What has the COVID pandemic taught us about science?

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to new limits on our acceptance of science and nature. I believe (and I hope) that we will look back on this pandemic as a major turning point in modern medicine. As we emerge from the dust of political scandals and public health incompetence we will find that this failure to respect the vastness of science and the undiscovered frontiers of medicine will only propel us into a new age of medicine.

A brilliant article published in the Wall Street Journal on October 9th discussed the lessons we have learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic. Fair warning, you need to register an account to read the article but it is worth it! The truth being, we always learn from mistakes and we are always learning from science. We have to remember that as scientists it is our job to grow from our failures and to discover not only what is right, but also what is wrong. Failures are not a negative consequence of our work, they are simply unscheduled learning experiences.

FREE PISA REGISTRATION!

PISA 2020 is going virtual and registration/abstract submission is now open until October 21! Submit your abstract today! Find information at the PISA 2020 website! https://pisa20.asip.org/

Interested in becoming a member of ASIP? Contact me at sougiann@musc.edu  www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis

Post COVID-19 world: Is STEM academia in trouble?

Class of 2020, how does it feel? No giant ceremony, no group photos, and worst of all no family. Thousands of students from high school through professional degree programs graduated the Class of 2020 this past weekend. This year is definitely unique, but the Spring 2020 semester is likely going to set the stage for a major change in the dynamic of education for the foreseeable future.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the ease and applicability of virtual education. Suddenly instructors were able to sit from the comfort of their home or office and perform the same job they had been doing all along. So, what does this mean for post-pandemic academia? A recent article published on insidehighered.com brought to light the potential of asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard-type) and synchronous (Zoom-type) platforms that are being brought together to eliminate the need for face-to-face learning.

But is this what we need? We are already falling behind the curve in most subjects as an American nation. At the medical school level, we already face this reality, with most medical students skipping class to spend extra time studying and just reviewing the lecture online at their leisure.

I think we can take this opportunity to create a large paradigm shift in education that has been long overdue.

Is a virtual world a bad one for scientists?

I am all for bringing more technology and virtual instruction into the classroom and I think it would be a great use of resources. However, we cannot use this as an excuse to get lazy with our teaching methods. Now I am not going to comment on some liberal arts fields, but a world without labs or actual hands-on instruction could put us into a worse position. If we are going to go to a virtual instruction paradigm, we need to compensate with more hands-on education and application of materials.

I remember not understanding anything from organic chemistry lecture and then stepping into lab that week and having everything click in my mind. I always tell my students that they can know the whole process of an experiment (i.e. western blotting) and it won’t mean anything unless they go through the pain-staking process of failing and learning the process with their hands. My point being, we cannot condemn students to a virtual ‘education’ when real work is done in the lab after years of learning and perfecting your techniques.

How can science benefit from a paradigm change?

I have had this conversation many times, but I remember one distinct debate at a recent conference where we discussed the potential for obtaining doctoral level degrees outside of academia. Imagine getting a degree through a company like Pfizer or Eli Lilly? Take your courses virtually while learning your basic biotechnology techniques and then jump into your ‘internship’ where you learn from experts in the field and you are part of a research team. The link between the private sector and academia could benefit from this kind of scenario, bringing big $$$ to academia while standardizing the training of scientists.

What is certain is that we are going to see major changes in academia as a result of this crisis. We are already seeing some funding cuts and unfavorable changes to our lifestyles as scientists. We need to come out of this crisis stronger and advocating for more responsibility in our education system, not an excuse to push learning to a lazier platform.

What do you think? Are you starting to see changes you like? or don’t like? What would you like to see happen in academia as result of the COVID-19 shutdown? Share in the comments below!

Interested in contributing original content to the ASIP blog? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu to get involved!

ASIP Virtual Hangout for Trainee Members

The ASIP is hosting a free virtual hangout for trainee and junior members. The goal of this virtual hangout is to bring together scientists to share their stories about life during COVID and the obstacles they have had to overcome. The first session is currently being organized and will be announced once we have a firm date. If you are interested in registering, please send an email to wbcoleman@asip.org.

EDUCATION COMMITTEE ANNOUNCEMENTS

PISA 2020 is still happening! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020. https://pisa20.asip.org/

Interested in becoming a member of ASIP? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu  www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis

Physical Activity and Healthcare, How Can We Make Physical Fitness Part of Medicine?

One month into 2020, how is your New Year’s resolution holding up? If you are like most people, your New Year’s resolution involved something along the lines of exercising more, cutting out bad habits, or simply making better lifestyle choices. But unfortunately, a study of over 30 million people showed that nearly 80 percent of resolutions fail to make it into February. Why?

When I was a personal trainer at Southern Illinois University, we consistently lost clients on the basis that they were simply not seeing results fast enough and that personal training was getting too expensive. Unfortunately, this is the national trend. The stressful process of exercising consistently is too expensive and scientists and healthcare providers are stuck with the outcomes of an increasingly more obese and physically inactive population.

According to data collected by the CDC published as the National Ambulatory Health Care Data, the average U.S. adult sees a primary care provider almost 3 times per year, but only 32% of Americans report receiving any kind of physical activity counseling during those visits. Fortunately, clinical tools such as the Physical Activity Vital Sign through Exercise is Medicine have begun to improve the efforts of healthcare providers in assessing and promoting regular physical activity.

The simple question that I have here is; Why have we not made physical activity part of healthcare? We understand the need, we have the tools (Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans), so why is exercise not part of basic healthcare? Your guess is as good as mine, but something needs to be changed. In an election year that has a focus on the future of healthcare, we need to address this major gap in our society.

A good friend of mine recently shared with me an amazing program that is starting to bridge this gap between healthcare and physical activity. It is called SilverSneakers. SilverSneakers is a group that works with local gyms and healthcare insurance companies to provide physical activity as part of their healthcare plan for members 65 and older. At no additional cost, eligible members can go to a local gym and train with certified instructors on proper lifestyle habits and exercise training techniques. The program provides fitness classes designed for seniors and access to healthy living products at a discounted price.

I love the concept of SilverSneakers. They give evidence that it is possible to make exercise part of our healthcare plans! But we can be doing so much more! With the way our current society is moving, we can take advantage of innovations such as wearable technology to implement plans such as this for all of America. If healthcare plans were to partner with local gyms and implement proper provider training to personal trainers, we could use the gym as a place that people receive physical activity and lifestyle healthcare. A place where you not only have access to lifestyle healthcare, but can be educated about proper lifestyle habits. A way to get credit for your insurance can be as simple as scanning your provided Fitbit, Garmin, or Apple Watch when you go into the gym.

Now the answer is never this simple, and those of you who know me best know I could go on for ages about my ideas and opinions on healthcare. But what I want this post to accomplish is to show that our ability to do something is within our reach. It is time we start making a move towards a healthier and more active America.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution that is still going strong? Do you have ideas about how we can improve healthcare in America? Share in the comments!

Interested in contributing original content to the ASIP blog? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu to get involved!

ASIP 2020 Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology in San Diego April 4-7.

Are you going to Exerimental Biology 2020? If its your first time or if you are returning member, do not be afraid to reach out for help or advice! You can find all the information you need at http://asip20.asip.org/ or feel free to email me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu.

EDUCATION COMMITTEE ANNOUNCEMENTS

Do not forget to attend the ASIP Education Committee Events at ASIP 2020 at Exerimental Biology in San Diego! All the events can be found on our program at http://asip20.asip.org/program/preliminary-program/.

PISA 2020 is happening! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020. https://pisa20.asip.org/

Intersted in becoming a member of ASIP? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu  www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis

Fighting Heisenberg; how do we improve precision without losing accuracy?

It is easy to say that we are approaching a new golden age in modern medicine. Just in the last few years, we have made great strides in many areas of biomedicine and medical technology. However, with all this new data we face the inevitable dilemma of changing our dogmas and current understanding of science. I chose the title of this blog to be “Fighting Heisenberg” because I love the philosophy behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Physicists know the practical definition as the inability to exactly measure both the position and the velocity of a particle; however, the principle states that the more precise we try to measure one object, the less accurate we will be. I have a copy of Heisenberg’s principle next to my desk here at the University of South Carolina to remind me of that very principle every day.

An inherent problem

There is an inherent problem in science; it sucks, and it is very unpredictable. As we push the envelope of scientific discoveries, we face the possibility of misinterpreted results. A recent article by TheScientist discussed the technical bias of RNA-Seq datasets. They address this problem in a well-written article about the reproducibility of RNA-Seq data. This article focuses on the use of quality-control tools to correct the discrepancies in results. They discuss the importance of using consistent quality-control measures and argue for the standardization of these controls. I agree with this argument, the deeper we dig, the more differences we will find. We need to find ways to improve our accuracy as we push the precision of our work. However, within this problem, we uncover another dilemma; what should we believe!? There is a point where we control so much that we inadvertently cause the differences in our results.

What do we do next?

Those who know me best know how I would answer this; do more science! Keep pushing the envelope! But keep our friend Heisenberg in mind. We have to keep pushing our science so that our more precise findings are more accurate and reproducible. On December 13, 2016 the United States Congress passed into law the 21st Century Cures Act. This piece of legislation authorized $6.3 billion in medical research funding. Having been a large part of the 2016 presidential election, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the status of medical science. Most appropriately, it was titled Getting the Bogus Studies Out of Science. This article cited a study by Leonard Freedman at the Global Biological Standards Institute in Washington, DC. which estimated a whopping $28 billion per year was wasted on studies that fail to reach publication or contribute to medicine from the inability to reproduce previous results.

I will leave you with the idea that if we do not keep fighting Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle we will only find ourselves at a standstill in medicine. Keep pushing to find more precise answers to nature and science, but make it part of your job to find and develop cutting-edge methods in your research that will improve the accuracy of your findings.

Education Committee Announcements

Don’t forget the ASIP 2020 Annual Meeting in San Diego April 4-7, 2020 http://asip20.asip.org/

PISA 2020 is happeneing! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020. https://pisa20.asip.org/

Intersted in becomming a member of ASIP? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis

A Vision for the Future of Science: Conquering the Unknown.

Earlier last month we discussed a recent advancement in the STEM field, artificial intelligence. Despite its massive promise in the field of science and medicine, AI proves to be just a drop in the proverbial bucket of advancements that we have seen in the field of science and technology. Francis Collins, the drector of the NIH, has seen first-hand the evolution of medical and scientific technology. In a recent article in TIME magazine, Dr. Collins discusses his vision for the future of science.

In his interveiw, Collins highlights the need to harness the power of gene editing, expand the reach of cancer immunotherapy, map the human brain, and build on personalized healthcare.

The highlight of this article, for me, comes when Collins talks about the unknown challenges that we face as scientists. He emphasizes the need for more scientists to take risks and to venture into unknown parts of science. Only then can we really start to conquer the unknown parts of science.

I can attest to the importance of this kind of thinking. In much of my own research we have seen benefits of many of the compounds we are working with to attenuate chemotherapy toxicity. However, until we started venturing into unknown mechanisms on the tissue analysis did we see the most incredible results. High risk/high reward; this is the most exciting, yet most terrifying side of science.

Dr. Collins’s journey as a scientist has been one of many ups and downs. He has seen the evolution of science and medicine and understands that we need to be doing more to overcome the current challenges in medicine. Everyday, it seems, something new is being discovered in the field of medical science. Recently it was reported that there was a new strain of HIV that was discovered. Another recent article in The Guardian highlights a blood test that might be able to detect breast cancer up to 5 years before traditional mammograms. The point of all my babble here is to come away with one thing. KEEP LEARNING! Science is an ever-changing field that is entering what we might come to call the next golden age in medicine.

Along with being a published scientist, Dr. Collins is also a published novelist. He has authored 4 books on bridging the gap between science and religion. If you are interested in reading his books I highly recommend them.

  1. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006)
  2. The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, published in early 2010)
  3. Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperOne, March 2, 2010)
  4. The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions with Karl Giberson IVP Books (February 15, 2011)

Education Committee Announcements

Don’t forget the ASIP 2020 Annual Meeting in San Diego April 4-7, 2020 http://asip20.asip.org/

PISA 2020 is happeneing! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020. https://pisa20.asip.org/

Intersted in becomming a member of ASIP? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis