Category Archives: Stanford University


Smaller, quieter wind turbines could boost public support

Vertical axis wind turbines, which may have fewer effects on birds and nearby people, could increase public support for new wind energy installations, new research suggests.

With global carbon emissions on the rise, wind power continues to be an attractive option for states and countries looking to limit fossil fuel use and increase renewable energy. Wind already accounts for over 5 percent of electricity generation in the United States.

A number of issues plague the low-carbon energy source, however, such as complaints from nearby residents about noise and the killing of hundreds of thousands of birds and bats each year that collide with turbine blades.

Last week, in a setback to wind energy proponents, the Vermont Public Utility Commission adopted new regulations that limited the amount of sound new wind projects are allowed to produce. And in counties across California, similar restrictions have been passed limiting wind energy expansion. While some states are growing their wind power sectors, California has seen a plateau in growth over the last four years.

wind turbines in rural setting
Researchers surveyed Californians on how they felt about traditional versus vertical axis wind turbines in a rural setting. (Credit: Iris Hui/Stanford)

To better understand these concerns over wind energy, researchers conducted a poll examining how receptive people in California are to vertical axis wind turbines in various settings.

“For California, even with the state’s support for climate action and reducing emissions, wind farms can be a tough sell for residents,” says Iris Hui, a coauthor of the paper and senior researcher with the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

“We wanted to see if the potential for lower impacts from vertical axis turbines might persuade Californians to be more receptive to large-scale wind projects,” Hui says.

‘Opinion matters’

Vertical axis turbines have been around for decades but have been less popular options for large wind farms because of concerns that current models are less reliable and produce less energy per unit. But the tide could turn with public concern over the effects that wind energy has on people as well as birds and other wildlife.

“Because vertical axis turbines operate at lower speeds, lower height, and have a different visual signature than conventional wind turbines, we anticipated that they would have less impact on birds and wildlife,” says coauthor John Dabiri, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.


wind turbines in openspace
The researchers also asked how Californians felt about traditional versus vertical axis wind turbines in an open space setting. (Credit: Iris Hui/Stanford)

“Our field testing over the past eight years has shown this to be anecdotally true. We also expected the fact they they’re less noisy and harder to see from a distance would make them more attractive for communities. But it was important to test these assumptions in practice.”

This results of the poll could help California and other states make better use of abundant wind energy, says coauthor and political science professor Bruce Cain.

“The issue is both a technical engineering problem and a political science problem because opinion matters so much to which technologies get adopted and implemented. That’s why we brought people from both disciplines together on this,” says Cain.

Better for bats and birds

The team devised an online opt-in survey that asked respondents about their feelings on the different turbine technologies. The most desirable feature for vertical axis turbines was the idea that they may kill fewer birds and bats.

Cost remained a big concern, however, as did where to put the turbines. While support for installation was 75 percent for turbines that would be 50 miles from their home, support plummeted significantly as the distance from the turbine installation to the respondent’s home got smaller.

Wind turbines change visitors to tortoise burrows

Dabiri’s lab is working on ways to develop vertical axis turbines that can reach parity on energy output with horizontal axis turbines and has research showing the potential of deploying smaller vertical axis turbines (about 30 feet high compared to the iconic white horizontal axis turbines stretching over 300 feet tall) in clusters to further perpetuate wind.

Due to their smaller stature, there is also more potential to deploy these turbines in a more urban setting than is possible with larger horizontal axis turbines. However, neither of these ideas gave vertical axis wind turbines a significant advantage over conventional wind turbines with the respondents.

Respondents with higher educational levels who value action on climate change were more likely to support integrating vertical axis turbines into an urban setting.

The researchers stress these findings indicate that, rather than being competing technologies, vertical and horizontal wind turbines can be complementary.

“Vertical axis turbines could be favored in areas of significance to wildlife or in certain urban settings where larger turbines are not viable,” says Hui.

In addition to this study, Dabiri’s lab has funding through the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Realizing Environmental Innovation Program to study how to lower the impacts of wind energy expansion on birds and ecosystems.

“The real challenge that remains is to do more rigorous testing on how vertical axis turbines impact birds,” says Dabiri. “If our anecdotal evidence of lower avian impacts can be supported by formal biological studies, it could make a real difference in public acceptance.”

To cut power use, put a price tag on carbon

The researchers report their findings in the journal Energy Policy. The Bill Lane Center for the American West funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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Swabbing dolphin mouths reveals bacterial ‘dark matter’

Researchers have found two previously unknown phyla of bacteria inside the mouths of dolphins.

A phylum is a broad taxonomic rank that groups together organisms that share a set of common characteristics due to common ancestry.

The discovery of two bacterial phyla, as well as additional novel genes and predicted products, provides new insights into bacterial diversity, dolphin health, and the unique nature of marine mammals in general, says David Relman, professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of a new paper describing the findings.

swabbing dolphin's mouth
(Credit: National Marine Mammal Foundation via Stanford)

Bacterial ‘gold’

The US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program reached out to Relman more than 10 years ago for help in keeping its dolphins healthy. The animals are highly trained and perform missions at sea.

“We knew there was gold in those dolphin mouths, and we decided it was time to go after it…”

Previous research by Relman’s group, in collaboration with the Marine Mammal Center, revealed a surprising number of never-before-seen bacteria in dolphin and other marine mammal samples, particularly those swabbed from the dolphins’ mouths, says Relman. Some of the bacteria found in the current study are affiliated with poorly understood branches of the bacterial tree.

“These organisms, about which we have known just a tiny bit, are basically the dark matter of the biological world,” he says. “We knew there was gold in those dolphin mouths, and we decided it was time to go after it with more comprehensive methods.”

In the new study, the researchers identified bacterial lineages by reconstructing their genomes from short bits of DNA. The genome of a given cell serves as its blueprint and contains all its operating instructions, encoded in DNA.

The researchers named one of the newly identified lineages Delphibacteria in honor of the dolphins (Delphinidae is the Latin name for oceanic dolphins).

Earth may be home to 1 trillion species of microbes

By looking at the genes encoded in the genomes of Delphibacteria representatives, the researchers gained insight into the bacteria’s lifestyle.

Researchers predict the bacteria express a property called denitrification that may affect dolphins’ oral health: The chemical process can cause inflammation and could be connected to gum disease. Denitrification also occurs in plaque on human teeth, suggesting that something about mammalian mouths selects for this process.

Putting the puzzle together

The researchers differentiated between bacteria and predicted their behavior by looking broadly at their genomes.

“What we do first is shear the DNA into a bunch of little bits and pieces, the mix of DNA is sequenced, and we then try to figure out how the genomes were originally assembled,” says lead author Natasha Dudek, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

If a gene is one piece of a puzzle, the researchers put together the whole puzzle.

“Typically, people are interested in small Cas9 proteins that might be easy to manipulate and deliver into cells,” says Relman. “These are the opposite—they’re enormously big.”

Different structures in the genes that encode these proteins account for the size difference, and the researchers suggest these large Cas9 proteins have different properties from those known before. Dudek plans to pursue this line of research further.

‘Competing’ ocean bacteria may collaborate instead

The study also feeds nicely into ongoing work in Relman’s lab. A large, comparative study is underway to investigate how adaptation to life in the sea might affect marine mammal microbiomes. Beyond discovering and characterizing novel bacteria, Relman wants to apply his research to conservation.

“Marine mammals are becoming increasingly endangered,” he says. “They are sentinel species for the health of the sea, and the more we can understand their biology, the better we can anticipate changes in the health of their environment.”

The researchers report their findings in Current Biology.

Additional researchers from the UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Stanford also contributed to the study. The Office of Naval Research supported the study, as did Stanford’s medicine and microbiology and immunology departments.

Source: Nicoletta Lanese for Stanford University

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Algorithm outdoes radiologists at spotting pneumonia in X-rays

A new algorithm called ChexNet can diagnose pneumonia from chest X-rays, researchers report.

The algorithm can diagnose up to 14 types of medical conditions and is able to diagnose pneumonia better than expert radiologists working alone.

“Interpreting X-ray images to diagnose pathologies like pneumonia is very challenging, and we know that there’s a lot of variability in the diagnoses radiologists arrive at,” says Pranav Rajpurkar, a graduate student in the Stanford University Machine Learning Group and co-lead author of a paper about the algorithm.

Researchers look at X-rays and heat maps
A tool the researchers developed along with the algorithm produced these images, which are similar to heat maps and show the areas of the X-ray most indicative of pneumonia. (Credit: L.A. Cicero/Stanford)

“We became interested in developing machine learning algorithms that could learn from hundreds of thousands of chest X-ray diagnoses and make accurate diagnoses,” Rajpurkar says.

Outperforming radiologists

The work uses a public dataset initially released by the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center on September 26. That dataset contains 112,120 frontal-view chest X-ray images labeled with up to 14 possible pathologies. It was released in tandem with an algorithm that could diagnose many of those 14 pathologies with some success, designed to encourage others to advance that work.

As soon as they saw these materials, the Machine Learning Group—a group led by Andrew Ng, adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford—knew it had found its next research direction.

“…we believe that a deep learning model for this purpose could improve health care delivery across a wide range of settings…”

The researchers, working with Matthew Lungren, an assistant professor of radiology, had four radiologists independently annotate 420 of the images for possible indications of pneumonia.

The researchers have chosen to focus on this disease, which brings 1 million Americans to the hospital each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is especially difficult to spot on X-rays, the researchers say. In the meantime, the Machine Learning Group team got to work developing an algorithm that could automatically diagnose the pathologies.

Within a week the researchers had an algorithm that diagnosed 10 of the pathologies labeled in the X-rays more accurately than previous state-of-the-art results. In just over a month, their algorithm could beat these standards in all 14 identification tasks.

In that short time span, CheXNet also outperformed the four radiologists in diagnosing pneumonia accurately.

The challenge of reading X-rays

Often, treatments for common but devastating diseases that occur in the chest, such as pneumonia, rely heavily on how doctors interpret radiological imaging. But even the best radiologists are prone to misdiagnoses due to challenges in distinguishing between diseases based on X-rays.

“The motivation behind this work is to have a deep learning model to aid in the interpretation task that could overcome the intrinsic limitations of human perception and bias, and reduce errors,” explains Lungren, who is coauthor of the paper.

Algorithm beats experts at diagnosing heart rhythm

“More broadly, we believe that a deep learning model for this purpose could improve health care delivery across a wide range of settings,” Lungren says.

After about a month of continuous iteration, the algorithm outperformed the four individual radiologists in pneumonia diagnoses. This means that the diagnoses provided by CheXNet agreed with a majority vote of radiologists more often than those of the individual radiologists.

The algorithm now has the highest performance of any work that has come out so far related to the NIH chest X-ray dataset.

Focusing on the future

The researchers have also developed a computer-based tool that produces what looks like a heat map of the chest X-rays—but instead of representing temperature, the colors of these maps represent areas that the algorithm determines are most likely to represent pneumonia.

This tool could help reduce the amount of missed cases of pneumonia and significantly accelerate radiologist workflow by showing them where to look first, leading to faster diagnoses for the sickest patients.

In parallel to other work the group is doing with irregular heartbeat diagnosis and electronic medical record data, the researchers hope CheXNet can help people in areas of the world where people might not have easy access to a radiologist.

Future vaccine targets even more forms of pneumonia

“We plan to continue building and improving upon medical algorithms that can automatically detect abnormalities and we hope to make high-quality, anonymized medical datasets publicly available for others to work on similar problems,” says Jeremy Irvin, a graduate student in the Machine Learning group and co-lead author of the paper.

“There is massive potential for machine learning to improve the current health care system, and we want to continue to be at the forefront of innovation in the field.”

A paper about the algorithm is available on arXiv.

Additional researchers contributing to this work are from the Machine Learning Group at Stanford University and the university’s School of Medicine.

Source: Stanford University

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After 3-year plateau, fossil fuel emissions rise again

After remaining steady for three years, global fossil fuel emissions are rising again and may increase again next year. But improved energy efficiency and a booming renewables market may offer a bit of a silver lining.

“This year’s result is discouraging, but I remain hopeful,” says Rob Jackson, professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, which released a series of reports in Environmental Research Letters.

“In the US, cities, states, and companies have seized leadership on energy efficiency and low-carbon renewables that the federal government has abdicated.”

The report appears with data published simultaneously in an Earth System Science Data Discussions paper led by Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, who is also part of the Global Carbon Project.

Together, they forecast that global fossil fuel emissions will reach a record 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2017, with total emissions reaching a record 41 billion tons, including deforestation. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 403 parts per million in 2016, and is expected to increase by 2.5 parts per million in 2017.

“The green economy is booming in China and elsewhere, but growing energy demands are also being met with new oil, coal, and natural gas infrastructure.”

Leading that increase is China, where emissions are projected to grow by approximately 3.5 percent in 2017. Coal use there is up an estimated 3 percent, oil use is up 5 percent, and natural gas use is up nearly 12 percent.

“The green economy is booming in China and elsewhere, but growing energy demands are also being met with new oil, coal, and natural gas infrastructure,” Jackson says.

Jackson led a second study for the Global Carbon Project on carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere that appears in the same journal and a related commentary in Nature Climate Change on tracking emissions to the Paris agreement.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from approximately 277 parts per million at the beginning of the Industrial Era to 403 parts per million as of 2016.

Health perks of reducing emissions could offset costs

Deforestation and land-use change drove those increases until about 1920, when fossil fuel use became the dominant source of carbon emissions. In the past decade, fossil fuels and industry have accounted for 88 percent of total carbon emissions.

Between 2014 and 2016, emissions barely budged despite a growth in global gross domestic product. This marked the first time that global emissions were decoupled from economic output—a development driven by reduced coal use in the United States and China, as well as energy efficiency improvements and growth in renewable energy around the world.

Carbon dioxide emissions have decreased despite growing economic activity in 22 countries representing 20 percent of global emissions. Among them, the United States is expected to see a 0.4 percent decline in emissions this year, and the European Union 0.2 percent.

Still, overall global carbon emissions are unlikely to decrease in 2018. Although India’s emissions are projected to grow by just 2 percent this year—a dramatic shift from over 8 percent per year during the last decade—they could easily bump up rapidly if its economy recovers from a recent downturn. Elsewhere, World Bank forecasts for growth in global GDP could have similar effects on emissions.

Ice cores indicate even higher methane emissions

Growth in renewables and improved energy efficiency still provide reasons to be optimistic. Countries installed a record amount of renewable generating capacity in 2016, and 2017 should see another record set.

“Prices for wind and solar power are plummeting, and batteries and storage are helping to balance supply and demand for electricity,” Jackson says. “The world’s energy future is changing before our eyes.”

Jackson is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Source: Stanford University

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This reversible fabric is like personal heat and A/C

A reversible fabric keeps skin a comfortable temperature whatever the weather—and could save energy by keeping us away from the thermostat.

As reported in Science Advances, the double-sided fabric is based on the same material as everyday kitchen wrap and can offer warmth or cooling depending on which side faces out.

“Why do you need to cool and heat the whole building? Why don’t you cool and heat individual people?”

“Why do you need to cool and heat the whole building? Why don’t you cool and heat individual people?” says Yi Cui, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, who thought if people could be more comfortable in a range of temperatures, they could save energy on air conditioning and central heating.

Thirteen percent of all of the energy consumed in the United States is due to indoor temperature control. But for every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that a thermostat is turned down, a building can save a whopping 10 percent of its heating energy—and the reverse is true for cooling. So adjusting temperature controls by just a few degrees could have major effects on energy consumption.

Our bodies have all sorts of ways to control our temperature. When it’s cold, the hairs in our skin stand out to trap warm air. Eventually, we may start shivering to produce more radiant heat in our muscles.

When it’s hot, we release heat as infrared radiation from our skin, and if we’re still warm we start to sweat. Water evaporating away from our bodies carries a large amount of heat with it.

But those mechanisms only help within a few degrees. Get outside the temperature range to which our bodies can adapt, and we reach for the dial on the heating or air conditioning.

In 2016, Cui’s team came up with a first step toward a solution: fabric that allowed the body’s heat to pass through, cooling the skin. Although the inspiration came from transparent, water-impermeable kitchen wrap, the new material was opaque, breathable, and retained its ability to shuttle infrared radiation away from the body.

“Right around when we figured out cooling, then came the question: Can you do heating?”

Compared to a cotton sample, the fabric kept artificial skin 2 C cooler in a laboratory test—possibly enough to stop a person from ever reaching for a fan or the building thermostat. The team’s first textile could save a building full of workers 20 to 30 percent of their total energy budget.

“Right around when we figured out cooling, then came the question: Can you do heating?” says postdoctoral fellow Po-Chun Hsu, who is the new paper’s first author. It was a particularly chilly winter, and he was headed to a conference in Minneapolis with a carry-on bag full of coats. Could he create an article of clothing that would serve him in a crowded warm conference room as well as on the frosty street?

Hsu realized that controlling radiation could work both ways. He stacked two layers of material with different abilities to release heat energy, and then sandwiched them between layers of the cooling polyethylene.

double-sided fabric
A new textile made from a reversible fabric could warm or cool wearers and keep them comfortable. Two layers of material with different abilities to release heat energy are stacked together and sandwiched between layers of polyethylene. (Credit: Yi Cui Group)

On one side, a copper coating traps heat between a polyethylene layer and the skin; on the other, a carbon coating releases heat under another layer of polyethylene. Worn with the copper layer facing out, the material traps heat and warms the skin on cool days. With the carbon layer facing out, it releases heat, keeping the wearer cool.

‘Smart fabric’ could store passcodes or I.D. in clothes

Combined, the sandwiched material can increase a person’s range of comfortable temperatures over 10 F—and the potential range could be much larger—closer to 25 F. With people wearing that kind of textile, buildings in some climates might never need air conditioning or central heating at all.

But the white-colored fabric isn’t quite wearable yet.

Other possible applications include clothing with medical devices—and even entertainment—printed right into the fabric.

“Ideally, when we get to the stuff you want to wear on skin, we’ll need to make it into a fiber woven structure,” Cui says. Woven textiles are stronger, more elastic, more comfortable, and look much more like typical clothing. But good news: They’ve already started testing to make sure the fabric will be machine washable.

“From my perspective, this work really highlights the significant opportunities in combining thermal engineering concepts with nanophotonic structures for creating novel functionalities,” says Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering.

The team’s ambitions don’t stop there. Other possible applications include clothing with medical devices—and even entertainment—printed right into the fabric.

“I think we are only seeing the beginning of many creative ideas that can come out of such combinations,” Fan says.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, US Department of Energy funded the work.

Source: Vicky Stein for Stanford University

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Axing protection for undersea monuments could spell disaster

The Trump administration is considering rolling back federal protections for a number of national monuments, a move many marine experts disagree with.

While most monuments are on land and relatively accessible, three are deep below the ocean’s surface and many miles from the mainland: the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, both in the central Pacific Ocean, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England.

Most people will never explore the canyons and reefs of these watery realms, but their value is hard to overestimate, according to scientists with years of experience exploring and studying these and adjacent areas.

measuring a gray reef shark
Biology graduate student Tim White and and Kosta Stamoulis of the University of Hawaii track a gray reef shark within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. (Credit: Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium via Stanford)

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment spoke with marine experts Rob Dunbar, Fiorenza Micheli, Stephen Palumbi, and Tim White about potential impacts from a loss of protections, including the resumption of commercial fishing in currently off-limits areas. Dunbar is a professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. Micheli and Palumbi are both professors of marine science at the university’s Hopkins Marine Station. White is a doctoral student in biology.

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Research teams with women more likely to consider sex and gender

When women contribute to medical research, that research is more likely to include consideration of sex and gender, including the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, research shows.

The paper also explores increasing the participation of women in medical research and the resulting quality of the research in terms of accounting for diversity.

“If you don’t include sex and gender, you get serious errors.”

“If you have more women on the research team, specifically in leadership positions, you get an increase in sex and gender analysis in the research, or vice-versa.” says Londa Schiebinger, a professor of history of science at Stanford University.

The team, including Schiebinger and post-doc Mathias Nielsen, a recent, searched medical research databases from 2008-2015 looking for studies that did and did not systematically consider sex and gender. They assigned genders to the authors of those studies based on first names and compared the author diversity to the inclusion of sex and gender in the research itself.

The more women among the paper’s authors—particularly senior and lead authors—the more likely the research was to take sex and gender into account.

The cost of ignoring sex and gender

Sex, defined by chromosomes, hormones, and physical differences, is often overlooked as a variable in medical research. In many clinical drug trials, for example, women have been excluded entirely—for reproductive safety, because of the potential for hormonal changes over time, or simply to homogenize the sample. Early research using animals often does not even report their sex, even though behavior and response to treatments has since been found to differ between males and females.

Gender, which applies to social roles that may be based on sex or an individual’s personal identification, also plays a role in health, since gender often plays into potential occupational hazards as well as lifestyle choices like exercise and diet. Recovery from injury or disease has been linked to gender-related characteristics: for example, masculine people (male or female) tend to recover better from acute coronary syndrome than more feminine patients.

Ignoring these vital factors leads to a dangerous lack of insight into health for the general population, according to Schiebinger.

“If you don’t include sex and gender, you get serious errors,” she says.

What pigeons show us about sex bias in science

These errors can be life-threatening: women often retain drugs in their bodies at higher concentrations than men, and they may react very differently to various dosages of antidepressants and antipsychotics.

Meanwhile, the cost of creating, approving, and marketing a new drug has climbed over $2.6 billion as of 2015, so a drug’s failure on the market comes at a steep economic price as well.

Better representation, better research

Hoping to avoid these pitfalls, both the US National Institutes of Health and the European Commission, two large and influential sources of support, now emphasize gender and sex analysis as important components of any publicly funded medical research. The two organizations also encourage the participation of women in research generally. The research team argues that the two ideas are symbiotic.

“There’s a symmetry between the two objectives,” Nielsen says. “If we add more focus on gender and sex analysis, that might draw more women into the research.”

Researchers can’t just screen drugs for male bodies

The researchers think it’s possible that while female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender as variables in their research, it’s also possible that when entering the field, they are drawn to areas of research in which sex and gender are already regarded as important.

“Diversity and excellence in medical research are linked,” Schiebinger says. “We always think we have to fix the participation of women first, and then we can fix the other issues, but really they’re related.”

The researchers report their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Source: Vicky Stein for Stanford University

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Afghan politics sway how textbooks portray women

The way Afghan schoolbooks portray women and girls fluctuates sharply—from egalitarian to nearly nonexistent to largely traditional—depending on the regime in power.

“In almost all other nations, if you look at gender representation in textbooks, the trend is progressive,” says coauthor Somaye Sarvarzade, who earned a master’s degree in international educational administration and policy analysis from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education in 2015.

“In Muslim countries, in post-conflict countries, in Europe, in the United States—everywhere, it’s progressing. But in Afghanistan, it’s different.”

“In Muslim countries, in post-conflict countries, in Europe, in the United States—everywhere, it’s progressing. But in Afghanistan, it’s different.”

The findings are noteworthy, says coauthor Christine Min Wotipka, associate professor of teaching, in that they demonstrate how primary school textbooks are being used by a nation to sway its youngest students toward a particular view of women’s place in society.

“These were language arts textbooks for pretty young kids. It really shows the value of textbooks to influence the minds and hearts of children—not just about what it means to be an Afghan citizen, but about what they think is proper behavior for girls and women.”

For the study, that appears in Comparative Education, the researchers looked at textbooks used from 1980 to 2010 in first and second grade to teach Dari, one of two national languages in Afghanistan. The books’ aim was to teach basic literacy, not history—so they could feature stories and examples with characters of any gender, in any scenario.

Both girls and boys used the textbooks, though historically girls’ access to education has been heavily restricted. While girls were almost completely banned from attending school during the Taliban regime, in recent years they have come to comprise nearly 40 percent of Afghan schoolchildren, according to the nation’s Ministry of Education.

To uncover the messages primary school textbooks were sending about female roles in social and working life, researchers analyzed the nature and frequency of girls’ and women’s presence in the books. Were they depicted as often as boys and men? Did they play central, non-stereotypical roles that extended beyond supporting male characters? Did they participate in activities like those of their male counterparts, especially in the workforce?

The first textbooks studied were published in 1980, when Afghanistan was under communist rule. Here, female characters reflected progressive ideals: Women were portrayed as professionals and skilled laborers; girls demonstrated ambitions to advance their education and enter the workforce.

“Women could be doctors; they could be engineers.”

Male and female characters appeared in equal measure, both inside and outside the home. Notably, younger women were pictured in nontraditional dress and mostly without hijab (head scarves).

“For good or bad, women were more equal in that system,” Wotipka says. “Women could be doctors; they could be engineers. The way they were presented in the textbooks was a way to show support for women in these roles.”

In the early 1990s, anti-communist Muslim guerrillas pushed out the country’s Soviet leadership and, in 1996, the Taliban rose to power. The textbooks used under these two regimes—in stark contrast to those of the Soviet era—eliminated nearly all depiction of women and girls—and when included, a militant ideology devalued them.

In the very rare instances where female characters appeared, they were relegated to domestic settings—doing chores and staying home—while male characters went to school or to war.

After the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001, women and girls reappeared in new textbooks issued under a democratically elected administration. But with the continued threat of Taliban forces looming over the nation, female characters are far more passive and less ubiquitous than they were in the Soviet-era textbooks. While men are seen in a variety of professions, female workers are shown only as teachers. Conforming to the practice of conventional Islam, most girls are depicted in hijab.

“There’s a more modern perspective now among people who live in the cities, but they know the Taliban are still in the country and don’t want to upset these conservative forces,” says Wotipka. “At this stage, the textbooks represent an effort to balance out the different values in the country.”

How ‘hearts and minds’ strategy endangers Afghan civilians

The study reflects Sarvarzade’s own experience as a woman born in Afghanistan. Sarvarzade was 10 years old in 1996 when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, though she and her family were living in Iran as refugees at the time.

Growing up with five brothers, she pushed against cultural expectations for girls at home and at school. Many of her female cousins and classmates left school and married young, but Sarvarzade went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.

She received a Fulbright scholarship that brought her to Stanford. “I felt empowered because of my education,” she says. “I saw that education was something that could empower a whole community, a whole country.”

Many of China’s ‘missing girls’ are likely hiding

Intrigued by Wotipka’s past research on textbook narratives, Sarvarzade leveraged her connections in Afghanistan to secure schoolbooks from different regimes over the decades.

Two years ago, after earning her master’s degree, Sarvarzade returned to her hometown in Afghanistan, where she works as an education officer for UNICEF. In that role, she helps establish classrooms, train teachers, and ensure basic supplies for children in Afghan communities without government-funded schools.

In regions like these, Wotipka says, textbooks can be one of the only means for sharing information and values. “These places are not going to have access to resources like computers and videos. But every classroom in the world is going to have at least one set of textbooks. They still play a very important role in how most kids are getting educated around the world, especially at younger ages.”

Source: Carrie Spector for Stanford University

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Gel grows more stem cells with 100x less space

Researchers have created a kind of gel that allows them to grow huge numbers of stem cells with much less space, solving some of the biggest problems with producing new stem cells.

“We just don’t know how to efficiently and effectively grow massive numbers of stem cells and keep them in their regenerative state,” says Sarah Heilshorn, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University.

“This has prevented us from making more progress in creating therapies,” she says. Until now, that is.

The problems and the promise

In their new paper in Nature Materials, Heilshorn and her colleagues describe a solution to the dual challenges of growing and preserving neural stem cells in a state where they are still able to mature into many different cell types.

The first challenge is that growing stem cells in quantity requires space. Like traditional farming, it is a two-dimensional affair. If you want more wheat, corn, or stem cells, you need more surface area. Culturing stem cells, therefore, requires a lot of relatively expensive laboratory real estate, not to mention the energy and nutrients necessary to pull it all off.

The second challenge is that once they’ve divided many times in a lab dish, stem cells do not easily remain in the ideal state of readiness to become other types of cells. Researchers refer to this quality as “stemness.” Heilshorn found that for the neural stem cells she was working with, maintaining the cells’ stemness requires the cells to be touching.

Heilshorn’s team was working with a particular type of stem cell that matures into neurons and other cells of the nervous system. These types of cells, if produced in sufficient quantities, could generate therapies to repair spinal cord injuries, counteract traumatic brain injury, or cure some of the most severe degenerative disorders of the nervous system, like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.

The solution

Heilshorn’s solution involves the use of better materials in which to grow stem cells. Her lab has developed new polymer-based gels that allow the cells to be grown in three dimensions instead of two. This new 3D process takes up less than 1 percent of the lab space required by current stem cell culturing techniques. And because cells are so tiny, the 3D gel stack is just a single millimeter tall, roughly the thickness of a dime.

“For a 3D culture, we need only a 4-inch-by-4-inch plot of lab space, or about 16 square inches. A 2D culture requires a plot four feet by four feet, or about 16 square feet,” more than 100-times the space, according to first author Chris Madl, a recent doctoral graduate in bioengineering from Heilshorn’s lab.

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In addition to the dramatic savings of lab space, the new process demands fewer nutrients and less energy, as well.

The gels the team developed allow the stem cells to remodel the long molecules and maintain physical contact with one another to preserve critical communication channels between cells.

“The simple act of touching is key to communication between stem cells and to maintaining stemness. If stem cells can’t remodel the gels, they can’t touch one another,” Madl explains.

“The stem cells don’t exactly die if they can’t touch, but they lose that ability to regenerate that we really need for therapeutic success,” Heilshorn adds.

Striking results

This need for neural stem cell to remodel their environment differs from what Heilshorn has found in working with other types of stem cells. For those cells, it is the stiffness of the gels—not the ability to remodel—that is the key factor in maintaining stemness. It is as if for these other types of stem cells, gels must mimic the rigidity of the tissue in which the cells will eventually be transplanted. Not so with neural progenitors, says Heilshorn.

“Neural cell stemness is not sensitive to stiffness and that was a big surprise to us,” she says.

The result was so striking and unexpected that Heilshorn, at first, didn’t believe her own results.

The lab ended up testing three entirely different gels to see if their conclusion held, an unusual supplementary step in this kind of research. With each new material, they saw that those that could be remodeled produced quality stem cells; those that could not be remodeled had a negative effect on stemness.

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Next up on Heilshorn’s research agenda is to create gels that can be injected directly from the lab dish into the body. The possibilities have her feeling optimistic about stem cell therapies again. For a time, she says, it felt as if the field had hit a wall, as initial excitement for regeneration gave way to uninspiring results in the clinic. With her new finding, she says, it feels like new things may be just around the corner.

“There’s this convergence of biological knowledge and engineering principles in stem cell research that has me hopeful we might finally actually solve some big problems,” she says.

Additional coauthors are from Stanford University, the University of Virginia, and Chalmers University.

This study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the Trygger Foundation.

Source: Stanford University

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This anti-poverty effort created jobs but didn’t fix inequality

New research examines former President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative in the 1960s and its legacy in American cities.

In an article in the Journal of Urban History, historian Claire Dunning argues that New Careers, one of Johnson’s lesser-known anti-poverty programs, and the theory behind it contributed to the growth of the nonprofit sector across the United States, but also perpetuated inequality in urban areas. It’s a lesson, Dunning says, that should not be forgotten.

“When we look at the landscape of employment in cities today and the entrenched inequality based on race, gender, and income, we need to recognize that those problems are a direct result of past policy,” says Dunning, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, who is also working on a book that will analyze federal anti-poverty policy from 1950 to the present.

“History is an incredibly useful tool to remind us that the present situation is, in large part, the result of turning a myth about work and the American dream—that if you just secure a job and work hard, you’ll do better economically—into policy.”

Unrealistic expectations

New Careers, which existed between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, awarded grants to a large swath of nonprofit sector organizations, which included large hospitals and schools, as well as small community daycares and health clinics, to create new human services positions for local workers who lacked professional training.

“…the idea that these jobs would grow quite naturally into careers is pie-in-the-sky hopes.”

Dunning’s research shows that while New Careers created between 250,000 and 400,000 nonprofessional jobs, according to some estimates, it also inspired a wider approach to creating entry-level jobs in the human services fields. Those jobs—predominantly taken by African-African and Latina women who were typically excluded from contemporary job programs designed for men, like manufacturing—were low wage and without the promised career advancement that eager officials advertised, Dunning says.

“The federal New Careers program actually did create jobs, and that itself is a notable fact we need to recognize,” Dunning says. “But the idea that these jobs would grow quite naturally into careers is pie-in-the-sky hopes.”

From hospital aid to doctor?

New Careers and other anti-poverty initiatives relied on a theory promoted by social scientists Arthur Pearl and Frank Riessman in their 1965 book New Careers for the Poor: The Nonprofessional in Human Service.

The researchers’ small, year-long pilot studies showed that poor, unskilled people could make valuable contributions to society as aides in a number of fields related to health, education, and welfare. The researchers called on policymakers to support more jobs for unskilled workers, but also laid out unrealistic expectations for those workers’ advancement, Dunning says. For example, they said that an unskilled hospital aide could become a doctor through on-the-job training.

Bias against hiring African Americans hasn’t budged

“What Pearl and Riessman didn’t test is whether those workers would actually advance—would executives create job ladders and promote people who had very little formal training,” Dunning says. “There is no way, because of the way our society and economy works and the value we place on credentials, that somebody is going to be able to advance, nor should they necessarily, from being a hospital aide to a full doctor through on-the-job training.”

Most of the New Careers jobs didn’t fulfill those advancement promises, except for a few places, such as schools, where workers unionized to demand higher wages, Dunning says. Outside these formal structures of unions or government civil service bureaucracies, protests by aides working at private nonprofits produced few changes. So, although more poor women found employment in the 1960s and 1970s, very few found a “new career,” Dunning says.

The myth that a job is enough to lift someone out of poverty still persists today, and Dunning says she hopes to dispel it.

Algorithms can’t replace these jobs of the future

As technological advancements, such as driverless cars that could put drivers out of work, progress, it’s important for policymakers and researchers to apply lessons from the War on Poverty when addressing potential future job losses due to automation, Dunning says.

“There are a lot of echoes between the mid-20th century and today,” Dunning says. “We need to think critically about the quality of future jobs but also recognize what history showed us could be successful, as well as what constrained or enabled that success.”

Source: Stanford University

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