Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Category: science Page 1 of 2

Curiosity+Innovation=Elana Simon

“Curiosity killed the cat.” I heard that a lot growing up.


photo from cutest paw website

Here’s another phrase that stuck with me- “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” That, from The Charge of the Light Brigadecelebrating valiant soldiersIt made an impression, all those messages to mind your own business, just follow along and don’t ask questions. Curiosity seemed to be dangerous, or at least something to be discouraged. Some people behaved as if your curiosity confronted their sense of competence or authority. Others saw “why?” as a challenge instead of a catalyst for discovery.

Of course, scientists embrace curiosity. It fuels their passion and carries them over the months and years it takes to do their work. Even so, I think it takes a certain amount of self-confidence and tenacity to pursue those questions you’re trying to answer. That may sound strange, but given the tendency for your “why?” to be answered by “because…” you need a certain amount of drive and inner strength to empower your curiosity.

Elana Simon has those qualities – she was born into a family of scientists. But she also had a difficult time growing up – she suffered from a mysterious, debilitating stomach pain that just wouldn’t go away.

With all their training and scientific background, her parents and numerous doctors were unable to determine what was ailing her. Finally, after years of doctors and tests, false steps and mis-diagnoses, they discovered she had a very rare form of cancer that afflicts children and young adults. Even though it was not good news, when she was diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, at least she knew what was causing all that pain. This extremely rare cancer attacks about 200 adolescents and young adults each year. With no cure, only surgery could save her life. At 12 years old she went into the hospital and her pediatric surgeon removed most of her liver. Fortunately the cancer was caught in time.


Elana Simon at 12, family photo

Children are resilient and Elana recovered. Now what would you do after an experience like that? Some kids would just want to be a kid again. Others might feel damaged or be caught in a web of emotion. But Elana was curious. What caused this mysterious illness? How could it be detected in others before it wreaked havoc? What else could she learn about it?


Elana Simon, Rockefeller University photo

She went online to see what she could discover. She found:

“The more I found the less encouraging things became. People didn’t know that much about it and people didn’t seem to be doing much about it.”


With so few people afflicted by the disease, there was almost no available data. She became determined to find out more and she did. For Elana, curiosity opened a door to a key scientific discovery – a genetic abnormality that may ultimately be the source of her own life-threatening illness. In four years she went from cancer victim to cancer survivor to cancer researcher. Elana initiated a research project to discover the cause of her rare cancer. She also developed a website for sharing data and co-authored a research paper published in Science to report the results of her genetic study. She’s now at work on a second paper describing her research findings. All of this, she accomplished while still a student in high school.


Dalton School photo

Using time after school and during summer vacations, her curiosity and skill with computers led to an internship at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Her initial project was to hunt for genetic mutations in elderly pancreatic cancer patients. But, she soon encountered a major stumbling block – as people age they acquire thousands of harmless genetic mutations. With so many genetic variations in each elderly person, how could she find which genetic changes were meaningful?


New Yorker photo

As she thought about it, she realized that young people have very few genetic mutations, so perhaps similar research on young fibrolamellar patients would yield better results. She proposed that idea to her surgeon at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He agreed to help and began collecting tumor tissue from patients. Finally they had samples from 15 people. Would that be enough to find meaningful results?


Elana and her father Dr. Sanford Simon, Rockefeller University photo


Elana set up a lab at Rockefeller University where her father is a biologist. With the help of other researchers from Sloan-Kettering and the New York Genome Center they went to work searching for genetic anomalies. The results were more than surprising. In every case, in every tumor, a piece of DNA had broken off and rejoined to create a new, mutated gene. From the Rockefeller University news release, Elana explains:


Rockefeller University photo

“Because of the deletion and rejoining of the DNA, a new gene that was a mixture of two previous genes was created, called a chimera. A number of other types of tumors have been shown to be driven by chimeras, but this one is unique – it codes for a kinase, an enzyme that modifies other proteins, that has not been identified in cancers.”

The researchers found that the kinase enzyme was made only in tumor cells and it was “constantly active,” which may explain the tumor’s rapid growth. With Elana’s research, they now have a potential genetic marker for the disease and a promising path to explore for possible treatments and a cure.

Rockefeller Uelana-simon-her-father-dr-sanford-simon-doing-research-together

Rockefeller University photo

Her father added, “Genomics is allowing us to classify cancers based not on the organ they originate in, but on the molecular changes they trigger. Now that we know about this new chimera kinase, we can look for it in other cancers and work to develop new tools that will someday radically improve our ability to fight disease.”

With NIH support, Elana developed an online registry where fibrolamellar patients share medical records. It will also serve as a tool to collect data from patients in other hospitals, cities and countries to support further research.  The registry has the potential to become a model for a system to track other diseases. Here’s a short, well-made video exploring Elana’s story from the American Association for Cancer Research:

With the help of her father and other researchers, Elana was able to transform her personal misfortune into what may be a significant scientific discovery. Yes, she was fortunate to have family connections to state-of-the-art research facilities. She also was highly motivated and had a feeling for the science. But I think there’s more to it than that.

nbc newscurry_elana_140416

NBC photo

Elana doesn’t see herself as a victim of her cancer. Rather, there’s a self confidence and determination to search for answers. It’s easy to believe her success at such a young age is only the beginning of what she’ll accomplish, guided by that powerful quest to understand the “why.” Curiosity is a catalyst. As it launches us on a journey, there’s no telling where it might take us. What are your thoughts about curiosity? Does it play an important role in your pursuits? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


Elana and her father, Wall Street Journal photo

Mind Over Matter: Zac Vawter Test Pilots His New Leg

Mind over matter? Here’s the story: Zac Vawter’s new leg is a loaner – it’s a research vehicle actually – that only he can drive. Like a test pilot who travels the sky steering a state-of-the-art machine, Zac has been maneuvering his innovative leg for a few years now.


Zac’s bionic leg – Reuters photo

He’s the first person to make it move by exerting mind over matter. The techs help him hook it up – and then he uses mind control to make it work.


Reuters photo

Here’s some footage showing Zac and his leg in action. (sorry about the commercial that precedes the piece)

What you’re looking at is the world’s first successful bionic leg. It is totally controlled by Zac’s thoughts and the nerves that deliver his movement messages to the leg’s sensors. When Zac heard about what the research scientists were trying to do, he journeyed from his home on the west coast to Chicago to volunteer. Zac, from the WSJ:

“It’s night and day. Going upstairs with my normal prosthetic, my sound leg goes up first for every step. With this I go foot-over-foot up the stairs and down the stairs.”


Reuters photo

What does it take to be the first person to control a smart prosthetic by brain signals alone? Here’s one way of looking at it, from Futurescope:

“The act of walking may not seem like a feat of agility, balance, strength and brainpower. But lose a leg, as Zac Vawter did after a motorcycle accident in 2009, and you will appreciate the myriad calculations that go into putting one foot in front of the other.”

The fact he can walk so normally is truly amazing. What the video doesn’t show is the enormous effort that went into all of this – thousands of hours spent with Zac test piloting his prosthetic and the researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago perfecting their prototype. All of it funded by the US Army, with the hope that the 1200 wounded warriors who’ve lost a leg in combat can follow in Zac’s footsteps. Add to that a million civilians missing part of a lower limb and you get a sense of the importance of this scientific breakthrough.


WSJ photo by Andrew Nelles

Below is a simple animation of how the bionic leg works:

Marshal Gerometta photo

Chicago’s Willis Tower by Marshal Gerometta


To show you what kind of stuff Zac is made of, last year he took an earlier version of the bionic leg on a climb up 103 flights of stairs to the top of Chicago’s Willis Tower. That’s a challenge that many two-legged folks would find hard to meet. But Zac has grit, and he’s determined to make this new leg work, just as much as the scientists and engineers who created the bionic marvel.

Zac’s climb set a world record. In the picture below, the man behind him with the big smile is his dad.

AP photo

AP photo


Reuters photo

This  article and another describe the science in more detail. What I found fascinating was that up until now, when a leg was amputated doctors would let the nerves that sent messages to the foot and ankle die. But a novel surgery technique sends those nerves along a new pathway to muscles in the thigh. That’s the first step in making it possible for Zac to exercise mind control to move the bionic leg.


Dr. Levi Hargrove – Reuters photo

Dr. Levi Hargrove, an electrical engineer and research scientist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago explains:

“We kind of unplugged one little tiny nerve that went into the hamstring muscle and we plugged in a bigger nerve, the tibial nerve, that would have gone down and connected to muscle that would have lifted his foot up into the air.”

So the same signals from the brain that would go to the foot now go to the thigh and, through sensors attached to a small computer in the bionic leg, the artificial limb can read and interpret those impulses through a process called pattern recognition. In this case, pattern recognition happens as quickly as if the limb was part of Zac – and in a way, it is. That’s why his gait is so natural.

The same facility has successfully made robotic arms, but for artificial legs the stakes are much higher. Dr. Hargrove:

“When controlling arms, if you make a small mistake the elbow might flex a little more than you intended it to, but when controlling legs, if you make even a little mistake, it could cause a patient to fall.”

We take so much for granted. When your body works the way it should, you never think about what makes your feet behave correctly as you go up and down stairs – you just do it. Until Zac’s bionic leg was developed, the best prosthesis available was not a lot more advanced than the first wooden leg. Now, a scientific and engineering breakthrough has opened a door to new possibilities. And for people like Zac, the chance to get closer to the way things used to be.


Chicago Tribune photo

So what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Curiosity+Determination=Sara Volz

DNA structure from NIH

DNA structure from NIH

Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They’re always asking how does this work and why does that happen? I once heard Buckminister Fuller comment that curiosity makes all children natural scientists. Science and curiosity are entwined like a DNA double helix, but you also need vision – to see what’s possible – and a deep determination to keep going, especially when so many obstacles pop up along the way. And then, add to the equation the three Ps – patience, persistence and passion.


Sara Volz from the Davidson Institute site

Sara Volz has all of those qualities:

I found my passion in seventh grade—alternative energy—and it simply hasn’t left me alone. I’ve spent a good portion of my high school career begging, borrowing, and stealing saving for the materials to convert my room into a homespun laboratory. I’m fairly proud of the result: it comes complete with an appallingly clattery old centrifuge, glassware I got for my birthday, a microscope I got for Christmas, a rather handsome set of micropipettes, and, of course, the requisite bubbling flasks of green goo!


photo via Sara Volz

If Sara Volz sounds young, she is. But at age 17, she’s spent the past four years running experiments to create a better biofuel using biochemistry and algae – aka pond scum.  She grows the algae in her room in a mini-lab below her loft bed. To manage her experiments, she put her algae on a schedule – 16 hours of light and eight of darkness – and did the same for herself, “I sleep on my algae’s light cycle.”


from the Davidson Institute site

Why algae?  It could lead us down the road to energy independence.  Algae thrives in areas that can’t support other crops and grows on wastewater. I’m sure you’ve seen ponds by the side of the road turned bright green by the organisms. As a fuel, algae is environmentally friendly, as much as 60% of the organism is oil (think vegetable oil), and algae can yield 10 to 100 times more than other biofuels.  What’s left can be used to feed animals or to fertilize plants.


photo via Sara Volz

Sara isn’t the first to see the potential of algae as a biofuel. Exxon, partnering with genetic scientist Craig Venter, has put up $600 million towards that pursuit. Just this month Venter said they’ll need to force their algae to produce more oil, noting that the solution is still 25 years away. Working on her own, high school student Sara Volz has pointed the way to making it commercially viable.

How did she do it? Starting with Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Sara used a process called “artificial selection” with an herbicide that forces algae cells to adapt, by producing more oil, or die.

It’s like a weed acquiring resistance to herbicide. But in this case, I designed the selection pressure so the resulting population will produce something we want — oil.

Like any scientific effort, there were obstacles:

I always felt like my work wasn’t coming together—I wasn’t getting the answers, or the experiment didn’t work out right, or the analysis still had one or three or ten kinks to be worked out—but I kept plugging away…  This doggedness, more than anything else, has paid off.


from the Intel site

It paid off by growing algae that produces seven times more oil than untreated organisms. Her work won first place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.  Next year she’ll be a freshman at MIT.

Too often our high school girls do not feel welcome in the halls of science, which makes Sara a great role model. More impressively, she worked alone when most of the other finalists worked with a school or lab. Her passion to find answers led her to ask other scientists for help and support. And while some turned her down, others were impressed by her maturity, knowledge and commitment.

When I needed the resources or equipment of an actual laboratory setting, I would contact researchers about working in their labs to analyze some of my samples… Some of it was begging and e-mailing lots of people, saying that I’m doing a research project and I’d love you to give me some advice, or let me use some of your neat equipment. You get some closed doors and some wonderful people willing to help.

If you want more, there’s an excellent interview with her here. I like Sara’s story because it’s so inspirational. Armed with curiosity and enthusiasm, she found success because she dedicated herself to her work, understood what she needed to do to make it happen and wasn’t intimidated to ask for help when she needed it. She’s a great example of  what can happen when you transform “why?” into “why not?”


Chris Ayers Photography/Society for Science & the Public

Essentially, I am trying to hijack natural evolutionary processes in order to produce a cell line with… high rates of oil synthesis. So far, it is all going fairly well…

Flower Power: Art v. Science


From my Richmond Hill series

When an artist ponders a flower, what is observed?  What does an scientist see? Here’s Richard Feynman’s take on it:

Richard Feynman – Ode To A Flower from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.


Richard Feynman at Fermilab

Richard Feynman physicist, teacher, musician, was brilliant in many regards and his remarks for this animated piece came from a much longer interview with the BBC.

I’d like to explore this seeming dichotomy between the artist’s vision and scientist’s quest for understanding, because I think Feynman’s take on how an artist experiences a flower misses something important. The way I hear Feynman’s comments, he’s basically arguing that while the artist is concerned primarily with beauty, or the world of the senses, science is concerned with context, meaning and knowledge, or the world of the mind.  And he seems to imply that science brings “value added,” or a deeper understanding of the essence of flower and its place the natural order of things.  So is science more worthy that art?


From my Richmond Hill Series

I don’t want to get too abstract here, but I think the artist brings much more to the table than Feynman perceives.  Art works on so many levels… there’s the flower’s shape, form, color, smell, taste, texture… all that our senses tell us. They’re very inviting, these aspects of how we interact with the world.  Art tries to capture them.

There’s the space the flower inhabits.  In the photo above, no longer is it just a flower, but it exists in a ambience of contemplation… inviting us to muse, make associations, or perhaps just experience a quiet moment.  Visually, the soft focus of the background adds a little mystery.  Where is this space?  Who tends this garden?

From my Richmond Hill series

From my Richmond Hill series

Going still deeper, the flower conjures emotions and images… birth, passion, awakening to a new day, the freshness of morning dew…

The peony’s shape is so enveloping… you can imagine the bud gently opening… in slow motion… each petal revealing a deeper sense of flower unfolding.

The artist’s work transforms our perceptions… their view is often dreamy, instinctive, almost pre-verbal… but their vision invites us to see the world with new eyes.


Renoir’s Woman with a rose in her hair

What I’m trying to get to is that the search for meaning flows in different directions at the same time.  There is the scientist’s passion for knowledge and the effort to understand the flower’s place in the natural world that propels Feynman.  There is the artist’s quest to explore an emotional, sensual and perhaps symbolic relationship with the flower and connect it to our humanity.  To tell us something about ourselves and our place in the world.

Between science and art there are so many connections to be made.

The intellect and the emotions bring us different ways of seeing and understanding.  Both are essential to teaching us how to inhabit the world.  And together they make our lives deeper and richer.  That’s what I wanted to say to Feynman.  That it’s not either/or… we need and should embrace both.

If you’d like to explore more about Richard Feynman, here’s a link to Feynman Online.  And in the current political debate about fiscal priorities, I hope our leaders will remember the value that art and science brings to our lives.

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