A mass grave in Germany underscores what some archaeologists have long suspected: The first farmers were far from peaceful tillers of the soil. In a newly discovered form of Neolithic violence, attackers 7000 years ago systematically broke the shinbones of their 26 victims, many of them children, before dumping their bodies in a pit.
The first farmers, who spread west from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) to arrive in central Europe 7500 years ago, lived more settled lives than the nomadic fishing and foraging peoples they displaced. They built houses, cultivated plants, and decorated pottery. But researchers have long debated whether these Neolithic farming communities also engaged in warfare and other types of systemized violence.
In the 1980s, the discovery of two Neolithic mass graves in Germany and Austria led many archaeologists to discount peaceful accounts of these early European farmers. The graves contained more than 100 bodies that bore the marks of a violent attack. Other researchers, however, continued to hold that violence among Neolithic people was rare, and they dismissed these massacre sites as peculiarities.
The new mass grave, described today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will be difficult for the pacifiers of prehistory to ignore. “It is a very nice, very carefully executed study,” says bioarchaeologist Linda Fibiger from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.
University of Mainz in Germany bioarchaeologist Christian Meyer and his colleagues learned of the burial site in 2006 when a construction company at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, near Frankfurt, reported that it had hit human remains. The bones were lifted in online jolietta casino small blocks of soil, wrapped in newspaper, and delivered to Meyer. Although much of the bone was badly disintegrated, the team quickly realized it was dealing with comingled human remains that had been cast into a ditch and covered up. “There was no thought for burying family members together … no grave goods or arrangement of the bodies,” standard burial rites for Neolithic people, Meyer says.
Cleaning and sorting the bones revealed the incomplete skeletons of 13 adults, one teenager, and 12 children—10 of them under 6 years old, and the youngest only 6 months old. The skeletons were dated to between 7200 and 6800 years ago, about as old as those found at the two other mass graves.
The skulls showed signs of lethal blows, and more than 50% of the shin bones recovered from the grave were broken. “The fractures we found here were clearly fresh,” Meyer says. He and his team suspect that these people were either tortured or mutilated shortly after death.
Lawrence Keeley, an archaeologist from the University of Illinois, Chicago, is not convinced it was torture: “Torture focuses on the parts of the body with the most nerve cells—feet, [genitals], hands, and head.” He suspects instead that the assailants smashed the shins of the villagers after they’d killed them to disable their ghosts, preventing them from pursuing their killers.
Aside from the trauma to the lower leg bones, the newest site closely resembles the two known mass graves from this period. In all three cases, whole villages—which usually numbered only 30 to 40 people—were apparently wiped out. Most of the inhabitants were killed, except young women, who were probably kidnapped. “Once may be an accident, twice may be coincidence but thrice is a pattern,” Keeley says. He adds that these newest findings are “another nail in the coffin” of those who have claimed that war was rare among Neolithic farming communities.
Meyer suspects the perpetrators of this violence were members of a neighboring village or villages. The newest grave site sits close to a border between two Neolithic groups known to have maintained distinct trading networks, making them possible enemies. With one group scrubbed from the landscape, their precious cultivable lands would have been up for grabs.
Fibiger suggests that studying these past massacres and their aftermath could yield insight into the impact of modern-day violence, like that of the Srebrenica genocide during the Bosnian War. Trade networks and alliances might reflect the legacy of ancient massacres for generations to come, she says. “There were probably survivors of these events, or people who knew these [slaughtered] people.”
The golden age of drug discovery is over—at least for now. Over the past 10 years or so, a number of highly profitable drug patents have expired, and the blockbuster drugs of the 1990s have proved hard to replace. The pharmaceutical industry, which once made billions while transforming lives, has been forced to change how it operates. From megamergers and offshoring to the dramatic restructuring of R&D departments, pharma has become a very different employer.
In such a rapidly shifting industry, it’s hard for anyone to keep tabs on employment opportunities; weary and overwhelmed by experiments, graduate students and postdocs can find themselves completely overmatched.
It is easy to feel despondent when, in the United States alone, the pharmaceutical industry has shed more than 300,000 jobs since 2003, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Yet, even as redundancies continue to make headlines, there are openings for aspiring biotech and pharmaceutical scientists. Those opportunities, though, may not be where they used to be, nor are the risks, incentives, and demands early-career scientists face the same as those of a decade ago.
Who will emerge as the major drug discoverers in the next decade? How can you join their ranks? Science Careers asked scientists from industry and academia to offer tips for those looking to enter the job market in the coming years.
The new world of pharma
One of the most important drivers of change in the pharmaceutical industry was a wave of patent expirations that really picked up steam in 2010. Employees felt the impact of this a decade before, as companies anticipated the drop in profits. By the end of 2012, three dozen of the world’s top brand-name drugs had lost patent protection, paving the way for cheaper generic versions. The ensuing competition among drug companies is estimated to have eroded 90% of top drug companies’ annual U.S. sales.
To make up for these losses, the larger pharmaceutical companies sought savings by cutting R&D departments, which traditionally have eaten up a big chunk of the industry’s spending. To compensate, companies, in effect, outsourced early-stage research to smaller specialty pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
The result: Startups are the big recruiters now, says Richard Bozzato, a senior adviser for MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, Canada, a nonprofit that aims to foster relationships between scientists, venture capitalists, and industry. Oncology and neuroscience are the fields most actively hiring, he adds.
David Lowe, CEO of Aeglea BioTherapeutics, a 1-year-old company based in Austin, Texas, agrees that startups are where the jobs are. Lowe, who took his first job with Genentech in San Francisco, California, almost 30 years ago, when it was still a relatively small company, says that companies today have a different set of needs than when he began. Much of today’s drug discovery focuses on biologically sourced drugs as opposed to chemically synthesized ones.
Because many of the new drugs are ‘biologics,’ developed from the cells of microorganisms, plants, and animals, today’s industry is recruiting more life scientists. “No one studies entomology anymore,” but entomology could be hugely valuable to drug discovery, Lowe says.
Be collaborative and interdisciplinary
Another trend: Small companies are looking for collaborative scientists. Collaboration is “anathema to a lot of scientists, particularly young ones,” Lowe says. In graduate school, “you are supposed to be chief cook and bottle washer on all your own stuff.” Most graduate students are still trained to work independently, to value ownership of their work that leads to primary authorship on articles published in prestigious journals—a major key to success in academia. Scientists employed at large pharmaceutical companies traditionally worked in silos, too, but collaboration is essential for those who wish to thrive in the startup environment.
George Georgiou, a chemical engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, says that industry values people who are not just collaborative but who can work in an interdisciplinary way. Georgiou has mentored 48 students since setting up his lab in 1986; 12 of them have ended up in the industry. He attributes this success, in part, to running a diverse group including chemists, biochemists, molecular biologists, and chemical engineers—and encouraging his team to have a healthy respect for all those disciplines. The result, he hopes, is students who aren’t intimidated by other fields and who understand the jargon used in those fields.
Another advantage of working with such a mixed group is that students have a better understanding of the whole drug-development pipeline. “What I think distinguishes my students from those of other labs is that my students understand not just whether a molecule does what it is meant to do, but … how one might manufacture it,” Georgiou says.
Risks and incentives
Working in Georgiou’s lab was good preparation for industry, says Tom Van Blarcom, a research scientist with Rinat Laboratories in San Francisco, California. Van Blarcom earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 2008 and took a position at Rinat, which develops protein-based therapeutics; Rinat was acquired by Pfizer in 2006 but was allowed to keep operating as an independent biotechnology unit. Van Blarcom was attracted to industry because of the speed with which he could get things done there. “I don’t have to prepare my own media [or] pour my own plates,” he says, nor does teaching cut into his research time. Another advantage of industry, Van Blarcom says, is that young scientists there have access to a larger number of mentors.
Industry also means more diverse employment opportunities for scientists, including for two-scientist couples, as long as they’re willing to settle near a pharma-biotech hub. “I didn’t want to end up somewhere where there [was] only one fulfilling career option in town,” Van Blarcom says—so he and his partner, Diana Van Blarcom, settled in the San Francisco Bay area, a hotbed of pharma and biotech companies, including many startups.
That’s important because layoffs are part and parcel of the new pharmaceuticals industry. “It’s rare for someone to stay at the same company for their entire career,” Van Blarcom says, and there is security in knowing that there is probably another opportunity close by.
Got the skills, get the job
Van Blarcom believes that his interviewing technique helped him get the job. “When I showed up to my interview I was very prepared,” he says. He had read a handful of papers from each of the people he hoped to meet with, so he could converse about their work in more depth. Coming from Georgiou’s lab also helped him, he thinks, because Georgiou’s work is known for having a strong therapeutic bent: With 29 issued patents, more than half licensed to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, Georgiou has close ties with industry. “Having that track record from my [graduate adviser] definitely got my foot in the door,” Van Blarcom says.
At Rinat, Van Blarcom focuses on designing, building, and using sequence libraries to discover more effective antibodies. These libraries consist of sequences based on antibodies found in hundreds of people; Van Blarcom uses his bioinformatics knowledge to curate this data. “People could really have a leg-up on the competition if they are proficient in R or Perl,” he says. New sequencing technologies are generating so much data, he says, that automation is becoming essential, so suitable coding skills are becoming indispensable.
An implementation impulse
Van Blarcom says the decision to join Rinat instead of pursuing a university position was philosophical. He sees industry as a place to “produce tangible results,” while academia is more a breeding ground for big ideas. “I never thought I was the type of person that would come up with ground-breaking ideas; I was more of an implementer, so [industry] seemed to be … a natural fit for me.” In industry, he says, success is unlikely to come in the form of a Nature or Science paper but as a chance to develop a drug that ends up helping patients’ lives. “[That’s] ultimately a lot more powerful than another publication,” he says.
Cancer is a numbers game. Larger, longer-lived animals with more cells should get more tumors than do small, short-lived animals. And yet mice are more susceptible to cancer than we are. Now, a new study offers a tantalizing explanation. The genomes of smaller mammals contain more viruses, which the authors suggest may account for their higher rates of cancer.
Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, didn’t set out to explain rates of cancer in animals. He was interested in why over the last 10 million years the genomes of mice have accumulated 10 times more small RNA viruses, called endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), than has the human genome. He teamed up with researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom to mine for retroviruses in the genomes of a range of mammals—including shrews, humans, dogs, and dolphins. The researchers then tested whether differences in how long mammals live and in how quickly they mature affects how many ERVs they harbor.
By the time the team had identified more than 27,000 unique viral sequences across 38 different mammals, it saw a clear pattern emerging: Small mammals have more ERVs than do larger ones. Mice have more than 3000, whereas dolphins have just 55, and humans are somewhere in the middle with 348, the researchers report online today in PLOS Pathogens.
Larger animals have many more cells, and should therefore have more of these endogenous retroviruses. That they have fewer means they must have found efficient ways to remove them, Katzourakis says. That suggests ERVs can be harmful to their hosts, and this harm is more costly, in an evolutionary sense, to large animals.
How do ERVs harm their hosts? Katzourakis suspects that some ERVs cause cancer. The viruses embed in an organism’s genome and make copies of themselves, and these duplicates then split and reinsert randomly at different locations in the genome. More often than not, these viruses do no harm, but occasionally their reinsertion transforms a healthy cell into a cancerous one. One such event led to the untimely death of the world’s first cloned sheep, Dolly, who succumbed to lung cancer caused by the Jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus. Katzourakis proposes that the higher number of ERVs in small-bodied animals may account for their higher rates of cancer.
“It’s nice to see real experimental results that can help explain the vast differences in cancer susceptibility per gram of tissue between small, short-lived animals and large, long-lived animals,” says epidemiologist Richard Peto of the University of Oxford, who was unconnected to the new study. He first recognized the unexpected differences in cancer susceptibilities between animals of different body sizes in the 1970s, an observation that became known as “Peto’s Paradox.”
From an evolutionary perspective, Peto explains, it makes sense that larger animals are better at protecting their genomes from potentially cancer-causing viruses. Large animals tend to live longer and reproduce later, so it is more important for them to postpone the onset of cancer.
Although the findings pinpoint one mechanism underlying the vast difference in cancer rates, they don’t explain all cancers, says George Kassiotis, a virologist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London who studies ERVs in humans and mice. Despite having few ERVs, he explains, humans still get cancers. ERVs are therefore likely to be one of many factors contributing to cancer rates. “One important aspect of this new study is that it provides a framework to quantify the contribution of ERVs to cancer,” he says, “which in turn will inform the contribution of other causes of cancer.”
Rania Siam thought she was putting her troubles behind her when she left Misr University for Science & Technology (MUST) near Cairo. It was June 2005, and the microbiologist had spent four tumultuous months as a lecturer there, quarreling with administrators and fellow faculty over working conditions and research support. That September, she landed a tenure-track position at the American University in Cairo (AUC). But just when things were looking up, MUST sued her.
In what observers call an unprecedented case in Egypt, MUST claimed that Siam’s departure caused “damage to MUST’s reputation and its scientific credibility,” and “lost [MUST] the scientific and educational benefits, which [it] would have gained from [Siam’s] research.” MUST took particular umbrage at missing out on a grant that Siam had applied for during her brief stay at the university and demanded $3 million in damages.
After 9 years of legal maneuvering, an Egyptian judge in March ordered Siam to pay MUST $49,000—the sum of the forfeited grant—in addition to court and attorney fees, and more than $14,000 in damages. Last week, Siam filed an appeal with the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest judicial authority.
The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Canada’s flagship environmental research center that has been under threat of closure for 2 years, has found a savior. The ELA will leave government hands and will now be managed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank. The 1 April announcement guarantees that the 46-year-old field site in northwestern Ontario will survive, at least for another 5 years, and will expand its research focus beyond that of the Canadian government’s mandate.
The deal will hopefully bring the ELA some “stability,” says Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist who since mid-2012 has led a campaign to save the facility. The campaign began after the Canadian government pulled the project’s funding and handed pink slips to its team of 16 scientists and technicians. Last year, the lab, which conducts experiments in a system of 58 lakes, was saved from the bulldozers by a stopgap payment of $2 million from the provincial government of Ontario. Now, IISD has a chance to rebuild the ELA after years of neglect by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Orihel says.The ELA, the world’s only facility where researchers can intentionally poison whole lakes to monitor ecosystem effects, has an impressive research record: Its scientists were the first to find evidence for acid rain, and to fully diagnose the effects of pollutants such as mercury, phosphate, and synthetic hormones on aquatic life. IISD President Scott Vaughan tells ScienceInsider that he intends to build upon this past research, while looking to expand the scope of the facility’s science to investigate the effects of micropollutants and climate change on aquatic systems.
The takeover deal relies on agreements between Ontario and IISD, between Canada and IISD, and a third trilateral Canada-Ontario-IISD pact to ensure that all long-term data and physical samples from the facility are available to future researchers. Access to these freshwater data sets—some of the longest and most thorough in the world—will keep scientists coming back to ELA, backers say.
But the fresh management brings new challenges. The provincial government of Ontario has pledged $2 million a year for 5 years to cover operating costs and long-term monitoring. These funds will be topped up by Manitoba and Canada, which have promised $900,000 over 6 years and $250,000 per year for 4 years, respectively. But the provincial and federal moneys will not fund scientific experiments, which were previously funded through government grants. ELA scientists will now need to partner with universities to apply for those national grants. And beyond the next 5 years, the IISD will need to embark on a major fundraising campaign to keep the ELA open. “That’s an ambitious amount of money to raise,” Orihel says.
The next challenge will be to staff the facility. Vaughan says his goal is to invite back the scientists who previously worked at the ELA and offer them a job with IISD. That will be difficult, Orihel says: “The science team has been withering away for a number of years; as people retire they haven’t been replaced … some scientists got frustrated and took other positions.” She adds that the ELA is not just buildings and lakes, it is people, and the government should have done more to transition that previous team to a new operator.
If a new team can be found in time, the takeover comes just in time for experiments at the facility to resume in the spring. And this summer, after consultations with interested university-based scientists, the new research plan will be announced.
Brokering the deal has been a long haul, Vaughan says. IISD members are “incredibly grateful” to the scientists, including Orihel, who worked to save the ELA before IISD stepped in. He adds: “They are an impressive group of committed scientists.”
Epidemiologist Kristi Allgood of the Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI) in Chicago, Illinois, is on a mission to get women to return to the hospital to follow up on suspicious mammograms. For 9 years, she has been involved in a community-based initiative that supports women whose health (and health care) is likely to be overlooked. Allgood and her SUHI colleagues are part of a growing movement across the United States that aims to reduce the nation’s health disparities by increasing the uptake of proven clinical treatments. Allgood, who is now 39, didn’t set out to focus on breast cancer research. After completing a master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), she was recruited to SUHI to evaluate HIV education in Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital. But Steve Whitman, SUHI’s director, drafted her into a new initiative attempting to mitigate the racial gap in breast cancer survival in the city where she grew up.
Funded since 2007, the Helping Her Live: Gaining Control of Breast Cancer project supports a team of community health care workers who help women in Chicago’s African-American and Hispanic communities navigate breast cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment. Women in these communities, as in the rest of the country, are chronically under or uninsured—and it’s common for women without insurance to fail to return for a follow-up biopsy. The reasons are complex, but mostly have to do with “fear, time, and money,” Allgood says. The upshot: Breast cancer in this population of women tends to be diagnosed at an advanced stage, making it difficult to treat and offering grimmer odds of survival.
This breast cancer survival gap hasn’t always existed, explains Bijou Hunt, also an epidemiologist and Allgood’s colleague at SUHI. Twenty years ago, a woman’s race had little bearing on her chance of dying from the disease. Then, starting in the 1990s, white women began to benefit from numerous advances in treatment for breast cancer. African-American women didn’t share the gains.
A study published in 2014—Hunt was the lead author—found that in Chicago between 2005 and 2009, African-American women with breast cancer were, on average, 48% more likely than their white counterparts to die from the disease. That makes Chicago the nation’s seventh deadliest city for black women with breast cancer, but the same pattern is seen in many other major U.S. cities. Each year, nationwide, the disparity equates to 1700 extra breast cancer deaths among African-American women, or about five per day.
Figures like these motivated SUHI’s director to seek funding to help close the gap. In 2005, he secured half a million dollars to start a project that employed two hospital-based health care workers who would assist patients during procedures, provide guidance in the referral process, help physicians communicate medical concepts clearly, and sometimes “literally walk patients from place to place” at the hospital, Allgood says.
When the Avon Foundation for Women provided an additional $1.95 million in 2007, the hospital-based program expanded into the community and took the name “Helping Her Live.” Allgood took a road trip to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where a project with similar aims had been running since the early 1990s. She returned to Chicago full of fresh ideas, ready to recruit and train additional health care workers who, in contrast to their hospital-based peers, would work out in the community.
This story ties in with Science’s special issue on breast cancer. Today, these community-based health care workers help women access routine breast screenings, and work to ease delays in test results and follow-ups. They attend community events, present workshops, and canvass women one-on-one to educate them about the reasons behind health disparities, how mammograms work, and how cancer is treated. Allgood describes them as compassionate, effective advocates and well-respected community members who understand the social issues facing the patients they serve. They are, Allgood says, the key to the project’s success.
Having got the ball rolling, Allgood was charged, along with Hunt, with evaluating the hospital and community-based projects. The two epidemiologists assemble mammogram results, pathology reports, and clinicians’ suggested treatments, and they combine them with data collected in the community. They then go to work analyzing it.
Last year, the project’s hospital-based workers saw more than 3000 patients and assisted them on 12,000 occasions in 50 distinct, documented ways. Over 3 years, the community-based health care workers responded to 5000 requests for help.
It is too early to report whether the project is reducing mortality rates, Allgood says. Their analysis shows, however, that their programs are radically improving some interim metrics. Today, 95% of African-American women in the project’s target communities return for a checkup after a suspicious mammogram, up from 66% before the project began.
Wanted: teamwork, statistics, and a passion for social justice
Cancer geneticist Rick Kittles, whose work at UIC identifies genetic and environmental factors that lead to cancer health disparities, says that statistical savvy is important in the work that Allgood is doing—but that social savvy is important, too. Whitman echoes that sentiment: “Too many young people coming into the field of epidemiology … do not know enough about the world and how it works,” he says. The work is highly interdisciplinary and depends on effective communication among scientists, staff, doctors, and patients—as well as with funders and policymakers.
Fundraising, in fact, is one of the job’s biggest challenges. “We work tirelessly to either keep the funding or find new avenues to fund [our] programs,” Allgood says. Allgood, Hunt, and the other epidemiologists write reports for and make presentations to stakeholders who can influence the health policies adopted by the city government.
To get involved in health disparities work, one must, of course, have the basic credential: at least a master’s degree in public health, Whitman says. One needs hands-on experience in gathering, curating, and analysing data; statistics is becoming ever more important as the field becomes more data-driven.
Alongside such training, those pursuing this career should have a passion for social justice and be ready to think critically about how society-level decisions impact individual health, says Jennifer Orsi, a data analyst at Walgreens in Deerfield, Illinois, who previously worked as an epidemiologist at SUHI. An affinity for teamwork is also essential.
The SUHI team is growing. Right now, SUHI is recruiting a community health educator. Since Allgood joined SUHI, the number of epidemiologists has doubled. Each is waging war against a different disease: asthma, diabetes, and HIV, along with more complex conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and obesity. Many approaches are shared among projects. “We all work together to help each other,” Allgood says. “It is really nice to have that backup.”
Science journal editors are the air traffic controllers of the science world. Their task is to guide reports of original research through a process of peer review and revision and deliver it quickly and clearly to its intended audience, all the while keeping an eye on what else is in the air. It’s a hard job, and the challenges are changing as a result of the Internet, the globalization of science, and social media. Here, we describe the challenges and changing roles of science journal editors as they embrace digital technologies in their efforts to stay abreast of scientific trends and controversies.
The traditional role of science journal editors
These days, most science journal editors earn a Ph.D. and do a postdoc before moving into scientific publishing. Once they’ve jumped the academic ship, they learn on the job. When they are not out visiting scientists or attending conferences to recruit new papers, they are in their offices reading scientific manuscripts and corresponding with authors, fellow editors, and current and potential reviewers.
Science Journal editors must be able to read and understand a scientific manuscript and form a preliminary opinion of its relevance. Then they must corral opinion on the novelty, rigor, and scientific interest of a reported new result. Reviewers’ opinions are often at odds, and their analyses may vary, so editors are charged with collecting, distilling, and evaluating those analyses. Science journal editors make recommendations—and sometimes a final decision—on whether or not to publish.
Once a paper is accepted, editors work with the authors to improve the manuscript and make the suggested revisions—a task that requires patience, interpersonal skills, and the ability to achieve consensus among opinionated scientists.
Science journal editors in the age of social media
Twenty years or so ago this process was managed mostly on paper, but over time it went electronic and—thanks largely to email and online manuscript submission systems—became quicker and more interactive. Now the role of science journal editors is changing again. As social media facilitates one-to-many interactions, editors are finding new ways to maintain their networks and eavesdrop on the scientific community. Twitter is emerging as the preferred tool among science journal editors for meeting the changing demands of their job.
Nicholas Wigginton, Science’s Ann Arbor, Michigan-based earth and environment editor, says that one of the biggest challenges for editors is “to keep in touch with new scientific communities” as science’s global reach expands. Wigginton employs Twitter to cultivate and maintain a network of potential reviewers in countries that once were poorly represented in academic journals but, because of significant improvements in the quality of their research, are attracting fresh attention.
By listening in on online conversations, editors also use Twitter to keep up with the latest news from their field. “[Twitter] is replacing the role of listening in to chatter in the hallways of conferences,” Wigginton says. Increasingly, researchers are tweeting the key points of their colleagues’ talks at scientific meetings. By following a meeting’s hashtag, editors can learn about new results and gauge the researchers’ responses without being in the room. Editors can’t be everywhere at once; even a major journal like Science has only about 30 editors, too few to make it to all of meetings and conferences that take place every year.
Jake Yeston, Science’s deputy editor for physical sciences, who is based in Washington D.C., says, however, that schlepping to a city and sitting in a room listening to science remains very much a part of his job as an editor. Twitter, he says, is useful but imperfect: The danger is that you’ll hear the most vocal people and miss what the broader community is saying. “You get a really good sense of what those 10 people think, but that isn’t what is happening in the field as a whole.”
Sacha Vignieri with her son Griffin Ream (left) and Sceloporus occidentalis (center of face).
Twitter is especially useful, Yeston says, for following high-profile flops. “It is kind of like jackals; when there is a paper that kind of looks like it is going south, then people attack it,” he says. Editors may have papers under review that rely on a published result; if it’s being called into question, editors need to know about it, he adds.
Yeston says he avoids tweeting about particular papers, because he assumes that, as a Science editor, he’s on stage: He worries he may give scientists the wrong impression about the types of papers he is interested in reviewing. But that doesn’t mean that editors wish to remain invisible; some use Twitter and other social media tools to build and maintain a public profile. Sacha Vignieri, Science’s Portland, Oregon-based ecology editor, says that many editors want to be accepted as scientists’ peers. By creating an online presence, they are better able to demonstrate their fluency in the areas they cover and show that they were once active researchers in those fields. The value of such an online presence remains a topic of ongoing discussion, she acknowledges, at Science and other journals.
Editors increasingly use social media to reach out beyond the usual specialist audiences. Editors are under increasing pressure to ensure that the science in their journal is accessible to nonspecialists, explains Michaela Handel, The Journal of Experimental Biology’s publishing editor, who is based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. She spends more time on public outreach today, she says, than she has at any other time during her 17 years as an editor. She uses Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for her outreach. “It’s a great way of telling our community what we are doing,” she says.
Focus on fundamentals
Despite the advantages it offers, Twitter hasn’t really changed the daily responsibilities of a journal editor, except around the edges. “I don’t think social media is really something people should be thinking about when they consider becoming an editor,” Vignieri says, although “it’s kind of an interesting add-on.” Applicants are not vetted on their social media skills, she adds.
What is still most necessary for aspiring editors is a broad and detailed knowledge of the field and the skills needed to refine a piece of scientific work and shepherd it through to publication. At its heart, scientific editing is still about publishing a field’s most interesting and influential papers, which means that reading, writing, and thinking about science are still at the core of the job, says Cell Stem Cell editor Deborah Sweet, who is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (She is also the publishing director at Cell Press.) Those activities are likely to remain the mainstay of the work scientific journal editors do, even as new technologies alter the job in significant ways. If mastering and practicing these skills is an attractive prospect, a career as a journal editor might be for you.
LONDON—The votes are in, and the top prize in a contest to redesign a bust of Charles Darwin goes to a floating crocheted head of the eminent naturalist created by Cristina Amati, a graduate student at University College London (UCL). The contest, whose winner was announced today to mark the 205th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, was set up by UCL to fill a void created by the relocation of the original bust of the naturalist. Along with the winner, the empty pedestal inspired six other zany sculptures depicting the famed naturalist, which include his face fashioned from the pages of his seminal book, The Origin of Species; a likeness molded from transparent nutrient-enriched gel through which ants will be enticed to tunnel; and an inch-tall bust containing a USB flash drive. The competition’s seven entries—on display in a 7-week-long exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London, starting on 12 February—are all based on 3D scans of the original plaster bust.
A measleslike virus appears to be the chief cause of the droves of dead dolphins that have washed ashore along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States this summer, researchers announced yesterday. Since 1 July, 333 bottlenose dolphins have been recovered from beaches between New York and North Carolina—10 times the number usually recovered at this time of year.
In early August, the large number of strandings prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare an Unusual Mortality Event. The declaration freed up federal funding to assist NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program to retrieve and assess the mammals’ remains. The results of their investigation point to a type of morbillivirus as the cause of the die-off—a group that includes viruses that cause measles in humans and distemper in dogs.
The team’s detective work combined traditional techniques that examined tissues from dead animals’ lungs, brains, and lymph systems with molecular techniques to probe for the presence of the virus. So far, researchers have examined 33 dolphins; 32 have tested positive for morbillivirus. Genetic sequencing has confirmed that 11 carry the type of morbillivirus that infects only dolphins, porpoises, and whales.
“Along the Atlantic seaboard this [outbreak] is extraordinary; this is the largest outbreak that we have had since the 1987 die-off,” said Teri Rowles, head of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, in a teleconference with reporters. Morbillivirus was also responsible for a devastating 1987 die-off which killed more than 700 dolphins.
Many wild dolphins exposed during that epidemic probably developed immunity to the virus, Rowles says. But a population’s immunity is slowly eroded over time; animals born since 1987 are probably susceptible, Rowles says.
The virus may have taken hold when the dolphin population reached a tipping point, with enough susceptible individuals to sustain its spread, says veterinary epidemiologist Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California. The epidemic will continue until the number of susceptible animals dwindles, researchers predict. There is no feasible way to vaccinate or treat the animals, they add.
It is difficult to predict how many bottlenose dolphins will ultimately succumb to the disease, and the documented strandings probably represent just a fraction of the infected animals. It is also not clear whether the virus will spread to other dolphin species. Typically, morbillivirus strains don’t spread beyond closely related species, researchers say.
As for any threat to people, “there is no indication that this virus could jump into humans,” says virologist Jerry Saliki of the University of Georgia in Athens. However, morbilliviruses suppress the immune system, so many of the washed-up animals are sick with secondary bacterial infections that are communicable to other mammals. Under some circumstances, rotting carcasses could pose a threat to beachgoers and other mammals.
NOAA plans to continue to monitor the spread of the infection and investigate whether marine pollution could be worsening the impact of the outbreak. Rowles explains that high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, known to suppress mammals’ immune systems, have been reported in some areas along the eastern coastline. “We will be monitoring those areas very closely,” she adds.