Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bay Area museum training future scientists

  SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The California Academy of Sciences runs a state of the art museum in Golden Gate Park, but may people don't realize that behind the scenes the academy is also a world class research institution. Academy scientists estimate only about 10 percent of all life on Earth has been discovered. That unknown 90 percent could hold the cure to cancer, critical information about climate change, or a way to feed a starving nation. But the number of scientists looking for new species is dropping and university programs to train them are disappearing. So the academy is stepping up its effort to inspire and train a new generation.

Dave Kavanaugh is senior curator of the academy's entomology department. He says "It's very frustrating to realize that the students that can do this kind of work are not being developed and the skill is being lost." So Kavanaugh and other academy scientists are mentoring promising high school students.

For the past year, Kavanaugh has worked with 18-year-old Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski. Cueva-Dabkoski says she never expected to be bonding with beetles. "My idea of science was kind of wrapped up in a book, something very dry." But, that was before Cueva-Dabkoski joined the academy's Careers in Science program, aimed at high school students from under-served communities. She went on a field trip collecting bugs near the Oregon border and she was hooked. "I discovered I really like beetles. They are gorgeous. All my friends laugh that I say that."

But Kavanaugh isn't laughing, he's cheering. Cueva-Dabkoski is now a Student Science Fellow, part of a new academy program to train future scientists and give them hands-on research experience. Kavanaugh says "The school system doesn't really offer an opportunity, even at the college level in most universities, to do what these students are getting to do."

For the past 10 years, the academy has worked with Chinese scientists to collect all kinds of specimens in a remote part of China. Kavanaugh himself collected 50,000 beetles. Now comes the detective work -- figuring out whether any of the beetles are new species and how each one fits into the eco-system. Cueva-Dabkoski is on the team. She says "It's given me an idea of what it is to be a scientist."

Cueva-Dabkoski spent months tracking down ancient descriptions of beetles, corresponding with curators of insect collections all over the world, and examining historic specimens that were sent to the academy for comparison.

The work is paying off. Kavanaugh and Cueva-Dabkoski now believe they have discovered at least one new species. Cueva-Dabkoski says "It's really exciting!"

She starts at Johns Hopkins University this fall and plans to keep learning about the natural world creature by creature, with an eye toward a future career "saving the organism and also the large eco-system that it lives in."

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

Famed Bay Area musician helps with brain research

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Famed Bay Area musician Mickey Hart has long believed that music is the best medicine. Now he's helping uncover the science to prove it.

Hart is best known for the rhythms he created with the Grateful Dead. But lately, he's more concerned with a different kind of rhythm.

The rhythm in the brain, finding out what rhythm central sounds like," Hart said. "It's the master clock. It makes everything go."

In his years on the road, hart says he always felt music had a special power over the brain to heal and awaken it.

One day, that hunch became a certainty.

"My grandmother, who had Alzheimer's, advanced Alzheimer's, and she couldn't speak, she hadn't spoken in over a year, I played a drum for her, and she spoke my name," Hart said. "She started to become connected again -- to become verbal."

The improvement lasted only a moment, but Hart says it changed his direction in life forever.

Now Hart is participating in an experiment where he wears an EEG cap and each of the electrodes are help detect the very subtle signals that have rhythmic activity being generated by the neurons in his brain.

Hart is taking this gear on tour with him so live audiences can watch his neurons pulse as he plays the drums.

It's the beginning of something much bigger.

It all started by accident, when Hart was asked to do a speaking engagement with UCSF neuroscience professor Adam Gazzaley. Gazzaley was studying how to retrain the brain using video game technology. But using that technology to look at the brain was an entirely new idea.

"This concept that rhythm might be therapeutic has been around for a long time; there's just really not studies that have carefully controlled a rhythmic experiment and looked for changes in the brain," Gazzaley said.

Only now are computers powerful enough to show those changes live.

Now, Hart is the first subject in a new experiment: seeing his own brainwaves as he drums. He tries to control the rhythm of his brain by changing the rhythm of the music.

"I move into its time, and try to do what it's doing and go with it and I try to entrain with it and stay there as long as possible, and then move it slightly, you know, turn it to the right, turn it to the left," Hart said.

Hart says it's a dance, one Gazzaley says could hold great promise for patients whose brains have lost their natural rhythm.

"If we could help reorganize those rhythms, re-entrain them, then hopefully we can improve cognition along with that," Gazzaley said.

A drug of sorts with huge medicinal promise -- that for Hart is also recreational.

"You might say it gets you high because you're connecting with the real you," Hart said.

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