Field of Science

Obama's First Semester Grades

Obama completed 100 days in office and while 100 is a nice round number it doesnt have much significance as a time frame. A semester represents ~110 days depending on the year, state, school, etc. In a semester, there is the understanding that a significant body of material can be mastered (albeit, in my experience the material is often flushed down the toilet after the final).

Now President Obama is taking a full credit load. Using the issues posted on his website we have 22 courses! So lets grade each course and see how he's doing:

Civil Rights I Incomplete

Defense I Incomplete

Disabilities I Incomplete

Economy C Well we gave a lot of money to the ultrarich people, and gave a lot of nice words to everyone else. Its early so I won't be cynical yet, but call me skeptical. Credit card reform is in full swing and the auto industries have been dealt with fairly strongly. Also Obama has identified "science" as a major economic resource and begun to re-fund it.

Education B Not much has been done definitively but he has really pushed forward ideas for strong education and training as well as continuing education. He has noted the costs of education and he made some strides to begin addressing finances.

Energy & Environment B Words only to date, but he is generally putting great people in positions to give good advice.

Ethics D He has said some great things and then completely about-faced in practice. The idea of preventing lobbyists from working in the administration is reasonable but has been contradicted numerous times (Daschle for one). However, I do think the policy that prevents people in the administration from becoming a lobbyist for a significant time period (18 months iirc) after leaving is more important. Its too early to see if this will be enforced, but the backpeddling on the hiring lobbyist does not instill confidence. (Also, I would suggest that it is probably next to impossible in some instances to get top notched experts that are free from all lobbying, but I didn't make the ethics statement, Obama did.) Finally, this grade reflects the fact that Bush was as unethical as it gets and Obama basically rode that wagon, therefore expectations for Obama are high. 

Family C I waffled on a D. Obama is keeping the faith-based stealing of tax dollars started under the previous administration. Since some of the organizations getting this money are not big on "Family" unless they get to define all aspects of said family, I think this is detrimental. However, he has spoken specifically to parents to be involved in their children's lives and is setting an example with his own children by at least making some time for them.

Fiscal Responsibility D Basically allowed the unscrupulous to abuse the gullible (pretty much the GOP platform, that and no sex). So while the gullible are being forced to learn some responsibility (and rightly so), the unscrupulous are learning that its AOK to screw people over.

Foreign Policy I Meh, too early to tell. On the right path to regaining some respect in the world, but this will take some time. Let's see how the first major conflicts are dealt with (Iran or North Korea being likely sites of political conflict).

Health Care B Still all talk, but getting his ducks in row. Daschle was not a big plus here.

Homeland Security I Too early to tell, has reversed course on many promises regarding full disclosure, but has kept some. Much to Cheney's disappointment, no US cities in flames since the election.

Immigration I Not much happening on the front as far as I can tell.

Poverty B Tentative grade, giving big kudos towards tackling the credit card industry.

Rural I Not sure if Obama wants to urbanize rural areas or bring rurality(?) to urban centers.

Seniors & Social Security I Nothing to mention at the moment.
Service B Talks well about service and education (as a way to contribute to society). Michelle Bachmann is not a fan......of either.

Taxes I Basically not much to talk about yet.

Technology B Putting money into science, which directly leads to new technology. That's all good.

Urban Policy I See "Rural" above

Veterans Not much happening, but seems to see veterans a people not grist that fell out of the grindmill before they could fulfill their destiny as righteous matyrs to the lord American heroes.

Women  C Is putting many outstanding women in key positions in his administration. Always room for improvement.

Additional Issues I ???

So, giving a 1.0 for a D, 2.0 for a C, 3.0 for a B, and a 4.0 for an A and not counting incompletes I give the administration a grade pint average of 2.36 for the first semester, a good solid C approaching C+ range. I am not a fan of grade inflation so a C to me is considered a good starting spot. Also, this is not "average" in the sense that this is what an average citizen can accomplish, this is average from what we should expect from the president of the US. 

This is not bad, its average 

NETs: protection from pathogens or men

Alright a colleague of mine gave a talk a few weeks ago in an extremely informal format (yes booze was involved). Anyway these talks tend to be over-the-top excellent, not because of the content, but because they tend to be thought provoking. These are talks that have not been sterilized by the rigorous standards usually associated with polished talks. They often represent ideas without much data to back them up, pilot studies, etc. For this scientist, these are a blast!

Anyway, the talk was only peripherally associated with this post, in fact there were a couple of specific pictures shown and statements made that, in conjunction with some facts I am aware of, led me to the following thoughts. (BTW bitches, this is how science works at its best!)

First, you need to know about neutrophils. In short, neutrophils are one of the asskicking cells of the immune system (this is the system that has allowed you to live long enough to read this). When you are infected (and you are currrently infected with a bunch of things), your cells recruit neutrophils and other immunologic cells to the sites of infection to basically go ape-shit on the infectious particle's ass. Neutrophils are the kamikaze fighters of your immune system. While I am in fact being metaphorical here, in many ways the kamikaze analogy holds up well. When combatting infectious agents, such as bacteria or fungi, neutrophils act like suicide bombers secreting enzymes that are destructive or make destructive toxic chemicals that kill the infecting particle and the neutrophil (for the record the primary component of pus, the gunk you squeeze out of your forehead when combatting zits) is basically the carcasses of dead neutrophils that gave up their lives to the cause).

Now the self-sacrifice of neutrophils has long been known. However, it has recently been demonstrated that these dead neutrophils have an additional function. The DNA from these dead neutrophils is released into the environment and makes up a meshwork of DNA and enzymes that act essentially as nets to trap infectious microbes and kill them with the associated enzymes. These structures are aptly termed NETs (neutrophil extracellular traps) and are reviewed here (subscription required).

Now I realize all of this neutrophil biology is really cool, but what is the point?

Neutrophils, and other cells, can be extruded across epithelial cell layers into the lumenal environment of various tissues. In the vaginal cavity, neutrophils are extruded across the vaginal squamous epithelia where they can interact and kill resident bacteria. Now the vaginal cavity is home normally to bacteria, namely the Lactobaccili. However, these normal, commensal, bacteria do not cause neutrophils to do this. This property is left to non-resident microbes, in other words pathogens. When pathogenic bacteria and fungi colonize the vaginal track, neutrophils extrude through the epithelial cell layer, enter the vaginal cavity and attack the microbes, dying in the process, building NETs and continuing to kill microbes. The link between the microbe and the neutrophil is actually the epithelial cells. Epithelial cells sense the presence of pathogenic microbes and send signals to the neutrophils, essentially telling them to "CHARGE!" (More on this story in another post)

Now what's interesting is that sex also causes the same effect. Neutrophil extrusion. The question is why. My short answer would have been epithelial damage that occurs during the physical process of sex. Even the best sex causes some damage to the vaginal mucosa. However, that short answer would have been wrong, or at least incomplete. It turns out that if you simply add seminal fluid to vaginal epithelial cells, the epithelial cells respond to recruit the neutrophils. So vaginal epithelial cells respond to seminal fluid in about the same way that they respond to Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. Which brings us to the painful fact, that for all you men out there, your significant others bodies still view you as a bad thing.

Now this linkage of neutrophil extrusion with sex makes a lot of sense. When you engage in sex, you are always taking a risk. No matter how much your partner swears fidelity, there's always a chance they are lying. So potentially your mate may be bringing something to the table you weren't planning on. Further, the female is at greatest risk here because of the physical trauma associated with the act and the fact most of the of the relevant secretions are within her body. So having a potent immunological cell dive into the frenzy to deal with these potential problems is a good, albeit untested AFAIK, idea.

Now I got to thinking, which is not necessarily a good thing, that while an immune response to the seminal fluid is a good idea to protect the female could there be other factors in play here? For example, maybe there is a selective advantage to males by having promoting an immunologic response in the female reproductive track. For example, once sex is over, the female may seek out other mates, if you are the first male, then maybe the elicited immunologic response kills off competing sperm. This would certainly increase your chance of being the lucky genome donor. Maybe females are most likely to breed with the "optimal" mate first and then, in social species like primates, breed with less optimal mates for political reasons (food sharing for instance). This would increase the chance that your genes are mixed with those the genes of the optimal mate and not the slack jawed yokel monkey who just happened to find black gold, texas tea in them there hills.

Again AFAIK these ideas have not been tested, but I think they are interesting and potentially thought provoking. This is a reason I love science, its fun to play arm chair theoretician.

G&G on the Radio

Check it out, a discussion in science education that couldn't be more timely.

Lynn Fellman will be quizzing anthropologists Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and Greg Laden of the University of Minnesota on the subject of creationist attempts to weaken science education in K-12 education.  Dr. Scott testified before the Texas State Board of Education as the board was considering how to rewrite the scientce standards.  Texas is critical because of the number of pupils.  Textbook publishers write their books to fit with the Texas standards, and if evolution is weakened at the whim of Texas creationists, it affects education in the rest of the states.  Dr. Laden has been watching development of the Math and Science Standards for Minnesota and will provide some updates.

Greg and Genie will also be discussing the various approaches to religion in promoting and protecting science education.  The NCSE is careful to assure religious leaders that science, properly done, is not necessarily dangerous to their faith (unless strict creationism is a cornerstone of their faith.) Many atheist scientists think that this is a dangerous approach because it dilutes science's naturalistic methodology.  They will discuss what the best approach may be, whether it is "New Atheism" or "Friendly Atheism."  

Atheists Talk is produced by Minnesota Atheists.  Stephanie Zvan is the host, and Mike Haubrich is the director.

- Tune in or kittens may be smitten

Update on Science Education in Minnesota

It is with great pride and belated exhaustion that I present to you:

Science Standards w00t!!!11!!

On a related but tangential note, tomorrow at 9:00AM on AM 950 "Atheist Talk" is having Blogger Greg Laden (I think he may do other stuff too) and Genie Scott (the NCSE executive director) on to discuss Science Education. I believe this is simply coincidental but you know what lunatics people say about interesting coincidences.