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SCIENCE IN MIND

Harvard biologists go Gangnam style for the holidays

The Harvard scientists of Pardis Sabeti’s laboratory reenacted the popular video for their card.

Sabeti Laboratory

The Harvard scientists of Pardis Sabeti’s laboratory reenacted the popular video for their card.

The tradition began back in 2008, when holiday cards began arriving from Pardis Sabeti’s friends; they were settling down, getting married, starting families, and sending the photographic evidence. She wasn’t married then, but Sabeti felt like she, too, was starting a family. “I felt like the proud mom of a growing, amazing new lab,” she wrote in an e-mail.

So the systems biology professor at Harvard University decided to send out a lab holiday card. That first year, she went to Kmart and bought holiday sweaters and other festive garb. She and her students and postdoctorals then took a photo to share with friends and colleagues.

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In the years since, Sabeti’s laboratory has tackled big problems in biology and medicine, devising new kinds of statistical tools to analyze large datasets, and studying Lassa fever. As the lab has grown, so have its holiday card ambitions, with 2010 bringing scientists in lab coats floating underwater, and 2011 triggering a re-creation of the Italian Renaissance painting “The School of Athens .” This year, the lab strayed from classical inspiration to something a bit more contemporary: the Sabeti lab, Gangnam style. More than two dozen scientists are caught in mid-galloping horse dance, reenacting scenes from the popular video made by South Korean pop star Psy.

Scientists tend to spend a lot of time at work, and individual labs often develop their own internal culture. Students, postdoctoral researchers, and their faculty leaders set a tone, keeping traditions and doing activities that help the group cohere outside of the usual lab meetings, experiments, and manuscript writing. This manifests in different ways: Maybe the scientists label the machines they use each day after their favorite cartoon pigs, have annual lab retreats far away from their incubators and microscopes, or play in an intense summer volleyball league.

Sabeti is sensitive to the fact that biomedical research is facing tight funding, and spending time on a holiday card might seem like a frivolity.

“The card is built on the energy and creativity of the students and not on big expenses,” Sabeti wrote. “While there is a funding crisis, there is also as importantly a crisis in morale in labs across the country and in the way people perceive science. I love this card because it shows the amazing esprit of a life in science, and I wish more labs would share the joy of science with the world.”

Cutting-edge research explains why slicing at times beats dicing

L. Mahadevan, an applied mathematician at Harvard University, delights in unraveling the principles that underlie seemingly simple phenomena, ranging from how cucumber tendrils coil around supports to help plants climb, to the optimal way to balance on a tightrope. His latest work is something he has been pondering for years, nearly every time he has cooked a meal: the physics of cutting soft stuff.

Mahadevan, a vegetarian, found it interesting that when cutting stiff vegetables, such as a pumpkin or a potato, people push down with the blade. They very rarely “slice,” drawing the blade toward them while they push down. Soft fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, such as a tomato or a persimmon, require more slicing to make an effective cut. As he mulled the problem, his mind ranged all over, and he recalled that when he met his wife, he had a paper cut, bringing up the everyday mystery of how paper can slice flesh. What was the explanation for the two techniques, he wondered.

In a careful experiment published this month in the journal Physical Review Letters, Mahadevan and colleagues measured the forces involved in slicing, using a stripped-down experimental apparatus — a soft gel and a fishing line or wire as the blade. They mimicked both dicing and slicing with the apparatus, dicing defined as just pushing down with the blade and slicing as the action of drawing the blade at an angle as one pushes down.

What he found was that the force required to cut is much less when one slices a soft object, rather than dicing it. Slicing generates “microtears” in the soft object, and those coalesce and eventually allow the wire to break through. The force required, in comparison to dicing, is less by a factor of five, he found.

“The simple reason for that is when I dice, I have to squeeze down. I’m deforming the soft object over a large scale, which means I have to have a lot of force,” Mahadevan said. “If I was slicing, I don’t have to push down. We show mathematically, the forces required to reach the same nominal stress to break it will happen earlier.”

Group gives its own take on science as ‘a girl thing’

In what was seen by many as a misguided attempt to get girls interested in science, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, this summer released a ridiculous video that used short skirts, high heels, and lipstick to sell the idea. The video, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, triggered widespread criticism, and at least one parody video.

Now, a group of Dartmouth College scientists has produced its own take on science being a “girl thing,” with a video that trades the preposterous club-like atmosphere of the original video for the scenic views and the gritty reality of field work in Greenland: boots, dirt, snowflakes, and all.

The topic of women in science is an important and complicated one. Things have certainly improved in many respects. But even as more women are getting science degrees, women are still outnumbered by men, when you count the number who become full faculty members. The numbers are improving but remain far from equal in most fields — a National Science Foundation study notes that in 2008, women made up a little more than a fifth of full professors with science and engineering degrees.

This year, a team of scientists from Yale University revealed that subtle, unintentional biases held by other scientists may help reinforce gender disparities. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that science faculty members from research universities evaluating a job application for a lab manager rated applicants with a male name as “significantly more competent and hireable” than the same application with a woman’s name on it. Nature magazine just chose the woman who led that research, Jo Handelsman, as one of its “Ten people who mattered this year.”

“I had heard so many times from scientists that this couldn’t possibly be true of us, that we’re trained to be rational,” Handelsman told Nature. Once again, science suggests that human nature applies to scientists, too.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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