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June 19, 2019

When you're the only student in the only school on a tiny island, your graduation draws a crowd.

Gwen Lynch lives with her family on Cuttyhunk, a Massachusetts island. On Monday, she finished the eighth grade and graduated from Cuttyhunk Elementary School, with about 100 people coming out to celebrate the milestone. One face stood out from the crowd: the commencement speaker, actress and comedian Jenny Slate.


Slate's boyfriend runs a writing workshop on the island, and she agreed to deliver a special message to Lynch. Before writing her speech, she chatted with the teenager, and learned all about her hopes, dreams, and life on the island. "I started to realize that you, who go to school by yourself on an island that is basically empty half the year, are still way cooler and more popular than I was as a teenager, who lived in a town and went to a school with lots of other people," Slate joked.

Lynch, who will attend a New Hampshire boarding school in the fall, wants to become an engineer, and Slate told her she was impressed by her moxie. "I hope you keep saying what you want to achieve and that you want to put your very own name on it," she said. "There is no shame in wanting to be recognized for your good work. Your no-frills confidence is pure and powerful." Catherine Garcia

October 17, 2017

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are fighting to make breast cancer diagnosis more efficient — and they've turned to artificial intelligence to do so.

Traditionally, women undergo regular mammograms, which provide images of the breasts that doctors use to identify any lesions. But while mammograms can categorize lesions as "high risk," they cannot do so with foolproof accuracy, and a needle biopsy must be performed to determine whether the tissue is in fact cancerous. Ninety percent of these lesions are determined to be non-cancerous, MIT notes, but only after the invasive procedure has been performed.

That's where the AI comes in. Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), together with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, developed a groundbreaking new model that uses machine learning to evaluate high-risk lesions before surgery. The model, known as a "random-forest classifier," is armed with information about more than 600 existing cases, and it uses that information to identify patterns across different data points, including demographics and medical history, to more accurately predict whether lesions will become cancerous without performing the biopsy.

Additionally, some doctors perform surgery in all cases of high-risk lesions, while others look only for specific types of lesions that are known to have a higher chance of becoming cancerous before operating. The team's model yielded more accurate diagnoses despite screening for more cancers, correctly diagnosing 97 percent of cancers, MIT said, as opposed to just 79 percent via surgery on traditional high-risk lesions.

Because the traditional diagnostic tools, like mammograms, are "so inexact," doctors tend to over-screen for breast cancer, said MIT CSAIL professor Regina Barzilay, a lead author on the study and recent MacArthur "genius grant" winner. That leads to the unnecessary, expensive surgeries that find legions to be benign. "A model like this ... hopefully will enable us to start to go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to medical diagnosis," Barzilay said. Kimberly Alters

October 6, 2017

Thousands of humans may still be walking the Earth with Neanderthal DNA — and not only that, but traces of the ancient stuff may be influencing skin tone, hair color, and even sleeping patterns in present-day Europeans, a study released Thursday from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found.

Using the genetic information of over 100,000 people in the U.K. Biobank, scientists discovered that Neanderthal genes, which make up 1 to 3 percent of the genetic code of people with European descent, may still have a small effect on some physical traits. No trait can be isolated to a particular gene; multiple genetic factors affect skin tone, for example, and Neanderthal genetic material only plays one part in determining the tone. But breakthroughs in researching Neanderthal DNA may help scientists understand how some genetic traits function.

Most interestingly, Neanderthal DNA has been linked to traits associated with light exposure like circadian rhythms, meaning the ancient genes may affect how people sleep in current times. Neanderthals had greater exposure to UVB rays while living on Eurasia for 100,000 years before they mated with Homo sapiens, so they had "more time to get used to a wider range of daylight," NPR explains.

Scientists believe that people indigenous to Africa do not have Neanderthal DNA in their genetic code because their ancestors never migrated to Eurasia. The study is limited because the sample size did not extend beyond the U.K. Biobank, but researchers hope to gain access to other biobanks and databases in the future. Read more about the study at NPR. Elianna Spitzer

February 12, 2015

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have successfully converted solar energy into liquid fuel. The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have a significant impact as humans continue working toward alternative forms of energy.

Science Daily explains that the scientists used electricity from photovaic cells to convert solar energy into hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored in fuel cells for later use. 

The researchers created a "bionic leaf" that uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. A bacterium, Ralstonia eutropha, then converts the hydrogen, along with carbon dioxide, into isopropanol, a liquid fuel. The scientists' leaf is currently at a one percent efficiency rate for creating isopropanol, the same rate that occurs naturally when photosynthesis turns sunlight into biomass. They hope to eventually reach 5-percent efficiency with the bionic leaf.

In the past, hydrogen has "failed to catch on as a practical fuel for cars or power," Science Daily notes. But creating liquid fuel from solar energy could advance hydrogen adoption. The scientists also hope the findings will spark a movement in creating energy locally, which they believe would be successful in the developing world. Meghan DeMaria

February 4, 2015

Fossilized sulfur bacteria off Australia's coast has provided some surprising news for scientists: The organism hasn't evolved in more than two billion years.

Researchers from UCLA collected sulfur bacteria samples that were 1.8 billion years old and compared them with samples from other bacteria in the region from 2.3 billion years ago. Both sample sets were identical to modern sulfur bacteria found off Chile's coast. The findings were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists were quick to note that the bacteria's lack of evolution doesn't contradict Darwin's theory, though. The sulfur bacteria haven't evolved, but that's because their environments haven't changed, either. The fossils date to the Great Oxidation Event, Live Science notes, when oxygen levels on Earth surged. Deep sea rocks' environments haven't changed since that period, so the bacteria haven't had to change, either. Meghan DeMaria

February 2, 2015

Scientists are using virtual hearts to predict the risk of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), and the virtual hearts may make more reliable predictions than real hearts.

SADS is often linked to genetics, so scientists at Sydney's Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute created genetically customized virtual hearts. The hearts predict which patients are more likely to suffer from SADS, which is responsible for 1.3 deaths in every 100,000 people.

The hearts will help people with genetic risks for SADS understand the genetic mutations, which include notched T-waves in ECG readouts. The New Scientist notes that these patients can be treated either with drugs or with defibrillators in their chests, and patients can understand the risk sooner thanks to the virtual study. Meghan DeMaria

January 22, 2015

Using lasers, scientists at the University of Rochester have been able to make metals water repellent, or super-hydrophobic, without having to use temporary coatings.

Super-hydrophobic materials that do not rely on chemical coatings are in high demand, as they can be used for sanitation purposes and to prevent rusting. Chunlei Guo and his colleague Anatoliy Vorobyev used a precise laser-patterning technique to give the metals their new properties. "The material is so strongly water-repellent, the water actually gets bounced off," Guo said in a statement. "Then it lands on the surface again, gets bounced off again, and then it will just roll off from the surface."

As the water bounces, it also picks up dust particles, and that makes Guo excited. Super-hydrophobic materials could have many uses in developing countries, where water is scarce — for instance, a latrine could remain clean by incorporating super-hydrophobic materials, making flushing unnecessary. Watch the video below to see how this all works. —Catherine Garcia

January 16, 2015

SpaceX has released a Vine of its Falcon 9 booster crashing, and it's mesmerizing.

The Falcon 9 experienced a successful launch to the space station on Jan. 10, but its attempt to land on a floating barge afterwards was less successful. The booster located the barge and targeted it for its landing, but its fins ran out of hydraulic fluid, so it crashed and exploded.

Elon Musk, for his part, took a jocular tone about the crash, tweeting that at least during the next landing test, it will "explode for a diff[erent] reason," since it will have more fuel. Musk added that the company will try another launch in two to three weeks. Meghan DeMaria

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