COVID30

Human society will probably survive the current pandemic. I’m assuming that the massive global stresses that are currently revealing underlying weaknesses and faultiness don’t lead to global war. There are no guarantees there. But I’m not at all convinced that we will be any more prepared for future pandemics following the human experience with this one. For us to learn positively from this experience, we’ll need to think about human health completely outside the geopolitical lens. So far that approach, a planetary one, has eluded us both in the context of COVID19 and the larger context of climate disruption.

Because the biosphere doesn’t recognize national boundaries, a nationalistic approach for these larger issues won’t work. So nations are going to have to find a way to put their disputes in abeyance for these planetary emergencies. Looking at our current crop of leaders across the globe, I don’t see that kind of vision. We’re going to have grow a new generation of folks who can think at the level of planet, while simultaneously leading a Westphalian state. This is a very different type of idea from the federalism here in the US or in the EU.

Although, if there are such individuals, my guess is that they’ll be found among our current state governors and mayors–as they collectively try their best to deal with the lousy hand they’ve been dealt.

What I’ve been up to….

My primary effort has been on COVID19. Our latest papers are here and here. We are primarily interested in the connection between the host receptor for the virus, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme II and the nicotinic receptor for the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

I’m also deeply involved in an NSF project on AI at the Edge, called SAGE. Which in turn is highly connected to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which I worked very hard on while I was at NSF.

Finally, I am leading a team working on using NEON environmental microbiome data to explore how continental-scale deposited nitrogen gradients may affect the trajectory of our biosphere.

A Hot Mess…

Yes, we are in a world of trouble. But it’s also an opportunity to think big about what needs to change and what we might want in a new world to come. Here’s a terrific piece by Marilynne Robinson in the NYRB. There’s a lot for those of us who are in the public academy, but there is also something of an optimistic spark that I think we all need.

Money quote:

The theory that supports all this is taught in the universities. Its terminology is economic but its influence is broadly felt across disciplines because it is in fact an anthropology, a theory of human nature and motivation. It comes down to the idea that the profit motive applies in literally every circumstance, inevitably, because it is genetic in its origins and its operations. “Selfishness,” its exponents call it, sometimes arguing that the word in this context has a special meaning, though the specifics of the sanitizing are unclear. 

What Kind of Country Do We Want, Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books

fMRI leaps forward….

A fantastic paper just out about relating the cellular microenvironment to the R2t* component of the signal relaxation constant, here. The authors did two really clever things: first they related the signal from the brain microenvironment (think, the area around individual synapses) to the Default Mode Network–a signature of resting awake cognitive activity. Second, they used the Allen Gene Brain atlas to look at the interplay between this brain imaging signal and the gene networks that define the molecular biology of the nervous system.

Definitely an important result. All of this out of the outstanding group at Washington University St. Louis that has been pushing the limits in this field.

And the new semester begins….

I am back from a week of vacation in California. My native state is as beautiful as ever. However, on the plane flight back to DC, we flew directly over Yosemite where the smoke from the wildfires was clearly visible and concentrated in the Valley. It’s a reminder of how powerful nature can be and how it’s not a given that it’ll be aligned with human concerns. The image below is from my visit to Yosemite last summer. There were fires then also.

This coming week, the new semester begins. I’m looking forward….IMG_1165

 

 

 

 

Kelvin Droegemeier nominated to lead OSTP

The news posted in Science, here. To my mind, he is a superb choice. Kudos to the White House. Kelvin was Vice Chair of the National Science Board during the first two years of my tenure leading BIO at NSF and I was always struck by his thoughtful way of working through really big challenges, while at the same time pushing everybody forward. He is a  really fine atmospheric scientist and his credibility with the community will help him enormously.

If he is confirmed, the key question is whether he will have direct access to the President and further, what the quality of those interactions may be.