Science News

Science News-February

Public health workers killed in Nigeria. Eleven public health workers involved in a polio vaccination campaign in northern Nigeria were assassinated on February 8. Meanwhile, 2013’s first confirmed case of wild-type polio occurred in Karachi, Pakistan; a rash of killings of polio workers occurred in that country in the end of 2012. Poliovirus, target of a global eradication effort, remains endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

School of Public Health weighs in on national gun conversation. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hosted a summit on gun violence in mid-January; this week, the proceedings were published along with a list of policy recommendations.

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Receptors and memory: Dr. Rick Huganir’s BCMB Friday Seminar

Dr. Rick Huganir.
(Image reproduced from Department of Neuroscience website)

How do synaptic connections, made of short-lived proteins, last for the duration of a human life? That’s the question Rick Huganir, chair of the Neuroscience department, used to frame his talk, the third in this year’s BCMB Friday Seminar series. Dr. Huganir spoke on “Regulation of receptors, synapses and memory,” focusing on the regulation of AMPARs, excitatory glutamate receptors which mediate about 70% of electrical activity in the brain. Modifications to either the number or the activity of AMPARs at individual synapses can affect how information flows through neural circuits. Trafficking can add or subtract AMPARs to the postsynaptic milieu, while each receptor has dozens of phosphorylation sites that regulate activity, with phosphorylation potentially lasting for the lifetime of a receptor. However, a receptor’s lifetime is, as Dr. Huganir put it, “not [long] enough to solve the problem of a ninety-year-old woman remembering her childhood.” So, how does the increased sensitivity of a strengthened synapse last for any longer than the set of receptors that was around when the initial strengthening stimulus took place? Dr. Huganir’s talk broke down into three connected stories of molecular sleuthing in search of a “very local, self-sustaining mechanism” for tagging neurotransmitter receptors in the long term.

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Science News

The NIH continues to run, fund grants. The eleventh-hour fiscal cliff deal delayed planned sequestration of funds for discretionary spending, including research funding, for two months to allow further negotiation. Whether this cut will go into effect as written remains uncertain. The NIH reduced its award rate for non-competitive grant renewals in October of 2012, and will continue to fund renewals at a reduced rate at least until the budget for fiscal year 2013 is finalized.

Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini has died. The Italian neuroscientist and senator-for-life was 102. She received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of nerve growth factor, the first diffusible growth factor to be described.

Sub-absolute-zero temperatures attained. Physicists at the Ludwig-Maximilianus University Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have generated a stable gaseous system with negative kelvin temperature and extraordinarily high kinetic energy.

Unusually harsh flu season hits area hospitals. The CDC reports an unusually high number of outpatient visits for flu-like symptoms, both nationally and in Maryland. Influenza season usually peaks in late January or early February. Meanwhile, Google Flu Trends has proven useful in predicting local outbreaks weeks in advance.

In Memoriam: Dr. Bob Cotter

Dr. Bob Cotter, professor of Pharmacology and Biophysics, passed away suddenly on the evening of NovemBS bs-md-ob-robert-cotterber 12. Faculty and students from the Pharmacology and Biophysics departments gathered the following day to remember his career and his larger-than-life presence in the department, and on the nineteenth, a meeting of the Washington/Baltimore Mass Spectrometry Discussion Group, which Dr. Cotter was to have hosted, was held instead as a memorial symposium in his honor.

Dr. Cotter spent the bulk of his academic life at Hopkins. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross, he completed his doctoral research in the Chemistry department at Homewood. Following a brief stint as a faculty member at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, he returned to Hopkins as a research associate and advanced over the years to full professorship. Research over the course of his career substantially advanced the field of time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and garnered him honors from the American Society for Mass Spectrometry and the American Chemical Society. In December of 2008, on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry dedicated an issue to him.

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Faculty jobs may be few, but other options are numerous

Much of the science community has been keeping a watchful eye on graduate student education.  Over the summer, this topic has made headlines as the NIH released a report of recommendations for improving education, and BCMB itself has been instituting new changes, policies, and programs to try and improve the graduate school experience.  BCMB student Laurel Oldach reports on some of the latest information on the outcomes of graduate student education.  

According to the numbers, most Ph.D. candidates studying today will not go on to jobs in the traditional postdoc-to-tenured-professor career path.  The Washington Post reports that just 14% of new Ph.D. scientists get a tenure track job within five years of earning their degrees, with about a quarter eventually landing faculty positions. Meanwhile, the number of biomedical Ph.Ds has doubled in the last twenty years.  The average age at which scientists move into tenure-track positions has steadily increased, while the proportion who are able to find such positions has decreased, reflecting a shortage of the academic jobs that many students anticipate when they begin graduate school. Last year, the NIH commissioned a working group to investigate young scientists’ prospects and find a way to address the mismatch between the Ph.D. workforce and the academic job market.

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