Dispatches from the US (2)

(October 17th, 2014) Among the past month’s top stories are: The US declares war on Ebola; the White House invests in improved antibiotic testing; the NSF takes stock of postdoctoral unemployment rates and US universities install napping stations in libraries.

Obama government declares war on Ebola epidemic

The deadly Ebola virus, which has consumed over 2,800 lives in West Africa and infected more than 5,800 people, continues to create a global havoc as it creeps across territories worldwide. In view of this, on 16 September the US government declared “war” on the epidemic. In his address at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, President Obama announced that the government will mobilise military troops to Monrovia, Liberia to help with logistics. The US will extend support by providing more hospital beds and isolation units, health care specialists and preventive kits to families, as well as deploy an air bridge from the US subcontinent to ensure timely delivery of aid. The US Department of Defense will channel $500 million towards the Ebola efforts. Additionally, the government has requested the Congress to pass a continuing resolution for fund allocation until December - to the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services - to support the development and clinical trials of vaccines. However, Senator Tom Harkin fears that the epidemic will need recurring financial aid well into 2015, as there are only bleak chances that the outbreak will be thwarted in the next ten weeks.

White House seeks to curtail antibiotic-resistant infections

There are at least two drawbacks of antibiotics. First, they impoverish the gut of both bad and good bacteria, and second, they instigate the growth of resilient strains. These resistant bacteria viz. Clostridium difficile can divide uncontrollably to colonise the entire gut. The result is anything from mild diarrhea to a disastrous colon infection. In the US alone, at least 14,000 C. difficile cases end fatally each year and the toll is 23,000 for all antibiotic-resistant infections put together. Besides, their treatment costs are a major burden on the country’s economy. On 18 September, Obama passed a strategy to address the concern over poor efficacies of antibiotics. Starting 2015, a team will be delegated to establish surveillance systems to monitor the spread of new antibiotic-resistant infections, and provide monetary and regulatory support to researchers as well as pharma companies involved in antibiotic testing. Moreover, the White House will host a $20 million-prized competition, sponsored by the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration, for devising a rapid test to diagnose antibiotic-resistant infections. The national strategy comes as a much-awaited response to address the repercussions of antibiotics, which in about 50% of the medical cases are needlessly recommended.

NIH announces 2014 BRAIN Initiative awards

The widely-touted Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is a 12-year long Presidential venture, with a gargantuan annual budget of $100 million, to encourage scientific research that will bolster our understanding of the human brain and help gain crucial insights for the treatment of neuro-disorders. On September 30, the NIH, a participating federal agency, announced the awardees of the BRAIN grant for the fiscal year 2014. A total of 58 research projects, involving over 100 investigators from 15 states and their international collaborators, will be supported by a total sum of $46 million. The awards are jointly sponsored by four federal bodies: the NIH, the FDA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The money will foster the development of cutting-edge technologies, such as the use of light-driven probes to monitor neuronal activity, real time imaging of the human brain using a wearable scanner, radio wave-stimulation of neural circuits and genetic approaches to unravel neuronal networks.

NIH supplemental awards to include gender variable in preclinical research

Men and women are different. They differ in their physiology and disease predispositions, and even in their responses to drugs. It thus becomes essential to have an adequate representation of both sexes in preclinical studies but increasing evidence points to an over-reliance on male animals and cells in research. To balance sex in animal models used in research, the NIH is implementing policies starting October and recently awarded $10.1 million as supplemental funding to 82 grantees to probe into the effects of sex in preclinical studies. Janine Clayton, director of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, and Francis Collins, the NIH director, laid out their policies in a commentary this summer. The supplemental funds will be used by grantees to add more samples or subjects of either gender to strengthen previous findings. In future, the NIH will include evaluation of sex differences in their training modules offered to staff, trainees and grantees. Reviewers of grant applications will be advised to recommend proposals that include the gender variable, where appropriate, in their experimental design. Finally, the NIH will ensure compliance of sex and gender inclusion in all preclinical research, and will partner with publishers to promote the publication of the results of such rigorous analyses.

Doctorates fare better at the job market

For doctorates, the sacrifices of their graduate years seem to be paying off. According to a new NSF report, the 2013 unemployment rate for doctoral degree holders, of science, engineering or health (SEH) background, was only a third of the national average for ages 25 and over – 2.1% versus 6.3%. 735,900 out of an estimated 837,900 SEH doctorates were in the labour force, meaning they were employed full-time or part-time or were actively seeking jobs. The majority of these individuals, up to 25%, held a doctorate in the life sciences, followed by engineering, physical sciences, psychology, social sciences and other fields in that order. The report also states that women represented a growing share of doctorates and made up 33% of all the PhDs. However, they were less likely to be employed full time and more likely not to be seeking jobs than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, the work force participation rate was comparable between the two genders, with 89% for women and 87% for men. From these analyses, it seems like having a PhD may improve your chances of being hired. Whether or not a PhD gives doctorates an edge at job interviews is unclear but it certainly makes them more persevering when it comes to job search.

Does your library have...um…napping rooms?

With increasing awareness as to the benefits of sleep on the mind, US universities are up for installing nap rooms in libraries. Students often head to libraries for uninterrupted studying but many succumb to a mental overload and doze off on their books or backpacks. A 30-minute power nap can go a long way in refreshing their brain and even help assimilate what they just learnt. Earlier this year, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor installed its first napping station with vinyl cots and disposable pillowcases in the undergraduate library. Students can sign up for a spot for up to 30 minutes. In August, the university invested in an Energy Pod, a programmable reclining chair that is now a famous fatigue management solution in the corporate world. The chair that is more like a tube, sporting a visor for privacy, allows one to stretch out and nap for a certain time. It can be programmed to vibrate and play calming music, serving as a stress buster. Other universities too have imbibed the nap culture. The James Madison University, Virginia has a “nap nook” in the Student Center with bean bags and antimicrobial pillows. Users can reserve nap hours online. The nook is very popular among students as it is estimated to have seen some 2,500 slumbers in just about nine months. Power naps, which can even replace bouts of coffee as stimulants, are expected to improve academic performance while also giving overworked student minds the rest that they desperately need.

Madhuvanthi Kannan

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Petr Kratochvil

Last Changes: 11.26.2014