Season Schedule

Mars

September 2016

Essential Brain Science: Twelve Basic Principles Everyone Should Know

James Forsythe, Brain Hackers Association


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Every experience that we have is mediated by our brain. Our performance in every activity is a product of how well our brain functions. Our basic happiness and satisfaction results from biochemical processes occurring within our brains. No other field of science more directly bears upon our everyday effectiveness, productivity and happiness than brain science, or "neuroscience." Furthermore, there are few careers for which a basic understanding of brain processes and their relationship to behavior and psychological experiences is not beneficial. Today, based on the number of scientists, publications and researchers participating in professional organizations, there is no field of science more active than brain science. Unfortunately, much of the information regarding brain science that is available to K-12 students consists of either articles and books within the popular press that are often of questionable credibility and academic publications that require considerable background knowledge to fully comprehend.

This talk will present twelve basic principles that everyone should know about how their brain functions within everyday activities. In many cases, these principles dispel common misunderstandings regarding brain function. For example, the relationship between the brain and the body is frequently described using the analogy of a robot, where the brain is equated to a robot computer controller. This is a false analogy because as stated in the first principle, "there is a two-way interaction between the brain and most of the other major biological systems of the body." This principle is exemplified by the relationship between the brain and the respiratory system. Malfunctions of the respiratory system which impede oxygen flow to the brain lead to diminished brain function. On the other hand, one can actively control their breathing, with altered breathing produce measurable effects on brain and cognitive performance.

With each principle, direct connections may be drawn to everyday life. For example, with the principle stated above concerning the two-way interaction between the brain and other biological systems, activities that promote the overall health of the body lead to enhanced brain function. This relationship is evidenced in numerous research studies that have shown improved cognitive performance with both regular and immediate bouts of physical exercise. Similarly, there are direct applications of each of the other principles to everyday life, with the opportunity to improve performance and satisfaction across various endeavors.


About the Presenter

James Forsythe

I took an unusual path to get to where I am today. I grew up in a rural area of west Tennessee where most teens usually did not finish high school and start to work by the time they were 16 years old. I left school mid-way through 10th grade and went to work in the construction industry. This was a great experience where I learned a lot and was regularly posed with interesting challenges.

When I was 19, my family moved to a rural area in California where I continued doing construction work. At some point, it became apparent to me that I wasn't meeting any girls and something needed to change. That's when the idea occurred to me to try a class at the local community college, since I knew there would be lots of girls there. My first class was chemistry, which seemed easy. A couple of semesters later, I was going to school full-time and working part-time, and was on course to get my bachelor's degree.

Ten years after my first community college class, I graduated with my PhD in Cognitive Psychology. I still felt very rooted in practical, everyday problems, and instead of pursuing an academic career as a college professor, my first job after college was working in the field of Human Factors. This is an area where experts in human performance work with engineers to develop more effective technology products. For me, I had emphasized neuroscience throughout my time in college and I focused on "applied neuroscience," or using knowledge of the brain to understand why people performed better or worse in different situations.

In 1993, I came to New Mexico where I took a job at Sandia National Laboratories. I was with Sandia for 23 years before retiring last February. During this time, I had an opportunity to work on a wide range of projects. All of them had a common element, "how can technology be applied to improve human performance?" Primarily, my research focused on understanding what factors distinguish individuals in a given field who might be categorized as either novice, competent, expert or elite performers, and how can this progression be improved.

During this time, my favorite project was one in which for about six years I worked with the research group at Mercedes Benz. This meant that I got to make regular trips to Stuttgart in Germany where my colleagues were located and work with the prototype vehicles being developed by Mercedes. We would regularly hook up subjects with EEG to measure their brain activity and have them drive on the Autobahn in traffic while we gave them various tasks to perform. Through this work, we developed software that could take data generated while driving a car and infer the driving context (e.g., entering a high-speed roadway, changing lanes, waiting at a stoplight, etc.) and the current level of cognitive demand on the driver. This provided a basis for the vehicle to adapt in ways to help the driver. For example, if in the midst of a difficult lane change, the car would block incoming cell phone calls that might distract the driver.

Currently, my attention is focused on a non-profit organization that I have founded known as the Brain Hackers Association. Our objective is to give youth a chance to start learning about and getting involved in brain science before reaching college. I feel like I am providing a lot of kids with opportunities that would not exist otherwise. But for me personally, it is a great experience

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October 2016

Digital Epidemiology: Can the internet stop the next pandemic?

Nicholas Generous, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Can the internet stop the next pandemic? Every year, epidemics kill millions of people and infect even more! Every day 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by digital devices and the Internet. How can we harness these data to stop the next infectious disease outbreak from happening?

Epidemiology is the study of the spread and impact of disease. One of the key tools in epidemiological research is the use of mathematical models to understand and predict disease spread. These tools can be used to help predict when and where an outbreak might occur and what the best way to stop it would be. However, one shortcoming with operationally using these models is the lack of timely data.

Whenever you go on the Internet or use a device like a smartphone, you leave traces of your health. We can collect these digital traces in near real time and use them in the mathematical models to predict disease spread. These digital traces have the potential to revolutionize the way we forecast disease and identify health problems.

In this Café, we will learn about what makes for a big outbreak, why the zombie outbreak (probably) won’t happen, the mathematics of disease, why Justin Bieber ruins everything, and how digital data can be used to stop outbreaks and diagnose disease.


About the Presenter

Nicholas Generous

Growing up in Santa Fe, I never thought that I would work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I always considered myself more of a humanities type of person. History. Art. English. Writing. These were the things that I was naturally drawn to. During my summers I would spend hours reading, mostly fiction but also some non-fiction. One day I stumbled upon the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan and, like many before, I became fascinated with science.

When school started again, I had a newfound interest in studying science and began to take all the classes my school offered. I struggled. Science did not come naturally for me and it was something I had to work at. Even though I worked hard, my effort was not reflected in my grades—I was the quintessential B student with the occasional A and C letter grade. This would frustrate me at times but, ultimately, my passion for science carried me through. When it came time to apply to college, I decided that I wanted to study chemistry and do research so I applied to schools that had strong chemistry programs and where I might be able to get research opportunities.

My first week of college, all the academic departments had open houses for new students and I decided that I would visit the 5 departments that I thought I would never take a class from. Two of the departments I visited—Near Eastern Studies and Biology—ended up the areas I would take a major in. I always thought biology was mostly concerned with the study of large animals and the environment but I did not realize that it also concerns itself with cells, genetics, biochemistry, and biotechnology. I decided then that I would major in biology.

My first semester, I tried to get a position in a research lab but despite my best effort I was not able to. Discouraged by not being offered a position in a lab and looking for a job that to help pay for college, I worked a variety of jobs including being a reader for a blind professor and as a cars salesman.

Much of the biology that I was taught during college was qualitative and not quantitative. My last semester, one of my professors’ remarked that protein folding—a fundamental process in biology—can be modeled as an energy minimization equation. This blew my mind. I had no idea that it was possible to use math to simulate biological processes. Biology can be thought of a computational science. While I was fascinated by the science I was learning, I never thought that I would be able to get a job in research.

Upon graduation, I was musing several options after college—one as a car salesman, law school in Texas, or a student position at Los Alamos National lab for a year. I decided that working at the lab would the most interesting option and in the fall of 2010 I started as a lab technician doing assay evaluation. After a year working, the funding situation in the lab I was working in turned precarious and I found work on a new project evaluation data streams for use in global disease surveillance. One of data streams we evaluated were Internet data streams. This was another moment of revelation for me and I worked to move my research into this area. And this is how I ended up where I am today.

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November 2016

How to Save a Mermaid: Traveling to the Mythical Land of Away

Emma Cohen, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Recycling is an interesting phenomenon; it gives us all a warm fuzzy feeling that makes us feel like we are doing something good for the world. But how often do we think about what actually happens to that piece of waste we throw in the recycle bin. If I recycle a plastic water bottle, will it keep being recycled over and over for the rest of eternity? Unfortunately, no. The recycling symbol is a misnomer. The symbol shows an infinite level of resource redistribution and reapplication, but that is not what happens. When plastics get recycled, it gets downgraded because the quality is reduced.

Last year I visited Friedman’s recycle facility in Albuquerque. This visit was incredibly informative and taught me a lot about the recycling process. One of the most striking lessons I learned was that just because something is labeled as recyclable does not mean it will actually get recycled. The market for recycled goods is much like the stock market: prices are constantly changing, and can drop drastically without much notice. Thus, there has to be a desirable market for a material in order to incentivize the recycle facility to separate it.

While touring the facility, I noticed that the majority of the film plastic, including plastic bags, were ending up in the pile for landfill. This is because it is a very difficult material to recycle and the market for film plastics is very poor right now. Because the current price of oil is extremely low, it is more economically viable for a company to use a higher quality virgin material than to use the recycled alternative.

So what does a concerned citizen do? Should we even recycle? These are questions I get all the time, and I cannot give a definitive yes or no answer. I am not saying recycling is altogether bad. Instead, I hope to inspire you to think about resources you use and how to find creative ways to reduce the amount of waste you create. When we use resources at extremely high rates, we are in essence taking the resources that belong to future generations. Recycling should not be seen as the answer to our waste problems; rather, we all need to feel a sense of personal responsibility towards reducing our environmental impact.

About the Presenter

Emma Cohen

I work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Pollution Prevention Department within Environmental Services. I help with process improvement and reducing the upstream creation of waste by focusing on reducing the waste at its source. I am also involved in community outreach. I make presentations at local schools about environmental awareness and sustainability. I am currently getting my master’s degree from Harvard in Environmental Management and Sustainability.

I grew up in Santa Fe and then moved to Santa Barbara to attend the University of California- Santa Barbara. I graduated with a degree in Neuroscience with the intention of working in medicine or research. After working in a lab testing the effects of amphetamines on rodents and slicing up mice brains, I quickly realized that the lab setting was not for me! I explored the idea of working in medicine and got my EMT certification, but then quickly realized that I hated being in a hospital and ditched that idea, too.

Fortunately, I had started working with a group of friends to promote the ban on single-use bags in Santa Barbara. This work inspired the creation of Save the Mermaids, a small business focused on educating people about single-use plastic and living sustainable life-styles. Though I don't not live in Santa Barbara anymore, I am still active with the non-profit. This work is the inspiration for my Cafe Scientifique New Mexico café series.

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January 2017

From Biggest Bangs to Black Holes: A Look at the Brightest Explosions in the Universe

Nicole Lloyd-Roning


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Spy satellites, clandestine nuclear tests, violent cosmic explosions: the discovery of gamma-ray bursts has all of the elements of one of the greatest stories in science! In the 1960’s, the Vela satellites (developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory) were launched with the intent of monitoring (a.k.a. spying on) Russia to make sure the USSR wasn’t violating the nuclear test ban treaty by covertly setting off nuclear bombs. Instead, these satellites detected a strange burst of energetic gamma-rays coming from outer space, and ended up launching an entirely new and exciting field of astrophysics.

When scientists took a closer look at these strange gamma-ray bursts, it was clear they were not coming from nuclear bombs. The bursts were not coming from some natural process of the sun or Earth either. Over the course of a few years, the Vela satellites saw about 16 of these gamma-ray bursts, each one lasting about ten seconds and each one coming from a different direction in outer space. Once the data was made public, astrophysicists got very excited, coming up with models of these great bursts. Nobody really had much of a clue as to what these things were; models ranged from collisions of comets in the outer solar system, high speed iron particles breaking up as they flew toward earth, star quakes, stellar flare-ups, and the list goes on, with literally hundreds of models trying to explain these things!

Over the following few decades, and with much painstaking effort by many groups around the world, a few major pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. First, it was realized early on that the gamma-rays were “variable.” This just means they turned off and on very rapidly during the time they were active. For a few seconds there would be a bunch of gamma-rays, and then none for about a second, and then another burst for a few seconds, all from the same source, and lasting overall for about 10 to 100 seconds. This so-called rapid variability told us that the source of these things can’t be too large; otherwise, the variability gets washed out. They had to be coming from something about the size of a star.

Second, in the 1990’s, a satellite detector called BATSE (which was launched specifically to look for these cosmic gamma-ray bursts) saw thousands of these bursts, and saw them coming from all different directions in space. This turned out to be a big clue: if the sources of these bursts were in our galaxy, we’d most likely see most of them coming from a plane in the sky (where most of the stars in the galaxy lie). The fact that they appeared all over the sky in all directions hinted that they are probably coming from sources in galaxies way out in the universe.

Finally, in the late 1990’s, as I was just beginning my graduate studies, an Italian-Dutch satellite called BeppoSAX discovered an X-ray “afterglow”: after the initial burst of gamma-rays, there was a long-lived fading glow of X-rays at the same location where the gamma-rays were emitted. Other telescopes around the world pointed in this direction and saw an afterglow at lower energies as well, at visible and radio wavelengths. Some of these measurements allowed us to get a distance to the source and finally settled the big question: these things truly were at “cosmic” distances in galaxies far, far away. Given the amount of light we detect on Earth (or on the satellites orbiting Earth) from these sources, and given how far away they are (~7 billion light years), they must be emitting an incredible amount of energy! They emit so much energy in their first 100 seconds, in fact, that it would take our sun 300 billion years (about 25 times the age of the universe) to emit as much.

Gamma ray bursts are without a doubt the most energetic explosions in universe. And we don’t know exactly how or why they occur, but we think we know it has to do with a massive star dying (for longer bursts) or two dead stars crashing into each other (for shorter bursts). When this happens, this crazy event from a single star (or two stars merging) can outshine an entire galaxy of 100 billion stars!! What’s even cooler is we think this process has to make a black hole, which plays a huge role in causing these things to shine so brightly.

Gamma-ray bursts involve extreme physics that we can never ever reproduce in laboratories on Earth. I think that’s what I love about them so much; they are the ultimate high energy laboratories, which we are observing from a distance. It’s sometimes frustrating we can’t go there and tweak them and turn them off and on at will to test our theories. But then again, if we did so we would be obliterated and/or sucked into a black hole, so maybe it’s better we keep our distance!

About the Presenter

Nicole Lloyd-Roning

When I was about four years old, I decided I really wanted to be astronaut. This was partly because I thought it sounded ridiculously fun to ride in a rocket ship to the moon, but mostly because I was blown away by the night sky and wanted to find out what was up there. I thought I had to physically go into space to do this.

Without really knowing what it meant, I held on to this dream throughout my childhood. I had a nomadic life, moving on average every two years, migrating from Texas to Germany to California, back to Germany (including moves within Germany), Kansas, Virginia, and finally finishing up my last few years of high school in beautiful Hawaii! This lifestyle and my parents’ sense of adventure nurtured my desire to explore and made me want to seek out places, people, cultures, and ideas that weren’t familiar.

By high school, the dream of being an astronaut was as alive as it was when I was four. I simply assumed I’d become a shuttle pilot and that would be my ticket to space. But during my sophomore year in high school, I learned that my vision would not meet the physical requirements and a shuttle pilot job was out. OK, fine. Having no clue what it meant or what I was talking about, I decided I’d have to get a Ph.D. in physics in order to become an astronaut. I didn’t really even know what physics was, but that became my new completely non-thought out plan about how to get to space. Luckily, thanks to some really awesome teachers, it turned out I really loved my physics and math classes. I loved that both subjects gave me tools to describe and understand how nature works. I loved the lack of subjectivity, that there was a right and a wrong that was not based on a person’s opinion. And I really loved that there were (are!) many different ways to arrive at the same final answer. I decided I’d go to college and major in physics and astronomy.

I applied to schools around the country that were supposed to be good in these fields. My public high school was not known for academics: there were much bigger concerns involving the general well-being and safety of the students. But all it took was a couple of wonderful and encouraging teachers who helped guide me toward the path I wanted to be on. On a last minute whim, at the request of our school’s college counselor, I ended up applying to Cornell University to major in physics.

I was very afraid and averse to being at Cornell: the stereotype of an Ivy League preppy person was not me at all!. What’s more, I knew I had to pay my own tuition and didn’t think I could afford it. Since age 9, I had been working any job I could get, usually babysitting at the crazy rate of $1/hour, bussing tables, and waitressing to save up for college. Funnily enough, thanks to various types of financial aid and scholarships, Cornell ended up being the most affordable school for me and I ended up going there. I couldn’t have been happier - despite the cold, gray weather of upstate New York, the challenging classes and the fantastic professors gave me an excellent foundation in physics and astronomy and prepared me well for the next step on my journey. I went to Stanford for a Ph.D. in physics, focusing on high energy astrophysics and gamma-ray bursts, the violent, explosive deaths of massive stars.

I then headed to the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto as a postdoctoral fellow, and then to Los Alamos in 2003 to do a second postdoc. About a year into this position, expecting my second child, I made the decision to stay home full time with my kids (I now have three). During my time at home, I kept up with the current research in the field (mostly by reading research papers published in academic journals) and stayed in touch with former colleagues in my field. In the last couple of years, thanks to my former postdoc advisor at LANL as well as a generous fellowship from the American Physical Society, I’ve been able to come back to research at the lab and have picked up working on many different and exciting aspects of the deaths of the most massive stars. I also lead a class through UNM-LA’s Community Education program on modern astrophysics that is open to anyone and everyone interested in space regardless of science or math background (and hopefully some of you will join!).

Besides astrophysics, I love to hang out with my family, run, swim, play water polo (or pretty much any sport), cook, and most definitely eat. I haven’t yet physically made it to space (although I still aspire to that), but I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to pursue the dream that inspired me to want to be an astronaut to begin with: to learn about what is up there in that beautiful night sky and how it all works...

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January 2017

Teen-led Robotics Cafe

Tracy Galligan (Taos), John Moulton(Española), Andrew Erickson (Los Alamos)


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

About the Presenter

Tracy Galligan (Taos), John Moulton(Española), Andrew Erickson (Los Alamos)

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February 2017

The Sun's Corona: Observed during a total eclipse

Galen Gisler, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

Normally visible only during a total solar eclipse, the solar corona is an extensive atmosphere surrounding the sun, extending millions of miles into interplanetary space. The corona is a plasma, a very hot, thin gas in which negatively-charged electrons have been removed from their atoms, leaving positively charged ions. This plasma has a temperature in the millions of degrees, much hotter than the visible surface, or photosphere, of the sun, which has a temperature of 5800 degrees Kelvin.

The word corona means crown in Latin, also in Spanish, and the solar corona was given this name because it often appears crown-like to the naked eye during a total solar eclipse. It shines partly by light from the photosphere scattered off dust and electrons in the plasma, and partly from light emitted by highly ionized atoms within the plasma. It is much fainter than the sun itself, of course, and that’s why we have to wait for a total solar eclipse to see it.

How is it that the solar corona is thousands of times hotter than the surface of the sun? What heats the corona? This is a question that continues to mystify solar physicists and astronomers. The two best theories are that the heating is by waves similar to sound waves originating from the solar surface, or that the heating is caused by the energization of electrical currents during magnetic reconnection events. We see reconnection events, in which the magnetic field suddenly changes configuration, in solar flares and prominences. Neither of these theories is completely satisfactory, and we can only answer the question through better observations of the corona and its connection to the solar surface.

Only a total solar eclipse gives us the opportunity to observe the inner corona, right down to the solar surface. An instrument called a coronagraph, in which the light of the sun itself is blocked, allows us to see the outer corona, as far from the solar surface as the sun’s diameter. On satellites, it is possible to make continuous records, over many hours, days, or months, of the outer corona. In these records, scientists have observed plumes rising up into the corona, presumably from the photosphere. The origin of these plumes may help to resolve the question of how the corona is heated. But records of the inner corona, available during total solar eclipses lasting only minutes, have not been sufficient to determine their origins.

The total eclipse that will occur on August 21st of this year, with a continental track stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, presents a unique opportunity. While each site along the track only experiences a total eclipse for about 2 minutes, the moon’s shadow takes 90 minutes to travel all the way across the continent. Observers stationed at points along the track, with identical equipment, will collectively produce a 90-minute record of changes in the inner corona. We hope that this experiment, known as the Continental American Telescopic Eclipse (or CATE) will contribute to a solution of the coronal heating problem.

About the Presenter

Galen Gisler

I was born on the high plains of Eastern New Mexico, flat country under a star-studded dome. I was fascinated by what I saw up there. I read books that gave me facts, but I was driven to know what was behind those facts: how can we figure out what those points of light are made of, how far away are they, and how do they shine?

Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, visited my high school. It was exciting to meet the only person living at that time who had discovered a planet! More importantly, here was a man, who started out a country boy like me, who had become a distinguished astronomer, able to make his own discoveries. Nowadays planets are being discovered around other stars almost every day, and Pluto itself has been demoted – though not for me!

I worked hard in school, and got a scholarship that sent me to Yale University. There I had my first chance to look through a real telescope. In a darkening sky I pointed it at Saturn, and was transfixed. There it was, exposed to my own eyes, not a picture, but the real thing, so pretty, jewel-like, in the background of a velvety sky. I was enrolled in a course on observational astronomy, and could play with the coolest toys in the world. Not just the telescope, but the measuring engines, the darkrooms (we used photographic plates back then!), and the hand calculators. Was it possible that science could be so much fun? With these “toys”, and my hands and mind, I measured the distance to a star! The things that I had read about as a child were coming within my reach.

On the 7th of March, 1970, our astronomy class took a field trip to Nantucket Island, where there was to be a total solar eclipse. Although the skies were cloudy during the ferry ride, they cleared as we set up the instruments at the Maria Mitchell Observatory. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience. The phenomenon was spectacular, much more real than any picture I had seen. We made careful observations of the times of entry into and exit from totality, experienced seeing the stars in the daytime, and recorded observations of shadow bands, animal behaviors, and so on. I also took photographs with my own camera, but they were disappointing.

After Yale, I went to graduate school at the University of Cambridge, England. There I was surrounded by people at the pinnacle of the scientific world: Martin Rees, who later became Sir (and then Lord) Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal. Stephen Hawking had an office opposite the group office for graduate students, and I could hear the music his specially fitted typewriter made as he derived his theories and wrote his books. Many luminaries came to visit while I was there, including Carl Sagan and Kip Thorne. Those were heady times for this country boy.

Through the years, working at observatories in the Netherlands, Arizona, and Virginia, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the University of Oslo in Norway, my interests have ranged far and wide. I have studied big bang cosmology, the formation and evolution of galaxies, the structure of the sun and stars, gamma-ray bursts, tsunamis, and volcanoes. Right now I am mostly occupied with asteroid impacts and how to prevent them. But the sun has long been a “hobby” of mine, ever since that eclipse during my sophomore year at Yale. This summer I will participate in another eclipse expedition as part of the great Continental American Telescopic Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

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April 2017

Forests in Jeopardy: What can we do to keep them healthy?

Collin Haffey (USGS), Richard Middleton (LANL), Krys Nvstrom (Wildfire Network), and Mark Schuetz (Watershed Dynamics)


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

About the Presenter

Collin Haffey (USGS), Richard Middleton (LANL), Krys Nvstrom (Wildfire Network), and Mark Schuetz (Watershed Dynamics)

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