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Is the Space Age over for the US?

I grew up in an age when the USA dominated space. The Apollo missions had put the first men on the moon and American kids everywhere were tasting victory with each sip of Tang.

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Good Dog. 

Read the story of Laika in the eponymous graphic Novel.

It didn’t matter that the Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik), the first animal to orbit the Earth (Laika), or the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin). I mean, really – out of the gate, the Russians (we never troubled ourselves to distinguish Russia from the Soviet Union in any way) were kicking our butts. Then the US turned the tide, and following a solid series of incremental achievements, sent not one, but six successful missions to the moon.

And, just to make sure the world knew it, we declared that landing on the moon was the endgame and we made it. We win. Game over. No other country has accomplished the same — yet.

For years NASA maintained a presence in space with the shuttle program, although it was less than evident what larger purpose these missions served before the international space station (ISS) came online. It’s easy to have objections to the way the shuttle program was run. The objectives never matched the clear progression that the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo missions illustrated.

Mercury:

  • To successfully orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth.
  • To investigate humankinds’ ability to function in space.
  • To recover both occupant and spacecraft.

Gemini:

  • Subject astronauts to long duration flights.
  • Perfect methods of reentry and landing the spacecraft.
  • Gain information concerning the effects of weightlessness on astronauts during long flights.

Apollo:

  • Demonstrate crew, space vehicle, and the mission support facilities during a manned lunar mission.
  • Evaluation of the LM performance in lunar orbit and the lunar environment.
  • Land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth
  • Gather lunar rocks and soil samples

Space Shuttle:

  • A reusable spacecraft
  • ???
  • Establish, man and supply a long-term space station

Then, in 2011, the last shuttle flight landed and The US is reduced to hitching rides to the ISS. As someone whose patriotic spirit is ignited by our collective will and ability to conquer big problems, I feel a real degree of shame that the US has relinquished its ability to make great strides into space. 

“What nationality was Christopher Columbus?”

“Spanish…right?”

“Might as well be. They were the one’s who made it happen.”

Like the Italians (or the Portuguese or the English), the US appears to be abdicating it’s power and allowing other nations to go forth as leaders.

ImageFortunately, this isn’t the end. If funding continues, the US is on track to construct its next space deliver vehicle, the Space Launch System, for its first launch in 2017. Perhaps you could call my position one of cautious optimism. 

The stated mission of the SLC with its Orion modules would be to:

  • capture an asteroid and bring it into high lunar orbit
  • Perform a manned flyby of Venus and Mars before returning to Earth in the early 2020s.
  • Establish a permanent or semi-permanent presence  on the moon.

I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that once clear, incremental objectives are established, we will re-commit to the exploration of spec in my lifetime.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Educational Standards at Home and Abroad

David_-_The_Death_of_SocratesImproving Educational Standards, is an editorial in a recent Science magazine (1Feb 2013) that discussing the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). This document was designed by the governors of the 50 states to develop common standards built around inquiry-centered education in the sciences. Ideally, this is meant to present core material not as a group of facts to be memorized, but as tools that can be uncovered with a more Socratic method of study.

I love the idea of it and I wish it was the way I taught. I imagine it to be a lot more fun for everyone involved. But I do have reservations. I’ve been a student in classes that use this method very effectively (I’m thinking specifically of Dr. Koretzky who did a phenomenal job of teaching T cell biology in my first year graduate immunology class at UPenn. But, then again, he’s brilliant. Over the top brilliant. And he knows the literature cold, so he is able to recall and incorporate specific data that would result from student-suggested experiments.

But how many teachers can do this? Remember, these standards are going into effect for K-12 classrooms. I don’t mean to suggest that teachers aren’t smart or capable. But I do mean to say that Socratic method works well for some educators who are both capable and comfortable with that method of instruction.

I have also sat in lectures that were so focused, informative and entertaining that I would not have traded away, especially if these same instructors would not have been comfortable teaching in any other way.

On the other hand, there are the students. How many students will get engaged by this change in focus? Will it still be the same minority of students who already contribute to classroom discussion? My hope, of course, is that starting children early will cultivate a new crop of students that feel personally involved in their education.

Much has been made of the various approaches to education that different countries make, from allowing the pressure to succeed rest on students, as is done in South Korea, or by focusing on educator preparation, as is done in Finland.

NYTimes article provides some answers to the question of how the US rates against other countries in science and math education.

One way to answer this is to look to data like these that identify top-performing countries.  How do other countries, ones with best practices that should provide models of education, approach teaching methods?

This table is from the Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study , providing a ranking of 8th graders’ science literacy scores.

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South Korea

The Center for International Benchmarking overview of the South Korean instructional system provides some predictable explanations for their educational exceptionalism.

Once they reach age fifteen, South Korean students attend school on average 1020 hours a year. This is higher than the OECD average of 902 hours a year, and does not account for additional time spent in extra classes, with private tutors and in hagwons. Some estimates put the average total amount of time spent in school or studying as high as fourteen hours a day, five days a week, though other measures are more tempered; an OECD study indicates that overall, Korean students study, on average, an additional three hours a day compared to their counterparts in any of the other OECD countries. They also sleep an hour less compared to students in the US, the UK, Sweden, Finland and Germany and exercise 22 minutes less.

-Center for International Benchmarking

Of course, this pressure to succeed has a price. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among economically developed countries, with a correspondingly high number of adolescent deaths.

Finland

A defining characteristic of Finland’s educational success is its devotion to cultivating and supporting high level teachers. All teachers in Finland have master’s degrees.

Most observers have come to believe that, if there is a key to the success of the Finnish system, it is the quality of their teachers and the trust that the Finnish people have vested in them.  Some would argue that this, in some sense, makes the Finnish case irrelevant to the decisions to be made by other countries, because they lack the culture in which such a high value is placed on teachers and teaching.  But, when one examines the specific policies that the Finns have adopted with respect to the recruitment, selection, training, supervision and support of teachers, and the way in which the intense focus on teacher quality is matched to the Finnish approach to accountability, curriculum, instruction and school management, then one begins to see that teacher quality in Finland is not the result of an unmatchable culture, but rather of a specific highly integrated system of policies and structures that other nations can emulate to produce a culture that is no less supportive of teachers and no less likely to result in superior student performance.

-Center for International Benchmarking

Recently, The Economist declared that the Scandinavian countries may be models of economic success as well. This is of note because many would expect that, yes, strong governmental support, like that found in socialist countries can lead to strong civil servant preparation, but at what cost to the population? Don’t these policies lead to overwhelming governmental debt?

In fact, it is just the opposite. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all carry significantly less Gross Government Debt as a percentage of GDP:

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Overall, I believe that there are many paths to success. Many countries have developed their own strategies that fall in line with their other cultural beliefs, opinions about education and dependence on student’s successes for a sense of value. So, while I applaud these new standards and wish for their success, I remain skeptical that anything short of a holistic national change in the way that we view and value education in this country will make real, lasting change.

But I do have my fingers crossed.20090916_fingers_crossed

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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John Adams and Smallpox in The Colonies

51WCdUavsML._SL500_AA300_A coworker of my wife loaned us his copy of the John Adams HBO series and we have recently watched the first two episodes.

Like many Americans, I’ve always been interested in the founding fathers, but I admit that I never thought much about Adams. Apparently, it was because I hadn’t known much about him. Being caught in history between two of the best remembered presidents, Washington and Jefferson, put Adams in a tight spot from the outset. Washington was a war hero and first political leader (ever?) to step down willingly from power; Jefferson was an intriguing philosopher, inventor and writer of the declaration of independence.

Apparently, I was missing out on a fascinating man. As the series tells it, Adams was a lawyer with a keen sense of justice and an agitator in the continental congress who actually managed to get action out of a legislative body.

Nevertheless, as immunologists, we were both immediately interested in the smallpox epidemic that was hitting Boston in episode 2 and wound up stopping the episode several times to explain smallpox to our son who was watching this with us – he’s seven years old and a budding immunologist himself.

Of prime importance is to put this time period into perspective with Jenner’s work developing and testing the first smallpox vaccine in 1796. Prior to the vaccine there was only a rudimentary understanding of the immune system, however it was recognized that once a person had the disease once, they did not contract it again. This led to a dangerous practice of inoculation (also called variolation). The idea was very similar to that of vaccination, except that where vaccination is defined as using a killed or weakened pathogen, inoculation used virus collected from sickened individuals to induce a ’controlled’ infection that would induce immunity without harming the patient. The practice was extremely risky though as there was little done to weaken the virus.

In the film, scrapings of a blister from a sick person was used directly as a inoculum given to the patients. However, it was more common to take blisters from less sick persons (who had the minor form of the disease), bottle these and allow them to dry out before administering to a healthy patient. This simple desiccation was probably vital to tempering the virus at least partially.

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IMAGES: Title page, Historical account of the small-pox inoculated in New-England, upon all sorts of persons, whites, blacks, and of all ages and constitutions. London: Printed for S. Chandler, 1726 (James Lind Library); Cotton Mather – taken fromhttp://encyclopediavirginia.tumblr.com

The threat from smallpox was not trivial. This disease was quite infectious and the major form had mortality rates around 20-60%.1 Those who did live through the illness might be blinded and were likely severely scarred – often on the face.

In 1721 an epidemic of smallpox hit Boston so hard that the entire city’s population fled.2 Although the epidemic in the 1770s was not as devastating as that of 1721, thousands died from the disease throughout the colonies.

Abigail Adams was certain to know how deadly the disease was and was balancing this against the terrible risk of inoculation. In the end, she was lucky and, despite a close call, all of her children survived the ordeal.

So, briefly… how does inoculation work?

In a very basic sense, the immune system is made up of two major parts. The first is the innate immune system. Innate means built in, and this is exactly what this system is, built in and ready to go without preparation. The innate immune system includes barriers such as skin and mucus membranes as well as cells that respond rapidly to any invasion of the body.

Innate immunity is a generic, non-specific response that can be called up quickly. The benefit is that this system works immediately to protect the host. The weakness is that the innate immune system has no memory.3 So even after a first infection is beaten by this ‘primary’ response, there is no improvement in the response of these cells the second time around.

The second part of the immune system is the adaptive (or acquired) system. This is the part of your immune system that ‘learns’ from what it sees and is stronger when the same pathogen is encountered multiple times. This immunological ‘memory’ works just as you would expect it to: There is a relatively weak response on first exposure to any given pathogen, but after the infection is beaten and most cells die away, a small population of these ‘memory’ cells remain and can be called up quickly in subsequent exposures. These repeated exposures leads to a much quicker, very specific immune ‘secondary response’ that often stops an infection in its tracks.

Vaccination (and inoculation) takes advantage of this adaptive response and is ideally elicited with a primary, safe exposure to the pathogen. Despite the weakening of the virus (or any other pathogen – it isn’t limited to only viruses), robust immunological memory can be induced and an individual can be protected for years – sometimes even for life.

Later, any exposure to the real pathogen should result in protection from disease as the memory cells are awakened and respond rapidly. Further, a subset of the cells that remain after the primary exposure (plasma cells) make proteins called antibodiesthat circulate throughout the body and will neutralize pathogens immediately. Together, circulating antibodies and memory cells can provide complete immunity.

  1. Stefan Riedel. “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2005 January; 18(1): 21–25.
  2. Oda Y. “Inoculation in Boston from 1721 to American Independence”. Nihon Ishigaku Zasshi. 1999 Mar;45(1):31-44.
  3. There is some recent evidence that cells of the innate immune system do have some ‘memory’, see Joseph C. Sun, Sandra Lopez-Verges, Charles C. Kim, Joseph L. DeRisi and Lewis L. Lanier. “NK Cells and Immune ‘Memory’” The Journal of Immunology February 15, 2011 vol. 186 no. 4 1891-1897
  4. Antibodies are proteins produced in direct response to immunological challenge and bind to foreign specifically. These are products of mature B Cells, called Plasma Cells, and are what physicians look for in a ‘titer’ to determine if someone needs a booster vaccine. Low titer means little circulating antibody and a booster vaccine is recommended.
 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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