Diversity and coexistence in a 20-foot living tapestry

I recently assigned this story to my summer intern at the Bond Life Sciences Center. Turns out, the towering plant wall is a nod to diversity and coexistence — not unlike our research faculty that collaborate here everyday. The wall is a cascading display containing more than 200 plant species. One of those, is a strange, rootless plant system that’s native to South America. 

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On Your Nerves: Cell Mechanics

Illustrating a distinction between two cell theories on communication speed and a correlation to neurodegenerative disease. This video is part of a story on research at the Bond Life Sciences Center. Read the longer, written version of the article here.
Video produced, shot and edited by Paige Blankenbuehler

How it works No. 5: Media tips from a journo to a scientist

“How it works” is a series inviting readers and aspiring journalists into the process behind news gathering. This series aims for transparency and to provide a look into the process of the industry for media literacy. If it’s understood what we need and how we try to get it, the most valuable stories and complex ideas can be translated. 

This week the “How it works” series is taking a focus on science communications and building a stronger bond between the scientists and the journalists. See the other installment, a letter from a journalist to a scientist.

Saying it right: Media tips from a journo to a scientist 
It’s tough being put on the spot. Trying to talk about your research in front of an unfamiliar person in an unfamiliar setting — one polluted with strange camera equipment, microphones, lights, and non-science professionals — can cause even the most adaptable person to freeze up. Here are a few tips from the mind of a journalist for participating in on-camera interviews.

What we need:
Sound bites. We’ll ask the questions, you don’t have to worry about talking without any direction. With that being said, remember that we do have questions constructed so don’t jump ahead to another point — wait for that question. Keep your answer short – within 20-30 seconds.
If you make a mistake, jumble your speech, answer incorrectly or phrase something in an uncomfortable way, pause and start over. 

Keep in mind the editing process. All we need is about a 2-3 second pause between each “take.” If you want to start over, pause and indicate a re-shot, then begin to speak. You and the journalist will get a feel for the question/interview style.

Mostly, just relax. On-camera interviews go the most smoothly when the subject feels like they’re just having a conversation with a journalist. Pretend the cameras aren’t there. FYI, when you’re asked by a journalist to be an interview subject, they revere you as an expert — don’t be nervous, I guarantee you’re the smartest person in the room.

B-roll with action. B-roll is footage of background that supplements the on-camera interviews. Think of movies — there are scenes with dialogue and then there are points where the shot cuts to a close-up or specific action going along in the background of the dialogue. We like to get shots of action when we can and if at all possible, we like to catch you in the act — doing what you normally do. 
These shots are better when there is some action going on. It may feel unnatural for a journalist to ask you to interact with things in a certain way that may be atypical, that journalist is trying to compose a shot with human-subject interaction. That’s show-biz, babe!

Weird things you’ll encounter “on set”
Journalists bring enough equipment to a video shoot, you’d think they were embarking on a Mars Curiosity rover trip or something. They take awhile to set up. But this set-up time is a great window for easing tensions and nervousness, finding out more about the shoot and building rapport. It’s also very likely you’ll have an opportunity to snark at a fallen tripod or gaff. 

Journalists are going to wire you up! All interview subjects are usually going to be equipped with some sort of microphone to pick up their audio more effectively on camera. Here’s the best way to handle getting yourself “geared up” and ready to go: Put the microphone under your shirt. The end of the wire should come out near you neck line and a good place to clip it is usually on your lapel. For women, it’s okay if the microphone is slightly visible but it should blend in as much as possible. Clip it in a place near you neck line where it will be secure for the duration of the interview. Scarves are a good place to embed them but I’ve even seen an interview subject clip it in her hair.

Bottom line, you’re likely to encounter a journalist on set. Journalists are a weird bunch.

As an interview subject, you have rights.
You are no animal in a cage under bright lights being examined by an intrusive lion tamer — it might feel that way, being under the camera equipment, getting wired up to a microphone all while a camera is glaring into your very soul, but remember, all lions can roar.

Here are a few tips from the University of Missouri News Bureau that I’ve tweaked to specifically coincide with my own philosophies as a professional journalist.

BEFORE the interview you have the right to know:
Who is the journalist?
Who/what do they represent?
What do they want to talk about?
How long will the interview be?
Is this live or on tape?
Who else are you interviewing on this story?
What’s the angle of the article? What story am I helping to tell?

Effective Communications:
Be clear and keep it short — don’t ramble.
Be concise, use short words, active verbs and personal pronouns
Be deliberate about answers. Make sure you are correct, do not speculate.
Journalists want “sound bites.” This mean 20-30 seconds of clear speech that is a good                                synopsis of an idea, main point.

Think before you speak:
Listen to the entire question (this gives you time to prepare)
Remain silent during the question
If it is a difficult question, ask for a rephrase. A journalist’s number one job is to construct questions in such a way that they are easy to understand. A journalist should not lump five questions into one, long, super-question.

How it works No. 4: A journo/science relationship

“How it works” is a series inviting readers and aspiring journalists into the process behind news gathering. This series aims for transparency and to provide a look into the process of the industry for media literacy. If it’s understood what we need and how we try to get it, the most valuable stories and complex ideas can be translated.

This week the “How it works” series is taking a focus on science communications and building a stronger bond between the scientists and the journalists. See the other installment, specific tips from a journo on participating in on-camera interviews.

Dear scientist,

When it comes to dealing with the media, I understand your apprehension. You’ve worked years (decades!) to specialize in a very difficult field. You have many an accolade listed under your title and I know your PhD didn’t earn itself.

I know you’re smarter than me.

I’m not even trying to compete I dot care about having my voice heard. I’m humbled by your expertise. The work you do is fantastic and should be liberated beyond the walls of a lab, from the abstract of a grant proposal and beyond the niche network of researchers with similar work.

I need you to help me get the knowledge you create to the people I serve — the audience. The uninformed public, stakeholders and future scientists.

I am your bridge.

I’m your bridge to bring the oohs and ahhs to what you’re working on away from home.

Don’t care about the oohs and ahhs? Fine. What about an audience of could-be would-be, future researchers (this is where you think about the post-docs, graduate students, undergraduate students that help you do research in your lab). Where do you think all aspiring scientists or researchers first had that interest sparked? Was it in an elementary lab setting over a remedial experiment under the state issued microscope? Was it in a book about science? Was it an article they read when they were a kid? What about something they saw on TV? Where did your interest start?

I imagine an audience of lay-people with a genuine interest in science — even the most basic research. They read stuff online. They like pictures. They like colors. Videos. People. Novelty. They find interesting articles on Facebook or Twitter, sometimes a friends passes it along, sometimes there are a handful of cool, science blogs that convey the information in an entertaining way and sometimes they come across it in a coffee shop or classroom. The venues for the dispersion of knowledge are endless.

There’s a way to capture this audience and bring their eyes to your research. I think that way is throughout thoughtful journalism and a partnership between you and I. It’s a two-way street, baby. And in any good relationship, there’s a little give and take on both sides. Our shared goal is to create a better future with more informed people. And what’s more cool than science??? (We’re all giant geeks deep down).

Here’s my pledge to you: I will put my passion into everything I write about your science. This starts at the very beginning with acquainting myself with your research and gathering enough background information to understand the difference between “sync” and “sink” leaves, the difference between a 1993 theory on cell communication speed and what’s happening today (a nod to Dr. Gassmann and Dr. Garcia at the Bond Life Sciences Center). I will ask smart questions. I will not interrupt you when you’re saying something important, but I will guide you in helping me deliver a concise story. I have a thirst for science — for knowing how things work, why they do and what happens in the small spaces we can’t see with our eye. I depend on you to help me find my story for my readers.

I am your key to turning a life’s work into a legacy.

Let’s work together.



SoyKB: Leading the convergence of wet and dry science in the era of Big Data

Yaya Cui, an investigator in plant sciences at the Bond Life Sciences Center examines data on fast neuron soybean mutants that are represented on the SoyKB database. | PAIGE BLANKENBUEHLER

Yaya Cui, an investigator in plant sciences at the Bond Life Sciences Center examines data on fast neuron soybean mutants that are represented on the SoyKB database. | PAIGE BLANKENBUEHLER

By Paige Blankenbuehler


The most puzzling scientific mysteries may be solved at the same machine you’re likely reading this sentence.

In the era of “Big Data” many significant scientific discoveries — the development of new drugs to fight diseases, strategies of agricultural breeding to solve world-hunger problems and figuring out why the world exists — are being made without ever stepping foot in a lab.

Developed by researchers at the Bond Life Sciences Center, SoyKB.org allows international researchers, scientists and farmers to chart the unknown territory of soybean genomics together — sometimes continents away from one another — through that data.


Digital solutions to real-world questions

As part of the Obama Administration’s $200 million “Big Data” Initiative, SoyKB (Soy Knowledge Base) was born.

The digital infrastructure changes the way researchers conduct their experiments dramatically, according to plant scientists like Gary Stacey, Bond LSC researcher, endowed professor of soybean biotechnology and professor of plant sciences and biochemistry.

“It’s very powerful,” Stacey said. “Humans can only look at so many lines in an excel spreadsheet — then it just kind of blurs. So we need these kinds of tools to be able to deal with this high-throughput data.”

The website, managed by Trupti Joshi, an assistant research professor in computer science at MU’s College of Engineering, enables researchers to develop important scientific questions and theories.

“There are people that during their entire career, don’t do any bench work or wet science, they just look at the data,” Stacey said.

The Gene Pathway Viewer available on SoyKB, shows different signaling pathways and points to the function of specific genes so that researchers can develop improvements for badly performing soybean lines.

“It’s much easier to grasp this whole data and narrow it down to basically what you want to focus on,” Joshi said.

A 3D-protein modeling tool lends itself especially to drug design. A pharmaceutical company could test the hypothesis and in some situations, the proposed drug turns out to yield the expected results — formulated solely by data analysis.

The Big Data initiative drives a blending of “wet science” — conducting experiments in the lab and gathering original data — and “dry science” — using computational methods.

Testament of the times?

“Oh, absolutely,” Joshi said.


Collaboration between the “wet” and “dry” sciences

Before SoyKB, data from numerous experiments would be gathered and disregarded, with only the desired results analyzed. The website makes it easy to dump all of the data gathered to then be repurposed by other researchers.

“With these kinds of databases now, all the data is put there so something that’s not valuable to me may be valuable to somebody else,” Stacey said,

Joshi said infrastructure like SoyKB is becoming more necessary in all realms of scientific discovery.

“(SoyKB) has turned out to be a very good public resource for the soybean community to cross reference that and check the details of their findings,” she said.

Computer science prevents researchers having to reinvent the wheel with their own digital platforms. SoyKB has a translational infrastructure with computational methods and tools that can be used for many disciplines like health sciences, animal sciences, physics and genetic research.

“I think there’s more and more need for these types of collaborations,” Joshi said. “It can be really difficult for biologists to handle the large scope of data by themselves and you really don’t want to spend time just dealing with files — You want to focus more on the biology, so these types of collaborations work really well.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.

The success of SoyKB was perhaps catalyzed by Joshi. She adopted the website and the compilation of data in its infant stages as her PhD dissertation.

Joshi is unique because she has both a biology degree and a computer science background. Stacey said Joshi, who has “had a foot in each camp,” serves as an irreplaceable translator.

Most recently, the progress of SoyKB as part of the Big Data Initiative was presented at the International Conference on Bioinformatics and Biomedicine Dec. 2013 in Shanghai. The ongoing project is funded by NSF grants.

2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase

Serene scene on display at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

Serene scene on display at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

"Here Come the Sun," by Sharon Pike on display at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

“Here Comes the Sun,” by Sharon Pike on display at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

Talented MU Staffers promote their creations at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

Talented MU Staffers promote their creations at the 2014 MU Staff Arts & Crafts Showcase. | Paige Blankenbuehler

UPDATE: Oprah, Michael Sam agree to documentary deal over lunch

COLUMBIA — Thousands of people have sat on Oprah Winfrey’s couch in her studio, but Michael Sam got to eat lunch in her home.

That meal with Winfrey convinced the former Missouri football player that The Oprah Winfrey Network is the right place to document his preparation for the NFL, according to Sam’s spokesman Howard Bragman.

OWN announced Wednesday it is producing a multi-part documentary about Sam.

“Michael felt safe and comfortable, and knowing the network’s so much about empowerment and positive change, he feels like it’s a good place to be,” Bragman said in a phone interview with the Missourian.

The St. Louis Rams selected Sam in the seventh round of Saturday’s NFL draft, making him the first openly gay player drafted into the league. Sam publicly came out as gay on Feb. 9.

Multiple networks approached Sam when he first announced he was gay, but he felt most comfortable with the former daytime talk-show host, Bragman said.

The series will “follow Sam as he works to earn his spot on the St. Louis Rams — all while under the intense scrutiny of being the first openly gay player in the NFL,” according to an OWN news release.

Bragman emphasized the documentary will not interfere with Sam’s NFL pursuit.

“Be advised: Michael’s No. 1 job is to make the football team,” Bragman said. “If it comes to a choice between the doc and football, we’re always going to err on the side of football.”

“I am determined. And if seeing my story helps somebody else accept who they are and to go for their dreams, too, that’s great. I am thankful to Oprah for her support and excited to work together,” Sam said in the network’s news release.

A camera crew has already been following Sam’s recent events, including Tuesday’s Rams press conference and Saturday’s reaction by Sam that included kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano.

“As we get closer to announcing an air date, we will have more information on what the pilot episode might contain,” OWN spokeswoman Wendy Luckenbill said.

Winfrey said in the news release, “We are honored that Michael is trusting us with his private journey in this moment that has not only made history but will shape it forever.”

The working title of the series is “The Untitled Michael Sam Project,” according to the release. There is no official date scheduled for airing of the series, and the amount of episodes to be shot has not been announced, according to Bragman and Luckenbill. Bragman said the documentary should not be confused with a reality TV show.

“It’s more respected. It’s more historical, it’s more appropriate for this case,” Bragman said. “We didn’t want to do a silly reality show — this is not silly.”

The Rams begin offseason training Friday with a three-day rookie minicamp.

“He’ll meet his responsibilities,” Bragman said. “We’ve looked at his calendar. We’ve talked to the team. We’re not taking on anything we can’t handle.”

See the original article in context at the Columbia Missourian online.

New screening tool gives scientists more control over genetic research

A tangled spool of yarn represents DNA, while the fingers holding the section represent the insulators just added by MU researchers to improve a scientific, screening tool. | Paige Blankenbuehler

A tangled spool of yarn represents DNA, while the fingers holding the section represent the insulators just added by MU researchers to improve a scientific, screening tool. | Paige Blankenbuehler

By Paige Blankenbuehler


Here’s a scenario: You are trying to find a lost section of string in the world’s most massively tangled spool of yarn. Then try cutting that section of yarn that’s deeply embedded in the mess without inadvertently cutting another or losing track of the piece you’re after.

For researchers, this problem is not unlike something they encounter in the study of genetic information in the tangled spool that is DNA.

A new tool will help scientists straighten things out.

The tool, developed by University of Missouri Bond Life Sciences Center investigators helps researchers effectively screen cell behavior by limiting epigenetic silencing, which occurs when a cell packages and stows away important genetic information, much like an accountant puts a client’s information away in a filing cabinet.

The cell can go digging to find that information when it absolutely needs it, but otherwise that information is tucked away and inactive.

Professors of biochemistry Mark Hannink, Tom Mawhinney and research assistant professor Valeri V. Mossine used insulators to develop the piggyBac transposon plus insulators, a better reporter of signaling between cells that makes improved screening possible.

This simple addition to an existing screening tool used in laboratories will help streamline research and contribute to screening products like vitamins and supplements and medicines for authenticity, Hannink said.

This is why the insulator addition to the piggyBac reporter assay by MU researchers is a game changer in the scientific world.


How it works

DNA stretches out to nearly 10 feet when it’s uncoiled. That’s 10 feet of your body’s deepest secrets coiled into a microscopic package and tucked away into each and every one of your cells. The human body, by the way, holds an estimated 10 trillion cells. An inconceivable number, right?

Let’s go back to our yarn analogy. You’re trying to find one specific piece to cut but it’s deeply tangled in the mass of yarn. You need to find the piece that you really care about and clamp your fingers onto the yarn to reduce the slack — straighten it out — so you can cut it easily.

Think of your fingers as the insulators.

The insulators of the new piggyBac transposon tool perform the same task of stretching out the DNA so certain expressions through signaling pathways are held open, enabling the investigation of specific genetic material.

Hannink hypothesizes this new reporter could provide answers to questions like: Does an anti-migraine medicine have the component that will relieve that ailment? Does a multi-vitamin deliver all of the nutrients on its label?

“A lot of botanicals are said to have anti-inflammatory benefits,” Hannink said. “By using an assay like this, we can easily determine if they actually do and if so, what molecules in these complex mixtures are in fact the cause of the punitive inflammatory activity.”

Reproducing results

Replication is a critical part of verifying scientific discovery and epigenetic silencing is a big headache for investigators trying to reproduce results.

Scientists studying genetic material can open certain expressions with other reporter tools but often, the cell will turn expressions off and block signaling pathways, causing an expected result to fail because of epigenetic silencing.

The new assay preserves conditions of an experiment so the same results can be reached. Cell behavior under the same conditions and expressions that were switched on during the experiment will be expressed.

The new version of the reporter assay is being used at the MU Center for Botanical Interaction Studies to understand how botanical compounds affect the immune system and in other research on the central nervous system and on the development of prostate cancer.

This research appeared in the Dec. 20, 2013 edition of PLoS ONE. It was funded by the University of Missouri Agriculture Experiment Station Laboratories and grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Office of Dietary Supplements and the National Cancer Institute.

Stepping into a ‘claustrophobic’ war protest at MU

Sharon Pike holds a peace sign clock, which she purchased around the time of the MU protest of the Vietnam War on May 11, 1970. Pike said she didn’t actually want to participate in the protests but walked out of a lecture hall on Francis Quadrangle to find more than 3,000 people demonstrating and was unable to leave because of how crowded the area had become with protesters. 

COLUMBIA — Sharon Pike had returned to MU in 1968 to finish her bachelor’s and master’s degrees after taking a break to start a family. By 1970, her daughter was in kindergarten and she was a full-time student.

As a member of an activist church, she would send letters to politicians protesting the Vietnam War after her experiences at MU demonstrations.

Pike, now a research specialist for the Interdisciplinary Plant Group at MU, recognized that her efforts were part of a larger movement sweeping the country — a time where a heightened awareness of the democratic process brought people together in masses. Something, she said, was unique to that time.

“I really enjoyed the camaraderie with these like-minded people,” Pike said. “I came from a small town — 5,000 people — and I had no idea that these sort of people were around until that time in my life. That experience opened my eyes to a lot of things.”

When Pike stepped out of MU’s Hill Hall on May 11, 1970, she found herself in the midst of the largest anti-war demonstration to date, with more than 3,000 people urging the university to make a statement in opposition to the Vietnam War.

She remembers being trapped at the west side of Jesse Hall in a narrow passage full of people.

“The crowd was so big, you really felt crushed. It was claustrophobic, and it looked like it was going to get out of hand,” Pike said.

There had been shootings at other protests — namely Kent State and Jackson State — and Pike remembers thinking “it could happen here too — it just felt scary.”

She navigated through the crowd to her car and drove to a phone where she placed a call to the home of MU sociology professor Bill Wickersham, one of the MU faculty members whose pay was suspended for canceling classes that day to accommodate the student demonstrations. Then Pike went to a place where she felt safe: her church.

“I called, not because I knew him, but because I had heard about him and thought he could help,” Pike said. “Where I called from, I don’t know. I found out he was arrested, drove to my church on West Boulevard South, and I went to see my minister and asked, ‘What can I do?’

“He didn’t have an answer for me.”

The passions of the day were easy to get caught up in, Pike said. As the memories of 44 years ago fade, Pike said she still keeps her favorite possessions of the day near:her peace tags, fashioned after dog tags, with a blue dove and red peace symbol and her “Peace-time Lolli-clock” by Westclox.



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To see the original article in context, visit the Columbia Missourian online.