turns out I’m good at scientific research, but I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t given myself the chance to try. Because I gave myself a chance, I now shoot lasers on Mars from a spaceship for a living—pretty much the greatest job ever, if you ask me!

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January 2014

How Does the Human Brain Produce “Creativity”?

Rex Jung, University of New Mexico

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

This quote, by Albert Einstein, reflects a dirty little secret of the creative process. It builds upon previous ideas, “riffing” off of other thoughts that came before. However, it is the combination of these thoughts and ideas in “novel and useful” ways (the definition of creativity) that makes for a true innovation in any field, as well as the necessity to hide the fact that some of your great ideas might be “borrowed.”

Which brings us to Werner Heisenberg, the father of the Uncertainty Principle, which states that you cannot know both the location and momentum of an object at the same time. Why is this important? It means that things are indeterminate, probabilistic, uncertain. This is a big deal at the level of subatomic particles (like light waves) – not so much in our day to day lives, unless you start thinking about things like free will or multiple universes.

Which brings us to Walter White: when Walter is home, and we see his shining bald head, he is a meek and mild and even virtuous man – a man stuck in place and time – only wanting what is best for his family. However, when he puts on his black porkpie hat, he becomes Heisenberg – a man in motion – a man who will kill, lie, steal, and personify evil in service of his overwhelming ego. Einstein, Heisenberg, Walter White – all creative actors – and yet we know so little about how the brain produces this creative “stuff.”

Turns out there is a “splitting” in the brain between active and passive, but not left and right brains as you have been led to believe. In fact, you have been lied to about many things, not least of which is: 1) you must be a genius (like Einstein) to be creative, 2) you must be crazy (like Van Gogh, John Nash, Beethoven, Newton, etc.) to be creative, and 3) creativity lives in the right side of the brain. In our Cafe discussion, we will shatter these “neuromythologies,” revealing the indeterminate, probabilistic, and uncertain nature of the creative act.

We will also reveal the secrets—supported by neuroscience—of how you might learn to become more creative.


About the Presenter

Rex Jung

Jung

My upbringing was pretty uneventful, with no indication that I would amount to much. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, had a paper route, and “enjoyed” shoveling snow during the many big storms of the ‘70’s. I did have a significant teacher in the 6th Grade, Mr. Whitely, who took notice of my abilities and pushed me harder to think and learn more than any teacher had before. He remains one of the main influences on my “intellectual” development, as he helped me realize that I might have a brain in my head that could be put to good use. In high school, I majored in Basketball and Girlfriends, and barely graduated by the skin of my teeth (pulling mostly A’s my senior year to bring my GPA up).

At some point I must have realized that I had better get my act together. I decided to apply myself in college (University of Colorado, Boulder), where I majored in Business (Finance). I then proceeded to spend several miserable years working in the business world, where I did not feel intellectually or personally rewarded... though financial rewards were good!

Then, something amazing happened. I began volunteering for Special Olympics and met a group of people that changed my life. These people had brains that were different from mine: some had autism, others microcephaly, Down syndrome, epilepsy, cerebral palsy... a fascinating world of friends with interesting brains. I decided that I wanted to work in this world, and started to make a change.

It was a BIG change. I needed to go back to school for a “do over” in my education. I learned about a discipline called neuropsychology that seemed to be at the right spot between medicine and psychology, with a focus on how the brain and behavior are linked. I started back to school at the late age of 28 and got out some 10 years later with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (specializing in neuropsychology). I have never been happier with a decision... other than to marry my wife!

I spend half of my time doing research in things like intelligence, creativity, and schizophrenia, and the other half evaluating patients with a wide range of brain problems: epilepsy, tumors, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and the like. I came to New Mexico for graduate school and hope to never leave; it is my home and the place that I love. Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I am pretty lucky to have landed here in this career, in this place, at this time when there is so much to discover about the brain.

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November 2013

Tectonic Mysteries- A billion year “who done it”

Terry Wallace, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Bio

About the Presenter

Terry Wallace

I grew up in Los Alamos, and some of my earliest memories were of my father taking me out camping and exploring mines looking for minerals. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado hold hundreds of wonderful places to find minerals. I felt certain I wanted a career that would let me explore even more geology. However, geology was pretty boring in school in the early 1970s – lots of memorization and descriptions. I really liked physics and mathematics because there was little memorization, and there always was a “right answer.” When it came time to go to college I went to New Mexico Tech and majored in geophysics and mathematics. Frankly, it was a blast. I got a job the first day I walked on campus in Socorro taking care of the seismic stations operated by Tech to monitor earthquake activity in southeastern New Mexico. Analyzing the wiggles on the seismograms was really interesting, and it told us something about geology; the wiggles were caused by earthquakes, which are the groans of an Earth that is alive. I could just see mountains growing and valleys forming with each and every earthquake.

After getting my undergraduate degrees, I headed for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech was the center of the universe as far as seismology was concerned – it was the home of Charles Richter, the inventor of the Richter scale. It was a perfect place to ask “why” and learn the tools of science to unravel the mysteries of geology. Every week there was a seminar about the latest earthquake, whether it be in Japan or Africa. Computers were just coming into widespread use for modeling complex natural phenomena, and I found myself in the wave of discovery. I completed my PhD by specializing in understanding the seismic signals from underground nuclear explosions. This was during the height of the Cold War, and seismology was the only way the U.S. could guess at what the Soviets and Chinese were doing in their weapons programs. It was exciting to be involved in science that made a difference to the nation.

After graduation I became a professor at the University of Arizona. I chose the UofA so I could return to a place of wonderful mountains and minerals. I worked on seismic experiments all over the world, but in particular in South America. I deployed seismograph stations and ran experiments for a decade in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. I fell in love with the Andes – truly imposing mountains that mark the tremendous geologic upheaval along the west coast of the continent.

After 20 years at the UofA I got the chance to come home to Los Alamos and become the Division Leader of Earth and Environmental sciences. It was a very different challenge to lead a large division of talented scientists rather than “doing” science myself. However, it was very rewarding to be involved in overseeing Earth sciences from hydrology to volcanology. In 2006, I became the Principal Associate Director for Science, Technology and Engineering at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I was responsible for all basic science programs at LANL, and coordinated the activities of nearly 4600 scientists, technicians, and support staff. In 2010, I took over responsibilities for Global Security efforts at LANL. My job includes building support for the work of LANL scientists, which means I interact with members of Congress and the Senate and many other federal agencies and laboratories. Each day brings new challenges and surprises. My career has come full circle in some ways. I have kept my passion for teaching and learning about mineralogy over the years and am an avid collector of silver minerals. In 2009, a new silver mineral was discovered and it was named after me, Terrywallaceite.

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November 2013

More Food, Energy & Homes- Where will the water come from?

Vincent Tidwell, Sandia National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

How often have you stopped to think about where the water is coming from that pours from your tap? Have you thought about all the things on which you depend that require water? Water is needed to generate electricity; to drill, extract, and process oil into gasoline; grow the crops that we eat; grow the grains used to feed the livestock that we consume; manufacture the iPhones/iPods/iBooks that we use. We take showers with it, wash our clothes with it and cook with it. Our toilets work because of it. It makes the landscaping around our homes beautiful. We play sports on it, raft in it, ski on it and fish in it. And most importantly, we can’t survive without it.

Water is also critical to the environment around us, making the forests and Bosques green and supporting wild fish, birds and animals, while fountains and other water features are used to enhance our living spaces. Water touches almost every phase of our lives.

You can imagine that all of these uses begin to add up. New Mexico is an arid state with many locations receiving less than 8 inches of precipitation a year. Such limited rain and snowfall mean that water supplies must be carefully managed. Water rights are one means of managing use. A water right is required before water can be diverted from a stream or aquifer. The water right defines where the water can be taken, how much can be used, the purpose of the use, and the seniority of use. In times of drought, those with senior water rights get the water they need, while those with junior rights (those with low priority) may get no water at all! Seniority is simply based on how old the water right is.

A water budget is prepared to decide how many water rights can be issued for a particular stream or aquifer. A water budget works the same way as your bank account; however, rather than a bank safe, water is stored in rivers, lakes, or underground aquifers. Deposits to these water accounts are made through snow melt, rainfall, and groundwater recharge. Withdrawals from the accounts include uses by cities, farms, power plants, the bosque, and our homes. Like our bank account, we can’t use more water than is naturally replenished. Also like our bank account, there never seems to be quite enough water to meet all our demands.

Hard decisions must be made concerning how we want our water to be used. Should we make water available for a new farm, new housing development, or new power plant? Also, how much water should we leave in the river for the bosque or for rafting?

In this session you will play the role of the water manager. Two games will be played where you will have the job of balancing the water budget. The first game will involve using a computer game where you will test different water saving options to balance water use in the Middle Rio Grande region. The second game involves a multiplayer card game where the nexus between water use and energy development will be explored.


About the Presenter

Vincent Tidwell

Growing up I always loved to be outside playing and hiking in the woods along with my dog. On my adventures I would often collect rocks, leaves, bugs, or any other interesting specimens that I could find. As I began to get a little older I started taking interest in the things I saw. I started questioning where does rain come from; why are mountains in one place but not another; why is the ocean salty; how do seeds grow into plants?

In high school I was more concerned with girls and football than my studies. I struggled with what I wanted to do in college. Fortunately, I came to the realization that I liked science and that I wanted to be able to answer some of my questions. When I started my college education I was only interested in getting a Bachelor’s degree. However, this desire to “understand why” made me realize I needed to go further, eventually leading me to a Master’s degree, then a Doctorate.

I started my studies in Geology. While rock and fossils interested me, it was understanding the processes that shape our landscapes that really caught my attention. I wanted to be able to look at rocks or a road cut and determine what environment formed what I saw—was it a desert, flood plain, beach, or volcano? But my ultimate passion is for water. I am drawn to water because it is so important to us. Water supports almost every phase of our life from basic needs, hygiene, food, energy, and the products we use. But water is so much more. We care about it because of the rivers in our mountains, the trees in the Bosque, the traditions of farming, and the fountains in our public spaces. There is also great concern over the sustainability of our water supplies. In fact many predict that our next wars will be fought not over oil, but water.

Most of my 20+ year career has been spent with Sandia National Laboratories. While at Sandia I have been able to work on many interesting projects, including isolation of nuclear waste in underground repositories; rock-fluid interactions in gas well fracking; storage of oil in large salt caverns; movement of contaminants in underground environments; water resource planning in New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Iraq, Jordan and Libya; water trading experiments; water supply planning for electric transmission expansion; and projecting climate impacts on humans. I also have had the opportunity to train the next generation, as I have taught in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico for the last 9 years.

Even the activities in my spare time seem to involve water. I love to ski and fly fish and my hiking and mountain biking tend to involve trails along rivers or lakes. I live in the mountains east of Albuquerque with my wife of 28 years. I also have two sons who live in Albuquerque and attend UNM studying business and medicine.

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October 2013

Your Immune System vs. HIV, can the war be won??

Ruy Ribeiro, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Your immune system is composed of more cells than there are stars in our galaxy. Hundreds of billions of cells of different types that are always busy, continually circulating to the far corners of your body, vigilant, looking for intruders like particles, bacteria, viruses, and proteins. The immune system is like a police force making sure no strangers are found inside the organism. When an intruder is detected, the immune system mobilizes an impressive array of defenses to contain, kill, and eliminate that threat. This is what keeps us safe from the microbes out there.

What happens, then, when an intruder, in this case a virus, is able to sneak in and directly attack some of the immune cells that are crucial in organizing the fight? This is exactly what the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does. A gigantic war without quarter is engaged, which, without intervention, can last many years. Inevitably the virus eventually wins.

When I started researching the behavior of HIV, over 17 years ago (before you were born?!), this was the state of affairs: HIV was a death sentence and the world was scared. Since then, with human ingenuity and perseverance, many of the mysteries of the life cycle of HIV were studied and understood. Many highly specific medications were invented that attack HIV in different ways. And now it is possible for a person infected with HIV to be treated and to live a long and (almost) normal life. But the virus is never gone…

So the questions of the moment are: can the war against HIV be won? Can we cure HIV? Can we help the immune system defeat its worst enemy?

In this Café, we will explore the science of HIV, why it is so difficult for the body to eliminate and why it is important to develop a vaccine for it. The format, with questions and answers, will allow us to discuss at your will aspects of epidemiology, immunology, and vaccines that you feel are most interesting. As always, active participation by all will be the key to the success of this discussion.


About the Presenter

Ruy Rubiero

When I was a teenager in Portugal, I was especially interested in space, stars, and the Universe. In fact, one of my hobbies was being an “amateur astronomer.” One very cold and damp December night, when I was 17, we went out to see the impressive Geminids meteor shower. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, as I lay gazing at the show of lights streaking the dark sky, I decided on the spot to study physics in college. The five years of my degree were very exciting. I learned a lot about the physical word and the laws of nature. But, just as important, I had a lot of fun with the tight knit group of friends that I made. The amazing thing is that all these people, rich and poor, men and women, outgoing and shy, with good grades or average, actually became scientists in all kinds of research areas: astronomy, particle physics, biology, solar energy, satellites, environment… One of them even became a Crime Scene Investigator for the Portuguese police!

I would definitely study physics again, if by some twist of the laws of nature I was transported back to my senior year in high school. This may seem strange, since I work in a much more biological/medical field today. It happened like this. In my senior year at University, as I studied more and more esoteric areas of physics, like general relativity, cosmology, and quantum electrodynamics, I realized that the physics that I liked the most was that of our daily lives: light, sound, and dynamics. So I felt lost, because I did not know what to do after graduation (I have now learned that this is very common!). Eventually, I applied for a fellowship and went to the University of Oxford in England to do a Ph.D. in “Mathematical Biology,” studying HIV infection and treatment with Professor Martin Nowak. Graduate school was even more fun than university. (By the way, both were hard work, but work and fun are not incompatible!) And I never looked back.

When I graduated, I applied to come to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which I had learned was one of the best places in the world to pursue my research. Here I work with an amazing group of people who have a passion to understand infectious diseases and the immune system, and realize that this work can have impact in improving lives across the world. But what strikes me the most is the diversity of people I encounter. Nothing seems to be a barrier to become a scientist. Some people are older, some have children to care for, some are from far away, some do not speak English that well, some are well off, some just get by, some have parents who are scientists, some have parents that never finished high school. As for me, I was lucky to come at the right time and after 3 years I became a staff member. My work centers on understanding how different virus, such as HIV and hepatitis viruses, work and how the body fights them. I work in collaboration with scientists from many parts of the world, and develop models and computer simulations to help interpret data from experiments and clinical results conducted in New York, Thailand, Australia, etc. I work hard, but I love to take off and go hiking or skiing or having my friends over for dinner. I love cooking, but only for other people!

In the end, I am a scientist simply because I love to learn and I like to know how things work. And in these years, I have learned that science gives us a great perspective on the world and empowers us to have real impact on the issues we care most about. That in itself is a great benefit of being a scientist!

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October 2013

The Science of Explosives: Countering the Threat of Improvised Explosive Devices

David Chavez, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

On Christmas Day, 2009, a 23 year-old Nigerian follower of Al-Qaeda attempted a bombing of an airplane traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit. The explosive device was hidden in the underwear of the would-be bomber. The bomb had been made by Al Qaeda’s master bomb maker, Ibrahim Al-Asiri.

Since the Christmas Day bombing, Ibrahim Al-Asiri has been implicated as the bomb maker behind two attempted cargo plane bombings in 2010, where he made explosive devices out of printer cartridges placed in a printer. Additionally, he was thought to be behind a 2012 bombing plot to coincide with the anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Currently, U.S. officials believe that Al-Asiri is trying to develope new, undetectable explosives.

Many of the security measures in place in airports today, such as full body scanners, pat-downs, and cargo inspections on all inbound international passenger flights to the US are due to Al-Asiri’s creative explosive devices. Because of his creativity and mastery of bomb making, he is considered as the Obama administrations top terrorism target. In the July issue of Time Magazine, he was described as the world’s most dangerous terrorist.

All of the devices that Al-Asiri has made are considered improvised explosive devices. An improvised explosive device or IED is essentially a homemade bomb made up of components and materials that might be easily accessible to the average person. Understanding the science behind improvised explosive devices is not only critical to addressing current international and domestic terrorist threats, but is also essentially to predicting future threats.

In this Café, we will explore the science of explosives, how they work, and how they are used. We will also see how understanding the science behind homemade explosives and improvised explosive devices is leading to efforts to address terrorist threats domestically and worldwide.


About the Presenter

David Chavez

Chavez

As a child and young adult, my interests were sports, math, and science. I grew up in Taos, New Mexico, and I probably spent the majority of my free time riding my BMX bike or playing baseball or basketball. I was also interested in astronomy, but the schools in my home town did not offer any classes on that subject. So instead I focused on the standard courses that were available. After my sophomore year in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer science program at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Growing up in a small town did not provide many opportunities to meet scientists or engineers, nor did it offer any real insight in what a career in science or engineering would be like. Through my experience in the LANL summer program, I was able to see a whole new world of possibilities. I vividly remember hearing a presentation on astrophysics from a graduate student from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It was this presentation that inspired me to attempt to attend Caltech.

Although my high school did not offer any AP classes, I took as many honors classes as I could. Although I scored well on my college entrance exams, my scores were lower of than those of most Caltech students. I applied anyway, and somehow I was accepted. Since I came from a rural school system, I was invited to attend a “bridge” program, to help bring me up to speed for the start of the semester. During this program I started to question whether I belonged at Caltech. I was very close to quitting before the school year even started. Through the encouragement of my parents and the “bridge” program counselor, I decided to stay and take advantage of the Caltech opportunity.

As I progressed through my college life, I began to think about a career. I knew I wanted to live in New Mexico if possible, but I also knew there weren’t many careers in science in New Mexico. I thought that a career in medicine would probably be the best option. I decided to major in chemistry, but focus on premed courses and eventually applied and was accepted to the University of New Mexico medical school. Unfortunately, I felt uneasy about starting med school, as I had no real hands-on experience in primary care medicine. Throughout college, I had worked as a research intern at Caltech and at LANL in chemistry, and I was very comfortable in a research setting. But I had no idea what it would be like to interact with patients. So I decided to take a year off before I enrolled in medical school to really think about whether medical school was the right choice for me.

During my year off, I worked at LANL developing new energetic materials and applying my chemistry knowledge. Working every day in a research environment helped me to realize that working as a scientist was something that was really exciting. I realized this because everyday at the end of work I could not wait to get back the next day and try out some new ideas. It was a lot of fun and very satisfying to be able to be working at the forefront of scientific research. Even so, I still decided to attend medical school, because I wanted to see if it might be a career for me. I wanted to make sure I at least gave it a shot. After attending medical school for about a year, I realized I was much more suited for a career in scientific research. I decided to attend graduate school at Harvard University and obtain my PhD in organic chemistry.

Today I work in the same group at LANL where I did my undergraduate work. Now I synthesize new materials that have never been known before in the history of mankind. I see myself as a molecule artist. I come up with an idea for a material that has never been synthesized, and then use my chemistry knowledge to make this material become a reality. I am focused on developing materials that help solve important national security problems. Because of this work, I have been able to visit numerous countries, give talks at CIA headquarters, and be a consultant to the FBI, ATF, TSA, and other government agencies.

Outside of work, I am very busy. I am a father of three children and I am involved in many aspects of education in Northern New Mexico. I am an adjunct professor at UNM-Taos, where I teach chemistry. I am also currently the president of the Taos Municipal School Board, the president of the UNM-Taos Advisory Board, and a member of the Los Alamos Employees Scholarship Advisory Committee. I also keep up with my childhood interest in biking... but now I mostly ride mountain bikes!

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September 2013

Can you see me now?

Steven Brumby, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Since the dawn of the computer age, people have dreamed of computers that can understand the world and free us from the boring parts of life. Matching human or even mouse-level performance on everyday tasks, such as seeing a piece of cheese in a kitchen, turns out to be much harder than we guessed. Partly, this is because we are still discovering the rules that brains use to learn about the world, and partly this is because brains use many simple rules running at the same time across billions of cells. In fact, a mouse brain is capable of at least a trillion calculations a second, which is almost a million times faster than the earliest “super”-computers.

Fortunately, computers have also evolved at an incredible rate, doubling their speed every couple of years. In 2006, Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM Corporation built a machine called “Roadrunner” that could do 1,000 trillion calculations per second, enough to potentially run a full-size, real-time model of a human brain. Mobile computers are not far behind: driven by the needs of video streaming and computer games, laptops and tablets/smartphones are approaching mouse brain-level, and should hit human-level by 2020. The big science questions that remain are, (1) “what is a brain actually doing when we see?” and (2) “can we use this knowledge to teach a computer to see?”

Scientists can record the activity of cells in the brain, and have started to decipher the learning rules brains use to make sense of the world. Photos and videos of everyday scenes are highly structured, following many rules of consistency of lighting, shape, color, and motion. Brains have evolved to discover these rules, and combine many simple rules to build a mental picture of the scene. Part of the answer to how a brain does this lies in the huge amount of “seeing” a human does: each year, we see the equivalent of almost 6000 hours of high-definition color video, out of which we learn to see thousands of types of objects. This means that brains need to quickly label and then forget almost all the data the eyes take in.

Understanding the brain’s many tricks for handling this flood of data has the potential to revolutionize computers’ relationship to humans and to the world. Like the magical brooms in Disney’s Fantasia, camera smartphones, wearable cameras, and security cameras in schools, shops and workplaces are pouring out images onto the internet, far too many photos for anybody to look through carefully enough to find rare and important objects and events that we are searching for. Computers that can see could keep up with all this data, showing you just the small fraction of data that is relevant to you. Computers that can see could watch over sick people, keep people safe in a workplace, warn when someone has broken into your house, or help you remember where you left your keys/phone/toys. There is a now a global race to develop the first commercial computer system that can see well enough to understand the everyday world, and a breakthrough is likely in the next few years. Understanding the opportunities and problems of a world with seeing computers is something every student and citizen needs to know.

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About the Presenter

Steven Brumby

Brumby

I grew up on the other side of world, and came to America 15 years ago to pursue my dreams in science. Australia is mostly desert, with a few very big cities by the coast. I am from one of those big cities, called Melbourne, which looks a lot like one of the big East Coast U.S. cities, like Boston, but with better weather! Australian culture is very similar to America’s, and I grew up in a regular middle class family watching a lot of science fiction movies, reading lots of comics and non-fiction history and science books, and wishing that Australia had a space exploration program like the USA’s.

I was always good at the “hard” subjects in school, and my parents encouraged me to be interested in medicine or law, but in my first year of high school I realized I wanted to be a scientist that studies the basic rules of the universe, which meant becoming a physicist. Neither of my parents have a college degree, but they trusted and supported me through many long years of study in high school and then at the University of Melbourne, where I studied physics, mathematics, and computer science. I was always worried that Australia was too far away from the rest of the world, so I tried to compete not just against the other students in my classes, but against what I imagined to be the best students at the best schools. I graduated with a Ph.D. in physics at age 25, and got a job at my university teaching physics and writing software for a joint U.S.-Australia space-based astronomy mission; this is how I got to meet scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory. They recruited me, and soon after I arrived in New Mexico hoping to make my own small contribution to the U.S. space program.

Soon after I arrived, I had the chance to work on a new project at Los Alamos that was trying to solve a very big problem for the space program: it is hard work to put a robotic camera in space, but the real problems begin when you start getting a flood of images back from that robotic camera. What we needed was another machine to look at all the photos and pick out the best ones for the human scientists to look at, which meant teaching a computer to see. Fortunately, I had studied a lot of mathematics and computer science along with the physics. As part of a small team of young scientists, we invented a machine learning system, which we called “Genie,” that “grows” software that can find objects in satellite images. Genie won a number of awards, and is being used to turn satellite images into maps, and microscope images into cancer diagnoses across the country, but even this system was way too slow and too simple to find all the interesting objects and events in photos and videos made by all the world’s robotic cameras

Fifteen years later, I lead my own team of a dozen scientists, engineers, and students, studying machine learning systems based on the human brain that run on giant supercomputers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and we are contributing to a global race to build the first artificial system that can see the world as well as a human.

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Zombie

April 2013

The Brain of the Zombie: Can neuroscience explain gruesome zombie behavior?

Russell Morton, University of New Mexico College of Medicine

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Have you ever thought about what controls our emotions and behaviors? Why do we get angry when our older sibling touches us, or why do we become incredibly anxious and nervous when someone we are attracted to enters the room? How do we walk, ride a bike, or flick on a light switch without even thinking about it? Our brains are constantly bombarded with sensory information about the world around us, and somehow our brains interpret all that information and generate a response to our environment. How does that gelatinous material between our ears control our emotions and behaviors?

Neuroscience is the study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Our brains are made up of millions of individual specialized cells called neurons that come in hundreds of different shapes and sizes. Neurons receive information from other neurons via chemical compounds know as neurotransmitters. In response to neurotransmitters an electrical signal is generated by ions called an action potential. Action potentials travel through the neuron at lightning speed, and induce the release of neurotransmitters onto other neurons. This communication between neurons is how our brains transmit information from one part of the brain to another or from our brain to our muscles.

Early neuroscientists studying the anatomy of the brain revealed that specific areas of the brain receive visual information from the eyes, and other regions receive sensory information from the rest of the body. Additional regions of our brains control even more complex behaviors and emotions. Some areas of our brains are responsible for the formation of memories or habits, while others are responsible for anxiety or fear. What makes the brain so amazing is that most of these regions are interconnected. It is the connections between different brain regions that can trigger a very specific memory just by the smell of fresh apple pie. It is the activity of entire networks within a region and their communication with other networks in other regions that create the human consciousness.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to record the activity of multiple neurons from animals or humans during certain behavioral tasks. With this new technology, we have begun to understand how our brains encode information. Using this knowledge neuroscientists have created devices that can convert visual or auditory signals to electrical signals that can be transferred to certain brain regions to restore vision or hearing in blind or deaf patients. Neuroscience has also been able to harness the activity of certain brain regions in paralyzed patients allowing them to control robotic arms. We now have the ability to control the electrical activity of neurons with light using proteins isolated from algae. The world of neuroscience is incredibly exciting because we are able to do things today that were considered science fiction only a few years go.

Our gelatinous brains are the motherboard of consciousness producing our complex human behaviors. In this Café, we will learn how the brain controls emotions and behaviors, but with a focus on the Pop Culture Star of Science Fiction; Zombies. We will discuss the neurobiology behind what motivates the living dead, why do they act the way they do, and how new technologies in neuroscience can help control zombie behavior.

Listen to an interview of Dr. Morton discussing his career. Albuquerque Teen Leaders Gus Pedrotty and Jimmy Schneebeck conducted the interview.

View this YouTube video with excerpts from the Cafe presentation!

About the Presenter

Russell Morton

Morton

Growing up I had no concept of what a scientist was or what they did. I was born and raised in the college town of Fort Collins Colorado, but going to college rarely crossed my mind. Neither of my parents had a college degree, nor was university tuition financially feasible for our family of three kids. The first time I really thought that college might be an option for me was when my older sister received scholarships to attend an out-of-state university.

These ambitions were nearly cut short the summer before I started high school. While hiking with friends we decided to cross a small stream at the top of a 40-foot waterfall. I slipped on the wet rocks above, falling off the waterfall onto the rocks below. After search and rescue carried my unconscious body two miles out to a helicopter, I spent three hours in the emergency room, 9 hour in surgery, but I was still alive. I had suffered countless lacerations, a cracked skull, two cracked vertebrae, two broken collarbones, seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a completely shattered femur. Additionally, a six-inch pocketknife was imbedded into my hip and had broken my pelvis. After almost two weeks in the hospital, I spent one month in a wheelchair, and six months on crutches. Finally, with the help of countless hours of physical therapy, my orthopedic surgeon took my crutches and told me to walk out of his office. I walked away with a serious limp, half of a fake hip, a metal rod down my leg, and a newfound fascination in biology and medicine.

Still today I am amazed that the doctors were able to piece me back together and that my body had the capacity to recover. In high school, I began taking more biology classes including anatomy and physiology, and my interest in medicine began to blossom. Through grants, scholarships, and loans I found my way to the University of Colorado in Boulder where, like most pre-med students, I majored in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. My years at CU were filled with rock climbing, cycling, skiing, and tons of learning.

I received my first real taste of research when my Developmental Biology professor convinced me to do a senior research project in his laboratory. My curiosity about biology and the human body had started me down this path, and research opened a whole new door for me. Research is purely driven by curiosity and I soon realized that every experiment I did gave us answers that no one else in the world knew. Thanks to my undergraduate mentor I recognized my obsessive curiosity and decided to stay in science instead of pursuing medicine.

After graduating from CU, I moved to Denver to work in a microbiology lab studying M. Tuberculosis, where I was exposed to the world of bacteriology. The following year life took me to Washington, D.C., where I worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) researching therapies for diabetes. A year and a half later I entered graduate school through a partnership program between the NIH and George Washington University with enthusiasm and interest in cell biology. However, my first year there I was introduced to neuroscience by my future advisor. The ability of neurons to use electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other on a millisecond time scale amazed me. For my graduate research, I had the unique opportunity to work at a lab at the NIH researching how neurotransmitter receptors are regulated in individual neurons.

Now, as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, I am researching how fetal alcohol exposure changes the way neurons communicate with each other and how those changes affect the network of neurons that control behavior.

I am a true believer in “work hard, play hard” and a career in science conforms to that philosophy. Experiments do not fit well into a nine to five schedule, but in science there is flexibility that allows for mid-day runs. Science is a long, hard road but the excitement of the first experiment with unexpected results makes the hard times easier. I am lucky to wake up every day and have the opportunity to ask questions, figure out the best way to answer those questions, and ultimately test those questions.

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Cryptography

March 2013

Thwarting Surveillance: Can cryptography protect you from online eavesdroppers?

Jed Crandall, University of New Mexico Department of Computer Sciences

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Imagine yourself as a college student in a country where people don't even have the most basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. Using U.S. websites such as Facebook and Gmail, you're working with friends at other colleges and around the world to organize protests and help get the stories about the human rights struggle going on around you out there for the world to see. The phone lines you use to dial into your Internet Service Provider, and the Internet connection your service provider has to the outside world are all controlled by the government, though. You don't use your real identity on gmail.com or facebook.com because you know that the penalty could be death if you are caught. But how do you know when you enter your usename and password to log into these websites that the government isn't listening in to see what you're doing?

It turns out that this very practical question—all too real for many Internet users around the world—is also a deep scientific question that entails not just computer science but also the social sciences, quantum physics, and good old-fashioned computer hacking.

We'll take a whirlwind tour through the past couple of thousand years of cryptography, from the ancient Romans to public key cryptography, and then discuss how quantum computers will change the future of cryptography. I'll show you how scientists from many different backgrounds are working towards a common goal: making sure the Internet is safe for people around the world to use in a free and open way.


About the Presenter

Jed Crandall

Crandall

In addition to being interested in computers when I was younger, I also remember being interested in making trouble, using dirty words, and finding out things I'm not supposed to know. Internet censorship is a research area that combines all of these early interests of mine. I probe the Internet looking for the words that different countries don't allow their citizens to use online, and then publish those lists. This way policy makers, and the voters whose interests they represent, can decide for themselves if the many various forms of Internet filtering around the world are at odds with human rights or other things relevant to U.S. foreign policy. This requires a whole range of computer science to do everything from crunching data for finding out what words in foreign languages are related to each other to teaching a computer to recognize the names of people and places in a news story. I also use my education in computer science to look for secrets about the technical details of how various censors monitor and interrupt communications on the Internet. And then taxpayers pay for me to travel around the world to present my findings by showing respected scientists all the dirty words and other secrets that I've found. Not a bad gig, and definitely not the picture I had of what scientists do when I was younger.

One of the great things about science is that you can follow your interests and see where they take you. When I was in high school, and even well into college, I had no idea what exactly computer scientists did. I knew I wanted to have a career working with computers, but I didn't realize that computer science is a field that is full of deep philosophical and scientific questions about nature, the mind, mathematics, physics, society, and every aspect of our lives. As Edsger Dijkstra once said, "Computer science is no more about computers that astronomy is about telescopes."

In terms of background, I grew up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and then spent four years in Arizona getting a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I then went back to California to get my Ph.D. in Computer Science from U.C. Davis, where my dissertation work was on capturing and analyzing Internet worms. I became interested in Internet censorship when our reading group discussed a paper that had just come out. It was the first such paper I had seen, and seemed somewhat "out of the blue" to someone who had been focusing on traditional computer science. One great thing about computer science is that the possibilities of what kinds of questions we can apply the science of computation to are endless. That's what brought me to New Mexico, which has a rich history from the pioneering days of computation; it is where many fundamental questions about computation are being answered today. I'm now an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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Aurora

February 2013

Nature’s Spectacular Light Show: Mapping Auroras with Twitter!

Elizabeth MacDonald, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

In this Café we will talk about the young field of space science. Scientists have only been exploring space for about 50 years. What is space weather? Space weather is just the space equivalent to the complex system of Earth’s weather. We try to make forecasts of what solar phenomena will impact the near-Earth space environment and observers on Earth. Most of our forecasts are about as good as terrestrial weather forecasting was 50 years ago: in other words, not very good. But why is understanding space weather important? Space weather is important because our society relies increasingly on satellites, and satellites and ground power systems can get knocked out by space weather. And satellites are not cheap!

We will learn how and why scientists at LANL build scientific satellites and instruments. These reasons range from understanding the scientific processes at work to verifying that no nuclear bombs have been exploded in space. On the science side, NASA just launched twin satellites called the Van Allen Probes to understand the Earth's high energy radiation belts. We will learn about what these belts are and what a plasma is. Plasma is the 4th state of matter and the most abundant in the universe. In a plasma positive ions and negative electrons are independent (dissociated) and can each be guided by a magnetic field, such as the Earth’s dipolar field.

We will also explore how we can all use social media to understand the Sun's 11 year solar cycle and its effects on Earth. This will be the first solar maximum with social media and when the northern lights are seen at lower latitudes than usual; people will tweet about their observations. We’ll map those sightings and try to make a much better forecast of the space weather activity for ground observers. We will learn about the Northern Lights and make our own plasma in the Café with help from Bradbury Museum educators. I look forward to meeting you and hearing your ideas and questions.


About the Presenter

Elizabeth MacDonald

MacDonald

I grew up in the small, sleepy town of Walla Walla, Washington, and I did not know any scientists with doctorate degrees. As a result, I never thought of becoming a scientist. But I did get a NASA Space Grant scholarship to study a STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) field. When I went to college at the University of Washington and took freshman physics classes, I had no idea what my professors did for their research. I thought they were professional torturers. Very luckily for me, I got a summer research job with a space scientist and she showed me that physics was not so boring and horrible. I got to do fun stuff like design part of a rocket instrument, test an instrument, and write code to analyze data. We were studying the Northern Lights, also called the aurora borealis, one of the most beautiful things in the world. My mentor convinced me to try a few more physics classes, and I started to do better.

Even though it was a hard road, I persisted and got a bachelors, masters, and then a doctoral degree in Physics. My graduate work was at the University of New Hampshire. My thesis research involved studying the beautiful complex aurora with a cool rocket launched from Poker Flat, Alaska. I came to LANL in 2005 for a post-doctoral research position. Now I get to work on space science instruments that go on satellites. I've been working on one project since 2005, and NASA finally launched our instrument last summer. It is working beautifully, and the new data are very exciting.

I enjoy problem solving, not spending all of my day in front of a computer, leading teams to build instruments, and doing science (especially traveling to exotic locations for work! ) I also enjoy talking to the public about the weather in space, and have recently led a project to make a new website www.aurorasaurus.org that involves the use of social media to predict the Northern Lights. This has never been done before, and is really fun. I am passionate about encouraging a broader diversity of tech-savvy workers to solve complex scientific and engineering problems.

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Robot

January 2013

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s a ROBOT! Are robots taking over our workforce?

Steven Anton, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Have you ever looked up at the sky, saw a giant jumbo jet leaving a vapor trail in its wake and wondered, who is flying that thing anyway? It is true that most commercial aircraft carrying passengers around the world on business travel, heading to vacation, or to visit family and friends use autopilot software to fly the aircraft for a significant portion of the flight. That isn’t to say the pilots aren’t needed (indeed they have a lot of work to do making sure passengers are delivered safely to their destinations); however, it gives a glimpse into our increasingly robotic world.

There are many definitions of the word robot. Some people may think of a robot as a human-like machine that is capable of walking, talking, and even thinking like a real human. Other people might consider a looser definition, where a robot is any type of machine controlled by a computer program that is able to perform a useful task. It’s up to you to come up with your own opinion on what constitutes a robot, but most people would agree that a robot is a machine that somehow moves and has some sort of processing power.

Robots are all around us. Take a look through your old box of toys you used to play with (or maybe still do!). Chances are there may be a robot buried in there. Take a Furby, or a battery powered dog that walks and barks at you, for example. These are robots. They are capable of moving and reacting to their environment, and some can even learn and communicate. Aside from toys, robots are used heavily in industrial factories. Robotic arms lift heavy parts for cars, weld metal, and sort products on an assembly line. Robotic vehicles and airplanes are also used by the military and police to perform surveillance or to enter hazardous areas. Not only are robots used on earth, but NASA has sent several to space, including the Curiosity rover that is currently on Mars! So, what about the future of robotics in our society? Well, Google has already created a robotic car that can drive itself and its passengers around the city. And guess what? Driverless cars are legal in Nevada!

The question on everybody’s mind is this; are robots taking over our workforce… or even our world? The answer is a bit complex, but in short, no. Robots are definitely transforming our culture, and certain industries have seen many jobs lost to robots. The classic example is the factory worker. Fifty years ago, factories were packed with humans working on the line. Today, many factories all over the world are full of robots, with just a few humans making sure they are performing on schedule. While robots have become ubiquitous in this industry, they are far from taking over our entire workforce. As a general rule, robots are being used to replace humans who perform low-skill, low-wage jobs. We are a long way off, if ever, from having robots replace scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers, law enforcement, inventors, businessmen and women, etc. So if you want to be safe, make sure you become the person designing the robot, not being replaced by the robot.

In this Café, we will explore various robots that are currently in use in our society. Following the presentation and discussion, you will get hands-on experience in designing, building, and programming your very own robot!

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About the Presenter

Steven Anton

Anton

I grew up in the suburbs outside of Detroit. Every year in August, thousands of classic cars (around 40,000!) and spectators (around 1.5 million!) would gather for the Woodward Dream Cruise. The Dream Cruise, which stretches along Woodward Avenue for about 13 miles, is the largest one-day auto event in the world. It’s also 4 miles away from my parent’s house where I grew up. The smell of partially burnt fuel, exhaust, and burning rubber hooked me on cars when I was about ten years old. My fascination for cars would eventually lead to my interest in engineering as I got to high school. Of course, the fact that my dad is an industrial engineer who has worked in the automotive industry all his life had nothing to do with it.

During high school, I took advanced classes in science and math and realized I enjoyed them the most. Eventually the word “engineer” came up a few times around my house and I signed up for an engineering drafting class, taught by Mr. Melcher. I think we were some of the last students to learn how to draft using a drafting table, paper, and pencils, and I really enjoyed the course. During my last two years in high school, I took every engineering class Mr. Melcher offered. During my senior year, Mr. Melcher decided to start a robotics team at our school. I joined the team and fell in love with robotics. I spent countless hours after school working to build the robot, and I was selected as one of the drivers during competition. The robotics team was one of the most exciting and memorable things I participated in during high school.

After high school, I attended college at Michigan Tech and majored in Mechanical Engineering. I really enjoyed classes in vibrations and controls, and I learned to program in LabVIEW during an internship I had. The summer after I graduated, I attended the Los Alamos Dynamics Summer School at LANL and started work on what would become my Master’s thesis project. After LANL, I went to Virginia Tech for grad school. Although I didn’t do robotics for my graduate work (I worked on energy harvesting using piezoelectric materials), I was still interested in it and began to mentor a local FIRST Robotics team, Team 401 – Hokie Guard. I mentored the programming team, which programmed the competition robot using LabVIEW.

After finishing my PhD, I came back to LANL as a postdoc in the same office where I participated in the summer program. In fact, this past summer I mentored a group of those same summer students! I loved working with FIRST robotics so much during grad school that I decided to start my own team in Los Alamos along with my wife, Tiffany, a former high school math teacher and FIRST mentor. We started Team 4153 – Project Y last year with 15 students and 10 mentors. We built a robot named ‘Oppie’ and won two awards and advanced to the semi-final rounds at the competition in Salt Lake City, UT last March! We are gearing up for another exciting competition this year and the game will be announced January 5th. My interest in robotics started in high school when I cut my first piece of aluminum tubing on a band saw, and I’m still hooked today!

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SocialMedia

November 2012

Achoo! Can social media be used to model spread of epidemics

Sara Del Valle, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

I know what you did last summer! Did you know that the Library of Congress archives all publicly available Twitter feeds? These tweets can be used to research a variety of topics, including tracking the movement of birds, understanding people’s eating habits, and analyzing information spread.

In early 2009, a new strain of H1N1 influenza (aka swine flu) emerged and the World Health Organization declared it the first pandemic of the 21st century. The reaction to the pandemic on Twitter was overwhelming; there were approximately 10,000 tweets per hour about “swine flu” coming from all over the world. As word spread, people started canceling trips, purchasing facemasks and hand sanitizers, and seeking medical help. In contrast, during the pandemic in 1918, the speed of communication was outpaced by the spread of the disease. As many as 100 million people died!

Technology in the 21st century has transformed the way we communicate; information can now spread all over the world in a matter of minutes. The Internet, smart phones, and social media have empowered the human race by giving everyone a voice. Social media has enabled people to share information in near real time, providing early warnings for new infectious diseases and situational awareness. These data can help scientists model the spread of infectious diseases and identify behavioral patterns in response to a disaster.

The best ways to keep people from contracting infectious diseases are 1) rapid identification, 2) timely treatment, and 3) containment. However, in our very interconnect world, if a disease is not rapidly identified, it can spread around the world in days. Once a disease begins to transmit from person to person, scientists need to estimate its transmissibility, death rate, and the impact of mitigation strategies. For this purpose, scientists use models, which include the demographics of the population, activities people undertake, locations where people gather, positive or negative perception towards the disease, and behavior people may adopt.

This is where social media comes into play; when people “check in” (location), tweet about what they’re doing (activities or behavior), tag who they’re hanging out with (contacts), and share their feelings (perception); scientists can use all this information as data to develop models to help contain the spread of a diseases.

So the next time you tweet about staying home from school because you’re sick, think about the scientists who are using your tweet to learn about how human behavior is related to spread of infectious diseases—and ultimately how to use this information to save lives!

Read More: Using Cell Phone Data to Curb the Spread of Malaria


About the Presenter

Sara Del Valle

DelValle

I don’t recall liking mathematics when I was in elementary school, but that changed when I was first introduced to algebra in junior high. I had a teacher who was considered the hardest teacher in the entire school. Eight out of ten students would fail his classes, so when I got an A in his algebra class, I knew I had found my true passion. In high school, I remember having a rush of adrenaline when I took math and physics exams. My cheeks would turn red and it was like a concert in my brain, with all the numbers and formulas coming together in unison.

I was born in Mexico, where my parents were missionaries, but we moved to New Jersey when I was 16. Although no one in my family was a scientist, my dad is good with math and finances—perhaps that's where I inherited the math gene. After I graduated from high school, I attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), where I majored in applied mathematics. I was doing so well that my academic advisor suggested that I enroll in the B.S./M.S. program. I always thought I would become a math professor because that’s what mathematicians do, right? WRONG.

Looking around on the Web for a summer program during my senior year at NJIT, I came across the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI)–Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. I applied and was accepted. MTBI was held at Cornell University, so I moved to Ithaca, New York, in the summer of 2000. This REU completely opened my eyes about what one could do with mathematics and introduced me to mathematical epidemiology. I was intrigued by how models could provide decision support for planning and mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. I returned to MTBI for a second summer in 2001, and it was only after this summer that I knew I wanted to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. One of the presenters during the summer was Herbert W. Hethcote, a pioneer in mathematical epidemiology, including mathematical modeling for childhood vaccination strategies, and professor at the University of Iowa.

I enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Iowa, with a fellowship from the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program of the U.S. Department of Education. Although by this time I had lived in five states and two countries, I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I experienced when I got to Iowa. (New Jersey was concrete and industry—Iowa was cornfields and cows!). In 2003, the director of the MTBI program received a prestigious appointment at LANL and invited me to join his research team. Although the original plan was to spend only one year at Los Alamos, the landscape, my work, and the people around me enticed me to stay.

After completing my Ph.D. in 2005, I was offered a postdoctoral position, and soon after, I was converted into a permanent staff member. Currently, I work on mathematical and computational models for infectious diseases. I am also interested in understanding and modeling human behavior in response to epidemics and other disasters. Most recently, I’ve been using Twitter feeds to study emergent human behavior during recent disasters, such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and the 2011 tsunami in Japan. My goal is to use social media to model and forecast human behavior to better predict the spread infectious diseases. What I love about working on infectious diseases is that everyone can relate to it.

While I’m a scientist, I’m also girly and fashionable. (I don’t think being a scientist means wearing boring clothes and horn-rimmed glasses!)

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Hacking

October 2012

Ethical Hacking and Codebreaking: A Hands-on Tutorial and Contest

Neale Pickett, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

In early 2009, Iran's uranium enrichment program—widely believed to be aimed at developing a nuclear weapon—was set back at least two years and billions of dollars by a computer virus from the United States.

The New Zealand-based Megaupload site has millions of dollars of equipment and money frozen while the U.S. tries to convince New Zealand to send the company’s founder—accused of Internet piracy of music, movies, and other copyrighted materials— here to appear in court.

The online organization WikiLeaks hacked in to and then published sensitive government documents and secret diplomatic cables. Julian Assange, the Swedish citizen in charge of WikiLeaks, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, surrounded by London police, since August, 2012. It is widely believed that if he leaves he will be arrested and find himself in a U.S. prison. He is also a wanted man in Sweden. Here we have a diplomatic fiasco involving four national governments.

What do these situations have in common? All are significant developments within the last two years that began on the Internet and boiled over into high-profile real-world political scandals.

When I presented this Cafe in 2010, I had to make up a science fiction story about a kid whose Facebook account was hacked.  Since then, hacking as a serious political force has become a reality.  The battlefields of the future will include the Internet, and the hacker armies attacking and defending are in high school classes right now.

In this Cafe, we will experience HACK, an online training simulator. You will learn the basic skills you need to view the world through the eyes of a computer security expert. Even if you don't want to do this professionally, just knowing what a "buffer overflow" or "phishing attack" is will help you be aware of computer security any time you use a computer to write a paper, plan a birthday party, or order dinner.

Everything in this Cafe will be legal, and you'll learn how to legally and ethically continue studying the field of hacking and computer security.

Cyber War Games


About the Presenter

Neale Pickett

I have been interested in computer security ever since I watched my dad spend a week piecing back together a deleted file on my mom's computer. I had assumed that deleted meant gone for good. I thought to myself, if deleted files are still around, what other ideas did I have about computers that weren't right? I decided to find out.

In high school, I ran an Albuquerque BBS (like a web forum, but before the Internet) called "Andra," and picked out my hacker name: “zephyr.” I was involved in some minor tinkering around with very early networks as “zephyr” and worked with a friend to set up a system that would allow people in Albuquerque to send messages all over the world with just a computer and a modem. That same friend and I, with two other people from our high school, won the first Supercomputing Challenge, run by LANL and Sandia.

In college, I learned about PGP encryption and how to send emails anonymously on the Internet, and I got involved with online protests against the "Communications Decency Act," a law which would have made it a crime to provide Internet access to a 19-year-old sending emails to his 16-year-old girlfriend.

After school I worked briefly for LANL; I left just before the firestorm over Wen Ho Lee and the Case of the Missing Hard Drives. I moved to Seattle and worked as the chief architect for FreeInternet.com, which was briefly the second-largest Internet provider in the USA. I then went to Watchguard Technologies, and wrote firewall software for medium-sized companies.

While in Seattle, I became involved with a worldwide cryptography and anonymity organization called the "cypherpunks." I organized two protest marches against the illegal jailing of a Russian computer hacker named Dmitry Sklyarov, who was later released and allowed to go back home to his wife and son.

When I came back to LANL in 2005, my experience made me a good candidate to deal with network computer security. I now run the white hat (good guy hacker) site dirtbags.net, and run Capture The Flag contests around the country to train computer security professionals.

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Earth

September 2012

A Decade of Great Earthquakes: Is the Mayan apocalypse coming true?

Terry Wallace, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter's Essay and Bio

Early in the morning of April 18, 1906, a great earthquake shook the Bay Area of California. San Francisco had recently installed natural gas street lights, and the gas lines broken by the shaking fueled a fire storm that swept through the city. Fire destroyed over 25,000 buildings and killed 2000 people. The unexpected devastation of the financial and commerce capital of the western U.S. compelled the federal government to commission the first wide-ranging scientific study of an earthquake, and the modern science of seismology was born. Out of this study came a theory for the cause of the earthquake, that strain slowly accumulates in rocks through geologic processes, deforming them to a breaking point. The breaking of the rock is the actual earthquake, which releases the energy stored within the deformed rock. A small fraction of this energy release is converted to seismic waves that travel away from the breaking rock; these waves cause the shaking which people think of as an “earthquake.” This “elastic rebound” theory is the cornerstone of the modern theory of plate tectonics, which says that the Earth is an active body, constantly deforming, that earthquakes are a response to “geology in action.” One of the consequences of plate tectonics is that earthquakes occur all the time; in fact, the U.S. Geological Survey records more than 30,000 earthquakes every year all across the globe.

The slow, constant deformations of regions all over the Earth translates into an collection of earthquakes that historically has looked remarkably constant from year-to-year. The size of earthquakes is usually reported in units of magnitude (M), which was originally based on the shaking levels. But an increase in one unit of magnitude translates to a factor of 32 increase in energy! In other words, a magnitude 5 earthquake releases 32 X 32= nearly a 1000 times as much energy as a magnitude 3 earthquake! This all means that the largest earthquakes dominate the total energy released in earthquakes each year, even though there are only a few of them a year.

Seismologists call magnitude 8 and larger earthquakes “great earthquakes.” Between the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and around Christmastime 2004 there was a great earthquake about every 2.5 years; these earthquakes released 99 percent of the energy over that century. Then on December 26, 2004, a huge earthquake, M=9.2, struck northern Indonesia. This earthquake generated a large tsunami, which swept across the Indian Ocean, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. Since the Indonesian earthquake there have been 16 great earthquakes, or roughly 2 per year, 4 times the rate of great earthquakes in the prior century!

Seismologists have been struggling to explain this outburst, and what it means for our understanding of how the Earth works. It has also played into the doomsday notion that the Mayan calendar predicted that the “end of time” would occur on 21 December, 2012. Yikes! Does the strange in the frequency of great earthquakes foretell the end of the world...?

Don’t worry, we won’t miss Christmas this year, but in terms of earthquakes it is clear that we are in unusual times!

Presentation (zipped ppt 2.54 MB / pdf 3.75 MB)


About the Presenter

Terry Wallace

I grew up in Los Alamos, and some of my earliest memories were of my father taking me out camping and exploring mines looking for minerals. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado hold hundreds of wonderful places to find minerals. I felt certain I wanted a career that would let me explore even more geology. However, geology was pretty boring in school in the early 1970s – lots of memorization and descriptions. I really liked physics and mathematics because there was little memorization, and there always was a “right answer.” When it came time to go to college I went to New Mexico Tech and majored in geophysics and mathematics. Frankly, it was a blast. I got a job the first day I walked on campus in Socorro taking care of the seismic stations operated by Tech to monitor earthquake activity in southeastern New Mexico. Analyzing the wiggles on the seismograms was really interesting, and it told us something about geology; the wiggles were caused by earthquakes, which are the groans of an Earth that is alive. I could just see mountains growing and valleys forming with each and every earthquake.

After getting my undergraduate degrees, I headed for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech was the center of the universe as far as seismology was concerned – it was the home of Charles Richter, the inventor of the Richter scale. It was a perfect place to ask “why” and learn the tools of science to unravel the mysteries of geology. Every week there was a seminar about the latest earthquake, whether it be in Japan or Africa. Computers were just coming into widespread use for modeling complex natural phenomena, and I found myself in the wave of discovery. I completed my PhD by specializing in understanding the seismic signals from underground nuclear explosions. This was during the height of the Cold War, and seismology was the only way the U.S. could guess at what the Soviets and Chinese were doing in their weapons programs. It was exciting to be involved in science that made a difference to the nation.

After graduation I became a professor at the University of Arizona. I chose the UofA so I could return to a place of wonderful mountains and minerals. I worked on seismic experiments all over the world, but in particular in South America. I deployed seismograph stations and ran experiments for a decade in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. I fell in love with the Andes – truly imposing mountains that mark the tremendous geologic upheaval along the west coast of the continent.

After 20 years at the UofA I got the chance to come home to Los Alamos and become the Division Leader of Earth and Environmental sciences. It was a very different challenge to lead a large division of talented scientists rather than “doing” science myself. However, it was very rewarding to be involved in overseeing Earth sciences from hydrology to volcanology. I was responsible for all basic science programs at LANL. In 2011, I became Principal Associate Director for Global Security. My job now includes building support for the national security work of LANL scientists, which means I interact with members of Congress and the Senate and many other federal agencies and laboratories. Each day brings new challenges and surprises

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Baby

February 2012

Mind and Matter: The Genetics of Schizophrenia

Jessica Turner, Mind Research Network

Presenters' Essay and Bios

Imagine looking at your bedroom and nothing seems to be right. Nothing’s wrong that you can identify, but somehow the objects in their places aren’t a coherent scene; it doesn’t make sense, it’s hard to say what is really where. You hear your mom calling you to come for dinner and at the same time someone you can’t see is gibbering in your ear that she’s not your mom, you shouldn’t be here. The doorknob on your bedroom door seems to be different, much more important than the rest of the wall, threatening you somehow.

Now imagine going to the doctor because you’re sick, and they do no measurements. They talk to you, but they don’t take your temperature and look for a fever, they don’t draw blood and run tests for various antibodies, they don’t do an x-ray to look for a broken bone. Imagine that all they could do was talk to you, ask you about how you were feeling and listen to how you responded.

That’s where we are with schizophrenia and many other neuropsychiatric disorders now. There is no diagnostic test for schizophrenia. There’s nothing in the blood, nothing in the x-rays, no known physical markers to say that someone has schizophrenia. All the doctors can do is talk to the person and talk to the family at length, using structured interviewing methods, standard lists of symptoms, their expertise and years of training, to figure out what the problem is. They have to rule out other diagnoses, make sure it isn’t a side effect of other drugs or other diseases, but schizophrenia is often the diagnosis given because it is all that is left after everything else is ruled out.

Schizophrenia is a problem of the mind—it’s a problem of thoughts, of perceiving, of interpreting and interacting with the world. It’s not a muscular problem, it’s not a nerve problem, it’s not a visual or auditory problem. We can’t take an EEG and check mental function the way we can do an EKG and check heart function. So in schizophrenia research, we are looking for the underlying physical problem—or more likely, a network of problems. We have to look in the brain, how it’s formed and how it responds, to find clues as to what’s going wrong. We look at the chemistry and the physiology of the brain, at the signals we can measure, to see both how a normal brain communicates internally and what goes wrong in schizophrenia.

The brain is formed and develops through a complex interplay between the genetic code and the environment, broadly speaking. When looking for what might be going wrong in schizophrenia, genetics holds a clue because there are families that have more members with schizophrenia than the general population usually does. Something is being inherited that makes people in that family more likely to develop schizophrenia. However, all the work to date makes it clear there is no single gene that causes schizophrenia, and the search for genetic influences that correlate with being more or less likely to develop schizophrenia is continuing. In this Café we will review some of the genetic findings in schizophrenia and the novel methods being used to combine genetic information with other brain measures to tease apart what schizophrenia really is.


About the Presenter

Jessica Turner

What I enjoy is thinking new thoughts. What I enjoy about being a scientist is constantly being faced with new ideas, new concepts, new ways of thinking about things. My daily job is never the “same ol’, same ol’”—it’s something different every few hours, every day. I like reading science fiction because it shows us a world that isn’t, but maybe could be, going in a new direction, putting ideas together in novel ways. Working in scientific research is like that—half the work is asking, what if we try doing it THIS way, instead of that? What if what’s really going on is something else entirely, how would we know? As soon as we think we know the answer to one question, a new question is already waiting, a new method has been developed that we can use, or a new finding has been identified that we need to take into account. It’s never boring—it can be frustrating, but never boring.

I was not at all scientific as a kid; I never took things apart, didn’t play much with Legos, and the microscope a well-meaning grandparent gave me one year sat gathering dust. If you were looking for me, I’d be the one with my nose in yet another book. I did well in school and enjoyed math a lot, but had no idea what I wanted to do as an adult. (My first career choice as a child—astronaut—was unfortunately right out due to my poor eyesight and poorer coordination.) I picked my majors in college around both psychology because it seemed such an important, but messy, field—figuring out why humans are what they are—and math because it was so beautiful and precise, making symbols do what they were supposed to do.

My career has not been a clear, predictable path from college to grad school to post-doctoral researcher to tenure-track professor. I’ve changed fields a number of times so far, and probably will continue to do so as long as I can keep learning new things and following new paths. A lot of people say “Follow your dream,” and I always found that frustrating, since I didn’t have a dream. I didn’t have a passion or something I was really committed to. I just liked to keep trying new things just for the novelty of it.

Right up until my senior year in college I kept my options open, sending out resumes and interviewing with a variety of companies for jobs after college, at the same time that I was sending out graduate school applications to experimental psychology departments around the country. I started in grad school thinking I wanted to learn how people see, how the brain turns neural signals into conscious perception of the outside world, so we could build robots who can do the same thing. It’s still a fascinating and unsolved problem!

But I moved from that into neuroscience, and working in my first job after my PhD, I was able to start doing imaging of the human brain. Being able to see someone’s brain live and in action—being able to see my own brain!—was unbelievable, and I was hooked into cognitive neuroscience. How does the brain do what it does? How do we know? (What makes a sunset beautiful?) How do we even phrase the question, teasing it apart so we can start to answer it with the tools we have available?

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Baby

November 2011

Booze and Babies- What a Brain Thinks About Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Martina Rosenberg and Rafael Varaschin, University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Presenters' Essay and Bios

Alcohol consumption by adults is so interwoven with our lives that we don't stop to think about how often it is associated with specific situations. "Going for a drink" is a bonding ritual that allows meetings between people across large cultural divides. Many people like a drink as stress-release or ‘social lubricant’ or simply to mark a special occasion. You may have just attended a birthday or wedding where someone was giving a toast.

Although acceptable in most societies, alcohol is also a drug. The effects of alcohol, like those of many legal or illegal drugs and environmental toxins, are not exactly the same for every individual. Moderate consumption may be perfectly fine for an adult, but it is a totally different situation for an unborn baby, i.e. the fetus. While mom’s hangover will pass, the consequences for the exposed child can be life-long.

There are several reasons that babies are so sensitive to alcohol. Alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the fetal bloodstream through the umbilical cord and it stays there longer than in mom’s blood. Babies simply have not developed the ability to break down and get rid of the alcohol. Another reason is that the baby’s metabolism is in overdrive. Their development from a cell mass to a new human being involves a series of cascades of biochemical reactions, cascades of gene expression, cellular movements, tissue formation, and organ construction. Each of these events is dependent on the previous event. It is like a very complicated dance and any point the choreography can be interrupted.

You may have heard of a condition called “fetal alcohol syndrome.” These children experienced high levels of alcohol during their mom’s pregnancy and are born with physical malformations and cognitive and functional problems. But lower levels of alcohol can have an impact too. Just because you can’t see an obvious defect, doesn’t mean than alcohol did not have an impact. This is because a large and very important organ in your body is developing for a long time and is very vulnerable. Its building plan is very complex and we don’t entirely understand how it works yet. It is your brain.

So what exactly happens to the brain and why should we care? A lot of people are doing research to find answers to these and related questions. What we know today is that there are differences in people’s brains and they are dependent on the individual situation and the level of alcohol exposure. Some differences are structural, for example missing areas or smaller overall size of the brain. Some are neurological, such as difficulties with movements or coordination. Some are functional, like problems with focusing on tasks or memorizing stuff.

In this Café, we will discuss what specific areas in the brain can be affected by alcohol and what those areas are important for. We will talk about how scientists are trying to uncover brain functions. We are looking forward to hear about your ideas how to tackle the questions and what you think the challenges are from your point of view.


About the Presenters

Martina Rosenberg

Rosenberg

I was born in Berlin, Germany. As a child I was rather shy, and because my mom was working, I spent a lot of time with my grandma. I would sit at the table in our kitchen drawing and she would tell wonderful stories while preparing food. The stories could be about family, history, or—one of my favorites—the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who my grandma actually met. I liked it because it was about determination and careful planning to achieve a goal, but also about the overcoming obstacles.

I also enjoyed finding out how things work around the house. I took apart about every mechanical thing I could get my hands on—and sometimes even succeeded in putting it back together again! I compiled a list of “inventions” (like battery powered glasses with little reading lights integrated in the frame) and a list of science “questions” (e.g., does coffee extracted by a coffee maker have the same amount of the same chemicals in it as coffee brewed by hand?). If I could not find answers, I would ask the librarian or a teacher or check out books.

In high school my favorite subjects were biology, chemistry, and art. Again we heard stories about great discoveries and great people. Even though I liked chemistry, I did not like the teacher at all. I think it either was mutual or he used some strange reverse psychology there. I heard remarks like: “a chemist in a skirt, that can’t be good.” This made my inner rebel react by being as good as I could be to prove that teacher wrong on facts and on women in science in general!

I struggled in making a decision about what I wanted to do in life. There were lots of topics I was interested in, but I was also quickly bored and looking for something new. I had a knack for science, but felt that art was more creative and satisfying. I decided to enroll in college to get to the bottom of this, and took as many different classes as I could. What I learned was that science as presented in school is rather dry, but it still is fascinating. For me the question of how things work now was in another area: biochemistry and molecular biology. So instead of looking at mechanical mechanisms I looked at mechanisms within cells.

I met my husband when I was a graduate student and we moved to New Mexico. This was a big change. It is at times frustrating to wrestle with a new language and a new environment, but also opens new possibilities. We both love it here and are enjoying the outdoors, doing hiking, biking, and skiing.

There were other changes. In the end, I am not sure if I ever resolved the issue of deciding what to do and maybe that is OK, because I can adjust the direction my research is going if my interests change. I have been working in gene regulation and cancer research, and now look at learning and memory from a neuroscience perspective. I like the interdisciplinary nature of this area. I know now that science, whether it’s biological, physical, or social, is fundamentally a creative process. I am still trying to find out how things work. The ‘thing’ for the moment is the brain and the human puzzle. I can be creative in finding solutions to a problem, designing experiments, and finding ways to present the results. I like to work with my hands. I love to teach and tell others about what I am doing. It is the ever-changing nature of the exploration that is keeping me engaged.

Rafael Varaschin

Varaschin

I am currently a PhD candidate in the Neurosciences Department at the University of New Mexico. Originally from Brazil, I started my scientific career during my undergraduate years by participating in a program known as “scientific initiation.” In this program, I joined in laboratory activities and helped senior students to conduct their experiments. The experience gained during this period naturally led me into the master’s program, which I concluded a couple of years later.

With my mentor retiring—and still having a world of opportunities to explore—I decided to take a step further and apply for a PhD abroad. Either destiny or chance brought me to New Mexico in the fall of 2007. Since then, I’ve been investigating novel therapeutics to treat cognitive deficit caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. The objective is to develop new medicines that can help children affected by the disease known as fetal alcohol syndrome.

When people say scientists need to be really smart, I have to disagree. They certainly are dedicated and a bit obsessive. I joke about this, saying that, because scientists spend most of their years in school in order to figure things out, either they must be stupid or they really like to be in school (or maybe a bit of both). On the other hand, in general, scientists tend to be more rational than the average person. We like to think critically about things, simultaneously looking for arguments that support or reject almost any hypothesis we stumble upon. For example: is it going to rain? The weather man says there is a 30% chance… but what are his sources? What kind of information did he have before coming to such conclusion? Is it really accurate? Can we make it better? And there you go; if you think like this you are already thinking as a scientist.

Outside the lab (and, yes, there is life outside the lab!) I enjoy traveling and exploring new places. This can be just an unknown street in my neighborhood or an entirely different country across the ocean. I also like to cook and indulge myself in new flavors.

Once I finish my education, I intend to return to my homeland and teach what I learned here. One of the best things in Academia is that you are always surrounded by young people that are eager to learn and contribute their share to society. I hope that in the distant—very distant!—future, I’ll become one of these old dudes that walk around the campus, still very active, giving lectures and attending seminars (after all, these are always excellent excuses for more traveling).

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DNA

October 2011

Deciphering the Origin of the Domestic Dog from DNA Data

Thomas Leitner, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Man's best friend is also his oldest animal friend. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from dogs worldwide show that virtually all dog breeds share their ancestry in wolves domesticated in southeastern Asia. Evolutionary analyses showed that using a so-called molecular clock, which describes how fast DNA mutates over time, this domestication occurred less than 16,000 years ago. Further analyses showed that the domestication most likely took place in the cultures south of Yangtze River from at least 48 female wolf founders.

Notably, because virtually all dogs have an origin in the gene pool formed by this ancient domestication, breeds are not the result of geographically distinct domestications. European breeds display fewer genetic types than the original gene pool and old American breeds, such as the Mexican Hairless Dog or Xoloitzcuintli, show even fewer genetic types, indicating that they are migrants from the original southeast-Asian gene pool.

The place and time of the domestication coincides with the origin of rice agriculture, suggesting an origin among sedentary hunter-gatherers or early rice farmers. The numerous founders indicate that wolf taming was an important cultural trait. While no hard evidence exists on why wolves were domesticated, it is noticeable that in this region dogs are since ancient times used as food, offering an alternative explanation for the wolf domestication.

The fascinating story of how dogs can be traced back in time to their wolf ancestors is the subject of this Café. The interesting case of the origin of the Australian Dingo is also discussed.

Videos Nature Documentary and Nova Documentary

National Geographic - How to Build a Dog


About the Presenter

Leitner

I am a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) working on genetic diversity and evolution of viruses, as well as other organisms such as dogs. I have always been fascinated with how things work and why, and to me biology and the diversity of life is certainly one of the most fascinating things in this world.

As a child, growing up outside Stockholm, Sweden, I had two main interests: Nature and rock climbing. For me, both meant understanding nature in a very direct and personal way. I would spend hours walking as far as I could into the big forests where I lived (worrying my parents), figuring out how to get up difficult cliff faces and cracks (not telling my parents), and pondering about the beauty and diversity of trees, grasses, lichens, insects, birds, and how it all fitted together. My dream was to become an explorer, who would climb dangerous mountains and find new species.

Before my university studies I worked as an assistant to a physicist, studying corrosion. It was 1984 and I was 19, and this was a great experience for me, seeing the real world of science and how to reveal previously unknown facts. Before this I had only seen science in popular media, which didn’t (and still doesn’t) give a meaningful view of scientific exploration. I learned one important lesson from the physicist I worked with, perhaps more important than any other in my scientific career: Try not to support your theory, try to destroy it. If you can’t, the best proof will come from that! I still follow this advice as much as I can, and I have taught all my students this principle.

After that, I went to university and studied biochemical engineering, and climbed mountains when I could. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the future, but at the end of my undergraduate studies an opportunity came up to study HIV genetic diversity using newly developed DNA sequencing technology. This turned into a PhD in virology, and later a postdoc at LANL. I climbed a lot, and I loved exploring the genetics of HIV and learning about evolutionary theory. It felt like I had found my childhood dream, combining my two greatest interests.

In 1998, I moved back to Sweden, became the head of the HIV and Retrovirus section at the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, and started a genomics core facility there. My research was focused on understanding HIV evolution, development of drug resistance, and molecular epidemiology. I also used my skills to study other organisms, including the origin of the domestic dog.

Then, in 2003, I moved back to New Mexico to again join LANL. My research has gradually changed from experimental to theoretical work, and today I collaborate with experimentalists and other theoreticians in many countries of the world. I still enjoy the great outdoors as much as I enjoy solving scientific problems at work.

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Fire

September 2011

How Wildfire Works

Rodman Linn, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Living in New Mexico, we have all been affected by wildfire in recent years, whether by the smoke emitted from fire hundreds of miles away, the immediate threat of wildfires to our communities or valued natural resources, or the evacuation of friends and family from threatened areas. Historically, frequent, low-intensity fires have been beneficial to wildland environments, clearing away excessive growth and regulating the competition for finite space and water. But due to the perceived risk of such fires, a century of fire suppression has left our forests choked with fuel that dries to tinder in years of drought. Now when fire occurs, it is catastrophic, as evidenced by the monumental wildfires that in the past decade have destroyed resources and property throughout the Western states.

Planning effective mitigation strategies (for example, thinning overgrown areas and setting controlled burns) to rebalance the environment and reduce the number of disastrous wildfires requires a clear understanding of how fire behaves in response to rugged terrain, variable winds, and mixed vegetation.

But understanding and predicting wildfire behavior is a very difficult scientific problem, since the length scales of the physics range from those of flame sheets or the thickness of leaves and pine needles to topography-influenced atmospheric dynamics. Thus a complex mix of chemical and physical processes drives wildfires.

Current wildfire models range in complexity from simple algebraic models that may be implemented in graphs or on hand-held calculators to complex formulations that are implemented on large computers. The models of different complexities are appropriate for different applications based on environmental conditions of the modeled fires, the completeness of the available fuels and weather data, the computational resources available, and the time urgency of the results.

Some of the more complex models are not currently suitable for real time applications because the computer runs take such a long time. But their more complete nature allows them to be used to understand some of the more complex aspects of wildfire behavior.

Coupled atmosphere/wildfire behavior models can be developed based on conservation of mass, momentum, species, and energy. Models of this sort use complex math to couple the physics-based wildfire model with the motions of the local atmosphere. For example, the software package FIRETEC is an attempt to capture the physical processes that control a wildfire on a local scale, while simulating fire behavior on large, landscape scales (hundreds of meters to kilometers.)

This Café explores the application of this kind of computer modeling as a new tool to help fire fighters predict the spread of wildfires and thus help them bring these devastating fires under control.


About the Presenter

Linn

I grew up in Albuquerque, where my father was a member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratory. My mother returned to the school when I was 10 for her masters in special education, and subsequently had a long career in Albuquerque Public Schools. My brother and I grew up in a household where education was held as a high esteem, but other activities like soccer, track, swimming, hiking, rock climbing were also encouraged. I was raised with the attitude that even if you have disadvantages you should always push yourself to be the best you can be in whatever activities you choose to pursue.

In high school, I had a moderately rigorous course load that was slanted toward my strengths in math and science. But I made sure I had my fair share of challenges in other subjects. I always felt torn between taking classes like wood working, metals, and drafting—which I thoroughly enjoyed—and taking the classes that my parents encouraged me to take as college prep.

I took those tests designed to help students figure out which career paths they are best suited for. Interestingly, those tests usually suggested that I should be a forest ranger, forester, or something like that. This was in strong contrast with my father’s belief that I was best suited to be an engineer, based on my strengths in math... and other intangible fathers-intuition-type arguments. I took these with at grain of salt, since he was and engineer and therefore might have a little bias there. I was under the impression that my dad actually enjoyed his job as an engineer and I seldom heard him complain about work... until he took on various management activities and had to get involved lots of non-technical wrangling with funding agents, internal politics, and performance appraisals for his employees.

In the end, I chose to go into engineering. Engineering had been placed in front of me as a challenge, and I had a hard time backing away from a challenge. Maybe this was not the best reason to choose a career, but I also did consider the fact that engineering seemed to have a wider variety of career paths after school.

Ironically, my PhD dissertation at Los Alamos National Laboratory ended up being the development of a wildfire behavior model, which meant that I was working closely with foresters, spending time in the woods, and using the math, science, and computer skills that I had developed in school as an engineer.

At research and development institutions like Los Alamos and Sandia, the boundary between science and engineering is not black and white and in many cases the best teams have folks with both backgrounds. I am leader of a team that focuses on modeling a variety of complex processes in the atmosphere. The team is made up largely of atmospheric scientists, mechanical engineers, and computer scientists, and we work closely with foresters and ecologists, which creates a very strong mix of technical capabilities.

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Water

March 2011

The Nexus of Energy, Water, and Climate: From Understanding to Action

Terry Wallace, Wilbert Weijer, Elizabeth Hunke, Andrew Wolfsberg, Los Alamos National Laboratory; Craig Allen, U.S. Geological Survey

Presenters' Essay

Energy demand is one of three grand environmental challenges facing humankind this century. The global demand for energy is increasing exponentially and is expected to double by 2030, while the supply of fossil fuels is shrinking and alternatives are filling the gap slowly. The consequences of this energy deficit are profound. Global conflicts over resources and environmental impacts are increasing, as under-developed countries seek the prosperity of their neighbors and population continues its exponential growth.

A second grand challenge is mitigating the impact of human induced climate change, and “bending the curve” of the present global warming trajectory so as to head off environmental calamity and worldwide social upheaval. This challenge is now widely recognized as a national security imperative. 

The third grand challenge is providing adequate clean water to the growing world population. World demand for water is steadily increasing, even as water supply in many parts of the world is diminishing. A widening gap between water supply and demand inevitably leads to conflict over a resource that is so fundamental to life. Such conflict has already begun, even in this country. 

None of these challenges can be considered in isolation. Demand for energy is growing rapidly as the human population increases. But energy production consumes vast amounts of our water resources. Energy production is affecting the Earth’s climate, and climate change is affecting our water resources. Thus energy, climate, and water are intimately related. Trade-offs must be considered in choices society needs to make at what we term the nexus of energy, climate, and water. For example: 

  • The current boom in production of corn-based ethanol—aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil—involves the use of tremendous amounts of water while still producing significant greenhouse emissions. And it has the unintended consequence of driving up food prices globally. 
  • In many parts of the world, climate change is causing early spring melting of mountain snowpack, leading to summer drought and limiting agricultural production that the world’s population depends on. 
  • Nuclear power plants do not produce greenhouse gasses, but do use up huge quantities of water, are very expensive, and produce radioactive wastes that no one knows what to do with. 
  • Concentrated solar farms are touted as an ideal alternative energy sources, but current technologies require large amounts of water for cooling and to keep them free of dust. This is problematical, since siting of solar farms makes the most sense in arid regions. 
  • Plans for expensive desalination plants in coastal regions to provide water to growing populations have foundered on their need for very large quantities of energy to operate. 

Getting to a sustainable energy economy, while conserving water resources and mitigating climate change, will involve myriad choices. Thus, it is important that all of us have an improved science-based understanding to form a strong basis for decision-making and to understand the trade-offs. 

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Supernova

February 2011

Supernovae: Casting Light on the Universe

Aimee Hungerford and Chris Fryer, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenters' Essay and Bio

Somewhere in the distant universe today, a star ended its life in a spectacular explosion. While you turned in your homework, or joined a pick-up game with your friends, the same elements that make up the paper from your homework, the ball in the game and even your own body were splattered into the cosmos from the innards of a supernova.

Supernovae are among the most energetic explosions in the universe since the Big Bang. They mark the catastrophic end of stars much more massive than our sun, leaving behind compact remnants such as neutron stars and black holes. The elements that make up our planet, even our own bodies, were created in the explosive fireball of a supernova. Any answer to the question of our own existence lies, in part, at the heart of an exploding star. Supernovae have even wiggled their way into helping answer the question of our cosmic fate. The rise and fall of a supernova's brightness has provided astronomers with a seemingly robust tool for measuring cosmic expansion.

The term supernova (more accurately nova) dates back to the 1500s, when astronomers were mostly very observant sky gazers. With today's epic motion picture thrillers, the sky is no longer the most exciting thing to watch on a Friday night. The term nova (in an astronomy context) arises from a time when even the sky was not considered a "motion picture". Nova is the Latin word meaning "new," and was coined to label stars that appeared in the sky suddenly, where no object had been seen before. "Supernova" is a spin off of this term, meaning a super bright star that appeared out of nowhere.

Regardless of its historical origin, the primary concept to take away from supernovae is that they mark the explosive death of a star that is at least 8 times more massive than our Sun. The very fact that we are discussing stellar death suggests a life cycle for stars; a changing evolution that takes them from the cradle to the grave. Most people are aware that stars twinkle and shine brightly. After all, who hasn't sung "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or embarked upon a wish with "Star Light, Star Bright". By merely taking this general understanding one step further and asking, "Where does the star's shine come from?", we stumble upon an understanding of the entirety of a star's life.

Indeed, given the large distance to all stars, it is the shine from the star that is able to tell us anything at all. Much of the knowledge gleaned from supernovae relies on our understanding of how the light emitted from the surface came to be. Just as one can separate light into color bands with a prism, light from a supernova can be separated into wavelength bands, and the amount of energy in each band can be measured. This is called a spectrum and it provides a fingerprint of the supernova. Just as fingerprints can tell you about the person behind a crime, the spectrum of a supernova can tell us about the star behind the explosion. If we can successfully decipher this supernova fingerprint, we can learn a great deal about the physics behind the explosion and the role that supernovae play in our universe, our galaxy, and our world.


About the Presenter

Hungerford

I am currently a technical staff member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory working on theoretical simulations of exploding stars. I first decided that I wanted to be an astronomer while on a field trip with my Girl Scout troop in 9th grade. We visited an observatory where a group of professional astronomers explained what we know and, just as important, what we still don't know about the objects in our universe. They also made it clear that by studying planets, stars, and galaxies, we can learn a great deal about important physics here on earth. That convinced me that this was what I wanted to do for a job. Imagine being paid to solve cool puzzles!

I started on my way to becoming an astronomer as an undergraduate at Western Washington University (north of Seattle, WA). It turns out that a place with 90% of the year spent under cloud cover is not the best for getting your star-gazing groove on...so, next stop for me was graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Clouds in Tucson are as scarce as sun in Seattle. I had moved from a land of eternal spring to one of eternal summer, which I felt was a pretty good trade. The funny part is that for my thesis work I ended up settling down to the theoretical study of supernovae (exploding stars) using computer codes, which doesn't require clear skies at all.

I spent 8 years as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, and managed to leave with several valuable items. The first was a fabulous tan, followed by a husband, two wonderful children, and of course a PhD in Astronomy. My decision to focus on theory came after a few tries at being an observer at real telescopes. Bad weather, altitude headaches, and equipment with duct tape patches just didn't do it for me, so I turned to a more theoretical physics path. That is how I ended up in New Mexico. After spending eight years simulating big explosions on a computer, the thought of giant computers makes your eyes twinkle and you eventually end up at a National Lab.

The projects that I work on at Los Alamos National Laboratory involve studying the deaths of very massive stars (more than 10 times the mass of our Sun.) I use computer codes to simulate how the star explodes at the end of its life. Then I compare the shape and composition of the blown up star on my computer to blown up stars that we* can see with telescopes. When they look the same, I know that the physics I used in my simulations is correct.

*Of course, by "we" I mean other astronomers who like bad weather, altitude headaches, and duct taped equipment.

The thing I love most about astronomy is how easy it is to share with others. As I mentioned, I am a proud mother of two; my son is eight and my daughter is six and, even at these young ages, they know that their mommy studies stars because every night I can take them out and show them what I work on. It is exciting to have a job that can be shared with my whole family. Indeed, I look forward to sharing some of what I do as part of the Café Scientifique lecture series.

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Meteor

February 2011

Heads Up! Preventing Large Asteroid Impacts on Earth

Cathy Plesko, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Day and night little pieces of asteroids and comets-- the crumbs left over from the formation of the planets in our solar system-- rain down on our Earth in the form of meteors. On an average day, the total amount of meteorite dust that falls on the planet weighs about as much as a VW Beetle. Once in a while, though, something larger comes our way.

Geologists can tell from impact craters left behind on the surface of Earth and the moon that larger objects, some that would have been as big as Santa Fe, hit the earth too. Fortunately for us, bigger things hit much less often than smaller things. Still, meteoroids big enough to explode with the force of a small nuclear bomb hit the planet every few years. Fortunately for us, they tend to explode over the oceans and at very high altitude. We see evidence impacts like the one that made Meteor Crater in Arizona or the Tunguska air-burst in Siberia every thousand years or so; an impact like that would be a danger to anyone living in the same state. Every few to hundred million years, Earth encounters an object like the one whose impact caused the global extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Lucky for us, dangerous impacts are rare. Like having car insurance, though, it’s a good idea to have a plan for the unexpected. Astronomers all over the world search the skies for new asteroids and comets, and track their orbits to see which ones might be dangerous to Earth. These tracking programs are getting better over time as new telescopes join in and new satellites are launched. So although the rate at which objects approach us hasn’t changed, we see them sooner and in better detail. Just like having a new pair of glasses.

As we get a better understanding of what’s out there, other scientists, myself included, are thinking about what to do if an object big enough to be dangerous were found heading towards us. How would you stop an asteroid or a comet from hitting the Earth? An added problem is that asteroids and comets can be complicated objects. Asteroids are mostly made of rock and metal, and tend to be piles of boulders and dust if they’re larger than a cruise ship, and solid if they’re smaller than that. Comets tend to be mixtures of ice and dust and can be fluffier than fresh snow. If they’re not solid, then they’re held together only by their own self-gravity, which is only about as strong as the astronauts feel on the space station.

So how do you push a snowbank around in space? Is it possible to blow up a self-gravitating sand pile? Will it collapse back under its own gravity? Or would we just be left with a swarm of still-dangerous debris that would hit many places instead of just one? What if there wasn’t much warning? What if you had a hundred years to deal with it?

There are two broad categories of options that scientists talk about for preventing a large impact on the Earth. The first is deflection, where the object would be pushed off course so that its orbit doesn’t intersect Earth’s. The goal here would be to keep the object all in one piece. Some scientists have proposed attaching solar sails to the object, or using a big laser to burn material off the surface. The second option is dispersal, where the object is blown apart, and all the fragments are deflected out of harm’s way. Dispersal would take a lot of energy to do either from carefully placed explosives or a fast-moving projectile built to act like a very big bullet. All of these options are being explored using Earth-based computer simulations and small experiments. Our goal it to come up with a plan long before a hazardous object is found to be coming at us.


About the Presenter

Plesko

I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Applied Physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I use the supercomputers there to study what happens when asteroids and comets hit a planet and how to prevent them from hitting the earth. I grew up in north-western Washington state, where I loved to explore the beaches and mountains with my mom, go on geology club field trips with my grandfather, and was often allowed to stay up late to watch the auroras or look at the planets through my telescope. I first became interested in asteroids and comets as a teenager, when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter, and comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp made close approaches to the Earth.

In high school I focused on classes in math, science, and languages, especially writing and literature. I was a proud member of Thespian Troupe 860, a plankowner in the BEHS NJROTC Tiger Company, and president of the debate club. If you have any doubts, I can tell you that I have used the math, science, and communication skills I learned from those classes and clubs almost daily ever since. In the summer of 1997, I was invited to participate in the Earthwatch Student Challenge Awards program, which allowed me to work for two weeks at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Fenton Hill Observatory. This was the first time I had a chance to participate in research astronomy, and I was hooked. In my junior and senior years of high school, I applied to every scholarship I could find, and was awarded enough to pay for nearly all of my college education.

I graduated from the University of Washington in 2002 with a Bachelor of Science in astronomy and physics. While at UW, I volunteered for a variety of internships in order to explore research both inside and outside of my majors. I worked on projects in particle physics, virtual reality interface technologies, and even botany. In my junior year I was invited to work with Dr. Conway Leovy studying impact craters on Mars. During the summers I worked as an undergraduate research student in astrophysics and computer science at Los Alamos. The research I did as part of these internships became the basis of my Ph. D. dissertation later on in graduate school.

In 2009, I completed my Ph. D. in Geophysics and Planetary Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, on the effects that large asteroid and comet impacts had on the climate of the planet Mars early in the history of the solar system. During graduate school I continued collaborating with scientists at Los Alamos, and eventually moved there full time to use the supercomputer facilities to finish my Ph. D. research.

After graduate school, I was invited to stay at Los Alamos to study asteroid and comet impact hazard mitigation. As part of my work there, I have appeared on the Discovery Channel and have spoken at scientific conferences in the United States and Europe. When I’m not doing science, I enjoy backpacking, cooking, reading, running, shopping, martial arts, and dancing salsa.

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Disaster

January 2011

Disaster: Would Your Community Bounce Back?

Ben Sims, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

What makes some communities or organizations able to quickly bounce back from a disaster, while others take a long time to recover? This question has become very important for emergency planners in federal, state, and local government, particularly since the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans five years ago. These events have made people aware that we can’t always prevent disasters, but might be able to improve the ability of communities and regions to respond to and bounce back from major disruptions.

Social scientists have found that most communities are, in fact, quite resilient to most disasters. People tend to work together, overcome divisions, identify problems, and develop improvised solutions. This often leads to a greater sense of community and a sense of personal accomplishment. Long-term recovery can be harder, but rebuilding can create jobs and stimulate economies. Communities may even end up better than they were before. But there are some disturbing exceptions to this trend, including Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane killed many people, the federal and local emergency response was not effective, people who could not evacuate were housed in the Superdome and Convention Center in terrible conditions, crime was prevalent, and local government did not appear to have control over the situation. A significant portion of the population was eventually evacuated to other cities. Even five years later, many people have not returned, and large parts of the city have not been rebuilt. Clearly, New Orleans lacked sufficient resilience to overcome a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina.

There are four factors that social scientists are beginning to agree are important for community resilience:

  1. A strong, diverse economy: Stable jobs, good incomes, diversity of industries, personal savings
  2. Robust social networks: Community members know each other, help each other, and have connections outside the community
  3. Competent organizations: Government, health care, community service, and religious organizations are competent and trustworthy, and have resources to handle community needs
  4. High-quality infrastructure: Road, power, and water systems (etc.) are in good condition and are designed to provide service, even if some connections are destroyed.

To explore how these factors make communities resilient, I will tell two stories of disasters. The first is the Buffalo Creek flood, which wiped out a coal mining community in West Virginia in 1972. This is a classic example of community that was not resilient in the aftermath of a disaster. The second example is the Vietnamese immigrant community in the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans. In spite of being relatively poor and culturally isolated, this community was one of the first to fully rebound following Hurricane Katrina.

Following the presentation and discussion, we will have a group activity, where you will have a chance to evaluate the resilience of your own community.


About the Presenter

Sims

I fell into doing research on the social impacts of disasters by a somewhat roundabout route. I was always interested in science, and in high school I decided I wanted to be a physicist. In college I quickly discovered that physics wasn’t for me, that I was more interested in understanding the bigger picture of the history and social impact of science and technology. So I ended up going to a graduate program in sociology that focused on science and technology issues.

I wrote my dissertation on how engineers design bridges in California to withstand earthquakes, looking at how they translate data from laboratory tests into real-world building methods and design requirements. This got me really interested in the sociology of infrastructure: technological systems that make a lot of our modern world possible, like the electric power grid, the telephone network, and roads and bridges. Also, part of my graduate training involved going into science labs and studying scientists, much as an anthropologist would study some faraway tribe. It was doing this that I met my wife, who does mechanical engineering research, and it was because she got a job at Los Alamos that I ended up looking for a job there ten years ago.

At Los Alamos, I started working in the area of risk and uncertainty analysis. I work with scientists and engineers to look at various technological systems and help determine whether they are at risk of failure or an accident, particularly in situations where there is not a lot of test data to go on. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that there is a group of people at Los Alamos who develop models and simulations of infrastructure systems, looking at how they could be impacted by a natural disaster or terrorist attack. It clicked that this would be an area where my current work in risk analysis might link up with my previous work looking at earthquake engineering and bridges and with some work I had been doing on the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

It turns out that there are a lot of people in government who are interested understanding the impact of disasters on communities, but there are not a lot of sociologists who have the background to work with the modeling and simulation experts. So that turned out to be a niche where my unique set of skills could be useful. That’s what brings me to the presentation I’m giving for Café Scientifique.

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Weapons

January 2011

Science Fiction Made Real: Directed Energy Weapons

Diana Loree, United States Air Force-Kirtland Base

Presenter Essay and Bio

What do James Bond, Star Trek, Star Wars, Matrix, and War of the Worlds have in common? These modern science fiction stories all use directed energy weapons to defeat their enemies in order to save the world – or destroy it in the case of War of the Worlds. Our education on directed energy capabilities comes from these and other science fiction novels with their heroes and villains using lasers, radio frequency (RF), and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons systems to win the battle. Fans from around the world recognize the formidable “whoosh” of Star Wars’ laser swords.

What is directed energy and why do authors like to use it in their science fiction stories about good versus evil? According to the Department of Defense, directed energy (DE) is “an umbrella term covering technologies that relate to the production of a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or subatomic particles.” The reason science fiction writers and movie producers are interested in directed energy weapons is the same reason our nation is interested. Directed energy weapons offer speed-of-light delivery – 800 times faster than sound. When Star Trek’s Captain Kirk pulled the trigger on his Phaser ray gun, the effect was instantaneous, as is our lab’s PHaSR laser gun. (I admit we need a few more years studying power sources to get our PHaSR down to palm size like you see in Star Trek.)

In addition to achieving immediacy of start to finish, writers and war fighters alike can “dial up” or “dial down” the effect DE has on a target. When the Star Wars script calls for Luke Skywalker to incinerate the “bad guy,” he pulls out his laser weapon of choice. If confusing the enemy is required, he would use an RF signal to scramble the electronics – making the gages go squirrelly. In the lab, we are working on both of these effects.

Recently the 747 Air Borne Laser Test Bed shot down demonstrator missiles using a megawatt laser. The science of the laser to project enough energy to disarm an incoming missile is incredible. The other science of beam control is even more staggering when you think about it. You have a moving airplane directing a beam of light at a moving target. Air turbulence from the missile and the plane plus the earth’s gravity all affects the beam. Yes, our scientists and engineers, with the help of our industry partners, were able to accomplish this feat.

And yes, we are also working to make our enemies’ electronics malfunction. causing confusion in their communications to buy our troops time. This program is our Counter-Electronics HPM Advanced Missile Project or CHAMP for short. (We love acronyms in the military.)

The purpose of my talk is to help you know the difference between fact and fiction in today’s capabilities of directed energy technology. I will talk about our directed energy mission at the Air Force Research Laboratory, go in more detail about the science of DE, show videos of existing capabilities, and discuss with you some of the challenges in introducing new technology to the battlefield. Maybe you will have some ideas for us. I look forward to sharing our work in directed energy with you.

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [3.9 Mb].


About the Presenter

Loree

I work as a civilian at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Directed Energy Directorate on Kirtland Air Force Base, NM. This directorate is the Air Force’s center of expertise in technologies for high energy lasers, high power microwaves, high power millimeter waves, and advanced optics. I started here in 1993 as a field engineer working on radio frequency transmitters and field diagnostics. I advanced into more technical leadership roles, including becoming the program manager for the Active Denial Technology program for several years. I’m now a portfolio manager for a large number of programs monitoring and doing the strategic planning to make sure we are providing useful, timely capability for our military and keeping a balance to our priorities.

So, how did I end up working as a civilian engineer and program manager for the Air Force in such a fascinating field as Directed Energy Weapons? Well, my father has a PhD in Electrical Engineering and was a junior college instructor and department chairman at a school in the Texas panhandle. I also grew up with five brothers. which meant I was not exactly on track to be a ballerina (more like football player). Math and science and engineering were what I seemed to have natural aptitude for and what many in the family leaned towards (I’m of the Star Trek, Star Wars generation). As kids, we had loads of punch cards we played with (not that we knew what they were), could sort resistors (dad needed the help), and marveled at the 3D maze game that we could download from a cassette tape and play at home on dad’s Timex Sinclair computer.

I went to Texas Tech University in electrical engineering (like father, like daughter – besides, electronics is cool). Neat thing about electrical engineering (which now includes computer engineering too) – it is very, very broad. You can be interested in designing chips, designing circuits, building electronics, power transmission, low voltage, high voltage, software, controls, or the things those run (IPODs, robots, motors, generators, radio frequency sources, lasers, accelerators).

I started down the pulsed power path of electrical engineering (high voltage, high currents – just what directed energy needs) totally by accident. I had a small scholarship from a company who offered to have me work one summer as a technician on some electro-magnetic pulsers. I spent my junior undergraduate summer at Kirtland as a technician testing a helicopter’s vulnerability to electro-magnetic pulses. It was my first hint that “pulsed power and directed energy were where things we see in Star Trek came true.” In my senior year, that summer job and some of the people I met led to me staying on for graduate level degrees in the pulsed power specialty area of the department where we made big voltages and sometimes “big bangs”. AFRL always has its feelers out for good U.S. engineering students, and due to other personnel I knew that had come to the laboratory, I was offered a position here after I graduated with my doctorate.

I have learned more in the laboratory than in school by far. Not just technically, but as a team player, team leader, and even in public speaking (I’ve been on Modern Marvels, Fox and Friends, and other shows) and the business end of things (cost, schedule, performance) that are needed for successful programs. I believe our military personnel truly deserve the best tools and capabilities we can offer them, and I’m very proud to serve alongside them as I work on these weapons in the future.

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Dieases

November 2010

Fighting Infectious Diseases in the Developing World

Harshini Mukundan, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Early discoveries in microbiology by Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Edward Jenning allowed man to understand the role of microbes in causing infectious disease and methods by which we can contain them. Louis Pasteur identified many key microorganisms and discovered methods such as Pasteurization to safeguard foods from pathogenic bacteria. Robert Koch identified the causative agent of tuberculosis and developed a skin test for its diagnosis. This test remains the gold standard for TB diagnostics even today, almost two centuries later! Edward Jenner discovered the science of vaccination. The main reason that many pathogenic bacteria are kept under control and diseases such as small pox and polio are almost eradicated is our ability to efficiently vaccinate people against them. These pioneering discoveries in microbiology were essential to our understanding of the role of microorganisms in pathology.

But microorganisms have made it their business to evolve in order to survive under the harshest of conditions, and so they have evolved to develop drug resistance. Antibiotic-resistant strains of the most predominant disease-causing agents have been identified world over, and infectious disease is once again the leading cause for global mortality. At this juncture, accurate methods for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of infectious disease, especially drug-resistant strains, are essential if mankind is to avoid once again succumbing to the same diseases we thought we had conquered.

Because the world is now so interconnected, the problem of re-emerging diseases is not limited to developing countries, but is a growing problem right here at home.

No disease exemplifies this situation more than tuberculosis. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis, has existed on Earth since time immemorial. Evidence of tuberculosis has been identified in the spines of Egyptian mummies from ~2400-3000 B.C.

There is an urgent need for rapid diagnosis for diseases such as tuberculosis. The sensor team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a waveguide-based sensor for the rapid detection of signatures associated with pathogens in the infected host. We are currently evaluating the feasibility of this technology for the detection of tuberculosis and other diseases. In this Cafe, we will discuss general microbiology and epidemiology of infectious diseases and novel strategies to combat them.


About the Presenter

Mukundan

I am a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on novel diagnostics strategies for infectious disease. Every small incident in your life leaves its mark on you and influences your decisions. Growing up in a developing country ravaged by disease has clearly left a mark on my thought process, as is evident from my chosen vocation.

I was born in Chennai, a busy city in Southern India, to a moderately affluent family with good access to medical care. Despite that, I suffered from mumps as a child, and knew children that suffered from other infectious diseases that could have easily been prevented by vaccination. Perhaps a lasting memory is that of our gardener coughing persistently as he worked. I did not know then that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that would claim his life a decade later.

As a child I was—and I still am--interested in dancing and drama. But when I did well in 10th grade, my family and friends pushed me to pursue a degree in science. I enrolled as an undergraduate in microbiology at the University of Delhi, and found myself enjoying the curriculum. My education was primarily theoretical, with no research experience whatsoever. I enjoyed what I learned, but was not passionate about the science.

After my undergraduate degree, still wavering between science and the performing arts, and decided to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology, while performing at drama clubs and learning Indian dance. My masters program changed my outlook on science. I was fortunate enough to do my dissertation work at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, India. Working in a research institution on real world problems was challenging, inspiring, and exciting. I enjoyed laboratory work and practically lived in the lab during that time, resulting in a well-received masters thesis project.

By then, I had no doubt that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Biomedical Sciences. I came to the University of New Mexico in 1998 to pursue my Ph. D. Studying in the United States was a completely new experience. I enjoyed the open and questioning culture, the casual approach to teaching, and the helpful nature of my professors.

I then joined QTL Biosystems Ltd in Santa Fe. I developed hand-held sensors for detection of biowarfare agents. It was an amazing experience, translating the lessons learned in school to actual applied products. But I realized that I enjoyed basic science more. So, I decided to join the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow. There I have been developing assays for tuberculosis detection, traveling to endemic populations, and working with people in the field. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my work and the challenges it presents. And I still dance and perform every year.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about being a scientist is that you get to learn new things every day. I enjoy mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows and watching a new era of inspired scientists rise. My ultimate goal is to develop better diagnostics for infectious disease, especially ones that have developed resistance. Well... if you aim for the stars, you may at least reach the Moon!

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Africa

October 2010

Discoveries on Human Origins in an African Desert

Giday WoldeGabriel, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

There are more than 6 billion of us humans living on Earth today. Genetic (DNA) research suggests that modern human ancestors left Africa less than 100,000 years ago and progressively populated all the continents by totally replacing others that were living there already. The most important fossils of their human ancestors like those known as Lucy and Ardi and the oldest stone tools they used are found within a harsh desert in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia. Desert environments are hot and dry, and do not have enough water to support life. Yet evidence from geology and from fossils of plant and animal remains suggest that the Afar Depression provided favorable conditions for animal and plant habitations for millions of years before it changed into one of the most inhospitable places on earth today. What happened?

The Afar Depression (or Afar Rift, as it is generally known) is one of the most disturbed places on Earth because of continuously erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, and a high rate of ground motion up to 15 mm a year. It forms the northern part of the 3000-km long African Rift Valley, which runs north-south along the eastern part of Africa. Voluminous molten rocks from deep inside the Earth are forcefully injected along hundreds of deep fractures that cut the valley floor, thereby causing it to move apart and to drop in elevation with time. This process has been going on for millions of years, and ultimately led to the break up of the eastern part of Africa along the axis of the rift basins. Today, most of the Afar Rift floor has dropped below sea level and has become the driest and the hottest place on Earth. In fact, the north-central part of the Afar Rift is more than 500 ft below sea level and forms the second lowest point on Earth.

European explorers searched for fossils in the African rift valley at the beginning of the 20th Century. More organized international research expeditions were not initiated until the late 1960s. In 1967, fossils of human ancestors and other animals and very primitive stone tools were discovered in southern Ethiopia for the first time. Since 1981, the Middle Awash project has been searching in Ethiopia for evidence of human ancestors and their material culture in old rock formations in the southwestern part of the Afar Rift floor. Lucy was discovered about 75 km to the north of the Middle Awash study area in 1974.

I joined the Middle Awash project in 1992 and became the co-leader and lead geologist of the research team. For the last 18 years, the team has conducted integrated, multidisciplinary field and laboratory scientific investigations, using satellite images and aerial photographs, coupled with extensive foot traverses. During field research, rocks, fossils, and stone tools were collected by geologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists, respectively. In the laboratory, rocks were analyzed to determine their chemistry and ages, the geological processes, and the fossils and the stone tools they contain. The scientific team from the Middle Awash project has discovered more than half of the known hominid fossils, and has addressed important questions regarding the origin of our species, how it evolved, and the environments these people—our ancestors—lived in. As a scientist and a co-leader of the Middle Awash project responsible for the discovery of more hominid fossils than anybody else, I will share with you my firsthand experience about our exploration methods, the types of discoveries, the scientific results, and our future research directions—along with some of our adventures in the wilds of East Africa.


About the Presenter

WoldeGabriel

My life’s journey started in a rural farming community in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in the middle 1950s. The quality of life in the village was very marginal when I was growing up. The land was infertile and frequent crop failures due to plant diseases, mice and locust infestations, hailstorms, and unpredictable rainy seasons contributed to the poor living conditions. My father passed away when I was young, and my mother had a tough time raising five children. Despite the rough life, my mother was a role model for hard work and perseverance under the difficult conditions of that time, and these traits have been my guiding principles.

In the late 1950s, the American Lutheran Church opened an elementary school in the village to honor one of the local community elders, who had helped to translate the bible to our language. Initially, families were warned not to send their children to the school because priests from the local Orthodox churches were opposed to Protestant missionaries. However, parents realized the benefits of education to their children and they ignored the threats. I had my first and second grade classes beneath one of the big trees by the school, sitting on a pile of flat rocks during classes. I believe my curiosity and passion for rocks started at this time.

I graduated from eighth grade at the top of my class and was awarded a full scholarship to attend a Lutheran boarding school in central Ethiopia. I received my best education at the boarding school. Classes consisted of lectures and laboratory experiments in the natural sciences and this captivated my interest in science. Moreover, the historic 1968 moon landing and the groundbreaking scientific and engineering achievements of the Americans was also discussed in the classrooms. I passed my university entrance examination with distinction and enrolled in the freshman program of the Science Faculty of Haile Selassie I University. Unfortunately, my enrollment was brief because political activists opposed to the Emperor continuously disrupted the classes and the Government closed the University. This was another hurdle in my life, but I never gave up hope. A year later, I was readmitted and completed my freshman year. My passion for rocks and a recruitment campaign by the Geology Department convinced me to choose geology for my career.

In 1974, the Emperor was removed from power. The Military Government closed the University and all high schools from grades 10 to 12 and dispatched all students to rural Ethiopia as part of a national campaign. This was major setback in my career path. I returned to the University after two years and continued with my geology studies. I received my BS and MS degrees in geology in 1978 and 1980, respectively, and was hired as a lecturer at the Geology Department. After three years of lectureship, I left Ethiopia to pursue my PhD because of my desire to have more advanced training to be able to study rift basins, geothermal resources, mineral deposits, etc. Of course, human origins research was not in my mind at that time.

I joined Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, at the beginning of 1983 and carried out extensive field and laboratory studies in Ethiopia, Canada, and in the United States to complete my PhD in the spring of 1987. I was hired as a Director’s Postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This was a long and arduous journey. Many factors, including my survival skills under different challenging conditions and the ability to adapt and work in a multidisciplinary environment contributed to my current position. I have been to many places in the United States, Japan, and other countries in Europe and Africa to give lectures about my scientific achievements. My message is that we all have the power to achieve our dreams. It is a matter of personal commitment, and I strongly believe that if I can do it, you can do it as well! Thank you for the opportunity to share my life experience with you.

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Evolution

October 2010

How Environmental Change Drove Human Evolution

Sherry Nelson, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

Presenter Essay and Bio

Somewhere in Africa around eight million years ago, the rains fail to come. The forests begin to shrink. A population of apes finds itself without rainforest and the fruits that apes are accustomed to eating. What are they to do? If they are to survive, they have to change with the changing environment. They have to live in a drier climate. They have to find a new way to travel other than through the trees, now that there is no longer a rainforest canopy. They have to find something other than fleshy, ripe, nutritious fruits to eat, but their new diet has to be equally nutritious because they still have big brains to fuel and slow-growing babies that will rely on their mothers for a long time. There are new predators to face on the ground, and these apes may need to live and travel in larger groups for protection. A new group structure means a new social dynamic. A new social dynamic could fuel the drive for an even bigger brain. Thus is the dawn of humankind.

As humans, our closest living relatives are the great apes – orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. This means that we share an ancestry with the apes. Thanks to many genetic studies, we now know that humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to one another than they are to anyone else. In fact, humans and chimps share about 98.5% of the same genes. And yet, as genetically similar as we are to apes, in terms of anatomy and behavior, humans are extremely peculiar.

Anthropologists are interested in why humans are the way they are. Paleoanthropologists attempt to understand when, how, and why our peculiarities arose. How did humans become socially complex, cultured, cooperative, chatty, big-brained apes that eat meat, cook, walk on two legs, and often get married? What drove these changes in human evolution, and what came first? What fueled bigger brains and bodies, meat or cooked vegetables? What initiated cooperation between males and females and ultimately marriage systems? Could marriages exist without language – how else to keep track of your partner when out of sight? When did our children take eighteen years to grow up instead of twelve, and why take that long anyway? When did art evolve? When and why did humans become less violent than chimpanzees? At what point do we want to call these fossil species human?

In this session of Café Scientifique, we will explore through the fossil record the transitions that led humans to differ from other apes, addressing both what happened in human evolution and also how we figure out what happened.


About the Presenter

Nelson

As a child growing up in North Carolina, when I was not in school, I was playing in the woods behind my house. I loved walking through the fallen leaves, catching frogs and lightening bugs (always catch and release!), watching squirrels, and listening to whippoorwills by day and owls by night. Often I was alone with nature, but I can remember one occasion when I took my teenage sister. She tried to build a rock dam in the creek, and I was furious. She thought she was building a swimming pool; I thought she was destroying an ecosystem. Thirty years later, I am still trying to better understand how nature works, and my sister still thinks I am crazy.

As a high-school student, I loved a lot of subjects, but my favorites were biology and chemistry. Two amazing experiences came my way when I was sixteen. First, through a science fair, I won a trip to the National Youth Science Camp, a month-long camp in West Virginia for two students from every state. For the first time, I was surrounded by fellow nerds, and we were free to be as nerdy as we liked. Then, my home state, at the time South Carolina, started a residential Science and Math school. I was a member of the charter class, and during that first year, students and faculty alike strived over eighteen-hour days for an academic utopia. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. In fact, science has since provided me with a lot of incredible experiences.

After high school, I studied at Duke University. As a child, I had always wanted to formally study animals, and Duke gave me that chance with lemurs at its primate center, and then with howler monkeys in Costa Rica. Finally, I was a bona fide animal behaviorist! Only, watching monkeys eating leaves all day was just a bit boring! I then coupled my love for animal ecology with evolution, and I found paleontology the means to study both subjects. After college, I left my beloved South, with the woods, beaches, birds, and stars, for Boston. I was a graduate student at Harvard University. As much as I hated the big city, Harvard was, and is, all it is cracked up to be. I was challenged by some of the greatest minds in the world, and Harvard provided me with opportunities to see the world.

My life-long dream had been to visit Africa, and the summer after my first year at Harvard, I finally saw lions, wild dogs, giraffes, and elephants in the wild. I have now gone fossil-hunting in Africa, Europe, and Asia. I have also trekked through African rainforests following chimpanzees, and I have lived with some of the last hunter-gatherers on earth, all with the hope of learning more about the past from the present and vice versa. Thanks to science, I dreamed big, learned to believe in myself, and saw my dreams come true.

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Explosion

September 2010

Eternal Vigilance: How to Catch a Terrorist

Tom Tierney, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

The pilot announced that Northwest flight 253 was beginning its descent into Detroit when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab returned to seat 19A from the bathroom. He complained of an upset stomach as he hunched over and clutched his abdomen to cover the syringe that protruded from his explosive-laden underpants. As he sat down, he covered himself with a blanket. He wondered if any of the other 289 people on board suspected anything. It seemed like days since he left Lagos, Nigeria, at 11pm on Christmas Eve. The connection in Amsterdam went smoothly and it appeared no one suspected his plot so far. Abdulmutallab began to depress the plunger of the syringe.

The liquid mixed with another compound and started to ignite, which produced an unusual popping that sounded and smelled like a firecracker. The fire quickly consumed the top of his pants and was now reaching the window of the airplane. It wouldn’t be long now, he thought.

Suddenly Abdulmutallab felt the weight of another passenger upon him. The passenger grabbed his syringe and pounded his burning pants as other passengers moved quickly to assist. It was over. After weeks of training in Yemen, he failed to kill any “infidels” and lost a perfectly good pair of underpants in the process. The panty-bomber was successful in getting past airport screening, but explosive residue swipes and canines, had they been used, could have indicated Abdulmutallab possessed or recently handled explosives.

Combating the threat of terrorism is one of the greatest policy and technology challenges today. In one way or another, all science and engineering disciplines are involved in developing vital tools and solutions for deterring, preventing, disrupting, and recovering from terrorist acts. Every element of the United States government has a role and responsibility in countering terrorism. Intelligence, law enforcement, and a little luck continue to be the first line of defense against lone terrorists, including home-grown ones like Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

A familiar saying, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson is, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Today, such vigilance in countering terrorism is represented by a wide range of exciting new technologies that are appearing on the scene. However, in some cases, the employment of these detectors can introduce inconveniences and challenge the freedoms of Americans. For example, most airports now use technologies such as millimeter wave full body scanners, which provide Superman-like vision through clothing, something to which many citizens object. What is the acceptable balance between security on the one hand and privacy and convenience on the other?

At this Café Scientifique, we’ll discuss some of the science and engineering behind the technologies that keeps America safe from terrorism, and share thoughts on the societal burdens that the use of these technologies impart.


About the Presenter

Tierney

I have been interested in science and engineering since I was a child. At the age of 2, I constructed a water distribution system using 20 feet of hamster piping. By the age of seven, I was spending nights as an amateur astronomer observing planets, comets, and stars. My interest in science continued to expand as I worked through college with a myriad of jobs.

Today, I am a Senior Project Leader for Counter-Terrorism Tactics and a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). My current research includes the development of technologies to counter terrorism and nuclear threats. I am also engaged in research projects on supernova astrophysics, nuclear stockpile stewardship, and counter-proliferation programs.

I have also been an active participant in the development of technology policy. In 2009, I served in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism of the U.S. Department of State as an Engineering and Diplomacy Fellow, where I advised on detector technologies and nuclear issues. I helped negotiate collaborations with Russia, assisted in the development of a new cybersecurity policy, and supported nuclear treaties as a technical advisor. I currently chair the Department of Commerce’s Emerging Technologies and Research Advisory Committee and am a technical advisor for the International Nonproliferation and Export Control Program.

I received a doctorate in plasma physics in 2002 from University of California, Irvine, using research I did at LANL. I received a Masters degree in physics and a Bachelors degree with honors in astrophysics from University of California. In the course of my ~10 year career as a scientist, I have coauthored over 150 classified and unclassified journal articles, proceedings articles, and reports in the areas of high energy density physics, astrophysics, dynamic materials sciences, radiation transport, radiation hydrodynamics, inertial confinement fusion, and nuclear policy.

I enjoy the outdoors. I camp, swim, bike, ski, and kayak whenever possible. As an ol’pops, I still try not to scorpion when saucing rails with my snowboard on the ski hill.

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Big Brother

September 2010

Is Big Brother Watching and Restricting Your Internet Activity?

Jed Crandall, Department of Computer Science, University of New Mexico

Presenter Essay and Bio

“Connection timed out.” “Server not found.” “The connection has been reset.” Has your web browser ever told you these things? Was it telling you the whole truth? Have you ever become interested in an Internet meme or something political someone said but you mysteriously couldn't find the video on YouTube? This Café will be about Internet censorship and threats to privacy that are occurring all over the world, and the parallels that I see here in the United States.

If you use a search engine to search for something from a typical high school in New Mexico, there's a good chance that your query and the results you get back are being filtered or recorded at least half a dozen times. When the search engine is deciding which results to send you in response to your query, it has to check for compliance with laws such as the Digital Millienium Copyright Act. On your end, your school may be using proxy filtering software such as Websense to enforce the Children's Internet Protection Act. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that route Internet packets between your school and the search engine (e.g., Comcast, Qwest, or AT&T) filter certain kinds of communication and record things like network flows and clickstreams, which basically means who you communicated with and what you communicated with them about. Some of them pass this information on to the U.S. Government in compliance with the Protect America Act. The search engine probably also records your query. Your high school may record Internet traffic and store it for weeks at a time for compliance with various laws, particularly if government employees (such as teachers) also use the Internet there.

And all that's happening just if you use a search engine from a school. What would you like to do when you're done with school? Foreign correspondent for a major newspaper? Human rights activist? Soldier? Defense lawyer? Whitehat hacker? If you plan on doing anything that requires access to information that someone, somewhere considers important, then you can bet that current trends on the Internet will have a profound effect on how you do your job in the future. In some parts of the world today, people put their lives at stake to use the Internet as a tool for getting their message out to the world. The activity during the recent “green revolution” protests in Iran regarding the election results in March is an example. Among the many interesting questions that computer scientists face, how to keep the Internet open and free is one that my own research focuses on.

The purpose of my talk will be two-fold. First, I want to get you thinking about how Internet censorship and threats to privacy affect you and your community, and what kinds of restrictions you can expect to bump into now and in the future (especially if you go looking for them ;-). Second, I hope to get you interested in some of the deep computational and scientific questions that Internet censorship and privacy issues raise, since some sharp scientific minds are needed if we're going to be able to address the technology and policy issues of the 21st century.


About the Presenter

Crandell

In addition to being interested in computers when I was younger, I also remember being interested in making trouble, using dirty words, and finding out things I'm not supposed to know. Internet censorship is a research area that combines all of these early interests of mine. I probe the Internet looking for the words that different countries don't allow their citizens to use online, and then publish those lists. This way policy makers, and the voters whose interests they represent, can decide for themselves if the many various forms of Internet filtering around the world are at odds with human rights or other things relevant to U.S. foreign policy. This requires a whole range of computer science to do everything from crunching data for finding out what words in foreign languages are related to each other to teaching a computer to recognize the names of people and places in a news story. I also use my education in computer science to look for secrets about the technical details of how various censors monitor and interrupt communications on the Internet. And then taxpayers pay for me to travel around the world to present my findings by showing respected scientists all the dirty words and other secrets that I've found. Not a bad gig, and definitely not the picture I had of what scientists do when I was younger.

One of the great things about science is that you can follow your interests and see where they take you. When I was in high school, and even well into college, I had no idea what exactly computer scientists did. I knew I wanted to have a career working with computers, but I didn't realize that computer science is a field that is full of deep philosophical and scientific questions about nature, the mind, mathematics, physics, society, and every aspect of our lives. As Edsger Dijkstra once said, "Computer science is no more about computers that astronomy is about telescopes."

In terms of background, I grew up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and then spent four years in Arizona getting a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I then went back to California to get my Ph.D. in Computer Science from U.C. Davis, where my dissertation work was on capturing and analyzing Internet worms. I became interested in Internet censorship when our reading group discussed a paper that had just come out. It was the first such paper I had seen, and seemed somewhat "out of the blue" to someone who had been focusing on traditional computer science. One great thing about computer science is that the possibilities of what kinds of questions we can apply the science of computation to are endless. That's what brought me to New Mexico, which has a rich history from the pioneering days of computation; it is where many fundamental questions about computation are being answered today. I'm now an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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Hacker

March 2010

Cyber Attacks: First Google Then You?

Neale Pickett, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Corbin couldn't understand why everybody snickered as he walked to third period Geography. He was pretty sure it wasn't anything he was wearing: he'd checked his fly (zipped), hair (spiked), and jacket (no signs taped on it). And anyway, nobody seemed to care much during first or second period. What was going on?

Walking into the classroom full of whispers and giggles, his friend Beto shot him a worried glance. "Dude." Beto handed Corbin his phone, showing Corbin's Facebook photos page. On it were some scans of papers, but he hadn't uploaded any scans. He opened one of them, and his heart sank as he read the details of his trip to the doctor last week. He'd told everyone he had the flu, but didn't think it was necessary to mention the explosive diarrhea. But here it was, in the doctor's report, on his Facebook page. 280 people liked this.

Myspace, Google, Twitter, Exxon-Mobil, VISA: all of these companies have had computer security incidents recently. Yes, even LANL and Sandia. As more and more details of our lives move onto computers, computer security becomes increasingly important. Cybersecurity is one of the only professions that has continued to grow through the recession, partially because of public situations like Corbin's doctor's office network being hacked and his Facebook password getting stolen.

This presentation will put you in the role of computer hacker or defender. You'll break encryption codes, hack web applications, and program tanks to blow each other up, and it will all be legal! In learning these skills, you'll start to get an idea about what computer security is all about: what sorts of attacks happen on the Internet and how to prevent them; how easy it can be to break things; and why "security through obscurity"--like typing a letter using wingdings--isn't enough.


About the Presenter

Pickett

I've been interested in computer security ever since my dad spent a week piecing back together a deleted file on my mom's computer. If deleted files are still around, what other ideas did I have about computers that weren't right?

I ran an Albuquerque BBS (like a web forum, but before the Internet) called "Andra" in high school, and picked out my hacker name: zephyr. I was involved in some minor tinkering around with very early networks as zephyr, and worked with a friend to set up a system that would allow people in Albuquerque to send messages all over the world with just a computer and a modem. That same friend and I, with two other people from our high school, won the first Supercomputing Challenge, run by LANL and Sandia.

In college I learned about PGP encryption, how to send emails anonymously on the Internet, and got involved with online protests against the "Communications Decency Act"--a law which would have made it a crime to provide Internet access to a 19-year-old sending an email to his 16-year-old girlfriend.

After school I worked briefly for LANL, and left just before Wen Ho Lee and the Case of the Missing Hard Drives. I moved to Seattle and worked as the chief architect for FreeInternet.com, which was briefly the second-largest Internet provider in the USA. I then went to Watchguard Technologies, and wrote firewall software for medium-sized companies.

While in Seattle I became involved with a worldwide cryptography and anonymity organization called the "cypherpunks". I organized two protest marches against the illegal jailing of a Russian computer hacker named "Dmitry Sklyarov", who was later released and allowed to go back home to his wife and son.

When I came back to LANL in 2005, my experience made me a good candidate to deal with network computer security. I now run the white hat (good guy hacker) site dirtbags.net, and run Capture The Flag contests around the country to train computer security professionals.

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Brain

February 2010

Diseases of the Brain

Stephen Lewis, University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Presenter Essay and Bio

Everything you experience depends on the functions of your brain. This includes obvious things like vision, movement, and conscious decision making. People are generally aware of when these mental activities occur, and are comfortable thinking that their brain controls these activities. However, less obvious functions, like motivation, will-power, humor, love, pleasure, and sadness, these also all depend on the functions of the brain. It’s sometimes harder for people to accept that the parts of behavior that just seem to be part of who you are depend on an organ of the body.

We know that brain function is tied to everything we think and feel because, unfortunately, people get their brains injured all the time. Following significant head injuries there are frequently changes in the way people think and behave. Further, in those cases when we can figure out what part of the brain was injured, and we see how someone’s behavior changes, we can start to attribute a brain function to that injured part of the brain. So, for example, because people who had injuries to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain had disrupted vision or blindness, we learned that the occipital lobe has a role in visual perception. There are similar examples for injuries that predictably lead to problems in speech, or problems in complex reasoning, and from these patterns of injuries and lost function we discovered areas of the brain necessary for speech and complex reasoning. But what about more complicated functions – things like wanting to socialize with other people or keeping your mood up – are these products of brain function?

There are people who experience changes in mood or socializing after brain injuries, but the patterns aren’t as reliable as with injuries that affect speech or vision. This has been a clue that complicated behaviors—like how your mood reacts to stress; getting happy, depressed, or frightened around other people; or how good you are at focusing when the rewards for your work are far in the future—are associated with patterns of brain activity spread over larger areas of the brain. At one time, we weren’t sure we’d ever be able to make sense of these large and complicated patterns of brain activity. But over the last 25 years we’ve developed tools that have helped us start to understand what goes wrong in people’s brains, leading to mental illness.

If we’re looking for the relationship between brain function and behavior, we need to have really precise descriptions of how people feel and behave. Our best descriptions of behaviors are often descriptions of mental illness, in the form of rating scales. The creation of precise and valid rating scales has given us the information we need to relate changes in brain function to changes in behavior.

This presentation will start with an overall description of the brain, focusing primarily on the cortex, because that’s where most brain activity is found. We’ll focus a little more on the parts of the brain that tend to get ignored because their functions are broader and harder to describe in short outlines. We’ll then review some particular mental illnesses, and show how they are different from the moods and feelings we all share. Finally, we’ll see how brain activity in most people is different from brain activity in people who are experiencing mental illnesses.

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [1.8 Mb].


About the Presenter

Lewis

I don’t really come from a background filled with scientists or engineers or doctors. My relatives were mostly businessmen and artists, but just about everyone in my family was an outdoors person. They all liked natural history and the idea that if you were a careful enough observer of the natural world, you could decipher how the world works. I myself wasn’t really an outdoors person, however, and preferred playing football in the park or reading. I complained as much as I could get away with when I had to go camping or fishing or hiking. Still, somehow it filtered in that observation and deduction could tell you how things work, and the idea must have stuck.

I started school at the University of New Mexico in studio art. I loved wielding big chunks of steel together in my sculpture classes, but I realized I didn’t love it enough to do it for the rest of my life. My problem with art was that there was never any certainty, and if I was going to spend all my time and energy on a problem, I wanted to at least have the chance of finding a right or wrong answer. Based on my exposure to natural history, I moved into biology. The basic experiments that you start with in biology classes are—let’s face it—not all that exciting, but I realized that I enjoyed scholarship, the process of knowing a subject deeply and trying to use what is already known to come to new conclusions. As I got more and more involved in biology, I got interested in how the anatomy of a little wild mouse, the grasshopper mouse, allowed it to be a ferocious carnivore, when externally it didn’t look all that different from every other kind of little wild mouse.

Doing my research into anatomic specializations of this mouse, I quickly went through all the anatomy and physiology classes that were offered in the Biology Department at UNM. I started taking courses with the medical students, and had my second big realization. I realized that you could specialize in a really esoteric facet of science, or you could try and integrate what interested you with the work of lots of other experts and look at bigger questions. Medical schools do this all the time, with groups of people asking questions that might for example focus on cellular metabolism in the brain, but also on the impact of illegal drugs on modulating that metabolism. From this introduction to medicine it was a quick slide into medical school, and then into psychiatry and neuroanatomy.

In the end, I ended up in a very specialized field of research, where we examine the responses of parts of the brain to visual perception of facial expressions. But we try to relate this to a much bigger question, about how people with some mental illnesses don’t seem to relate well to other people and about how you might find ways to help the mentally ill get along better in society. It’s the most creative thing I’ve ever done – far more creative than anything I did as an art student – and it’s about as much fun as you can have and get paid for it.

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Synapses

February 2010

Synapses: The Brain’s Tiny Communication Centers

Don Partridge and Kevin Caldwell, University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Presenters' Essay and Bios

Schizophrenia, ADHD, depression, addiction, recreational drugs – what do all of these have in common? It turns out that they are all involved with the chemicals that the brain uses to transmit information. The place where these chemicals are made and have their effects is a tiny structure called a synapse. In the century since synapses were first described, the study of these amazingly complicated microscopic structures have become central to understanding how the brain works. Although each nerve cell in the brain is a separate entity, two adjacent nerve cells approach each other so closely at a synapse that a moderate sized protein molecule would span the gap. Not only are synapses small, but they are numerous – so much so that a small piece of brain the size of a rice grain would contain 10 billion of them.

So, synapses are small and they are numerous, but why have so many neuroscientists – many earning Nobel Prizes for their efforts - devoted their careers to studying them? There are probably as many answers to this question as there neuroscientists, but we will concentrate on three special and fascinating features of these tiny structures.

First, the obligatory mode of communication within a single nerve cell is electrical. Like radio broadcasts, nerve cells change both the amplitude (AM) and the frequency (FM) of their electrical signals, but when it comes to the synapse suddenly these electrical signals are converted to chemical signals. In general, it is difficult to interfere with the electrical signals of nerve cells, but there are many ways to affect the chemical signals at synapses. Much of the pharmaceutical industry (both legal and illegal) is focused on modifying the chemical signals at synapses.

Second, many synapses are highly adapted to being able to change their chemical signaling in response to their past history. This property is especially interesting because it is thought to be the basis of those most important functions of the brain, learning and memory. As you read this, synapses throughout your brain are being modified as some become more effective and others less effective. Your brain will never be the same again!

Third, the operation of synapses can go awry, either because of some genetic error or because of some insult to the brain. This can lead to such diseases as schizophrenia, ADHD and depression and it is the basis of drug addictions. Better understanding how synapses work will help scientists to understand what has gone wrong in these diseases and hopefully then to devise better treatments.

Our discussion will focus on some of what we know about how synapses work and why they’ve been so intriguing to neuroscience researchers. First we’ll look at the input side of the synapse and how it receives an electrical signal and converts it to a chemical signal. Next we’ll discuss the chemicals used for this signaling and will use some familiar names – like adrenaline and dopamine – and some less familiar names – like GABA. Then we’ll address the problem of how the chemical signal is converted back to an electrical signal that either excites or inhibits the nerve cell on the output side of the synapse.

Once we have a bit of an understanding of how these little structures work, we’ll take a look at human brains to see where these synapses are located and how they’re used to communicate important information between different brain areas. Finally, we’ll tackle some of the important problems that neuroscientists study, such as the basis of learning and memory and diseases of the brain, such as depression, ADHD, or schizophrenia.


About the Presenters

Don Partridge

Partridge

The most important scientific discovery that I ever made was when I was in about 5th grade. I guessed that light is reflected at the same angle that it strikes a mirror and I distinctly remember testing this theory with a mirror and flashlight in basement of our house in Ann Arbor. Never mind that Ptolemy had described this phenomenon 2000 years earlier; asking a question of nature and getting a clear answer in response was an exciting experience.

I was lucky to have a father who was a scientist, so hanging around a research laboratory was pretty commonplace for me, and I remember thinking how unfair it was that my father spent all day playing in the lab while I had to sit in school. High school science labs were the usual “cookbook” exercises, but I still enjoyed the experience of making measurements and drawing conclusions from the data, even though I was pretty sure what the conclusions would be. My biology teacher did let me do one real experiment. I had gotten some vitamin E deficient rat chow from some project at Yale and I raised a cage of rats on that diet and another on normal rat chow. I had a key to a room in the basement of the high school and went down there each day to feed and weigh the rats (and to clean out the cages). I don’t actually recall the conclusions I drew from the project, but do remember the adventure of doing an experiment where I didn’t know what the results would be before collecting the data.

By the time I graduated from high school, we’d moved from Connecticut to rural town in Tennessee, and when I thought about applying to MIT the principal told me in no uncertain terms that I’d never get in. He either didn’t have very high aspirations for his students or was using some clever psychology, but I did apply and was accepted. The next four years were sometimes frustrating, sometimes exciting, but never dull. The real thrill for me came when I did a summer project in the biology department on the visual system, and was able to ask some questions that had never been asked before. As they accumulated in my lab book, the answers to these questions were a challenge to understand, but by the time we published our findings in the journal Vision Research, I was definitely hooked on research.

I chose the University of Washington over Harvard for grad school, partly to experience living in a different part of the country, and I have never regretted the choice. My dissertation research on the electrical properties of neurons was as challenging and exciting as was climbing on the glaciers of the Cascades. After defending my dissertation, I was fortunate to be able to continue along similar lines of research, first at the University of Bristol in England and then at Friday Harbor Marine Labs. It was at the latter where I had the unique experience of looking up from measuring action potentials on an oscilloscope screen to see a pod of killer whales swim into the harbor just outside the lab window.

Moving to New Mexico from an isolated island in Puget Sound took some immediate adjustment, but after more than 30 years here I’d have a hard time living anywhere else. Aside from developing an addiction to green chiles, I’ve been lucky to have had a career that allowed me to ask interesting questions, play with cool equipment to test the questions, and then see whether I could figure out what the data were trying to tell me. The excitement that I felt as a kid with a flashlight and a mirror in the basement still draws me to the lab each day.

Kevin K. Caldwell

Caldwell

As a child, I loved popcorn. This was long before microwaves, so popcorn had to be cooked on the stove. My parents would allow me to stand on a chair and pop the popcorn. I think that this was probably the start of my love for chemistry: heat + kernels of popcorn yield popped popcorn! When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my parents bought me a chemistry set. I don’t recall if I asked for it or whether they just bought it for me. I didn’t always follow the directions, and would sometimes mix different chemicals just to see what happened. Fortunately, there weren’t any dangerous chemicals in the set and I survived these early experiments without any scars.

In high school, one of my favorite classes was chemistry. I didn’t really like biology because we had to learn about plants. Plants bored me. Now, I like to garden and I’m fascinated by plants, but not then. In high school I also really liked math and to play the alto saxophone. I attended college at the University of Kansas. When I started college, I thought that I wanted to be a chemical or petroleum engineer. But in my freshman year, I enrolled in college calculus, and by the end of the year, I decided that I had taken enough math courses for one lifetime! I started to look for another career. I continued to take chemistry classes (organic chemistry was probably the hardest class that I ever took!) and discovered biochemistry, the chemistry of biological systems. Financial concerns started to weigh on me and I needed to identify a career quickly. My father was a pharmacist, so I decided to apply for pharmacy school, thinking that maybe I could work in his store. Fortunately, I was accepted to pharmacy school; unfortunately, my father lost his business because grocery stores and large chains could sell to their customers for cheaper that he could buy the medications. But then in pharmacy school, I realized that I really was not interested in being a pharmacist anyway. One of my favorite classes was pharmacology, the study of how the body interacts with drugs. One day after class, I approached the professor (Dr. Richard Tessel) and asked him if I could schedule an appointment to talk to him about working in his lab. Though that was over 30 years ago, I still remember when I first walked into his lab and then into his office. Dr. Tessel’s laboratory studied drug abuse. I really liked the work and the people that I met there. I decided that I should pursue a career in research, and applied to graduate school. Dr. Tessel helped me to identify pharmacology programs. I started graduate school at the University of Missouri, but transferred to the University of Colorado after one year.

My graduate work was on how information is transferred from the outside of a cell to the inside, an area of research termed “signal transduction.” It combined my interests in biochemistry and pharmacology. Two professors were very important mentors, Dr. Adron Harris and Dr. Dermot Cooper. After graduate school, I got a position as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, in the laboratory of Dr. Philip Majerus. Here I got a greater depth of training in signal transduction.

I moved to New Mexico in 1993. Since that time I have continued to be fascinated by research. My current research focuses on signal transduction mechanisms underlying learning and memory. I have developed a great interest in teaching, and realize how important dedicated teachers are to their students.

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Marrow

January 2010

The Secrets Held Within A Bone

Amy Wyman and others, New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner

Presenters' Essay and Bio

It is a late Fall afternoon and two hikers are enjoying a brisk walk in the mountains. They are miles from the nearest the town and miles from the nearest person. They go around a curve in the trail when suddenly they stumble across human remains. Who is this person? How did they get here? How did they die?

These are a few of the questions that forensic investigators are faced with, and the body has numerous clues that help answer these questions. By using forensic tools and mathematical equations, we can determine the sex, age and race of an individual. We can also identify trauma and natural diseases by examining the condition of the bones. With a group of Forensic Anthropologists and Scene Investigators from the Office of the Medical Investigator, we will learn about skeletal remains and examine several cases.


About the Presenter

Wendy Potter

Potter

I was inspired to become an archaeologist by a bunch of anthropology books my mom had laying around from college and (of course) the glorified portrayal of archaeology in the Indiana Jones movies (yes, I even bought a hat like his). I was always interested in old things, which was fueled by articles in National Geographic, books on Egyptian mummies, and a family trip to the southwest when I was in middle school (Mesa Verde was the place that convinced me I'd be a southwestern archaeologist).

I went off to college with the goal of becoming an archaeologist, and after my first two semesters of classes, I took a summer field school in archaeology. There I realized that despite the discovery of whole black-on-white pots that were hundreds of years old, my interest was piqued when someone uncovered a fragment of a human upper jaw bone. At that point, I realized I was in the wrong subfield of anthropology. I returned to classes that fall with a focus on human osteology and stumbled upon a class in forensic anthropology. After that I was hooked and continued to study forensic anthropology in both academic and practical settings. (And I never did give up fully on the archaeology...I spent two field seasons excavating a cemetery in Egypt!)

I do what I do because I have the chance to take all that I've learned and apply it to problems that really matter to people. In a medico-legal setting, the impact of assessing the profile of a set of remains, as well as interpreting any trauma or pathology present, lies in the eventual identification of an individual and providing closure to families regarding what happened to their loved one. To me, this is more important to the general public than performing the same task for skeletons at an archaeological site that they've never heard of (though this would be of interest to me and the academic community).

In forensic anthropology, I have the chance to make a real difference in the lives of people, at particularly difficult time for them. This endeavor has proved to be very rewarding for me, even though most often my role in death investigation (contributing a piece of the puzzle) is not apparent to those outside of the medical investigator's office.

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CSI

January 2010

The Truth Behind CSI

Cynnamon Jones, Santa Fe Police Department

Presenter Essay and Bio

CSI. Crime Scene Investigation. The glitz, the glam. Solving cases in an hour. Driving a Hummer and processing crime scenes in high heels…um, well, not quite. If your belief in the forensic world revolves around those images and ideals, and you don’t want those images/ideals to change, please stop reading now. Unfortunately, Hollywood has greatly exaggerated the forensic science field. It has portrayed crime scene investigators as super human employees with endless abilities to process, analyze, interview, arrest and solve crimes all at the same time and all in the same day. In reality most crime scene investigators hold a small, but nonetheless very important, piece to a larger puzzle of the process called investigation. To name just a few of the differences between the television portrayal and real life crime scene investigation: we don’t process everything at the same time; we don’t work at a scene and in the laboratory; and we don’t interview and/or arrest persons involved in the incident.

Crime scene investigation involves a number of individuals working together to provide equal justice to both the victim(s) and the suspect(s). There are many branches in the forensic field that come together to solve crimes. Forensic pathology, toxicology, criminal investigations, latent fingerprint analysis, etc. are a few of the forensic branches that each provide a piece to the larger puzzle. Our job as crime scene investigators is to gather the information available at the scene; to provide the information to the case agent; and to assist in presenting the information as a finished puzzle to the judge and/or jury. The entire investigation revolves around its future presentation in court.

None of us are typically at a scene when an incident takes place, so it is up to us to gather the evidence left behind for presentation in an unbiased manner. The scene and its participants (victim, suspect, and witnesses) hold valuable evidence which must be preserved through documentation. Documentation consists of more than just taking a pen and paper and writing something down. It consists of photographs, diagrams, physical evidence, trace evidence, etc.

Crime scene investigators process scenes in a systematic approach each and every time. Beginning with a walk through, where an evaluation of the scene and its participants is made, crime scene investigators plot out what items are of evidentiary value and how the scene will be processed. Crime scene investigators follow the same steps in processing (photography, diagramming, fingerprinting, and collecting) and only deviate from these steps when exigent circumstances (bad weather, suspect returns, etc.) exist. By having a systematic system of processing and by processing every scene in the same consistent manner, crime scene investigators are able to present their findings in court in an unbiased, factual manner. We are the means by which the evidence can tell its story.

Our Café Scientifique interaction will bring to life the real-world crime scene process and the science behind it.


About the Presenter

Jones

I was born and raised in the heartland of America; Lincoln, Nebraska. If you look it up on the map you’ll find that it is (almost) smack dab in the middle of the United States. Growing up I had wanted to be an emergency room surgeon. The gore, the excitement, and the challenges in saving lives held fascinating wonders to me.

But those wonders would all remain unattainable pieces of my hopes and dreams. On October 28, 1988, at the age of 16, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. My hopes and dreams were lost in that moment. I vaguely remember sitting in the doctor’s oversized chair as he explained to my parents the demise of the rest of my days, or so it seemed at the time. My world as I had imagined it was over before it had begun.

Through months and months of agonizing, painful, and depressing bouts of trying to live with this new chronic disease, I found myself wondering about God and what all of us were doing here. In the years that followed, I began to see the world as a privilege and not something to be taken for granted. What was God’s purpose for us? What were we supposed to be doing? I never wanted to waste a single day. If I was unable to follow the path to becoming a doctor, what path would I need to find and follow?

I worked a number of different jobs trying to find that path: fast food employee, FDA auditor for a blood bank, registrar at a museum, assistant to the director at an art gallery, and numerous temporary jobs. What I found to be consistent in all of my jobs were my interactions with people. I saw that it didn’t matter what job I held, one thing was constant – they all brought encounters with different types of people. I started seeing employment as an opportunity for interaction with others and how those interactions could make each of us a better human being.

It was in the fall of 2002 that the topic of forensic science came up in a conversation. At the time the CSI craze had not yet inundated the television shows. I searched the internet and discovered that the University of Nebraska-Wesleyan was one of thirteen schools offering a masters in forensic science. Upon being accepted into the program, I realized that the forensic science field held the same passionate interests that I had had for the medical field. I had found another world where the gore, the excitement and the challenges of saving lives also existed, albeit in a slightly skewed way. The forensic field opened a whole new chapter in my life. It is a whole new way of viewing people and society. You develop an ability to see the world from those struggling to survive in it, observe ways in which people cope, and create an environment in which true team work is what it is all about.

Each encounter with another person has opened up another opportunity and another path. Where do the paths lead? I don’t know, but I am open and ready for the next chapters—as each of us should be when we are faced with changes and challenges. Experiences builds us stronger, wiser, and more adept at facing and conquering what lies ahead. Life is amazingly short and precious and none of us should wait until we are on our death beds to figure that out.

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Holograms

November 2009

Hologram: See the Light

Fred Unterseher and Rebecca Deem, Holographic Artists, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Presenters' Essay and Bios

We have gotten used to holograms, since they are used in books and movies, and they can be found in your very own pocket if you carry a charge card. But the magic of the hologram continues to convey wonder and even mystery.

This Café Scientifique presentation is about how light, lasers, and the hologram come together to give us a better understanding of the way we experience the world, especially visually. We will go through a series of explanations that are intended to develop an understanding of the nature of light, the way light interacts with objects, vision with one eye and in stereo, and the differences between photography and holography. There will be a series of hands-on experiences that directly involve the use of different lights, lasers, optics, diffraction gratings, and more. By examining the nature of light and the process of visual perception with many of our innate perceptual illusions, we may end up questioning if we see objects at all.

With a more integrated sense of what takes place as we see and experience the world, we will get a better understanding of holography itself. In closing we will see some digital holograms and discuss some of the ways holograms can be used for both optical elements as optics or digital hardcopy, integrating computation and computer graphics.

If you think that some of the numerous holo-gadgets on YouTube or that the CNN broadcast during the recent presidential election are the real thing, then think again, because they are a far cry from holograms. So join us for an evening that may open your eyes to holography. Holograms are not just 3-D images onstickers and toothpaste packaging; they have a wide range of applications these days, such as:

  • Holographic computer memory storage system
  • Holographic microfiche for high density information storage
  • Holograms as "circuit elements" for optical computers
  • Erasable holograms for routine real-time non-destructive testing and inspection
  • Biomedical holograms are made inside live organs through optical fibers
  • Holographic optical elements (HOE) used as: lenses, mirrors, gratings, e.g.:
    • HOE bi-focal contact lenses
    • CD players use holograms
    • UPC Grocery store scanners use spinning holograms
    • High resolution spectrometers use holographic gratings
  • Holographic interferometry in non-destructive testing that reveals structural faults
  • Anti-counterfeiting holograms on credit cards (some are erasable)
  • Banknotes – the Austrian 5000 Shilling is printed with a golden hologram of Mozart
  • Head-up display (HUD) holographic windshields installed in military aircraft

In this Cafe, you will have the hands-on opportunity to explore the characteristics of basic holograms and diffraction gratings and observe the interaction of lasers and holograms. For more information on holography and the associated science of photonics, electro-optics, lasers, and careers, please see http://spie.org/x22931.xml.

Another source of information on holographic optical storage and digital holography is the National Science Foundation Project on Advanced Technological Education in Information Technology at IEEE Computer Society CS Library: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/doi/10.1109/ITCC.2003.1197491.


About the Presenters

Unterseher
Unterseher

We have more than thirty years experience teaching, researching, and developing special projects in holography. Fred is the originator and co-author of The Holography Handbook, a Kodak award winning publication. We have shown our art work in museums and galleries worldwide.

We met in New York City while Fred was Director of Education at the Museum of Holography (MOH). There he directed the Artist-In-Residency Program, edited the museum publication “holosphere,” and traveled throughout the east coast and Europe. He was the MOH liaison for the first article about holography in National Geographic Magazine. Rebecca was a contributor to holosphere, and was among the initial group of artists to receive an Artist-In-Residence grant at the Museum of Holography, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

We spent several years in Germany developing a pulse ruby laser system that allows the recording of holograms of live subjects. We went on to produce one of the first reduced pulse portrait holograms published as an embossed printed hologram on the inaugural issue of GEO Wissen Magazine. We conducted an unofficial artist-in-residence program using the pulse ruby laser system. While we were in Hamburg, German, we traveled and consulted in England, France, Italy and Denmark.

After returning to the U.S., we became members of the Advanced Imaging group in the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). We later moved to Los Angeles and co-founded Zone Holografix, a consulting and educational facility. Fred taught Holography at Pasadena City College and Contemporary Imaging Systems and Optical Systems in the graduate program at Brooks Institute of Photography. Rebecca was a staff writer for Holography News, an industry publication. While at Brooks, we were team members for the first holographic portrait of a President, Ronald Reagan, now in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. We both received the Shearwater Foundation Holography Award for our “exemplary careers.”

Fred was the chairperson for the first Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Art & Culture Meeting at the Practical Holography Sessions. Rebecca was an Editorial Board member for the SPIE Technical Working Group publication “HOLOGRAPHY,” and participated as an SPIE holography grant administrator and juror for emerging artists in the field.

Both of us have worked as educators and consultants for holographic technical applications. Prior to moving to Santa Fe, NM, we both taught in the public school system of Columbia, MO, while Fred was an educator in the Photonics Laser Technology Program at the Columbia Area Career Center. Since relocating to Santa Fe, our most recent projects entail 3-D imaging systems involving a holographic auto stereographic screen allowing depth perception (three dimensional vision) to be used with the remote operation of a robot. Our other involvements include photovoltaic solar projects and holography workshops.

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Liquids

September 2009

What’s in That Bottle? Imaging Liquids at Airports

Michelle Espy, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

In August of 2006, an alleged terrorist plot was thwarted in London. The aim was to detonate liquid explosives carried aboard several airliners traveling from the UK to the US and Canada. The alleged plot was discovered by the police before it could be carried out, and as a result unprecedented security measures were immediately put in place. This sudden imposition caused chaos and delayed flights for days. Although the initial measures were somewhat relaxed in the following weeks, the ability of passengers to carry liquids onto commercial aircraft is still limited.

After two trials and the largest counterterrorism investigation in Britain’s history, three men were found guilty in September of 2009, and given sentences for life in prison. The bombers’ plan to drain plastic soft-drink bottles with syringes and refill them with concentrated hydrogen peroxide, a bleaching agent also used as a propellant for rockets, led to the new measures prohibiting passengers from carrying all but small quantities of liquids and creams onto flights. Prosecutors said the plot could have killed at least 1,500 people aboard the targeted planes, which by that measure would have made it second only to the September 11, 2001, attacks as the most serious terrorist plot in modern history.

The reason for the restrictions on the volume of liquids one can carry aboard aircraft, in the wake of this plot’s discovery, is that there simply is presently no high through-put (fast) and non-contact way to understand the chemical composition of liquids inside bottles. X-ray technology does not assess chemical composition, and other techniques measuring light scattering, electrical properties, mass spectrometry, and fluorescence are all restricted to single bottles and/or may require a physical sample to be present outside the bottle. And so the traveling public must place all liquid items into small (less than 100 ml) bottles contained in one clear quart sized zip-loc baggie.

The story we present here is the tale of the three years since that plot’s discovery, and our efforts to convert a technology primarily used for imaging of the human brain (ultra-low field magnetic resonance imaging, or ULF-MRI) into something that can detect liquid explosives in an airport. Our scientific premise is that the ability to detect chemical differences between brain tissue in the MRI might be the same sensitivity required to detect the difference between a benign soft-drink and an explosive liquid. In this Cafe, we discuss the technology of ultra-low field and conventional MRI, applications to imaging brains and bombs, and the adventures of a group of researchers trying to survive the tensions between pure science and the needs of the Department of Homeland Security.


About the Presenter

Espy

My decision in high school to become a physicist was, a first, based on sheer orneriness. No one in my family or inner circle was a scientist, and it appeared to be challenging. No one around me had claimed the niche, or would have a clue what I was up to! But in college it was clear that it was really hard, and the only reason one would stick with it was because it intrigued. Really, to me there is nothing more amazing than the fact that one could actually predict and understand the natural world at some level. And if appropriately applied, such understanding could actually make the world better. So it went from orneriness to genuine passion. I went off to graduate school and studied nuclear physics. What could be better than understanding how everything was made up of things invisible, forces that you never directly interact with, yet keep you from flying apart? If someone was willing to pay me to learn about it, even better.

By the time I reached Los Alamos, I had met the love of my life (my husband, not nuclear physics) and it was time to get a job. I happened to get pointed toward a small group that was working on ultra-sensitive detection of the weak magnetic fields coming from the human brain. It wasn’t nuclear physics, but one couldn’t argue that the problem wasn’t compelling. How do our brains work? How small a magnetic field can we measure and what can we learn? And so I moved from nuclear physics to SQUIDs. The SQUID is the superconducting quantum interference device, arguably the most sensitive detector of magnetic fields that there is. We have built systems and measured from systems ranging from brains to bombs. Recently we have focused on trying to use the tiny magnetic fields (no larger the weak magnetic field of the Earth) to look at what is inside such things, by a process called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

More recently I have been called upon to lead the team that I joined as a post-doc some dozen years ago. It has been a hard move to go from being in the lab doing the experiments to being the one that has to raise the money and write the reports. But still, my team is amazing and what we can measure is astounding. I feel pretty lucky to get to see where we can go next with this incredible technology.

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Google Earth

September 2009

Sleuthing with Images in Google Earth

Frank Pabian, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

We all have heard about the big, top secret—and very expensive!—spy satellites that some claim can read a license plate in Red Square. But it turns out that a lot of very useful information about what our potential adversaries are up to can be obtained from a source that is freely available to the public: Google Earth, a product created by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This Café Scientifique presentation is about how we can use “geospatial” tools like Google Earth for sleuthing for important information-gathering applications, such as national security, treaty verification, law enforcement, homeland security, environmental monitoring, emergency response, disaster relief or even sightseeing anywhere on Earth.

“Virtual globes” like Google Earth make it possible to zoom in on any suspected facilities and activities, particularly once there is independent information from ground level that something unusual is going on that might be of interest. Such information might appear on the Internet in blogs or wikis. It might come in through social networking sites like Twitter. It might take the form of input from knowledgeable local citizens, such as ground photos and maps taken by locals, hobbyists, and tourists of the surrounding locales. These can be useful in identifying facilities and their infrastructures, and understanding their purpose. This information then makes it possible to develop a much more detailed ground-view picture of the facilities through the use of software like Google’s Street ViewTM and Micorosoft’s Bing Maps 3D, Bird’s Eye, and PhotsynthTM in conjunction with the basic Google Earth capability.

The virtual globes also provide highly accurate mapping of the topography of an area, and allow detailed 3-D perspective views of all sites of interest. 3-D modeling software (i.e., Google’s SketchUp6), when used in conjunction with these virtual globes, can significantly enhance individual building details and even visualize interiors. This allows one to virtually “fly around” a facility, observing it in great three-dimensional detail. One can then make assessments to better inform decision-making. The new geospatial tools provide vastly more information than previously-used 2-dimensional maps and line drawings.

The down-side of this increasing global transparency is that those who want to keep clandestine facilities and associated activities from being detected, identified, or monitored are becoming more adept in their use of camouflage, concealment, and deception. Moreover, these tools can also be a “double-edged sword.” They have already been used for nefarious purposes, including terrorist planning and attack. Finally, we must always keep in mind the expression “all that glitters is not gold” when using these tools, as there is the ever-present threat from erroneous data and/or deliberate spoofing.

Nonetheless, these new geospatial visualization aids are ideal for a variety of reconnaissance assessment purposes including: detection, identification, site characterization, navigation, monitoring, and verification. Amazingly, these new geospatial tools also now make it possible for anyone to conduct his or her own remote satellite-based reconnaissance (aka: “armchair sleuthing”) for any application from the comfort of home, or from a WI-FI enabled coffee shop, or even while on the beach at some tropical island resort.

In this Café, participants will have the hands-on opportunity to test their imagery analysis skills using the new geospatial tools, with some fun quizzes created by the Australian Government’s Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organization (DIGO, http://www.defence.gov.au/digo/) and here in Los Alamos. Café participants can try their hand at “sleuthing” with Google Earth by examining a mysterious facility under construction near Shiraz, Iran. Is it a facility for developing nuclear weapons...or not?

For more information on geospatial intelligence and the associated science and careers, please see https://www1.nga.mil/kids/Pages/default.aspx.


About the Presenter

Pabian

I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a typical middle class neighborhood (not far from a friend and neighbor named Billy Joel). My formative years were spent flying with my father, a Captain for American Airlines. My Dad would take me flying in an antique aircraft that he had rebuilt, and he would always assign me two jobs: 1) look out for other planes and 2) be the navigator. I spent a lot of time looking at the ground from the air, comparing the view with maps, and thinking in 3 dimensions. I also gained a unique appreciation of clouds from that lofty perspective and how they form, as well as the effects weather processes can have on aircraft operations. I built my own weather instruments (anemometer and wind vane) and monitored and recorded the daily changes with them. I spent one high school summer working in the tower at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) as a student meteorologist. When flying, I became fascinated by the landforms that I could see from the air, including the glacial deposits that created Long Island where I lived. I developed a life-long curiosity about the Earth, its history, and the physical processes that have transformed it, both natural and technological. I decided I wanted the ability to monitor those changes through remote sensing means, particularly from space.

So I went to college at the University of California-Berkeley and studied Physical Geology and Geomorphology, with a minor in Remote Sensing. One of my professors, Dr. Robert Colwell, opened my eyes to a whole new world of the art and science of deriving valuable information from overhead imagery. Although I was accepted to graduate school in geology at UC, I decided to take a different tack in life. I applied to the Office of Imagery Analysis, where I began my career. This was at the height of the “Cold War,” and the role of satellite reconnaissance was then very highly classified. It was a perfect fit for me. After learning all about the nuclear fuel cycle, I began to work on the task of tracking foreign nuclear fuel cycle activities. For six years, I was looking for everything from evidence of mining and concentrating uranium to nuclear weapons development, testing, and production.

But I missed California, and when the opportunity to do similar work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory became available, I jumped at it. For the next 18 years, I tracked nuclear activities in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. I received a gold medal from the Director of the CIA for helping the U.S. Government and the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its safeguards inspections and verification. I served as a nuclear Chief Inspector for the IAEA during inspections in Iraq from 1996-1998 and again in 2002. I moved to Los Alamos ten years ago, and have been active in promoting the use of commercial satellite imagery for briefings on foreign clandestine nuclear facilities to the International Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and various Foreign Ministries around the globe on behalf of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. State Department.

Science is about solving puzzles and mysteries and answering the questions: what, where, when, how, and why? With the new geospatial tools like Google Earth, it is now possible for anyone to arrive at some of those answers as they apply to international security in ways that were previously only possible within the cloaked depths of the U.S. intelligence community.

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Seismogram

September 2009

We Know Where You Are and What You Are Doing: Adventures in Forensic Seismology

Terry Wallace, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

A foot fall in the Sonoran desert, waves crashing on a beach 700 kilometers away, strong winds swaying clock towers and sky scrapers, trucks bouncing down a dirt road, an explosion 5000 kilometers away… What do these have in common? Each can be detected by measuring the energy they transfer as sound waves into the solid Earth. One can locate smugglers, predict weather, and deduce who is playing with bombs by using these sound or seismic waves. Sensitive instruments called seismometers can pick up these forms of Earth “noise”. Most seismologists, scientists who use the data from seismometers to understand the origin of these vibrations, focus on earthquakes. But, a growing number now focus on monitoring and documenting human behavior and human caused events, a field called forensic “seismology.”

Forensic seismology got its start in studying seismic signals for indications of nuclear testing by other nations. More recently, forensic seismology has been used to unravel the mysteries of plane crashes, pipeline bursts, and the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995. The controlled demolition of a Seattle stadium was studied through its seismographic records. And the bombing and collapse of New York's World Trade Center in 2001 appeared on seismograms, too.

In this presentation, we will unravel two whodunit stories to show how sound waves and a bit of ground work can reveal the details of disasters with no survivors to tell the story.

On 12 August 2000, the Russian Oscar II class submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 sailors and officers aboard. While the Russian authorities were denying the tragedy, vibrations from the event were picked up by seismometers. Seismic stations recorded two explosions that corresponded to the Kursk disaster in time and place. At one point, the Russians suggested that a spying American submarine may have been the cause of the explosions, setting off international worry about what these superpowers might do. Here’s what they discovered: The first explosion was 250 times smaller than the second one, and the second seismic signal came 135 seconds later. With these clues and a bit of detective work, it was possible for seismologists to construct a detailed scenario for what happened aboard the submarine, to provide families with a clearer picture of what happened to their loved ones, and to extinguish a potential international tiff.

On 19 August 2000, a natural gas pipeline exploded in southeastern New Mexico near the Pecos River. A hole over 20 meters deep and 80 meters long formed due to the explosion. Eleven people camping nearby died. The seismic data show three distinct events: the initial blowout and two subsequent ignitions. It also shows how long the campers had to react between the initial blowout and the primary ignition and how long the explosion lasted. What caused the explosion? Why were there two ignitions separated in time? Could this have been prevented?

We will explore these disasters and the power of forensic seismology in monitoring motion in far-away places in this interactive Café.

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [5 Mb].


About the Presenter

Wallace

I grew up in Los Alamos, and some of my earliest memories were of my father taking me out camping and exploring mines looking for minerals. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado hold hundreds of wonderful places to find minerals. I felt certain I wanted a career that would let me explore even more geology. However, geology was pretty boring in school in the early 1970s – lots of memorization and descriptions. I really liked physics and mathematics because there was little memorization, and there always was a “right answer.” When it came time to go to college I went to New Mexico Tech and majored in geophysics and mathematics. Frankly, it was a blast. I got a job the first day I walked on campus in Socorro taking care of the seismic stations operated by Tech to monitor earthquake activity in southeastern New Mexico. Analyzing the wiggles on the seismograms was really interesting, and it told us something about geology; the wiggles were caused by earthquakes, which are the groans of an Earth that is alive. I could just see mountains growing and valleys forming with each and every earthquake.

After getting my undergraduate degrees, I headed for the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech was the center of the universe as far as seismology was concerned – it was the home of Charles Richter, the inventor of the Richter scale. It was a perfect place to ask “why” and learn the tools of science to unravel the mysteries of geology. Every week there was a seminar about the latest earthquake, whether it be in Japan or Africa. Computers were just coming into widespread use for modeling complex natural phenomena, and I found myself in the wave of discovery. I completed my PhD by specializing in understanding the seismic signals from underground nuclear explosions. This was during the height of the Cold War, and seismology was the only way the U.S. could guess at what the Soviets and Chinese were doing in their weapons programs. It was exciting to be involved in science that made a difference to the nation.

After graduation I became a professor at the University of Arizona. I chose the UofA so I could return to a place of wonderful mountains and minerals. I worked on seismic experiments all over the world, but in particular in South America. I deployed seismograph stations and ran experiments for a decade in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. I fell in love with the Andes – truly imposing mountains that mark the tremendous geologic upheaval along the west coast of the continent.

After 20 years at the UofA I got the chance to come home to Los Alamos and become the Division Leader of Earth and Environmental sciences. It was a very different challenge to lead a large division of talented scientists rather than “doing” science myself. However, it was very rewarding to be involved in overseeing Earth sciences from hydrology to volcanology. In 2006, I became the Principal Associate Director for Science, Technology and Engineering (PADSTE) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The PADSTE is responsible for all basic science programs at LANL, and coordinates the activities of nearly 4600 scientists, technicians, and support staff. My job now includes building support for the work of LANL scientists, which means I interact with members of Congress and the Senate and many other federal agencies and laboratories. Each day brings new challenges and surprises.

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Fuels

April 2009

Fossil Fuels and Carbon Dioxide Management: Scientific and Social Challenges

Andy Wolfsberg, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

In 2006, there were 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States. They traveled 3 trillion miles and burned almost 200 billion gallons of gasoline. That’s a lot of zeros on some very large numbers and we can’t really fathom what it means. But, it surely means our appetite for transportation fuel is large. Our oil companies and law makers talk about how many millions of barrels of fuel PER DAY we need to produce… and how many millions more we need to import. We currently import about two-thirds of the crude oil necessary to satisfy our daily consumption, and most of that comes from geopolitically unstable regions -- parts of the world where it’s not so easy to assess who our friends really are.

Burning fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal - creates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, meaning it absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. Greenhouse gases are essential to maintaining the current temperature of the Earth; without them this planet would be so cold as to be uninhabitable. But, by changing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, do we impact a natural balance and cause climate change and global warming?

About half of the man-made CO2 emissions to the atmosphere in the United States come from burning oil products like gasoline. Another third comes from burning coal and the remainder comes from natural gas. So, we can basically say that half the CO2 we emit comes from driving cars and half from turning on our lights. And boy do we like to do both of those. The United States tops the list of CO2 emissions per person and accounts for one fifth of the entire world’s CO2 emissions. Per person, we emit more than twice as much CO2 as our European friends and almost five times as much as the Chinese. With their huge population, China accounts for a fifth of the entire world’s CO2 emissions and their fraction is growing. They want all of the comforts and luxuries that we have become accustomed to.

So, here’s the picture. In the US, we are producing a lot of CO2. It comes from burning fossil fuels to light our houses, power our economy, move us around – often in vehicles with a lot of empty seats, and most of our transportation fuel is imported. To top it off, we have huge resources of fossil energy here in the United States in the form of coal and oil-shales and we know how to turn them into transportation fuel. The only downside is that the process to do so is currently expensive and produces even more CO2. So, until our economy makes a huge change and we start driving electric cars charged by wind, solar, and nuclear energy, we have the fossil energy resources to keep doing just what we are doing. But, many believe we need to figure out what to do with the CO2. In fact, new laws regulate the emissions of CO2 from new fuel sources and proposed laws may regulate the emission of CO2 from power plants or place a limit on the CO2 footprint associated with industrial processes. Thus, figuring out what to do with CO2 instead of pumping it into the atmosphere has become a hot topic.

This is where the fun science comes in.

Several options for managing CO2 involve capturing it and storing it. By reacting it with other minerals, we could store it as bricks. By pumping it to a certain depth in the ocean where the temperature and pressure are just right, we might be able to store it in a wild form called clathrates, which are crystalline solids that look like ice, and which occur when water molecules form a cage-like structure around “guest” CO2 molecules. Although plenty of questions exist about how to actually store the CO2, the most prominent idea is to store it in deep geologic formations. The idea is to capture CO2 at the smoke stack of coal burning power plant, purify it, compress it and then pump it deep into the subsurface – at no small cost. This doesn’t help with the transportation fuel (yet), but gets at an accessible concentrated stream from a pretty important process that accounts for nearly half of our CO2 emissions.

Many of you have already been exposed to the idea of geologic disposal of nuclear waste. How do you feel about subsurface storage of carbon dioxide? Keep in mind, the oil we pump out of the deep subsurface has been there for millions of years, trapped below impermeable rocks. In fact, we could (and do) pump CO2 into depleted oil reservoirs; the only problem is that the oil reservoirs we have depleted are now perforated with wells, so the CO2 might leak back up. Therefore, many scientists are looking at other formations that are less well characterized (but less perforated). Pumping CO2 into deep saline aquifers is an option, but then the brackish brine that the CO2 displaced would be pumped out and need managing. Do you think super salty water would be a waste product or a possible resource?

Here are a few more questions about engineering to meet our lifestyle demands vs. re-engineering our life styles. Do you think we should manage the CO2 we produce by storage, or manage how much CO2 we produce? How much of a lifestyle change are you willing to consider to reduce your CO2 footprint? Would you rather pay a little more at the pump and on your electric bill so scientists and engineers can figure out how to dispose of CO2 waste from the fossil fuels we burn or would you consider never driving in a car if it didn’t have at least one other person in it? Could driving alone in cars eventually have the same social stigma as smoking cigarettes? Speaking of powering our cars, what if imported oil became less available? Do you think we should consider harder-to-get-to fuels such as oil shale in Colorado? It would mean building more roads and increasing the negative impact on the landscape – but we’d be more energy independent and developing the resource would create jobs. How important is energy independence for the US? If you were a policy maker, how would you determine the relative importance of energy development, economic growth, landscape degradation, and CO2 emissions to the atmosphere from any fossil fuel burning process?

Answering these questions isn’t easy for anyone, but a scientific basis for analysis and assessment helps us quantify and compare the various options. We’ll talk about some of these methods at the Café.

Learn more: Capturing Carbon: Research focus to remove greenhouse gases for cleaner air


About the Presenter

Wolfsberg

It has been my experience that life is a series of opportunities, some of which you create and some of which just come along. The trick is to make good choices once the opportunities present themselves. My first opportunity, and one for which there were no available choices, was being born in Los Alamos. Granted, by the time I was 18 years old and finished with high school, there was nothing more important than getting Los Alamos in the rear-view mirror and getting out into the real world. But once there, it became very clear what a great opportunity it had been to growing up with the opportunity to ski every weekend in the winter, backpack all summer, and live in a really great community that supported its schools and kids. However, when I was 18, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do. I figured I was supposed to be a scientist of sorts, but I had no clue what the other options were – Los Alamos is kind of heavy on scientists and light on investment bankers and artists. I did OK in high school, took a few AP classes, and got reasonable SAT scores, but I was not in the top 10% of the class.

So, when it came time to apply for college, I was influenced by one thing. I had enjoyed my high school chemistry classes. Stressing out that my entire life was going to be determined by the fact that I liked chemistry in high school, I applied to University of California because we were eligible for in state tuition in chemical engineering. Around Christmas of my senor year, I was accepted to U.C. Berkeley and was resigned to figure out what chemical engineering was some time later. We didn’t have the Internet back then, and frankly, I didn’t know how to figure out what a chemical engineer was, other than someone who works for Dow or an oil company. Then came my next opportunity. I received a small card in the mail that said “Come to the University of Arizona, Study Hydrology, Get in-state tuition.” I asked my dad – a LANL Nuclear Chemist - what Hydrology was. He told me it was mix of geology, physics, math, and chemistry focused on water-related research, with all sorts of interesting real-world problems to solve. Finally, something tangible. I could help find water resources or clean up contaminated groundwater systems. And, I could dabble in several disciplines but not have to specialize in any. This made a lot more sense than chemical engineering (though I still hadn’t done any research on what it was).

So, over Spring Break, two buddies and I piled into dad’s car and off we went to Arizona to check out the school. University of Arizona is a party school, and we were in heaven. It also had the only undergraduate curriculum in hydrology in the nation and had a department loaded with world class hydrologists. These guys literally wrote the books on the subject. When I went to visit the professors in the department, I realized that they had pioneered much of the science. They figured out how to use radioactive isotopes to age-date ground water; they figured out how to best drill wells and evaluate how much water they could produce; they figured out how to develop computer models to optimize the spacing and pumping rates of wells to supply water for a city. This seemed like cool stuff and I was hooked.

Then came my next opportunity. During my second year of college I had broken up with a girlfriend and was sort of depressed. I also needed money, so I took a job as a custodian in the student union. One day, I was pushing the broom when an upper classman in the hydrology department came up to me and said that a hydrology consulting firm in town needed some student help and there might be some field work involved. To make a long story short, two weeks later it was almost Christmas break at the university, I had taken my finals early, and I was in Wyoming working with a crack team of hydrologists and geophysicists studying if and how a pond of nasty power plant effluent was leaking to the groundwater. It was 30 degrees below zero, we were drilling through 2 feet of ice, my feet were freezing, and I was in heaven again. As irony would have it, we are now—25 years later—studying that exact same power plant as we investigate how to manage the CO2 emissions from coal burning power plants. Throughout the rest of my college years, Harold, the president of the company, took me under his wing and advised me on my academic career. Not only would he not let buy a motorcycle when I wanted one—he tattled on me to my mother—he also insisted that I go to graduate school to finish my education. He made a huge difference in my life.

With the practical experience I had gained working for Harold and the undergraduate background from U of A, I was actually quite marketable to big name graduate schools. So, I went up to Stanford to visit and the first thing I saw was a lake on campus with students windsurfing and sunbathing on the beach. True to form, I signed up immediately. California then went into a drought and I didn’t see water in that lake again for the next 7 years. But, I did learn a few more things on the path to a Ph.D.

When I finally completed that process, I took the next logical step. I dropped everything and my wife and I bought open ended plane tickets that would take us to East Africa, Nepal, and Thailand. We decided to figure out how to get home once we got to Thailand. Nine months later, after an amazing set of experiences ranging from climbing Kilimanjaro in Africa to trekking to over 20,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas, and usually on only a few dollars a day, we finally made it to Bangkok and needed to find a way home – we were running out of money. Fortunately, the cheapest flight home was out of Bali, Indonesia, so we spent 2 more months traversing the Indonesian Archipelago seeing Komodo Dragons, experiencing a fascinating culture, and scuba diving on World War II ship wrecks.

Spending a year traveling around the world was an opportunity we created. I resisted the temptation to use that new Stanford certificate and start making money, realizing this was the one chance in my life to seize a critical window of time. We spent less than $15,000 each, which is by definition well below the poverty level. Yet, we changed our lives. A new car could certainly wait. My father was right when he said “you can do anything you want if you set your mind to figuring it out”. I celebrated my 30th birthday on top of a volcano in Bali where we hard-boiled eggs in the steam vent. Then we decided it was time to get on with our lives.

Instead of being challenged by trying to find a cheap bus ticket from Uganda to Tanzania (yes, they did have chickens in the back and goats tied to the roof!), we are challenged 20 years later with raising a 5 year old and 7 year old, and it is just as rewarding. You’ll learn something about what I do in my job at Los Alamos National Laboratory when we get together and you’ll see that I find a substantial reward in applying everything I have learned in school and in life to the complex challenges our society and your generation faces.

Water

March 2009

Where is Our Water Going to Come From?

Cathy Wilson, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

The Earth is called the “water planet”. Our planet is unique in our solar system because of its abundant water in our oceans, rivers, lakes, atmosphere, soil, and rock formations. From space it looks like we have more water than we could ever possibly consume: about 320 million trillion gallons! But only about 0.05 percent—that found in our lakes, rivers, and shallow groundwater reservoirs—is suitable for human needs. This usable water—slowly replenished by precipitation on a range of time scales—is not uniformly distributed, either. Some places have lots of water while other places have very little. Even where water is abundant many people have no access to clean water due to pollution or to lack of power and infrastructure for pumping, water treatment, and distribution. In fact, more than half of the world’s population lacks safe drinking water.

Fortunately for us, most people in the US now have access to clean water. Indeed, most of us take it for granted that we will have all the clean water we need, whenever we need it, and not just for the drinking water on which our lives depend, but for the myriad things in our society that we need water for, such as cleaning, growing food, making all kinds of products, and producing power and fuel. Most of us probably feel that access to whatever water we need is one of our inalienable rights! But perhaps we should not be taking water availability so much for granted. Especially for those of us who live in arid regions, there are some dark clouds on the horizon.

One reason for concern is the effects of climate change, particularly long-term trends in temperature in the atmosphere and oceans over decades and centuries. Some of the consequences of climate change that are predicted for the Western US, including New Mexico, are hotter temperatures, long term reduction in the amount of precipitation that falls as snow, and warmer spring weather that melts snow earlier and faster. But the design of our water infrastructure, especially the size and number of the water reservoirs across the country, was based on the concept of a “stationary” climate which means: the future looks like the past. Our designs do not account for climate change.

Why does this matter? Many of our most important reservoirs, those that supply water to tens of millions of people, are designed to catch, hold, and release runoff from snow as it slowly melts over the late spring and summer. If snow melts quickly in the spring, then it floods the reservoir and has to be released during the spring floods, rather than slowly through the warmer summer months when it is needed for farm irrigation or power generation during times of peak demand. This is a big deal! Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in the US to understand and plan for these changes so we don’t run out of water—and food and power as well. So in New Mexico, as well as many other parts of the world, water resources are under increasing stress due to climate change. This stress affects all living things that are dependent on rivers and lakes for water supply or habitat.

But here in the Southwest there is another source of stress on our water resources, and it is getting more acute as our population increases and there is more and more demand for water. It has to do with the question of who legally has the “right” to water supplies. In much of the western US, the use of water in rivers is governed by the doctrine of “prior appropriation”, dating from the 19th Century. The essence of this doctrine is that, while no one may own the water in a river, all persons, corporations, and municipalities have the right to use the water for beneficial purposes. Who gets access to water, how much they get to use, and when depends on the principal of “first in time, first in right.” The first entity (farmer, city, power company, etc.) that makes use of a quantity of water on a river obtains the most senior right to that amount of water and has first access to that water...forever! What happens during a drought when there is only enough water in a river for the most senior water right holder, and the second, third, fourth, … , nine hundred and ninety-ninth water right holder needs water? What would you do if you were a junior water right holder, you paid money for a water right, your livelihood depended on getting a certain amount of water, and the river manager told you to turn off your pump? Would you call your congressman, hold a demonstration, try to get “number one” to share, pump the water anyway (cheat), start a water war?

These are problems on the horizon now, but are going to become big issues sooner than you think. New Mexico may have already over-allocated its water resources by a factor of three. How will we address these problems in New Mexico, the USA and the world? Can we solve them with water efficiency technology? More dams? Changing water rights? Tougher regulation of industry? Taking personal responsibility for reducing our individual water footprint? This Café will explore these problems and potential solutions as we answer the bigger question: “Where is our water going to come from?”

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [2.1 Mb].


About the Presenter

Wilson

I am a “Baby Boomer” who grew up in California in the 1950’s and 60’s. My neighborhood was swarming with kids, the Beatles were HOT, I had a pair of white go-go boots and my favorite toys were Barbie dolls, roller skates, my bicycle and my pogo stick. At that time I liked math, and my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Cross, encouraged me in this area even though math wasn’t considered something girls would pursue in school or as a job back then. Science didn’t interest me much, but it shaped my lifestyle through the gadgets of the first electronic revolution: portable transistor radios, 45 rpm record players and black and white television sets; as well as the nuclear arms race between Russia and the USA. I don’t remember practicing fire alarms at school, but baby boomers remember “duck and cover” drills in preparation for nuclear attacks! I had no idea that the nuclear age began in New Mexico, and I never dreamed that someday I would be an environmental scientist at the birthplace of the atomic bomb…

By the early 1970’s I was a teenager in a small town in Connecticut. Rivers and lakes across the America had been dammed for hydroelectric power and used as industrial and domestic sewers while the US economy grew rapidly. The fish in Lake Erie were either dead or toxic and Ohio's Cuyahoga River was so polluted it had burst into flames. The “environmental movement” was growing quickly. I was passionate about the environment and helped to organize a demonstration in our town to coincide with the first ever “Earth Day” in 1970. The nationwide event aimed to put pressure on President Richard Nixon to sign the Clean Water Act, which he finally did in 1972. Around this time I discovered that I enjoyed math, chemistry and physics; mainly due to two outstanding teachers, Mr. Law and Mr. Pietrowski. But I still hadn’t linked my passion for the environment with my growing interest in math and science.

I also loved the arts, and after graduating from high school I moved back to California to study theatrical design in college. During my second year in college I took a calculus class in order to fulfill a requirement, and to my surprise, I loved it! Once again, I had an inspiring teacher, Professor Lenore Blum, who was a both a world renowned mathematician and an early advocate of programs to increase the participation of girls and women in mathematics. That class set my professional life on a new course. I changed my major and graduated from a Mills College with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics.

My degree in math opened many doors, including a great job, and later, acceptance into one of the top Geology PhD programs in the country at the University of California Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t really understand what a PhD was. My Mom was a high school graduate, and her Dad was a zinc miner. My Dad graduated from college, but his Dad made cut shingles from timber in logging camps. I definitely did not come from an academic heritage, but I had a friend who was getting a PhD in Anthropology and thought, “if she can do it, then why not me?” I had just finished a book with an interesting description of the geologic evolution of the Western US, and wanted to get into a profession that took me outdoors more, so geology seemed like a good fit. At Berkeley, I had another great mentor, Professor William Dietrich. With his guidance and a lot of help from fellow graduate students, I set up and carried out field experiments in the coastal hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean just north of San Francisco. I used the data from experiments along with my mathematical skills to create a computer model to predict what caused the destructive, fast moving landslides called debris flows that occurred in California during big rain storms.

After completing my PhD I was offered a job at a government research organization called CSIRO in Canberra, Australia and moved there with my new husband, Kent, who also studied geology at Berkeley. We lived and worked in Australia for eleven years. During that time I travelled to every corner of the country working on projects that used science and mathematical models to help foresters, farmers and ranchers improve their land management practices to preserve the ecology and other environmental values of rivers and streams. Both of our children were born and raised in Australia and have many great memories of the odd wildlife (kangaroos, cockatoos, possums and kookaburras), the dramatic coastlines and beaches of Southern New South Wales and the spectacular, multi-colored marine life of the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2000 we decided to move back to America and chose to live and work in beautiful Northern New Mexico at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I now work on understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change and energy development on water resources. I work with scientists from all over the country, and the world, on this global challenge and recently travelled to Alaska (where I watched a grizzly bear catch salmon for her cubs) and Brussels, Belgium (where I saw medieval buildings and ate lots of chocolate) to give seminars about my research. I think I have one of the best jobs in the world, and know that I was fortunate to have so many wonderful mentors who made math and science fun and exciting for me. Thank you for inviting me to Café Scientifique, and I hope I will share some of my passion for science and water issues with you.

Car

February 2009

Is There a Low/zero Emissions Vehicle in Your Future?

Bill Tumas, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Since the days of Henry Ford and his first assembly line, the automobile has had a tremendous impact on our lives. Transportation drives our economy and our way of life. We may or may not be traveling in the flying cars forecasted by some people for the 21st Century. But the automobile and our transportation system in general will see significant changes over the next two decades.

Changes to our transportation system will not come easy. The internal combustion engine and our transportation infrastructure, including car manufacturing, gasoline production and delivery, and our roads and interstate system, have had over a hundred years to develop. The planet has been blessed with staggering amounts of stored solar energy in the dinosaur carcasses and prehistoric biomass that have transformed over eons into petroleum, natural gas, and coal, which we call fossil energy. Even at its peak prices last summer, gasoline was still cheaper than the bottled water or soda that you may have bought at the gas station when you filled up your car.

The benefits of the automobile and fossil-energy-based transportation have not come without a complex set of problems. It is clear that continuing business as usual will have significant impacts on our economy, the environment, and our national security. In the last four decades, we have had three “energy crises” in the form of oil shortages and high prices. Yet the US still consumes about 22 million barrels oil each day, of which about 60% is now imported, largely to power our more than 250 million vehicles. We are digging up and using the Earth’s stored solar energy at an astounding rate. Decreasing our reliance on foreign oil is critical to our national and economic security.

Burning all this fossil fuel for transportation has significant environmental impacts as well. Air pollution and smog from the nitrogen oxides and particulates from automobile exhaust were big issues in the 1960s and were largely mitigated through regulations and the development of the catalytic converter. But today we are faced with how to deal with carbon dioxide emissions that can cause global warming. About a third of the carbon dioxide emissions in the US come from transportation. Imagine how these problems will be exacerbated as the developing world, particularly China and India, start driving cars the way we do.

Policy makers, investment bankers, and manufacturers, as well as scientists and engineers, have been actively trying to understand the range of options available to power our transportation system. The objective is to develop a secure, sustainable, carbon-neutral way to fuel our vehicles, with benefits to our economy and the environment. Near-term and long-term solutions are being sought. A number of options are being actively investigated. They include efficiency increases through hybrid vehicles, advanced fuels derived from biomass, unconventional fossil fuels such as shale oil, direct storage of electric energy in batteries for electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and hydrogen.

All of the options under consideration have very interesting political, social, economic, and technical issues associated with them. For example, biofuels, particularly ethanol from corn, have raised the food versus fuel debate. Hybrid vehicles increase gas mileage significantly but still require fossil fuel. Electric driven vehicles have issues that must be overcome with overall driving range, battery capacity and costs, and the impact of a large number of electric vehicles on our aging electric grid. Hydrogen has issues associated with overall costs, infrastructure for transmission and delivery, and on-board storage capacity. There may be no single best solution. We will likely need to develop and implement a combination of fuels and technologies over a range of time frames to transform our transportation system.

Hydrogen powered vehicles using fuel cells offer one potential solution to the transportation dilemma. Fuel cells convert chemical energy in the form of hydrogen and oxygen directly into electricity with water as a byproduct. The energy conversion process using fuel cells is about twice as efficient as that for an internal combustion engine. Los Alamos National Laboratory has been working on hydrogen and fuel cells for over thirty years and is responsible for some of the key discoveries that are being applied in current technologies and prototype cars. Significant advances have been made, but further developments are still required for widespread implementation of a hydrogen-based economy for transportation. Advances are still needed to reduce the overall cost of fuel cells, which currently use expensive platinum catalysts in their electrodes. Hydrogen itself is not an energy source, but a carrier of energy. You cannot mine or drill for it, so you must make it. One of the appealing features of hydrogen is that it can be made from a wide range of energy sources including renewable energy; however, less expensive, more energy-efficient methods must be developed for its production. An infrastructure will also need to be developed to deliver the hydrogen to fuel the vehicles. Another issue is that hydrogen is not as dense on a volumetric basis as liquid fuels. So many researchers, including those at Los Alamos, are working to develop methods to store a sufficient quantity of hydrogen on-board a vehicle to allow for long driving ranges.

This Café will discuss the options for carbon-neutral, low emission vehicles and how much our transportation system could and might need to change. Will we all be driving cars powered by quiet fuel cells that emit only water and are powered by hydrogen generated from renewable energy? What other carbon neutral, low emission alternatives to petroleum such as plug-in electric hybrid vehicles or biofuels should we be also be considering?

Learn more here: http://www.lanl.gov/discover/fuel_cells_transform_cars.


About the Presenter

Tumas

I grew up in small towns in Pennsylvania and upstate New York with three brothers. As a youth, I was much more interested in sports than schoolwork. My elementary school years were focused mainly on baseball, football, and basketball. I was not that bad, but certainly was not a star. Later, I became very interested in ski racing and then hot dog skiing, which is what teenage skiers did before snowboarding was invented! We lived near a ski hill where we could ski every weekday from 4-10 pm and every weekend from 10am to 10pm. Early in high school student, I thought I wanted to be an engineer because I liked math and science much better than my English and French classes. I was not really sure what engineers did, although I knew they did more than just drive locomotives.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity after my high school junior year to spend a summer at Ithaca College doing chemistry laboratory work. In addition to having fun living with a bunch of college kids in an apartment on campus, I got to work in a laboratory along with a number of talented undergraduate students who taught me a lot of chemistry. Despite breaking more than my fair share of glassware and one day having to quickly remove a pair of jeans that were rapidly dissolving because I spilled the entire contents of a large bottle of concentrated sulfuric acid on them, I decided that I wanted to be a chemist. I liked the concept of making new molecules and materials and trying to understand how they behave and what you could do with them.

In the Spring of my senior year in high school, I chose to go to Ithaca College rather than MIT or Caltech because of the research experiences I saw undergraduates enjoying at Ithaca. The fact that there were a lot of girls on campus and the students seemed to know how to have fun when they were not studying might have played more than a small role in my decision as well. As an undergraduate, I carried out chemistry research for eight semesters and four summers, including several weeks in Montpelier, France, a month at Northwestern University, and a semester as well in The Netherlands at Leiden University. I also had the opportunity to give a number of presentations on my undergraduate research at national and international conferences.

Although I had the pleasure of traveling a number of times to Europe as an undergraduate, I still had not been west of the Mississippi River and was determined to go to graduate school in California. I still remember the day I learned before my freshman year at Ithaca that you actually got paid to go to graduate school in chemistry and do not have to pay any tuition! As an undergraduate, I had developed an interest in the effects of solvents on chemical reactions and pathways. I decided I wanted to study organic molecules without any solvents in graduate school and became enamored with the work at Stanford University on gas phase ions. So, in 1980, I drove my Datsun B210 loaded with everything I owned (there was still plenty of room left in it!) to start graduate school at Stanford. In addition to watching John Elway play college football for three years, I carried out my thesis research investigating the fundamentals of organic gas phase ions using lasers. I became very interested in how transition metals catalyze chemical reactions, and went on to Caltech in 1985 to do postdoctoral work with Bob Grubbs who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006.

While at Caltech, I decided at the last minute that I did not want to be a professor and turned down several academic job offers to take a position at DuPont Central Research in Wilmington, Delaware. At DuPont, I carried out some exploratory research, but then became very interested in the environmental aspects of chemistry and chemical manufacturing. I was appointed as the Central Research representative on the Corporate Environmental Technology Panel, and carried out research to help DuPont determine how to best treat chemical wastes. I enjoyed sailing the Chesapeake Bay and then was delighted when my two daughters were born, but missed the mountains on a regular basis. I recall the day I asked my two-year old daughter what she wanted to do on a Saturday in Delaware. She responded, “go to the mall,” and I said to myself that “we are out of here” and started planning on how to move to the mountains and still do science.

I came to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1993 and started research on developing more environmentally benign methods to make chemicals. I had learned at DuPont that it was better to not make hazardous waste in the first place than to try to economically get rid of it. My postdocs, students and I focused on using compressed carbon dioxide in its supercritical state as a solvent for chemical reactions catalyzed by metal complexes, which allowed me to combine the expertise I gathered at Stanford, Caltech, and DuPont. In 1994, I became a group leader in the Chemistry Division and continued to carry out research. In the late 1990s, several colleagues and I helped start the Green Chemistry Institute which later became part of the American Chemical Society.

About 2003, I became very interested in energy applications, and soon after worked with a number of my colleagues to develop a Center of Excellence in Hydrogen Storage through a DOE competition. In 2006, I became a Program Director and am now responsible for Applied Energy Programs at Los Alamos, which span renewable energy, infrastructure, and fossil energy, including the hydrogen and fuel cell programs at Los Alamos.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to try to help us tackle the serious challenges in energy facing our society and planet.

Steel

January 2009

Steel: The Framework of Our Civilization

Lisa Marie Dougherty, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

More than any other metal, our civilization relies on steel. Everywhere we look, we see it. Steel covers the bodies of cars, trains, and buses. Steel bars reinforce concrete walls and bridges, and steel I-beams support the floors and roofs of buildings. Steel is used in so many things that we take it for granted as we use our steel tools, tables, chairs, staples, zippers, and utensils without a second thought. And yet, such common use of steel has only been possible since modern steelmaking practices were developed about 150 years ago.

Anthropological history is commonly divided into three ages: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each age is associated with a change in weapon and tool material so significant that it revolutionized civilization. The earliest tools and weapons were made from stone about three million years ago during the early part of the Stone Age. This period concluded around 6000 BC when the art of extracting copper from its ore was developed. This process, called smelting, allowed for the first production of metal implements. Around 4000 BC, the discovery that arsenic or tin can be added to copper to make a harder material initiated the Bronze Age. This method of improving select material or mechanical properties by combining two or more metals into a homogenous mixture is called alloying. Armor and weapons fashioned from this new copper alloy were far superior to anything that had come before. Civilizations that could smelt bronze rose in power.

Around 1200 BC, the smelting of iron, which requires a higher temperature than that of copper or tin, was achieved. Even though iron is weaker than bronze, it became the metal of choice for tools and weapons because it was cheaper, more abundant, and easier to sharpen. Iron, like many metals and alloys, can form into more than one type of solid phase, where a "phase" is a unique organization of atoms into a structure that possesses uniform chemistry and physical properties. The addition of carbon to iron, producing an alloy called steel, dramatically increases the strength of iron by changing the solid phases that make up its microstructure. The earliest steel artifact has been dated to around 300 BC when wootz steel, a high-carbon alloy with a banded appearance due to the distribution of carbon-rich phases, was first developed in India. Wootz steel was used to make the famous Damascus swords possessing almost legendary strength and sharpness, the source of which remained a subject of debate among metallurgists until a few decades ago when metallography revealed the phase structure of the steel in the blades.

Although steel implements were produced during the Iron Age, steel was not widely available until advances in steelmaking in the late 1800s allowed for its cheap mass production. Once steel production was commercialized, all parts of the construction and transportation industries turned to the iron-carbon alloy as their metal of choice due to its excellent mechanical properties at a relatively low cost. Its primary components are plentiful and easily recycled, and its properties can be controlled through thermomechanical processing (i.e., cycles of severe plastic deformation alternating with baking the deformed metal at high temperatures), surface treatments, and alloying.

Steel has become such a commonplace material in our lives few contemplate its significance or amazing characteristics. Only a smidgeon of carbon turns a weak bar of iron into a beam that can withstand tons of stress without bending. Adding chromium and nickel or manganese transforms a metal that readily rusts into an alloy that can withstand corrosive environments as extreme as seasides and nuclear reactors. Its strength can be dramatically increased simply by rolling it into a flat sheet or cooling it very quickly. And if carbon is forced into its surface, steel blades and bits can stand up to the intense heat and friction of high-speed cutting or drilling.

What is it about steel that makes it so versatile? How can one material span the range of so many physical properties: from soft to hard, ductile to brittle, magnetic to non-magnetic, weak to strong, and corrodible to corrosion-resistant? The answer lies in the complex microstructure of iron and iron-carbon phases, and their chemical properties when combined with other elements. Unlike many modern-day alloys and engineered materials, steel began as an empirical material, produced for specific applications through trial and error. As such, the number of different types of elements that are used in steels is more extensive than in any other alloy system.

This variety complicates the selection of the right type of steel for a particular application. When the wrong steel is selected for a structural application, failure can result regardless of time in service. For example, some steels are subject to a transition from ductile to brittle behavior at temperatures that are not uncommon in arctic waters and cold climates. This has resulted in storage tanks suddenly bursting during the winter and ships literally breaking in half. Failure can also result from impurities introduced during steel production. Slag retained in the steel from the smelting process used to make rivets for the Titanic has been proposed to have caused its tragic sinking.

As with any material, steel structures need to be inspected regularly and replaced when their reliability has degraded. In structural applications, steel members typically support heavy loads for long periods of time. If the structure is in a corrosive environment, detecting even a minor crack early can prevent an unexpected failure due to stress corrosion cracking. Maintenance of steel structures becomes more critical as their use exceeds load and lifetime engineering designs, which is becoming more common as our population and traffic density increases. The failure of structural steels in the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse over the Ohio River that killed 46, the 1983 Mianus River Bridge collapse in Connecticut that killed 3, and the 2007 Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minnesota that killed 13 have been attributed in large part to high loads and inadequate inspections. But with careful inspections and maintenance, the steel framework of our civilization can perform satisfactorily for generations to come.

Steel is an amazing alloy and the most important metal in modern civilization. But the more we depend upon it, the more we take it for granted. Most popular science magazines and television programs focus on new materials with exotic properties and carefully engineered structures. Yet even though the media features nano-scaled materials and devices, our civilization relies most heavily on macro-scaled constructions and vehicles, most of which are made, at least in part, of steel. It may not be exotic, but steel will always be as fascinating as it is essential to our way of life.

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  • The Story of...Steel Humans’ ability to transform mineral ores into useful materials has shaped the course of human history. Those civilizations that have been armed with a greater range of metal technologies have always defeated their rivals.
  • Steel, Wikipedia
  • Bridge Failure Santa Fe New Mexican Report: Faulty steel plates led to bridge failure
  • Clues to the Titanic Disaster Faulty Rivets Emerge as Clues To Titanic Disaster
  • Key to Titanic's Doom In Weak Rivets, a Possible Key to Titanic’s Doom
  • Role of Steel in Titanic Sinking New Idea on Titanic Sinking Faults Steel as Main Culprit
  • Liberty Ships During World War II, there were nearly 1,500 instances of significant brittle fractures within the Liberty Ship fleet, fractures due to the grade of steel used during construction.

About the Presenter

Dougherty

Unlike many of the scientists at the laboratory, I didn't care much about science when I was a kid. I wanted to be a rock star. I did well in math and science, but I also did well in English, art, and music. And those subjects were a lot more fun, so I spent my free time writing poetry, drawing pictures, and playing my guitar. Science was the last thing on my mind.

In high school, I joined a few rock bands and told my parents I was going to play music for a living. Of course, they strongly urged me to pursue something with a more stable future. Mostly to make them happy, I worked hard in school to keep my grades up, but secretly yearned for the opportunity to leave academics behind and focus on my guitar. My frustration grew until, only two weeks before the end of my senior year, I left high school. However, a month after the rest of my class graduated, I took my final exams and quietly received my diploma.

Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, offered me a full scholarship as well as a music performance award, so I decided to enroll in their music engineering technology (MET) program in 1989. The unusual major would allow me to pursue my performance ambitions while gaining practical skills to work as a music engineer at the same time. It included a minor in physics, which I unexpectedly enjoyed more than most of the music coursework. In fact, after two years, I changed my MET major into a classical guitar performance major and added a major in physics.

My new majors were in different colleges, so their coursework didn't overlap. This meant that, most semesters, I took over 20 hours, and I attended nearly every summer session. Complicating the situation, I also had to work to help with my room and board. It was an intense five years, but I managed to graduate summa cum laude with both a Bachelor of Science in physics and a Bachelor of Music in classical guitar performance. However, my dreams of becoming a professional guitarist were dashed when, during my senior year, I developed severe tendonitis in both wrists. It seemed my music career was over before it even began.

Fortunately, with my physics degree, I had other options. I decided to charge straight into graduate school in materials science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign since I enjoyed solid state physics. Unfortunately, I didn't account for my complete lack of an education in materials science. I enrolled in graduate level classes and found myself failing within the first month, and my advisor, an old ceramist nearing retirement, was no help. Wisely I changed advisors to Ian Robertson, a relatively young metallurgist and electron microscopist, but the change didn't help me with my classes. I was still flunking out.

Halfway through the semester, I withdrew from all of my classes and told my advisor I was going to drop out of the program. He offered to keep my position open for a year, but I told him I would not return. I moved back in with my parents and, until the next summer, worked a bunch of odd jobs. Flirting with depression, I decided to get into athletics and discovered bicycle racing, which offered both camaraderie and challenge. Quickly it became an obsession, and to this day, I don't feel like me unless I'm on my bicycle at least a few days a week.

Eventually I became tired of tedious nine-to-five jobs and began to wish for a better life. I called up my advisor and found that, as he had promised, my position was still open. He welcomed me back and let me start over again. The second time around, I supplemented my graduate work with undergraduate materials science courses to familiarize myself with the subject area. My research involved recrystallization in superplastic aluminum alloys and required me to travel to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for extended periods of time. The trips there familiarized me with government laboratories, one of the only environments left in our country where basic science is appreciated and encouraged.

Throughout my graduate studies, I raced for the university and a local bicycling team. Three years into my research, I became enamored with a cyclist, Gene Dougherty, visiting from the Chicago area during a team group ride. A year later, we married and, a year after that, started our family with a beautiful baby girl. Suddenly it became clear that we needed to get on with our lives, so I quickly wrapped up my doctoral work, receiving my Ph.D. in 2001. We moved to Los Alamos in 2002 for my husband to take a position in the High Performance Computing at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Half a year later, we expanded our family by one more and agreed that I would stay home with the kids until our youngest was three. Not long after that agreement, though, I needed a challenge, so I started a novel. It expanded into two books, both of which have been recently published.

In 2006, five years after receiving my Ph.D., I was hired by the MST-8 group at LANL as a postdoctoral associate. My work primarily concerned the effects of shock on the microstructure and mechanical behavior of steels, although I worked with a number of other metals and alloys as well. From 2006 to 2008, I attended a number of conferences around the country to present our work as well as several training programs to expand my educational background, including a workshop on transmission electron microscopy in Santiago, Chile. In December, my postdoctoral appointment was transferred to a new group at the laboratory in order to facilitate a conversion to full-time staff. Despite recent changes at the laboratory, I have enjoyed working at LANL and look forward to tackling the challenges of my new position.

Vaccine

November 2008

A Vaccine for Cancer?

Michelle A. Ozbun and Rebecca Hartley, University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Presenters' Essay and Bios

Everyone knows that cancer is a horrible disease. The American Cancer Society reports 12 million new cases worldwide in 2007, with 7.6 million people dying from malignancies. But did you know that nearly 20% of cancer cases are attributed to infections with viruses or bacteria? This may be an under-estimate because there may be even more infectious diseases that contribute without our knowledge-this could be from organisms we know about AND those we have yet to discover!

Some examples of infection-associated cancers include nasopharyngeal (nose and throat) carcinoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, liver cancer, gastric (stomach) cancer, and adult T-cell leukemia. The cancer with the strongest link to infection is cervical cancer, with human papilloma virus (HPV) infections causing more than 99% of cervical cancers. HPVs also cause other cancers of the genital tract, and some of the head-and-neck region. There is even evidence that certain HPVs might be involved in skin and breast cancers!

The word "papilloma" is Latin for "wart," and a wart is technically a skin tumor, it's an abnormal growth. HPVs cause nearly all skin warts. There are over 100 different types of HPVs, and different types cause warts on different parts of the body. Some HPVs cause only hand warts, some only foot warts, some only genital warts. Hand warts, for example, cannot be transmitted to the foot or to the genital types of skin. Importantly, not all tumors are cancerous, and only a few HPV warts turn into cancers. Although any abnormal cellular growth is a tumor, only when it can spread to other organs, or become "metastatic," does it officially become a cancer. It's usually the spread of the tumor to key body systems (brain, lungs, liver) that causes death.

Cancer arises typically later in life due to a series of DNA mutations in a cell that provide that cell with an increasing growth advantage over the cells around it. Generally, cells in our bodies can divide in a controlled fashion as needed, and the balance of programmed cell death ("apoptosis") in the same tissues keeps the average number of cells in our bodies constant. This can be called homeostasis. Tumors arise when this balance becomes disrupted, either because cell division increases or because cell death decreases. So, if a cell gains a DNA mutation that causes it to divide faster, or prevents it from dying when it should, it gains a growth advantage, and it can then gain another mutation, and another. If the cells fails to die, a tumor will arise. Mathematicians have calculated that a cell needs only to gain five DNA mutations in key growth promoting genes in order to cause cancer. Luckily, this does not happen very often. Our cells and our immune system are pretty good at maintaining cell growth in balance and keeping us healthy.

Some viruses that cause cancer do so because when they infect a cell they cause the cell to divide more rapidly, and then prevent it from dying. They don't do this to deliberately cause cancer; the viruses do this so they can carry out their "prime directive" - to make more viruses and permit their spread to new cells or to a new animal. Usually the cancer arises only as an accident, because the virus may push the infected cell to divide too rapidly, and mutations may arise during the increased cell division.

It's important to note that virus infections rarely cause cancer. For the most part our bodies keep infections in check, and only if those extra DNA mutations arise will a tumor progress to a cancer. For example, HPV infections in the epithelial (skin) cells of the genital tract are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the US, but only a handful of people will develop cancer from HPV infections. There are more than 5.5 million new genital HPV infections reported every year, and more than 20 million sexually active people (men and women) are currently infected with genital HPVs. In contrast, there are less than 5000 cases of cervical cancer per year.

Low cervical cancer death rates in the US are due to the fact that we have effective, but quite expensive, screening programs. Sexually active women are urged to have a yearly exam, wherein a Pap test is performed. This test samples cervical cells to determine if pre-cancerous or cancerous cells are present. Like most cancers, cervical cancer recovery is excellent if the cancer is caught early. However, in less developed countries, the death toll from cervical cancers is much higher. Worldwide, there are about 500,000 new cases of cervical cancer a year, and 290,000 deaths. Most of the cases and most of the deaths occur in poor countries where women do not have regular Pap tests.

You might be saying to yourself, "If some cancers are caused by infections, couldn't we prevent those cancers by eliminating the infectious that cause them?" You are absolutely right! And that is exactly the thinking behind the new HPV vaccines Gardasil® and Cerviarix® marketed as "Cervical Cancer Vaccines."

The HPV vaccine is made up of four HPV types, two that cause 70% of cervical and other genital cancers, and two that cause benign genital warts. The vaccine is given in three doses over 6 months time and is not infectious. The vaccine contains only the outside protein coats of the viruses that will cause the immune system to make antibodies, which can prevent future infections. We call these neutralizing antibodies, because they neutralize and prevent infections. Studies in the last five years have shown that this vaccine is safe and is almost 100% effective in preventing infections by the four HPV types in the vaccine, and the vaccine prevents genital warts and pre-cancers by these viruses too. Although, we have not followed vaccinated women long enough to determine that cancer incidences will decrease, the lower infections suggest that this will occur.

This vaccine has great promise! However, Pap screening in women is still essential, even if all susceptible people were to be vaccinated. This is because there are other HPV types not in the vaccine that can cause 30% of cervical cancers, and because we don't yet know how long the protection will last. The vaccine also may require a booster after five or so years. During the Café, we will also discuss important issues, including the cost of the vaccine, who should be vaccinated, and whether the vaccine will reach those who need it most. We will talk about some roadblocks to vaccination and some of the current research aimed at making more effective and easier use of vaccines.

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About the Presenters

Michelle A. Ozbun

Ozbun

I grew up in a very small town in rural northwest Colorado. When I started school my Grandma Ozbun gave me a 'school memory' book, where I wrote down what I wanted to be when I grew up, adding important art, photos, names of friends, report cards. Early on my parents bought the "World Book Encyclopedia" like many parents of the era, hoping their kids would come to know more about the world than they did. I loved looking at all the exotic photos and reading about far away places and different cultures. I also really liked learning about light, colors, and chemicals and the science projects that were included. To my mother's dismay, I also enjoyed performing the science experiments with vinegar, baking soda, batteries, fire. I mixed up lots of stuff in her kitchen. Since my dad actually blew himself up on a few occasions, usually smoking while filling his propane truck or while washing paintbrushes in gasoline in my mom's washing machine (!), I think my mom was understandably worried about me too! Luckily, I turned out to have slightly more common sense than my dad.

The early 1970s saw the recognition of cancer as an increasing health problem. President Nixon responded during his January 1971 State of the Union address by declaring "war against cancer." All the grown-ups were talking about who had cancer and the horror of cancer. I didn't really know what cancer was, but I knew that it was important and that doctors mixed up chemicals to try to help people fight it. I had seen this in the encyclopedia and decided in 4th grade I would be a "Chemotherapist" when I grew up (or so I wrote in my school memory book). I sold cards door-to-door so I could earn money for a microscope (which I have in my office today). But this science stuff was not all I did; it was a pretty small part of my life. I also earned a skateboard, and I loved to play cars and Barbies, go fishing and camping and river rafting, and explore my rural town. I played girls softball and coed soccer in school. I rode my bicycle a lot too. That is until my dad bought me a motorcycle when I was in 5th grade! That was great fun. Man, could I ride some wheelies and race all over town.

I greatly disliked school during my elementary years. I faked being sick a lot so I could stay home and watch TV game shows. I think I avoided school because I attended a private, Christian school where we sat isolated in cubicles and read alone from booklets every day. I missed the interaction of the classroom. I remember learning about cells and chemicals, and that was good. Finally, in junior high school, I adapted better to the environment and began to excel in school. I enjoyed learning, and had the opportunity to work at a geochemical lab in high school. We tested soil samples for various elements (iron, gold, silver, uranium), and I got to learn experimental design and laboratory techniques. I did well in math, chemistry, biology, physics. Although neither of my parents went to college, I had always planned for college, with my parents' encouragement. I decided in my misogynistic surroundings that I would become a nurse. That's what it seemed girls did if they were good at science. No one steered me otherwise.

I applied to Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colorado, as a nursing major, but was late getting my application in, so I started out in "pre-nursing". I took lots of psychology and all my basic science classes (anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biology). But I fell in love with microbiology lab. I actually got a "C" in the lecture, but aced the lab, and that was when I decided to change my major. First, I decided on a "Med. Tech." degree so I could work as a microbiologist. I transferred to Colorado State University. But again I got sidetracked. I next became enamored with Organic Chemistry -- the lab and the lecture. When I began to look around for an internship as a Med. Tech., I found out that I was an anomaly - most Med. Tech.'s didn't do well in organic chemistry, and the Med. Tech. jobs were becoming more automated. I changed my major to Microbiology with a minor in Chemistry so I could prepare for graduate school. I was now contemplating graduate school in organic chemistry to concentrate on synthesizing drugs-antibiotics and chemotherapeutics.

The mid 1980's was a time of social and political upheaval for me and my friends. There was a scary "gay plaque" and "gay cancer" spreading like wildfire, and President Reagan was blocking the US Surgeon General's attempts to educate people about this new and dreaded disease that was killing lots of young men. A number of people I knew were affected by what turned out to be AIDS, caused by infection with a new virus called HIV, and that peaked my interest in virology. As a Microbiology major, I planned to take virology, and decided to hold off on decisions about my future studies. Although I got a "D" on the first exam (because I didn't take the instructor's advice to learn all the virus families and characteristics), I stuck it out and obtained an A in the class. I had truly been captivated by the study of viruses, took a graduate level virology class and began working in a virology lab. My last semester of college I took 18 hours of science classes, worked as a workstudy in the organic chemistry prep lab and part-time in a virology lab, and played rugby. I made the Dean's List the only time in my life. I was having the time of my life!

I decided to get my Ph.D. in Virology at Baylor College of Medicine (not part of Baylor University) in Houston, Texas-primarily because 1) they had a focused and internationally recognized virology program, and 2) Texas was warmer than CO. Both were true for sure! Although I was interested in HIV and AIDS research, I decided to pursue my doctorate on a breast cancer research project, which was not related directly to viruses (at the time). I had a blast in graduate school. It was hard work, but also great fun with friends and colleagues, the thrill of victory, and much agony of defeat. Most of my experiments failed, but I was persistent. The pursuit of science, asking and answering questions, learning the scientific method, and thinking critically was and remains to me enthralling. I continued to play rugby and ride a motorcycle while in grad school. As a result, my adviser constantly pestered me: "I hope your lab notebook is up-to-date!"! I also ran the Houston Tenneco Marathon two times, once half, and a second time to 23 miles-both times with pneumonia! I've found running (in the absence of pneumonia) to be the perfect venue in which to reflect on and plan experiments or troubleshoot failed experiments, and I still use it as way to diffuse much of the innate frustration that comes with "doing" science. It's also good for reveling in the victory of that key experimental find!

I met my partner early in grad school. We moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for me to do my postdoctoral fellowship studying the new human tumor viruses, human papillomaviruses (HPVs), that had only recently been grown in the lab. My goal was eventually to move us back west, hopefully to my partner's home state of New Mexico and closer to Colorado. My hard work paid off! I've been at UNM now for 10 years (it's a good thing I started college when I was 6 years old! --- just kidding). In the last 10 years, I've had the great fortune to continue working in the exciting field of HPV research, amid great strides in understanding basic molecular infection events and the viruses' role in cancer. It was during this time that half of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Professor Harald zur Hausen for showing that some HPVs cause cervical cancer!! I love the melding of two research worlds: infectious disease/virology and cancer biology. Nearly 4 years ago, I also attained another childhood hope: to be a mom. My son, Ridge, is a terrific little scientist, curious about everything in the world, and I love being a kid again with him. He likes making volcanoes at home and joining on a run once in a while. And he can't wait until he's big enough to go motorcycling with his mom!

Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I think perseverance is equally necessary. There is a lot of failure in lab research experiments. In college I sold books door-to-door one summer. The mantra was that it took nine "nos" to get to one "yes." So we would try to get the nine "nos" out of the way quickly to get to those "yeses." I think the same is true in science. This equates to working hard and planning well. Many experiments are destined to fail, so get those failures out of the way!! Although it's hard work, I often say to folks who visit my lab, "don't tell anyone they pay me for this really terrific hobby!" I still love designing, overseeing, and performing exciting experiments in the lab. There are so many great aspects to my "job." The work really does make a difference in people's lives, I get to find answers to really cool molecular questions, and I get to travel to exotic and fun places all around the world, where I interact with scientists from all over, including young scientists like maybe some of you!

Rebecca Hartley

Hartley

I grew up in a small town in southern New Mexico. Well, sort of. My dad was military and stationed at Hollomon Air Force base, but was originally from a town of 300 in southern Indiana. My mom was one of six kids growing up in central New Mexico. She was born in Quemado, and they moved back and forth between Quemado, Datil, and finally Socorro so they could finish high school. Once married, my parents moved back to Indiana so my dad could apprentice with his uncle as a tool and dye maker. But small town southern prejudice against my mom led my dad to re-enlist. I was the youngest of four girls, born in Washington State, but we moved to Albuquerque when I was five and then to Tularosa upon my dad's retirement from the Air Force when I was nine.

I graduated from Tularosa High School. There was never any question that I would go to college, even though my parents hadn't gone and they couldn't afford to send either my sister (only 11 months older) or me. Scholarships, Pell grants, work-study jobs and whatever help our parents and an older sister in Albuquerque could scrape together got us both through UNM. I majored in biology and had the opportunity to work in a lab as an undergraduate. My undergraduate lab work and a teaching assistantship inspired me to apply to graduate school. After researching several programs at different universities, I realized that if I pursued a Ph.D., I could get paid to go to school and do research-how could it get better than that?

I left sunny New Mexico for rainy Seattle to complete my Ph.D. at the University of Washington. My degree is in Biological Structure (a fancy name for Anatomy). My graduate research focused on adult skeletal muscle stem cells, determining where and when they arose during embryonic development. This work led to my interest in answering the question, how does a single fertilized egg become a whole organism? After finishing my Ph.D., I went on to pursue this question while performing post-doctoral research in two different labs, one in Denver, Colorado, at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and the second at the University of Rennes in western France.

My first faculty position was at the University of Iowa School of Medicine. Here, I began research in my own lab and began teaching Anatomy to medical students and Cell Biology to graduate students. My research now was centered on early embryonic cell division and its resemblance to the uncontrolled cell division that is seen in cancer. If we could understand how and why cells of the early embryo divide rapidly with few controls, we could gain insight into how normal cells lose control of their highly regulated cell division to become rapidly dividing cancer cells. This is the main question that I work on, studying frog embryos as a model to study embryonic cell division and human breast cancer cells.

After moving to Iowa, I married a man that I had met in France. The transition from Europe to rural Iowa was not an easy one, so we began discussing moving out west. Right about this time, while attending a scientific conference in Phoenix, I ran into someone I had gone to school with at UNM. We had worked in the same lab as undergraduates and he was now a Professor in the same department. He mentioned that if I were interested in moving back to New Mexico, they were hiring. That was six years ago. My mom, sisters, nieces and nephews all live in Albuquerque (save one misguided Texan). I have many relatives throughout the state. My husband loves New Mexico and I no longer miss it. I've loved every place where I've lived, but there's no place quite like home.

DNA

October 2008

Rapid DNA Sequencing: Technology Addressing New Problems, Solving Them, and Handing Back Entire New Visions

Ernest Retzel, National Center for Genome Resources

Presenter Essay and Bio

DNA sequencing is the process of determining the content and order of the G, A, T and C "bases" in the genome of an organism. sometimes called "the code." So, what's the big deal about DNA sequencing? They have known about DNA since the '50s, and they have been doing DNA sequencing since the mid-70s. It's even in text books!

Indeed, we have been doing sequencing at one level or another since I was a graduate student. There are over 300 billion bases of DNA sequence data in GenBank, the U.S. national archive of sequence information, representing species from bacteria and viruses to humans, from arachnids to zebra. Researchers thought that, if we just mined that data, we would probably have ten years of work ahead of us.

In the last two years, however, there have been developments in the technology of DNA sequencing that have changed everything. At one point in my graduate career, generating 140 bases of sequence data took six months with all the bench work that accompanied the preparation. DNA sequencing evolved with what seemed like amazing speed over the following 25 years of applying it to biological problems. Then everything changed in the past two years, truly new technologies for performing sequencing have been developed. We can now generate 2.5 billion bases of DNA sequence data in less than a week, and a majority of that time is spent on computer analysis.

There are many ideas in biology that "Changed Everything." This can be said a lot less frequently of technologies. DNA sequencing changed everything early on, genes and genomes became accessible. A technology known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) changed everything, allowing miniscule amounts of DNA to be amplified. TV shows like CSI demonstrated to the public how powerful it could be. But high-throughput DNA sequencing changed everything in a way that I have not seen in my career. Suddenly, a full genome is accessible to almost every researcher in not very much time and for a relatively small amount of money. The first human genome took 13 years to complete, hundreds (if not thousands) of people working on it, and hundreds of millions of dollars. The work was beyond arduous; the complexity of the project was almost unimaginable.

By contrast, there is now a major program being pushed forward to develop the technology to deliver the sequence of a human genome for $1,000. Not waiting for that, but certainly hoping it will happen, there is the "1,000 Genome Project", seeking to completely sequence a thousand individuals worldwide to understand everything from evolution of humankind to the differences between each of us.

That is exciting, even mind-boggling, when you understand not only the possibilities, but also the scale of that data and the scope of the analysis. Our biology problems are suddenly looking like astrophysics problems in terms of scale. A sequencing run starts with a terabyte (TB) of raw data (TB= 1,000 gigabytes), is reduced to a few gigs of sequence data, and the analysis generates about 300 gigs of information. It doesn't fit well in a spreadsheet. Each machine we have in the lab generates that much data in two days. And we have six machines just at NCGR.

"But wait, there's more!!"

The idea of a "personal genome" is now within reach, and there is in fact the Personal Genome Project. As cool as that is, there is so much more we can do now. There are only 20,000-30,000 genes in most animals and plants, and a lot of the genome (generally 90% or more) is not accounted for in genes. We used to refer to this as "junk DNA." In the last couple years, because of the deep sequencing we can obtain with the new technologies, we have found that over 95% of the human genome is biologically important and useful. We just don't know what all of it does yet, but we know it happens. Whole new classes of RNA molecules have been defined. It has been shown that there is a dynamic process occurring between these newly discovered classes of molecules and the RNA molecules that code for proteins that define how things are controlled in a cell.

On a whole different topic, we can now take an tissue that is infected with a virus or a bacteria, and see what happens in the process of the infection, what host genes are turned on and when, what viral genes are turned on, and in what order. And we look at them ALL at the same time, in the same sequence-based snapshot of an infection. We have taken plants that have been studied for years, whose genome sequence has been explored in detail, and we have discovered areas that are only expressed in certain tissues at a very specific time in plant replication. In some areas, plants make excellent models even for humans. You might not think that plants have a lot in common with humans, but the replication process is similar in many respects, and we can study mutations made in plant genes without going to jail!

With this depth of potential understanding of the genome, I have noticed that my colleagues have begun talking about not just gene insertion or breeding but to begin engineering plants for extremely complex characteristics. Most recently, this has arisen from plant studies related to bioenergy and biofuels, where we talk about how to increase the levels of certain traits (sugars for fermentation and oils for biodiesel) while modifying the structural characteristics that sequester those products (reducing lignin in trees, for example).

Beyond this, there is an entirely new science of metagenomics. A bit of background: first, over 99.9% of the microbial life on the planet remains completely unidentified, largely because we are not able to grow them in the laboratory, we have not identified the nutritional requirements of these organisms in a way that we can mimic their growth environment. Second, these organisms frequently create what you might call a meta-organism, many organisms living in balance within an environment. That environment might be a soil sample, or an intestinal tract or mouth, a hot spring or an ocean. Small changes in those environments cause shifts in the population; for example, shifting the temperature or the carbon dioxide level over a plot of earth can cause a shift in representation of organisms that are present in the soil. The sensitivity and immense output of even our current sequencing technologies lets us take a sample of those environments, and even though we can't culture those organisms, we can explore the families they likely belong to by sequencing their metagenome, or the aggregate DNA from the pool of organisms.

Everything has changed. The possibilities and questions are endless. There are important questions about the ethics and privacy of genomic information and about the genetic engineering of plants and animals that need to be resolved. Beyond those questions, though, is a goldmine of understanding of the natural world.

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PDFGenomes For All [522 Kb]. - Next-generation technologies that make reading DNA fast, cheap and widely accessible are coming in less than a decade. Their potential to revolutionize research and bring about the era of truly personalized medicine means the time to start preparing is now" - Church, George M., Scientific American January 2002: 46-54


About the Presenter

It has been a circuitous path to get where I have gotten, influenced perhaps more by serendipity than I should admit to. At times, I have made choices very deliberately, and at other times, not so much. In this bio, I will concentrate more on the part of my life closest to your lives, the choices through high school and college, and less about my later career.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, a city not as well known for science as for automobiles and trade unions. And I did indeed grow up in the city, rather than the suburbs. At the time, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the country, and was largely a blue-collar world, vibrant in ways that are hard to define. It has always been a diverse city, with racial and ethnic minorities, large populations of Poles, Jews, Italians, Greeks, Somalis and more, indeed, the city of Hamtramck was a largely Polish city, separate but entirely surrounded by Detroit. It was also a time of educational experimentation, and, from grade school through my undergraduate work, I was lucky enough to be part of those experiments. Though the administrators and teachers never referred to us as "gifted," based on tests we never really paid attention to, they did pull some of us into classes that were more advanced. Sometime later, K12 schools generally would abandon those types of classes to "mainstreaming." But for me, those were the difference between where I got and where I might have gone.

During the eighth grade, I got an invitation to attend an all-city school, Cass Technical High School, then considered the second, best public high school in the country. The school was in the heart of Detroit, and we took the city buses an hour each way to get there. It was really an extraordinary school, with some 26 curricula that ranged from refrigeration to art to organic chemistry. I jumped at the chance to attend for all the wrong reasons, my neighborhood high school was one of the most violent in the city. And, again, the schools didn't really tell us why we were being invited, but at the time it didn't matter. In retrospect, it was an extraordinary opportunity. And, because there were so many choices, I began my rather eclectic selection of coursework, French and Art History, Auto Mechanics and Welding, Organic Chemistry and Microbiology.

My choice of college was again for the right and the wrong reasons. Most of my fellow students were heading to the University of Michigan; I chose Michigan State University, yet another experimental school. Modeled after "residential colleges" like Antioch College, the goal of Justin Morrill College within MSU was to provide a liberal arts education, but within the context of the larger (45,000 student) university. We lived together for the first two years in dormitories set aside for our college, with classrooms and faculty offices all in the same building. Intense language study was assumed, and taught at four different incoming skill levels. The college had the "hook" of attracting full professors from the larger university to teach their choice of classes to tiny classes of 7-10 students. Among the classes I remember were The Politics of Hunger in America and Global History of Science and Technology. And still I graduated with my degree in Microbiology, and nearly a BA in French.

Three years as a technician at the Michigan Cancer Foundation in Detroit led me to understand that I didn't want to be a technician forever. And, with the help of my (as I now understand, famous) boss, I started my quest to find a graduate school. I decided against doing it part-time as a technician in his lab, and also chose not to choose the most renowned schools. There were good reasons for this then, and in retrospect, even better ones I didn't understand until later. The University of Minnesota was my choice, and I have never regretted it. My Ph.D. is in Microbiology, with a minor in Biochemistry.

I have had the luck of developing my career when so many of the things that we take for granted were being discovered. I began my work in virology, which rapidly became molecular virology. I evolved from the reductionist molecular virology to viral pathogenesis, where I learned to look at the whole system involved, not just a component studied in isolation. At one point, I made a leap of faith to jump from virology to bioinformatics, from a field I knew well to one that wasn't really invented yet. And another leap took me from human and animal research to plant biology. Now, with the technology of high-throughput DNA sequencing, all the threads of my work are being woven into one fabric, with bioinformatics underpinning diverse plant and animal projects.

And if I were to offer a couple quotes that have been the most useful in my life, they are, "You don't have to be smart, you just have to be stubborn," and "The harder you work, the harder it is too surrender."

Nuke

September 2008

Science, Security, and Nuclear Weapons: A Conundrum for Our Generation?

Joseph Martz, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

A temperature 1000 times hotter than the sun. Pressures a million times those found in the deepest ocean. Speeds over a million miles per hour. Regimes of matter and physics unimaginable and untouchable to humankind. All of these and more can be created in an instant inside an atomic bomb. And the results are so potentially horrendous that fear of this massive power has held the world in check for over 60 years. This is the ultimate conundrum of the atomic age. A force so deadly, so complete, in its potential to wipe out humanity, that fear alone was sufficient to restrain the ambitions of countries and kings, dictators and despots, presidents and prime ministers.

For myself as a scientist, this unique, horrifying, and amazing amalgam presents an opportunity, an opportunity for my generation and yours to achieve something of lasting and incredible importance to mankind. A chance to tame the nuclear genie, to force him back to his bottle, to back away from the precipice that threatened to drop mankind into an endless chasm with the smallest accident, mistake or misstep.

Every generation should understand the dilemma posed by nuclear weapons. Whether we like it or not, they exist. Nearly a dozen countries have built nuclear arsenals. How to do we solve this problem? Is simply getting rid of nuclear weapons the answer? What about the nuclear materials left behind? These questions and more will impact every one of our lives, and you—the informed young citizens—should contribute to this debate.

Norris Bradbury, the longest serving Director at Los Alamos and the namesake for the Bradbury Science Museum, often said, “We don’t build nuclear weapons to kill people. We build them to buy time for future generations and leaders to find a better way.” What is that better way? Does science have a role to play in illuminating that solution? I think it does. Science shows the possibility for nuclear weapons, and a possibility for their ultimate reduction. As Edward Teller once said, “The Cold War is not a battle between armies. It is a battle between scientists and laboratories.”

And what did we learn in the advance of science related to atomic bombs? We learned how they work—how to have confidence that they would function. We also learned to make sure they wouldn’t function in cases of accidents or theft. And that knowledge itself is now a potentially potent asset. Can the knowledge itself become a deterrent?

This idea of a “capability-based deterrent” has important requirements that science and engineering can provide. Most important is the timing. If the capability is intended to provide a basis for deterrence, the weapons complex itself must be more agile and able to respond more quickly than a potential adversary could develop and deploy a rival nuclear arsenal. Let’s examine this concept a little more closely.

Today, we keep a nuclear arsenal numbering a few thousand deployed warheads. As large as that sounds, it’s actually a pretty small number compared to what we had at the height of the Cold War, when we had several tens of thousands of deployed weapons. Why so many? Mainly, to counter the deployed nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union and now Russia. Most of our nuclear weapons were fielded to counter their nuclear weapons or to ensure that at least some of our weapons would survive a first-strike from the Soviet Union. From a pure deterrence standpoint, many argue that only a few nuclear weapons are sufficient to deter almost any other state or group that might consider an aggressive act.

Thus, one reason we’ve been able to cut over 90% of our nuclear arsenal is that we agreed with the Russians to do this jointly. By most analysts’ accounts, the only credible threat that might require a re-armament of our nuclear arsenal would be a recidivist Russia or possibly an expansionist China. In either case, we would have years of warning, and that element of the timing is crucial in enabling a capability-based deterrent. Recall, during the Cold War, we had only minutes notice of a possible threat. This change—from only minutes to years—allows a very different posture that can rely on far fewer nuclear weapons, while still gaining the benefits of a deterrence strategy.

Is several years credible for a capability to design, certify, develop, and build a nuclear deterrent? With some changes to how we undertake this job, I think the answer is yes. Agility is key. Elements that once took 3-5years may be done in 12-18 months. Modern engineering and science tools give us confidence in nuclear designs, and allow us to quickly more through the development stage should that be required. This is why the government has proposed transforming the nuclear weapons complex, precisely to gain this agility and confidence in a more capability-based deterrent. In fact, the head of the government’s nuclear weapons programs said, “'because our nuclear weapons stockpile is decreasing, the United States' future deterrent cannot be based on the old Cold War model of the number of weapons. Rather, it must be based on the capability to respond to any national security situation, and make weapons only if necessary.”

Personally, I see this as an excellent, interim step toward a day when we hold vastly fewer nuclear weapons and we fulfill the challenge that Norris Bradbury and Hans Bethe made to our generations. This is the start of a better way to protect our security, while lessening the nuclear threat worldwide.

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About the Presenter

Martz

For as long as I can recall, I have been interested in science. I remember reading the World Book encyclopedia several times, marveling at the entries on engineering, technology, and science. I moved from Texas to Los Alamos in 8th grade, and thought the old science museum at Los Alamos was the most amazing place I had ever seen. The fact that my father worked at Los Alamos was a source of tremendous pride. In high school, two key experiences set me on the course my career in science would take.

I heard about a contest to fly an experiment on the Space Shuttle in 1980. I submitted a proposal on purifying metals by passing electric currents through them in the vacuum of space. It was selected for the very first Space Shuttle “Students in Space” round of experiments. I’ll never forget traveling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to talk to NASA scientists and sit in the space shuttle simulators! I remember watching the television in awe as John Young and Bob Crippin rode the first Space Shuttle mission. Imagine my surprise when, a few months later, I was sent a patch that had flown on that mission, along with a certificate!

The second key experience occurred in the year I graduated, when Los Alamos held the 40th anniversary reunion of participants in the Manhattan Project. The renowned physicist Richard Feynman only agreed to speak if young people would be in the audience. I was one of 30 high school students with VIP seating at the very front. Hans Bethe gave the talk I’ll never forget. He spoke of the physics of supernovas—most of this went over my head. But at the end he turned to the young people in the front row and pointed his finger straight at me. “It’s up to your generation to find a solution to this problem we created. You must find a way to move beyond vast nuclear arsenals to protect peace,” Bethe said. I was stunned. My first reaction was, “what an old kook.” But after I went off to college, I kept hearing Bethe’s words and soon understood their wisdom. My generation would have to find a solution in science to the great paradox of nuclear weapons and peace.

I finished my degree at Texas Tech, and went on to graduate school at Berkeley, where I developed a novel way to clean plutonium from the environment. My work made quite a media splash—it was featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. I was invited come to Los Alamos as a full-blown staff member. I accepted, and began research into the weapons-related issues around plutonium. Now was the time to gain the expertise to contribute to answering Bethe’s challenge.

My first breakthrough was on how plutonium corrodes—basically how it rusts. During this time, the country stopped nuclear testing and shut down it’s plutonium factory—the Rocky Flats plant outside of Denver. Tons of plutonium around the country was left literally overnight in temporary containers. What I had discovered was that this plutonium would degrade in a very special way, potentially bursting its containers. I briefed a special board—the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board—on these results. Fairly quickly, the Defense Board issued a formal recommendation to repackage all of the plutonium in the country to avoid these problems. I was a science celebrity! I was asked to train inspectors and help write a new standard for storage of plutonium. And all of this grew out of work to understand how plutonium degraded in weapons.

I was asked to lead the group at Los Alamos responsible for the nuclear cores of weapons, called “pits.” Then I was asked to lead the program looking at all weapon materials and how they age. This was timely because the government was debating whether it needed a replacement for Rocky Flats. If pits lasted long enough, then a big replacement factory wouldn't be needed. Editorials in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal talked about the issue. Again, science was at the forefront of a critical national issue, and my research was back in the newspapers!

Well, we did figure out that pits age gracefully, and the government decided it did not need to build an expensive new facility. This was a great example of how science could inform critical national policy decisions. More importantly, it showed a way that science could help reduce the number of nuclear weapons. I was excited! I began to study nuclear deterrence and policy. Could science substitute for weapons? I was asked to help lead the famous weapons design division at Los Alamos. I studied issues around weapons design and physics. For 20 years, the government had not designed or fielded a new nuclear weapon. And now they were asking an important question: Could we reduce some of the yield of the weapons, while making a more robust, more secure nuke? There were concerns, in this post-9/11 world, about terrorists stealing nukes.

Once again, I was asked to lead a team to study this concept—the Reliable Replacement Warhead. For almost 2 years, we worked night and day to explore concepts. We’ll talk about some of them at the Caf´e. We’ll also return to the opening theme: Can science substitute for weapons? Can science provide both security and a deterrent?

Waste

September 2008

Nuclear Waste Disposal and the Role of Science in Decision Making

Bruce Robinson, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Ever since mankind unleashed the awesome power of the atom, the world has been confronted with both the tremendous promise and great threat posed by nuclear power. In his landmark Atoms for Peace speech in 1953, President Eisenhower set the nation on a course that led to the widespread, beneficial use of atomic power. Today, the U.S. generates 19% of its electricity from nuclear power reactors; internationally, the percentage in many developed countries is much higher. Nuclear reactors provide a constant, reliable source of power that feeds our electricity grid day and night, rain or shine, in windy or calm weather. Nuclear energy is safe and cost competitive with other major energy sources. Nuclear power plants emit almost no chemical or radioactive pollutants, and virtually no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Thus, as we work to make renewable energy options practical on a large-scale nuclear power is a viable alternative to fossil fuels, which are one of the biggest contributors to CO2 and other pollutants in the atmosphere. Nuclear power therefore ought to be a part of our energy future, especially in the first half of the 21st century. However...

Ever since nuclear power emerged as a major energy source, we have grappled with what to do with nuclear waste. In the normal operation of a nuclear reactor, unwanted radioactive elements are formed by the energy-generating fission reactions as well as neutron capture reactions. These radioactive elements decay over time frames ranging from minutes to millions of years, and pose a threat to human health. After energy generation, nuclear fuel rods and associated hardware are highly radioactive. Right now, the used or spent nuclear fuel rods are placed in storage pools on the individual reactor sites. These pools provide shielding from radioactivity and cooling to remove the heat generated by radioactive decay. Years later, after the most intense decay heat has tapered off, the fuel rod bundles can be removed and stored safely for long periods in shielded containers (this is called dry cask storage). However, these temporary storage solutions do not solve the problem of permanent disposal, they simply allow us to buy time until a better solution can be found.

The concept of permanent disposal of radioactive waste in underground geological formations has a history that is almost as long as nuclear power itself. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that storage in mined geologic repositories was the preferred option for solving the nuclear waste disposal problem. Subsequently, different geologic formations and rock types were considered, including salt, volcanic tuff, and granite. After much scientific study, and much political wrangling, the U.S. decided to characterize the volcanic tuffs of Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, to determine its suitability as a waste repository site. For the past 20 years, we have been studying the geologic formations, the movement of water, and the geochemistry of the rocks and fluids to determine the ability of the geologic strata to reduce the movement of radioactive elements should they escape the repository. The ultimate question is: would it be safe to bury radioactive waste beneath the surface of Yucca Mountain?

Predicting with high precision the future of an engineered system in a natural environment over a period of many thousands of years is beyond our capability. Realizing this, regulatory agencies with responsibility to protect human health and safety have established criteria for evaluating the suitability of a waste repository based on the concept of probabilities and risk. Probability is a measure of how likely it is that some event will occur. Risk is the potential negative impact that might arise from that event and is calculated based on the probability and the potential losses caused by the event. Each of us accept risk in our everyday actions because we believe that the risk of a negative event is much smaller than the positive benefits of those actions. Repository science leads to the calculation of a range of plausible outcomes, rather than a single prediction. Thus, there is a finite probability of an individual in the far distant future receiving a dose from a leaking repository. If the models suggest that the risk of an individual receiving a high radioactive dose is acceptably small, then the repository could be constructed, and waste could be buried there. The definition of acceptably small is made by the regulator in the form of a dose standard. Our role as scientists studying Yucca Mountain is to determine if our analyses show that the repository meets or exceeds that standard. Our studies of Yucca Mountain suggest that yes, the risk is lower than the dose standard set by the regulator.

So, even if we think that the repository will eventually leak, as long as the risk is low enough, we as a society will bury the waste there. Are you comfortable with the concept of risk being used in this way? Would your answer change if you lived close to the proposed repository site? Does it matter that the individuals who might receive a dose are people who will be born thousands of years from now? What if I told you that the additional dose that these individuals might receive from a repository is much lower than the levels we receive from normal background radiation due to natural processes? Should these risks be viewed in isolation, or should we compare these risks with risks associated with other energy sources, such as the risk of dramatic climate change precipitated by carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning? Maybe we should just put the problem off, hoping that future generations can resolve the nuclear waste issue for us. Would that choice be ethical?

Clearly, nuclear waste disposal is an issue with many dimensions, including scientific, political, and philosophical. It is therefore not surprising that the issue is controversial. What is the role of science in this process? Simply put, our job as scientists is to put relevant facts on the table so that decision makers can decide a course of action. I have my own opinion on what decision should be made regarding Yucca Mountain: I believe the best choice is to bury radioactive waste there. However, for a decision like this to be legitimate, it must reflect our collective value judgments, played out in a socio-political setting in which all citizens have a right to be involved. My hope as a scientist is that my work informs the decision making process by providing objective information that can be used so that we can arrive at the best possible decision.

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About the Presenter

Robinson

I would love to be able to tell you that ever since I entered Kindergarten, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. However, truth be told, when I was growing up I was much more interested in sports than any academic pursuits. As one of five children growing up in a middle class town in upstate New York, we followed avidly the progress of New York’s professional sports teams, in my case the Yankees, Knicks, and Giants. My heroes were Mickey Mantle and Walt Frazier (if you haven’t heard of them, ask your father!). Alas, I figured out before too long that although the spirit was willing, my skill level just wasn’t there for me to pursue sports. Although my family was not wealthy, I was fortunate to attend good public schools, and received a fine education that allowed me to figure out what I was good at. I got excellent grades in all subjects, but I did especially well in math and science.

With the help of some scholarships, loans, and support from my parents, I was able to attend Clarkson University, a small science and engineering school in Potsdam, New York. Aside from its reputation as a first-rate engineering school, Clarkson was and is known for its superb college hockey program and its frigid winter temperatures. I can still feel the biting cold, -40 degree temperatures against my face as I walked to and from classes. I entered Clarkson as an “Undecided Engineer,” knowing that the discipline of engineering appealed to me, but not yet figuring out which branch of engineering I wanted to pursue. I finally settled into chemical engineering because the breadth of the coursework in that curriculum would allow me to go in a variety of directions. I was also interested in nuclear engineering. Unfortunately, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 happened during my Junior year in college. This event led me away from pursuing a graduate career in this area. I believe that my choice was common at that time. Aside from the direct blow that this accident dealt to the nuclear power industry, the impact on the educational choices of the young people of that era is still being felt. To grow again to its full potential, the nuclear power industry will need to attract a new generation of young people to the field of nuclear engineering.

Upon graduating with a B.S. from Clarkson, I faced a decision of entering the work world or going to graduate school. I chose the latter for two reasons. First, I had held two summer jobs as an engineering apprentice doing the work of a production engineer at manufacturing plants. Being a more analytical person by nature, these hands-on positions did not suit my skills. But these jobs were very valuable for me – they gave me a low-cost way to discover what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. On a more positive note, I was intrigued with the possibility of performing scientific research to solve big problems – energy issues were looming in the late 1970’s with large increases in oil prices and gasoline shortages. Graduate school gave me a way to immediately work toward that end, and to prepare myself for a career in energy research. When MIT’s chemical engineering department said “yes” to my application and offered me a research assistant position, it took me all of about two seconds to decide to take them up on that offer.

At MIT I met my thesis supervisor, Dr. Jefferson Tester, and embarked on a thesis research project on geothermal energy, specifically using tracers to investigate the flow of water through fractures in a geothermal reservoir. Jeff was a primary influence on my career, with his inquisitive style, keen intellect, and supportive nature. My first experience at Los Alamos came shortly after entering MIT, and I spent roughly half of my graduate school career in New Mexico, performing research at the Lab’s Hot Dry Rock geothermal site at Fenton Hill, in the Jemez Mountains. I worked alongside and learned from many staff members at the Lab. To single out just one, Bob Potter, the inventor of the Hot Dry Rock geothermal concept, had a tremendous impact on me. Bob taught me the simple truth that in science, you must let the facts guide your investigations. On many occasions, I can remember going off to investigate a concept or model that Bob and I had discussed, only to come back later and find that Bob had already discarded the model in favor of a new one that did a better job explaining the latest data we had collected at the Fenton Hill site. Bob taught me that you don’t need to treat your ideas like your children – if your models disappoint you, get rid of them find newer, better ones!

Upon receiving my Ph.D., I had job offers from three oil companies and Los Alamos. I chose Los Alamos for its world-class scientific staff and open research environment. If I had chosen an oil company, I almost certainly would have lost my job within months of being hired, as falling oil prices in the mid 1980’s led to extreme cost-cutting measures in which these companies jettisoned their entire R&D departments. As a staff member at Los Alamos, I continued to work on the geothermal energy project, and when that project fell victim to falling energy prices and a perceived lack of need for alternative energy sources, I migrated to projects that needed R&D on flow of fluids and chemicals through subsurface porous rocks. In one project, we worked to ensure the quality of groundwater beneath Los Alamos and assessed the impact of the Lab’s past activities on waters that residents of the area drink every day. But my main focus has been the Yucca Mountain Project, assessing the proposed site for permanently disposing the nation’s high level radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and unwanted byproducts from the country’s nuclear weapons enterprise. The project is vital to our ability to use nuclear power as a clean, reliable energy source in the future. It is an endlessly fascinating project, from the science to the political and social aspects. The challenge of providing estimates of the risk posed by the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility millennia into the future is daunting, and requires creative scientific approaches. I also get to see how science impacts societal decisions, and how people from all walks of life process information and think about risk.

Throughout this journey, I’ve watched our approach to achieving a secure and sustainable energy future come full circle. We’ve gone from gasoline shortages and nuclear accidents, to an emphasis on renewable energy research, to a return to cheap oil, to a demand-driven scarcity of fossil fuels, to a potential renaissance in nuclear energy and renewable energy R&D. Having the opportunity to conduct research to find solutions to the complex and challenging issue of energy security is my chance to make contributions to the well being of our nation and the world. I’ll never regret choosing science as a career path – I guess not being able to hit the curveball was a blessing in disguise!

Computer

May 2008

Computers as We Don't Know Them

Christof Teuscher, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

The advancement of computers in the past few decades has caught many by surprise. No matter where you go today, there are computers that you either recognize as such or that are hidden and invisible to your eye. Did you know that modern cars contain up to 100 small computers? For example, your car’s airbags are controlled by several computers and a few tens of sensors, which determine a passenger’s weight, the size, the angle, and the force of a possible impact, and then decide by means of complex algorithms and to the millisecond if and when to deploy each available airbag.

Computers are machines. That was particularly obvious some 50 years ago, when they made a lot of noise, occupied entire rooms, weighted tons, and worked very unreliably. Thanks to an astounding progress in the miniaturization of electronics, your cell phone can now do more calculations per second than early supercomputers and the tiny electronic chip in your credit card has more memory than the first personal computers. As a matter of fact, computers have changed much more rapidly than most other technologies, such as cars and airplanes. Why is that the case and how will this technological (r)evolution continue? What will computers look like in 20 years? How and where will they be used? Will computers be implanted in your body? Will computers allow you to expand your brain power? Will machines become more intelligent than humans and take over the world? There is strictly no reason to believe that machines will dominate us, but it’s an obvious fact that in many ways machines already do many things that no human can do.

Nowadays, the most promising areas for further progress in computers are the nanosciences, biosciences, and neurosciences. Nanotechnology allows us to build novel materials from scratch, to manipulate atomic-scale objects, and thus offers the potential to build even smaller computers. Bio-molecular components can be used to perform computations too, and it may be possible in the near future that you can for example swallow intelligent medication that decides in the body where to go and what exactly to fix. Finally, advances in neuroscience will allow us to better understand the brain and to replicate some of its functions by means of computers, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, and thus to create more intelligent machines.

Have you ever opened your computer? Do you know what the key difference between computers and other machines are? Do you know the basics of computer’s internal workings? Do you know that bacteria can perform computations too? This Café will explore the fast and fascinating advancement of computers, illustrate novel computing machines, and muse about what’s coming next. The only about half a century old story of modern computers is a clearly a success story, yet it’s only just the beginning of much more radical technological advances that will undoubtedly affect all of us. Come and explore together the unknown world of future and emerging computers at the edge of science fiction!


About the Presenter

Teuscher

One of my first major experiences with electricity was at 10, when I tried to measure how much current comes out of a power outlet with an ampere meter. That didn’t go well and resulted in an all-day power outage of our house and a melted ampere meter. Yet, that only made me more curious and in the next 10 years, I spent a major part of my free time soldering together electronic circuits for all kinds of applications. For example, I remember that my brother and I once built a remote controlled electronic ignition for fireworks. We felt like working for NASA. My first experience with computers consisted in watching my dad writing programs on a Commodore C64 computer, one of the first affordable personal computers. Soon, my brother and I knew much more about the peculiarities of programming that magic machine than my dad, after which he simply passed it to us kids and bought the first Apple Macintosh for himself. Needless to say that at that time, there was no e-mail and web.

The path to what I do today in life has been all but straight. The reason is maybe that I have a tendency for doing things in unconventional ways and don’t like to go with the main stream. I found alternative paths and decisions always more exciting and rewarding. After secondary school, I decided to seriously learn how to deal with electronics, electricity, electro mechanics, and computers, and therefore went to technical high school to become an electronics engineer. This was a great experience and made me a handyman for pretty much all technical things. My mentor taught me to always ask the question how you would fabricate a given object. Try it for yourself, it gives you a completely new perspective and appreciation of objects! I also had the occasion to participate in both the Swiss and the European contest for young scientists with a wind speed computer that I had developed with a friend. This unique experience paved the way to becoming a scientist later, and opened the new world of science and discoveries to me, which I wasn’t aware of before. After finishing technical high school, I really couldn’t imagine working in industry, maybe repairing TVs or computers, for my whole life, so I decided to go to college and university. I thought I’d go back to industry later, and becoming a scientist wasn’t the plan at all. At that time, I wasn’t sure whether to go for physics, math, or computer science. I’ve always been very fascinated by physics, but I felt that I lacked serious inherent talent that one needs to become really good in a field, so I went for computer science since I’ve become quite gifted with these stubborn machines over the years.

I’ve never been gifted with learning foreign languages and French and English really made me suffer a lot in college. Nevertheless, always attracted by challenges, I decided to go to university in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I ended up staying for 8 years, getting both my Masters and PhD degree in computer science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. To my general surprise, I learned French to perfection rather easily. Compared to learning a foreign language at school, one is completely embedded in the foreign environment and I didn’t have to learn futile words and grammar. When I started at university, I didn’t quite know what a PhD degree was and how to get one. However, in my 3rd year as a Master’s student, I unexpectedly got a summer job in a lab at my university and that’s when I discovered the real fascination of science. Among many other things, this summer job also led to my first scientific publication and a trip to a conference in the US. From then on, I knew that science was what I wanted to do in life, and the decision to get enrolled in a PhD program was straightforward.

My PhD advisor was totally amazing, supported me unconditionally, and always encouraged me to do what I like and to like what I do. No sooner said than done! After my PhD, my wife and I both obtained a fellowship to do research at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). We thought we’d stay a year or two in the US and then go back to Switzerland. That was in 2004. We’re still here and have no intention whatsoever to go back.

After my postdoc at UCSD, I became a postdoc at LANL, and later a Technical Staff Member. My current research focuses on the most exciting and adventurous part of computer science: the computers for the next 5-20 years. This cutting-edge research is about pushing fundamental and technical limits, realizing visions, and doing things that no one has imagined would happen a few years ago. It never gets boring because every day is a step into no man’s land, where lots of open questions and challenges are waiting. I’m a scientist because I’m curious by nature, love to explore the unknown, and can’t find rest until I know how things work or how a challenging problem can be solved.

Nanotech

April 2008

Nanotechnology: Myth and Reality

Jennifer Hollingsworth, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Do you use nanotechnology in your daily life? You might be surprised to learn that there are already almost 600 nanotechnology products on the market, including cosmetics, sunscreens, clothing, electronics, home furnishings, and sports equipment. But, what is nanotechnology? It is simply the ability to measure, see, manipulate, and manufacture things between 1 and 100 nanometers in size, where one nanometer (nm) is 10-9 meters or 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. In other words, the change in scale in going from a nano-sized ball to a softball is equivalent to that in going from the softball to a ball the size of the moon. Some view nanotechnology as the driver of a new industrial revolution that will make use of the unique and important properties that arise as materials are shrunk to the nanoscale. Such proponents of nanotechnology believe that it can be used to solve the energy and biomedical crises that plague 21st century humanity. Others focus on the risks associated with making and using nanoscale materials. One fear – popular in science fiction literature – is that nanotechnology may lead to the “grey goo” revolution in which out-of-control self-replicating nano-robots consume all living matter on Earth. This Café will explore the current reality of nanotechnology that lies somewhere between these two extremes of ultimate promise and ultimate doom.

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [7 Mb].

  • Consumer Products An inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market This web site contains a list of 500+ products that contain nanomaterials.
  • Nanotechnology takes off - KQED QUEST Television Story This is a movie that features Berkeley nano scientists talking about the science and future of nanotechnology.
  • Remarkable New Clothing May Someday Power Your iPod® Imagine being able to power small devices through energy that is converted by the shirt on you back through your physical motions. This is what nanotechnology researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are attempting.
  • The Nano Song Berkeley junior Glory Liu performed the vocals in "The Nano Song."

About the Presenter

Hollingsworth

According to legend, three ancient Chinese curses state,

  • May you live in interesting times
  • May you come to the attention of those in authority
  • May you find what you are looking for

Depending on whether you believe these to be curses—or blessings—may help determine whether science is the career for you.

May you live in interesting times.

As an undergraduate, I majored in chemistry with a minor in environmental science at a small liberal arts college called Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. It was there where my now hardened tendency to bring on “interesting times” began. The undergraduate-only environment allowed me to explore interests outside of science, while still allowing me to get a solid education in my major. I enjoyed advanced classes in Russian literature (Dostoyevsky) and African culture and politics, while completing requirements for my chemistry major. Though challenging, I have always sought to combine my studies in physical science with those in social science and the humanities.

I was able to put this dual focus into action during a semester in Costa Rica. I lived with local families and worked with a local university professor to study the effects of pollution on river water chemistry. That was supposed to be the extent of my project – conduct laboratory analyses of water samples collected at a series of points along the local river. These sites ranged from pig farms to residential housing to cloth dyeing factories. But, I decided to make this project more complete and, hence, more “interesting.” I conducted a survey of the people who lived along and near the river. I wanted to understand their relationship with the river (and the environment in general), especially their understanding and attitudes regarding pollution. I was not a very good Spanish speaker, but I went door-to-door to 50 homes with my lengthy questionnaire. More than once, I had to run outside with the families when one of the frequent earthquakes occurred. I put the results of this crude social science experiment together with the chemical analysis data into a final report that now resides in the small library in San Antonio de Belén, Heredia, Costa Rica.

My Costa Rican chemistry professor would have preferred that I had stuck only with the science, and maybe I took on too much with the project, but I am still proud of that final report. And, at the end of my stay I had to pull two all-nighters in a row to finish all of the writing. This caused me to miss my flight home when I didn’t wake up in time for the taxi ride to the airport! So, in this sense, “interesting” is life and work pushed to the limit, stressful and exciting at the same time. I have since learned to manage my time more efficiently, but now with work and family commitments competing, it is still never dull.

May you come to the attention of those in authority.

Following college, I started in an Environmental Science doctorate program at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. This was a science-focused interdisciplinary program that I thought matched my “dual” interests very well. I even got to take an environmental law course. Law was my secret passion that I perhaps would have pursued if I had not been incredibly shy and a nervous public speaker. Somehow I assumed that all lawyers were the showmen trial lawyers that you see on TV! After only a year, however, I decided that it was better to get a more traditional graduate education and then apply that deeper and more focused knowledge to the broader problems that interested me. So, I moved to St. Louis and entered in the Chemistry program at Washington University. In late 1999, I received my PhD in Inorganic Chemistry, and immediately started in a postdoctorate position at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL).

After two years as a “postdoc,” I began my current position as a Technical Staff Member in the LANL Chemistry Division. My boss and mentor was an extremely influential and energetic physicist from Russia. With him, I learned the chemistry and physics of nano-sized particles called quantum dots, or QDs. Because the research was exciting and because QDs have so many potential applications from biomedicine to lasers to solid-state lighting to solar cells, we were asked to help plan a new center for nanoscale science. Though a significant responsibility, this was an excellent opportunity for a young scientist like me to work with senior scientists and managers in an important new area. After several years of planning, the center, called the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), was created (LANL and Sandia National Labs working together). Two buildings were subsequently built – the LANL Gateway in Los Alamos and the Core Facility in Albuquerque. I am now a CINT Scientist, and I oversee the Gateway Synthetic Chemistry Facility. The great joy in my career life at the moment is working with four talented, enthusiastic, and fun postdocs. Together, we do the science of making and characterizing new nanomaterials.

However, being known to “those in authority” means that you will more often encounter new and different responsibilities. Assuming that you perform well, these keep coming. And, as I have discovered, in the world of science at a national lab (or a university for that matter), this does not always mean “science” responsibilities. There are a seemingly endless number of committees on which to serve, more centers to plan, talks to give, and a constant need to keep the funding flowing by meeting with funding agencies and writing proposals. So, through my career in science – a career I once considered a safe haven for someone who is naturally introverted – I have learned to speak and to network. These skills are as critical to a successful scientist as they are to a successful businessman.

May you find what you are looking for.

As a young kid in the ‘70’s, I was entranced by a commercial in which a completely together career woman sang, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you're a man, 'Cuz I'm a woman!" The message was that women could do it all—work and family—and that it was no big deal. I simply assumed that this was true. My mom was my role model. She had a family and a career as a nurse, and though she wasn’t very happy, I assumed that I could do all of this AND be happy.

Well, I am happy, but I have also learned that a demanding career in science can also be stressful. It is not the kind of job that you can leave at the office. You take it home with you literally and figuratively. It is a competitive career in which you need to be compared well with your co-workers in terms of funding, science productivity, etc. It is often particularly stressful for a woman trying to juggle career and family. Compromises are necessary.

So I have found that the picture isn’t as simple as I imagined it would be and as women of my generation were told. On the other hand, I have also found that a career in science, like my Costa Rican adventure, is “life and work pushed to the limit, stressful and exciting at the same time.” In science, you may well find most of what you are looking for—and a whole lot more!

Ice

March 2008

What Sudden Shifts Loom in the Earth's Climate and Ecosystems?

Craig Allen, United States Geological Survey; Scott Elliott, Elizabeth Hunke, Todd Ringler, and Wilbert Weijer, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenters' Essays and Bios

Sea Ice, the Ocean's Fragile Cloak

Elizabeth Hunke, LANL

Will sea ice modelers soon be out of a job? After stunning sea ice losses last summer in the Arctic, one wonders! By the end of the 2007 summer melt season, the Arctic ice had shrunk by nearly 40 percent from its 1979-2000 average extent, and the fabled Northwest Passage was open to seafarers for the first time in human memory. Sea ice returns during the dark, cold, winter months, but will it recede to yet another record low next year? There are too many competing factors to know for certain, but the likelihood of an ice-free Arctic summer is rising.

The Earth's atmosphere and ocean act as heat engines, always trying to restore a temperature balance by transporting heat away from the equator, toward the poles. Arctic sea ice, which covers a huge area---greater than the lower 48 states in summer and twice that in winter---regulates these circulation patterns and therefore our weather. It's disappearance could have significant implications for life on the planet.

Sea ice is simply frozen ocean water. It forms, grows, and melts in the ocean. In contrast, icebergs, glaciers, ice sheets, and ice shelves all originate on land. Sea ice occurs in both the Arctic and Antarctic, growing during the winter months and melting during the summer months, and some sea ice remains all year in both regions. But sea ice is like the snowmen that appear in neighborhood yards after a fresh snowfall---as soon as the temperature rises a tiny bit above freezing, they start to melt and soon are gone!

Ultimately, sunshine is king. It drives the climate system and melts the ice. Its disappearance at high latitudes in the winter allows the ice to grow back. But other factors are at work too, including the sea ice itself. Cold air from Siberia or the Antarctic continent cools the ocean's surface and new sea ice freezes. Winds blow it around, crashing it into the coast or icebergs or other sea ice, causing it to pile up into thick ridges of ice. Ocean currents bring warm waters beneath the ice, melting it from below. Sometimes winds and ocean currents together move the ice into warmer waters, where it melts.

In this tussle between atmosphere and ocean, the sea ice is not a passive bystander. It has its own tactics for meeting the competition or, in some cases, becoming an accomplice to its own destruction. Sea ice is both ocean sunscreen and blanket, preventing solar rays from warming the waters beneath and thwarting ocean heat from escaping to warm the air above. But if gradually warming temperatures melt sea ice over time, fewer bright surfaces are available to reflect sunlight, more heat escapes from the ocean to warm the atmosphere, and the ice melts further. The cycle accelerates. Thus, even a small increase in temperature can lead to greater warming over time, making the polar regions the most sensitive areas to climate change on Earth. But as sea ice melts, it leaves a layer of fresh water at the ocean's surface that inhibits the ocean's global circulation, the "conveyor" that brings warm water toward the poles. Sea ice is both an obstacle and a catalyst for change, able to hasten the pace in either direction.

What happens when there's no more Arctic ice in the summer? Polar bears lose their hunting platforms, for one thing. And they're at the top of the food chain! The web of life will be affected in ways we can not yet imagine, but the news may not be all bad: sea ice in the Antarctic retreats almost completely every summer, supporting a rich ecosystem at whose foundation lie algae and other microbes that thrive in the seasonal ice habitat. Will the Arctic become more like the Antarctic? Stay tuned: some fear the Arctic sea ice has already reached its tipping point.

Big Fast Shifts in the Ecology of New Mexico Have Begun Due to Climate Change

Craig Allen, USGS

Climate change is beginning to be evident in New Mexico, with markedly warmer and drier conditions expected in coming decades. These climate changes will stress existing forests, and likely drive increasingly extensive and severe episodes of forest dieback. This process seems to have already started. In summer 2002, pinyon (Pinusedulis) began dying en masse from drought stress and an associated bark beetle outbreak. Similer kinds of forest stress and dieback are now becoming apparent in many parts of the world. Warmer, dry conditions will also amplify the severity of fire activity, which can trigger massive erosion in mountain watersheds that could clog reservoirs that store water for human purposes. Water resources likely will be directly strained in New Mexico as projections of less winter snow means less free natural water storage in mountains watersheds and earlier spring runoff peaks, reducing water available in streams and reservoirs for human uses. Despite these trends, there are actions (like forest thinning) we can take to increase the resilience of forests in New Mexico to these expected effects of climate change.

The Burning Ice: Will Methane Hydrate Destabilization Surprise Climate Scientists?

Scott Elliott, LANL

The clathrates are an exotic substance formed just below the bottom of the sea, due to the reaction of methane decomposing from dead organisms with water molecules trapped in coastal sediment. If you bring methane clathrate crystals rapidly to the surface for study, or even just for your own amusement, they look and feel like common ice but can be set on fire. They are quite literally ice crystals that burn. No one really knows how much of the stuff is out there. A small but real chance exists that sea floor warming induced by global climate change will melt enough of the substance to inject significant quantities of free methane gas into the atmosphere. There it acts as a greenhouse agent and is thirty times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, which gets much more attention from scientists and policy makers. So what can be done to nail this problem down? We need to figure out where the clathrates are and then use global ocean models to simulate the rate at which they are likely to hiccup. After several years of trying, our local Los Alamos climate team has just recently managed to get an okay to begin such a project.

Clathrate destabilization is in fact a good example of the many, greatly understudied but potentially significant climate phenomena that come under the general heading of "biogeochemistry". This may be defined as the study of everything happening near the surface of the planet that is not pure physics -in other words, all the interlocking biology, geology and chemistry of the ocean. atmosphere and continents. Biogeochemistry is a field of research just about to explode at the university and agency levels. Politicians and policy makers are beginning to realize that they cannot just study environmental change on an imaginary planet where there exists one element called carbon and one greenhouse gas constructed from it called CO2. Rather, they are compelled to consider the most complex chemical and biotic system known anywhere in the universe, the Earth, which is the place we happen to call home and are currently rebuilding in a major way. Biogeochemical feedbacks will have to be understood with relative completeness if we are to accurately predict the costs of altering and managing global climate.

An Introduction to the Science of Climate Change

Todd Ringler, LANL

Climate has always been a primary driver of civilization. Climate largely dictates what we wear, what we eat, what modes of transport we use and what type of dwellings we construct for shelter. Climate literally touches every facet of our lives. As such, climate has played a tremendous role in shaping the very fabric of our civilization.

Through millennia we have become accustomed to, and even comforted by, our relationship with the Earth's climate system. That relationship has always been a one-way relationship. The climate changes and we react to it. Even as we harnessed the power of nature by planting its river bottoms, damming its rivers, mining its ore and logging its forests we never fathomed the possibility that we could change the Earth's climate. How could we ever alter something so powerful and so immense as the climate by simply living our lives?

Through our own ingenuity and with gifts from nature, we have constructed our entire civilization on energy produced from oil, coal and natural gas. Unfortunately we are coming to realize that there are unintended consequences from our reliance on fossil fuels, mainly through the generation and emission of carbon dioxide. Once thought of as an innocuous gas, carbon dioxide is also a "greenhouse gas," meaning it traps heat within the atmosphere which, in turn, tends to warm the climate. So we are doing what was once considered unimaginable, we are changing the Earth's climate.

As we continue to study the Earth's climate system and how carbon dioxide is likely to alter it, we are continually amazed and humbled by the complexity and intricacy of the system. What starts as a small ripple in global temperature propagates into every part of the climate system where it can lead to consequences that far outsize the initial ripple. We are coming to appreciate the notion of "thresholds" in our climate system where a small changes acting over a long time, such as carbon dioxide emissions, leads to a large response that occurs over a very short time.

In this presentation I will try introduce the concept of global climate change along with the notion of thresholds. Examples of carbon-dioxide instigated thresholds in the climate system include rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, dramatic feedbacks driven by marine and terrestrial ecosystems and rapid sea-level rise due to melting ice sheets. I will touch on a few of these examples in an attempt to illustrate the two main points of the presentation. First, we have entered an era where we will determine the trajectory of the global climate system in ways we do not fully appreciate. And second, since the science of global climate change will continue to unfold for decades to come there are great opportunities for all of us, young and old.

What if the Ocean Conveyor Belt Stalled?

Wilbert Weijer, LANL

Imagine yourself drifting in the North Atlantic, attached to a bucket of water. You could be drifting in the middle of the ocean for months. Chances are that you will slowly drift towards the Caribbean, and enter one of the strongest currents on Earth, the Gulf Stream. Within a few weeks you will have been swept northward, past the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. After passing Cape Hatteras, the current leaves the continent, and before you know it you will be in the middle of the Atlantic again. Now you have two choices. You can take the southern branch of the current, which will bring you straight across the Atlantic towards Africa. You might catch a glimpse of the Azores before you slowly drift south again towards the tropics. Or you can take the northerly branch. This will take you to Great Britain; from there you will drift north to Norway. Weather starts to deteriorate. The air gets colder, it starts to rain. Your call.

Suppose you took the northern branch. You might find yourself floating around in the Greenland Sea. Suddenly, your bucket of water will have cooled off so much that it becomes heavier than the water beneath you. It feels like the bottom drops out from under you, and you start to sink. You experienced a convection event, that will take you down to a depth of a few kilometers. Here, in the darkness of the abyss, you feel yourself slowly moving south again. You drift along the U.S. east coast again, but now in the opposite direction and several kilometers beneath the surface. You continue to drift, passing South America until suddenly you are swept eastward, you have entered the strong Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This majestic current flows around Antarctica, swept forward by the horrendous storms of the Southern Ocean. It might take you decades, and many trips around Antarctica, before you finally reach the surface again. If you happen to end up in the Atlantic Ocean, you will start to drift north again, first taking the Benguela Current to cross the South Atlantic from Africa to Brazil, then the North Brazil Current, across the Equator, until finally, hey! you are back in the Gulf Stream!

If you're still with me: congratulations! You just completed a loop of the global conveyor belt circulation! This ocean drift is very important for the climate system. When your water bucket cooled off in the Greenland Sea, it gave up its heat to the atmosphere, thereby heating the high northern latitudes, and in particular western Europe. There were times in the past when the water didn't get this far. During the ice ages, you would have sunk south of Iceland. Large parts of Europe, Asia and North America were covered by huge ice sheets, in part because the ocean couldn't get its heat as far north as it does today.

Climate scientists fear that there might be a hidden threshold in the conveyor belt. If the atmosphere heats up over the Greenland Sea, your bucket of water might not cool off enough to sink. In addition, chances are that the precipitation will increase as well. The extra freshwater in your bucket makes it even lighter in comparison to the cold and salty water underneath you. Without your bucket sinking, and drifting south, there is no place for new import of warm water. Global warming might thus slow down, and finally halt, the conveyor belt. If this happens, the impact will be felt mostly in the North Atlantic region; it will reduce or halt the trend of global warming. However, many consequences are hard to predict. What will happen to the sea ice in the Arctic? The ice sheets of Greenland? The North Atlantic fisheries that depend so strongly on the mild ocean temperatures? European agriculture? On the global scale, the impacts will be more subtle. The conveyor extracts a lot of heat and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Without this sink, will CO2 levels and global temperatures go through the roof? As the deep ocean warms and expands, will the resulting raising sea levels mean the end of New Orleans, parts of Florida, the Netherlands?

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation (Hunke) [3 Mb].

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation (Elliott) [4.4 Mb].

An Introduction to the Science of Climate Change

  • Climate set for 'sudden shifts' - This article from the BBC is taken from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal and is a result of a study done by an international team of scientists who have studied what may cause shifts in our climate and believe "..that human induced global warming has begun to affect some aspects of our climate."
  • Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags - This article from the New York Times describes the effects of a 0.33¢ tax per plastic bag in Dublin, Ireland.
  • Unnatural Preservation - This article from High Country News discusses the conundrums facing wildlife and public land-managers due to global warming.

Sea Ice, the Ocean's Fragile Cloak

A Hidden Threshold?

Ocean Circulation


About the Presenters

Elizabeth Hunke

Hunke

I thought I would be a musician. My high school did not offer AP or advanced courses in science, mathematics, or anything else. Instead, I played in the band. I learned to type. I was pretty good in math class, but it was basic stuff. Physics was the hardest subject offered, and I managed to get through that because I could do the math. During my first year of college, I postponed choosing a particular degree program and took all kinds of courses, including math, science and music. I learned two important things: first that if I majored in music, my enjoyment would probably fizzle because it would be "work", and second that it would be much easier to make a living doing math or science, playing music for fun, than it would be to make a living playing music and doing math or science for fun.

My college guidance counselor, who was a math professor, introduced me to mathematical applications that were fascinating, things like population dynamics and the way drum heads vibrate. Then I got a summer job at AT&T Bell Labs, and that settled it: I wanted to work in a laboratory. I spent that entire summer sitting in front of a computer, trying to make a software program simulate the way certain atoms attach to other atoms in a potential superconductor. This was cutting-edge physics! But superconductors were inscrutable to me, and indeed much of physics beyond Newton's apple seemed rather esoteric. With a mathematics degree, I realized I'd have the basic skills to work on any scientific application that seemed interesting, and I could still work in a laboratory!

One day in Tucson, I listened to a professor give a mathematical description of how hurricanes work, and I thought I'd found my life's work. Even before moving to the desert, I thought clouds were beautiful and mysterious; weather has always been a critical element of my farming family's life. My Grandfather never missed a weather forecast on the TV. In Tennessee, remnant hurricanes produce deluges that turn gullies into roaring rivers, and my family never irrigated---they depended on the sky to rain the right amount at the right time of year. I was thrilled to study such a powerful aspect of the weather! This is the topic that became the focus of my graduate studies.

When I began looking for a job, climate change was just becoming a "hot" topic. Sea ice and hurricanes seem like very different phenomena, but the mathematical equations used to describe them are actually quite similar. As I had anticipated, the mathematical knowledge and skills that I developed in graduate school translated easily to my new job as a sea ice modeler for climate studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I have been to Antarctica and taken samples and measurements of real sea ice, but I spend most of my time typing on a computer, creating simulations of how the ice grows and melts, crumples and moves. One of the things I love best about making music is the sensation of creating something beautiful from essentially nothing; not everyone would consider a computer program "beautiful," but I have gotten a lot of satisfaction from building our sea ice model. Designing a mathematical model for a particular scientific phenomenon and then writing a computer program to solve it is a creative process, and I am continually delighted when other scientists from all around the world express appreciation for my work, which enables them to design and carry out their own computer experiments to understand climate change.

As my understanding of global climate has grown, I have also enjoyed learning about how it affects day-to-day life on the local scale. As a pilot who likes to fly light aircraft around the West, I am interested in how climate changes affect the weather, particularly heat that makes for a bouncy ride or wind patterns that whiz me along to my destination. As a gardener coaxing tender plants to thrive alongside chamisa and cacti, I am fascinated by our desert precipitation cycle and how global climate changes affect our ability to live in a sustainable way on this landscape. Thus, my scientific career informs my daily life, and I still get to play my French horn all the time.

Allen

Craig Allen

I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin near Green Bay, the oldest of 6 kids. I have been lucky to have been part of a great family thru the years, I always felt close to my parents and have known all of my grandparents well into adulthood (one Grandma is still living on her farm at age 92). When I was 12 my Grandpa Allen bought a swampy, badly abused woodlot from a local farmer, and ever since my family has spent much time there, planting trees and thinning the forest, re-introducing wildflowers, picking blackberries and gardening for food, making firewood, and especially making maple syrup every spring in a perfectly small-scale family effort. Getting out in the woods often with my Grandpa was wonderful. He didn't have a lot of formal education and was a quiet soft-spoken man, but he knew so much about that place, and I learned a lot from him about the life of a forest, and about appreciating the natural world, the pleasures of simply being outdoors. Being involved in, and observing, the ecological recovery and healing of this land over the past almost 40 years has had a big influence on me. My Dad now cares for this land, and making maple syrup each March is the highlight of every spring for him, the key marker of the turning of the seasons. I'm sad to be missing it this year!

So, I've always loved trees and being outdoors, but had no idea about careers growing up, becoming a scientist certainly was not part of my vision then. After high school I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and ending up majoring in geography as it gave me the freedom to study many things. At that time my aunt in Tucson convinced my Allen grandparents to retire in Bisbee, on the Arizona/Mexico border, and I started to visit the Southwest often. In 1979 I took my junior-year spring semester off from university to spend time in AZ with them, and on the return trip I stopped in Espanñola to volunteer at a school for 2 weeks that turned into 3 months, falling in love with a teacher there and the landscapes of northern New Mexico. Ever since I have basically been here, except when taking classes at universities, studying the ecology of these fascinating and beautiful landscapes.

I finished my B.S. in 1980 (and married Sharon), a M.S. in biogeography in 1984 also from Univ. of Wisconsin (thesis topic: "Montane grasslands in the landscape of the Jemez Mts., New Mexico"), and then went on to the Univ. of California at Berkeley to study forest ecology. Along the way I spent 3 months studying tropical ecology in Costa Rica (entirely in the field all over that lovely country, best schooling I ever did), and was going to do my Ph.D. research in extremely remote roadless mountain forests in southern Mexico (Oaxaca). But a major earthquake there and mostly becoming pregnant with our daughter Kiyana caused me to change plans, and so I came back here in 1986 to study changes in the ecology of the Jemez Mountains, supported by the National Park Service at Bandelier National Monument. When I graduated that turned into a job as an ecologist at Bandelier, and later the researchers were shifted to other agencies, so I have ended up working for the U.S. Geological Survey but my office and base of operations are still at Bandelier. Meanwhile we adopted twin sons, Ben and Nik, when they came into our lives at 3 weeks old they were only 4 pounds each, but now they're seniors at Los Alamos High and if you watch basketball you'll see them playing. For 22 years now, parenting and all of its pleasures and challenges has actually been the highest priority, and most satisfying, aspect of my life.

So, the Jemez Mts. have become my home, and I've been formally studying the ecology of northern New Mexico for over 25 years now (!!), it's amazing how fast the time flies, in part because it's been very busy and often a lot of fun. Although there have been some very hard times along the way too, professionally and personally, e.g., the Cerro Grande Fire that burned Los Alamos in 2000 was started as a prescribed burn by Bandelier in part from the advice of a certain ecologist there, and despite years of effort eventually my marriage failed, although Sharon and I remain solid co-parents and good friends. The past 10 years I've been increasingly focused on the effects of climate change, and comparing what's happening here to other parts of the Earth, working with many colleagues around the world (e.g., the past 3 years intensely with people in Spain). Overall, life as an ecological scientist has been very good. I just turned 50 this year so I suppose I'm not truly young anymore, but I'm still energized (most of the time at least!) by the pleasures of learning new things every day and having chances to make a difference in this world.

Elliott

Scott Elliott

Scott Elliott of the Los Alamos ocean model team has had an obscure and checkered scientific career driven mainly by his desire to remain married to the same woman while simultaneously living in the Rocky Mountains. This has confined his professional opportunities largely to projects undertaken by remote and mysterious Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Lab is located deep in the Jemez range of Northern New Mexico and this is as close as he could get to UNM, the institution where his wife works as a biology professor. Elliott and this lovely lady have two smart, wonderful kids now moving through high school. They are a great joy to him, but basically they haven't got the slightest interest in what he does for a living. He nevertheless clings to the notion that his work is important and fascinating, and hopes perhaps that some of the Café participants will agree.

Since coming to Los Alamos, Elliott has sometimes been assigned to projects which are heavily defense or national security-oriented. He always participates with a smile and this goes to show what a flexible guy he is. Examples include the study of nerve agent release into city air following the Tokyo subway Aum Shinrikyo incident, or satellite detection of North Korean missile launches. But Elliott's heart is really in global change, and he is thus extremely thankful now to be working on the very topical and relevant issues presented by climate modeling. His original training is in chemistry but since joining the Los Alamos ocean simulation team he has become a self-taught, seat of the pants biologist as well. He performs research on geological scale cycling of the elements using these skills and hence can be termed a "biogeochemist". In his current job description Elliott is almost entirely unique. He is one of only two people in the world currently performing marine biology simulations at a nuclear weapons laboratory, and to make matters worse it is located on top of a mountain, in the middle of the desert, a thousand miles from the nearest body of water larger than a bathtub. Clearly Elliott's career to date has been somewhat nonstandard. But his colleagues on the Los Alamos ocean model team are so good that he is nevertheless quite productive and has a tremendous amount of fun.

Although he has no real oceanographic training, Elliott is proud to note that he has spent significantly more time in seawater over the course of his life than any of the formally educated specialists he interacts with on a professional basis. This is because when he was young, he happened to be a dedicated surfer and body surfer (dude!). To become proficient at these sports you have to spend many hours every day up to your neck in the ocean, summer after summer from the time you learn to swim until you go to college and get serious about life. Encounters with jelly fish, porpoises and whales are not uncommon, hence Elliott's fondness for the marine biology. You look down under your chin beneath the warm California sun and see lots of sparkly little dust particles whirling about mixed with chunks of bizarre green goo. So there's the geochemistry. Take that, oceanography snobs.

Ringler

Todd Ringler

It is hard for me to imagine my life without science. Whether at home, at work, in the woods or strolling around town, trying to figure out how things work is always a part of my day. My life would be much poorer and the world would be much less exciting without this curiosity.

I grew up in rural Appalachia. My dad is a civil engineer and my mom a teacher. School was always important in our family. Thinking back to those childhood days, the natural curiosity is obvious. I can recall trying to figure out how to build a stronger dam to hold back more of the water flowing down the an ephemeral stream, or annoying my parents to help me build a better paper airplane that would fly farther and longer, or coaxing my dad to explain to me what "meters per second squared" meant and why was it important to building model rockets. The fact that I did not have the tools or knowledge to understand these things irritated me greatly, but it also energized me. The more I learned, the bigger and more exciting the world became. And that excitement continues to this day.

I worked my way through an undergraduate program in aerospace engineering at West Virginia University. I spent each summer working with a small crew to build, from beginning to end, a single home. Building houses let me see real-world applications to many of those college courses. One of the senior crew members (and former high school math teacher) once said in a moment of true frustration that I was "impossible to teach". While he did not intend it as a compliment, I took it as such. Finding the answers on my own has always been the most rewarding part of science.

As a senior in college I was astonished when a professor told me that engineering departments actually paid salaries to their graduate students. The thought of getting paid to learn seemed just too good to be true. So my fate was sealed: gradate school at Princeton and Cornell, a research scientist position at Colorado State, then on to Los Alamos National Laboratory. The path from aerospace engineering to climate science was mostly a gradual transition. It turned out that for me the most exciting part of aerospace engineering was the fluid motion and the ability to simulate that fluid motion on computers. Once I realized I could meld my curiosity of fluid motion with my love for the natural world, a career in atmospheric science was clear. The transition and broadening from atmospheric science to climate science has been driven mainly by the problem of global climate change.

Global climate change provides us all with a problem of enormous scientific and social complexity. So even though my passion for science is largely a selfish pursuit, the fact that I can work on a small part of this huge problem is really icing on the cake. Being a scientist working on a problem that is so centrally relevant to society is truly a dream come true.

Weijer

Wilbert Weijer

I grew up in the Netherlands, a small country in Europe bordering the North Sea. Traditionally the Dutch have a strong relation with the sea. On the one hand they are constantly struggling to keep the water out, as large parts of the country lie below sea level. The Dutch reclaimed large areas from the water (polders) by first building dikes around an area, and then pumping it dry using wind mills. A lot of Dutch actually live on the bottom of the sea! This makes the nation very vulnerable to sea level rise. On the other hand, the Dutch became masters of the sea, as they developed into a successful sea-faring nation. The maritime tradition of the Netherlands strongly appealed to me when I grew up. I couldn't stop dreaming of the elegant sailing ships that once sailed the oceans, visiting exotic places on far-away continents or islands. I figured that by studying the ocean, if nothing else I could make these travels in my mind...

I started studying Physical Oceanography in 1989 at Utrecht University. Coursework included an oceanographic expedition to the Bay of Biscay. Here we learned several techniques to observe internal waves in the ocean. The expedition was a great learning experience, as it gave me a first close-up look of what the ocean looks like underneath the surface. Still, I became more and more interested in theoretical aspects of the ocean circulation. Based on simple principles like conservation of mass and energy, mathematical equations can be developed that allow oceanographers to study the ocean from their office, without getting cold, wet, or sea sick. Even better, these models can be solved by computers. So you won't get tired, either (if only that were true...!).

After I received my degrees in theoretical Physical Oceanography, I worked in Utrecht for a few more years as postdoctoral researcher. After that, I spent several years as researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Scripps is one of the oldest oceanographic institutions in the United States, as it was established in 1903. It is situated on bluffs overlooking the Pacific. The ocean had finally brought me to an exotic place after all! I studied the circulation in the Southern Ocean, which is the only ocean that encircles the entire globe. Unhindered by continents, it behaves differently from the other oceans. It is here that I learned to appreciate what observations are telling us about the seas. I started working with so-called remote-sensing data: several satellites are equipped with instruments that measure, for instance, the height of the sea surface, or its temperature. From this information, you can infer how the ocean flows.

After a few years I found an opportunity to work in the climate modeling group of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Here in Los Alamos we are working on ocean models that can be coupled to models of the atmosphere and sea-ice. These coupled climate models are used to study the current climate system, and to predict how it may change when more and more carbon-dioxide is released into the atmosphere. So that is what I am doing here as oceanographer in the high-desert of New Mexico: developing ocean models, and using them to learn what drives the ocean and how it influences climate.

Sun

February 2008

What if the Sun Stopped Shining?

Joyce Guzik, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

We take for granted that the sun will rise and set each day to warm us and light our world. The sun’s shining appears to have been nearly constant during recorded history. The Earth’s weather, its seasons, and the movement of its oceans are dependent on the constant input of energy from the Sun. However, our experience suggests that nothing remains unchanging forever. Presumably there was a time when the Sun didn’t exist, and there will be a time when it will stop shining. But how do we know anything about the sun? What is the sun’s composition, and how did it form? How do we know what is going on in the sun’s interior, and what is responsible for its energy generation? How does this energy escape to reach the Earth? What is the evidence that it was once much dimmer than today, but that before its ultimate death its intensity will increase so much that the oceans will boil, and life on Earth will come to an end? If this is really the fate of the sun and the Earth, is there anything we could do about it? Come to a lively Café that will explore the many fascinating aspects of our own star.

Check out www.teensolarinvestigators.org! This is the new website for a teen science program called Surfin' the Solar Wind which enlists local high school students (aka "Teen Solar Investigators" or TSIs) to help design and bring engaging Sun-based activities and multimedia to other teenagers.
 
So poke around and explore www.teensolarinvestigators.org. They'll be updating the site with new activities from time-to-time, plus there's a "hidden" activity called the Sun Slider which is very cool - once you find it!


About the Presenter

Guzik

It is a challenge to pull out of my life story the reasons why I became a scientist. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and attended public schools. My parents didn't finish high school, and almost no-one I knew personally had a college degree. Most of my classmates had little interest in academic pursuits. My father had studied to be a tool and die maker, and learned a lot of advanced mathematics in his apprenticeship, and showed it to me as a child. I grew up during the time of the Apollo moon landings (I was 8 years old when the first astronauts walked on the moon), and was interested in the solar system and space travel. I also had a keen interest in 'ultimate questions', which I mostly kept to myself, questions like: When was the beginning of the universe? What was before the beginning? How big is the universe? Where is the edge? What is beyond the 'edge'? Is there life on other planets? Why are we here? What is the purpose of all of this? What are we supposed to do or be? Why did my parents or other adults not know the answers to these questions? Would it be possible to learn the answers in books, or figure them out from purely reasoning and thinking hard enough about the subjects? Why didn't others seem to care about these questions?

The culture I was in also taught me that I had opportunity--if I studied hard enough and earned and saved money, I could go to college. My mathematics teachers were women, and most of the top students in my schools were girls, and so it didn't occur to me that girls shouldn't like or couldn't do science or math.

I settled in my freshman year of high school on studying physics in college, because I saw that it would be a career where I would be able to apply my mathematics skills. Math and physics to me seemed like the places where ultimate truth could be found--you could prove something unequivocally, or, relying on a few basic laws of nature you could derive a truth from pure reasoning from first principles. Acquiring these abilities seemed like a great foundation for approaching life, and seemed less ambiguous than other subjects such as literature or art, where knowledge is pursued by examining tension and contrasts, or contemplating paradoxes. But I loved other subjects as well, such as music, literature, political science, and languages, and resolved to continue studying these throughout my life.

I attended a small liberal arts college (Cornell in Iowa) with only 1000 students, and it turned out to be perfect for me to build self-confidence and receive more personal attention. I majored in physics, math, and Russian studies, and also participated in many activities such as writing for the newspaper, discussion groups, and playing clarinet and saxophone. I knew that I had to go to graduate school to find a job in physics, but hadn't settled yet on an area of specialization. I didn't pursue astronomy because I thought that it would be impossible to find a job in this field.

I went to graduate school at Iowa State University; in my first year I considered focusing on nuclear physics, astrophysics, or mathematical methods in physics for my Ph.D. My choice ultimately was made by considering whom I wanted to work with as my research advisor--I ended up working for the only woman on the faculty, who was an astrophysicist, and I also liked very much the other astrophysics faculty. They assured me that the Hubble telescope would be launched soon, and there would be many opportunities for jobs in astrophysics.

Because I hadn't taken enough physics courses as an undergraduate, I had to take my qualifying exams twice (I almost passed the first time, and passed easily on the second try). That second year, when it was uncertain whether I would pass on the second and last allowed try, was difficult, but I learned that if I studied hard I could succeed, and that I should trust my own judgment and shouldn't be frightened or discouraged by difficulties or failures of others. The day I received my exam results, my advisors presented me with a research project--they had been thinking that stars like the sun might lose a lot of their mass in heavy winds early in their lifetime. They wanted to send me to Los Alamos where they had colleagues with computer codes that could be used to model the sun, and they wanted me to learn to use these codes and work out the implications of this idea.

I remember that the first time I traveled with my advisor to Los Alamos in 1985; I immediately thought that this is where I want to live and work for the rest of my life. That first trip, after some coaching from the lab scientists, I stayed up nearly all night using the computers (they ran faster at night) and by the end of a few days had produced my first solar model with mass loss that my advisor eagerly started examining and interpreting. I was very fortunate to be invited to return as a summer graduate student, and then a postdoc. The new field of helioseismology was taking off at this time, and I was given a set of tools to use to analyze my solar models against data from solar oscillations. I also had a chance to work behind the fence on a nuclear physics project to study whether superheavy elements beyond those in the periodic table today in a hypothetical 'island of stability' with long half-lives could be produced in nuclear weapons tests.

After my postdoc, I became a technical staff member at Los Alamos. I've had great opportunities, working both on classified research and continuing modeling of the sun and other types of stars and testing the models against observational data that is getting better all the time. One of the things I've enjoyed most is the opportunity to travel to conferences around the world. In the past 20 years I've traveled to England, France, Belgium, Austria, Turkey, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Viet Nam. I'm looking forward to a conference in Poland this summer on "Interpretation of asteroseismic data."

HIV

January 2008

The Race for an HIV Vaccine

Ruy Ribeiro, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Presenter Essay and Bio

Imagine a world in which children are raising children because their parents have died. Such is the situation in much of Africa today because of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is responsible for one of the largest epidemics of modern history. Today 40 million people are infected worldwide and more than 3 million die every year. In the country where I was born, Mozambique, one in six adults is infected. In neighboring Botswana, life expectancy is only 34 years; in 1985 it was 65. Most young adults in these countries die of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), leaving behind a rising number of orphans. Even in the USA, there are more than 1 million people infected with HIV. We urgently need a HIV vaccine, yet, it has remained out of reach after 25 years of research.

AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection, which occurs when the immune system is so weak that it can not fight the many infectious bugs that we are all exposed to daily. When people are sick with HIV, catching common infections, such as pneumonia, can be deadly. The ideal way to combat this epidemic would be to integrate prevention, vaccination and treatment. These are all difficult tasks. Due to HIV virus' modes of transmission (sexual activity and injection drug use), prevention involves changes of behavior that are very difficult to accomplish. Treatment is still very expensive, at least hundreds of dollars per person per year. In some of the poorer countries, a family can not afford more than a few dollars for health care per year. So the best hope for eliminating HIV is a vaccine.

The reason children get vaccinated is because vaccines are one of the best health measures ever developed. In the richer countries, vaccines have almost eliminated childhood diseases; indeed, smallpox has been totally eradicated worldwide! But so far it has proven exceedingly difficult to develop a vaccine for HIV infection. This is because: 1) HIV mutates rapidly, so a vaccine will have to cope with its variability; 2) HIV infects and destroys the immune system, which vaccines are supposed to prime to fight disease; 3) HIV in general is not very susceptible to the effect of antibodies, the basis for the success of many other vaccines. In this Café, we will explore the science of HIV and why it is so important to develop a vaccine for it. Success in developing such a vaccine will represent one of the greatest achievements of medical research in human history.

PDFDownload a PDF of this presentation [1.3 Mb].

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Ms. Lorrie Crowe, a 17 year survivor of AIDS, told her personal story about journey with AIDS and efforts to combat the disease.

PDFDownload a Quicktime movie of this presentation.


About the Presenter

Ribeiro

When I was a teenager, I walked to school everyday. I remember my imagination wandering widely in those 20 minutes. Often I was wondering how things worked. In those days, I was especially interested in astronomy. We had a local astronomy club, and would go out camping to remote places to see the marvels of the Universe. One very cold, damp December night—I was 17—we went out to see the Geminids meteor shower. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, as I lay gazing at the show of lights streaking the dark sky, it came to me: I would go to college to study physics. Achieving that was not easy, since good grades were required for acceptance. But I had a math teacher who pushed us to study hard, and although at the time it seemed all too much, it really helped me get into college. My physics and chemistry teacher, too. Some people thought she was crazy, but she was so excited about science and the world, and so interested in her students, that she really inspired me. In college I learned a lot about the physical world, but also had a lot of fun with the tight knit group of friends that I made. Long days in the lab were followed by late night hamburgers at the local diner. Many of my friends, like me, wanted to be scientists. The amazing thing is that all these people, from all over Portugal, rich and poor, men and women, outgoing and shy, with good grades or average, actually became scientists in all kinds of research areas: astronomy, particle physics, biology, solar energy, satellites, environment… One of them even became a CSI for the Portuguese police!

In my senior year at university, as I studied more and more esoteric areas of physics, I realized that the physics that I liked the most was that of our daily lives. I did not know what to do after graduation, and felt lost. I developed a nervous twitch in my eye. Almost without noticing it, I postponed my real decision by getting a job at an international management consulting company. I worked there for two years, learning about the business of banks, insurance companies, television and supermarkets. This job paid well, was prestigious, and gave me a clear career path. My parents were really happy! But slowly it dawned on me that my dream of becoming a scientist was slipping away. So I quit my job and applied for a fellowship to the University of Oxford in England to study HIV with Martin Nowak.

I had gone to visit Oxford, where some of my good friends from university were studying. I nervously appeared unannounced at my future supervisor's door. I can clearly see his office, which was in this really ugly, dark building, the Zoology Department, which recently was described as “a forbidding concrete structure that looks like an Eastern European police station.” My intention was to try to meet Nowak and ask for a position in his group. He looked me over coolly and said, “OK, we can talk for five minutes, because I need to go soon.” He really meant, “Who is this person and why is he bothering me?” We ended up talking for more than a hour. He introduced me to other researchers in his group. His excitement about his work spilled over to me. That was another turning point in my winding path to science. I ended up doing my doctoral work with him. The lesson I learned in leaving business and returning to science was that you should always follow your passion!

Graduate school was even harder work—and even more fun—than university. Work and fun are not incompatible! I never looked back. When I graduated, I came to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which I had learned was one of the best places in the world to do my research. Here I work with an amazing group of people that have a passion to understand infectious diseases and the immune system, and realize that this work can have impact in improving lives across the world. But what strikes me the most is the diversity of people I encounter. Nothing seems to be a barrier to becoming a scientist. Some people are older, some have children to care for, some are from far away, some do not speak English that well, some are well off, some just get by, some have parents who are scientists, some have parents that never finished high school.

The purpose of my research is to understand how different virus, such as HIV and hepatitis viruses, work and how the body fights them. I collaborate with scientists from all over the world. I develop models and computer simulations to help interpret data from experiments and clinical results conducted in New York, Thailand, Australia, and elsewhere around the world. I work hard, but I love to take off and go hiking or skiing or have my friends over for dinner. I love cooking—but only for other people!

I am a scientist simply because I love to learn new things and I like to know how things work. I have learned that science gives us a great perspective on the world, and empowers us to have real impact on the issues we care most about.