A Wish List for the 114th Congress to Consider

With the 114th Congress underway, the scientific community is looking forward to sharing new research breakthroughs and advocating for STEM during a series of congressional visits to Capitol Hill. In some instances, scientists and trainees will assist writing congressional briefs and give testimony to House and Senate committees on science, technology and health.

While Congress is considering science policy initiatives, positions and funding, there are a few things in the early-career scientist “wish list” that would make improvements and maintain the United States’ leading position in the scientific enterprise.

Throughout 2014, early-career scientists discussed specific issues in science policy groups, on social media and in articles that need to be addressed. These are some of the highlights of the conversations that have been put in a “Wish List” that hopefully Congress and policymakers will strongly consider.

Read entire post at ResearchAmerica! click here

EBOLA IN THE US: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe

As we discuss the current Ebola virus outbreaks, it is critical that we avoid both panic and the spread of misinformation.

The case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the US, illustrated correctable problems.  Communicating his travel history was essential.  Also, Mr. Duncan was sent home the first time he visited the hospital despite giving a travel history of coming from Liberia. He was discharged and sent home with a fever. By the time he was admitted to the hospital four days later, he was in critical condition.  His delay in receiving timely care very likely contributed to his demise. It is concerning that his care may have been impacted by his race and lacking health insurance.  So far none of his 72 contacts have shown symptoms of the disease. However, there has been considerable stigmatization of the contacts and neighbors.

To date only two confirmed Ebola virus infection cases connected to Mr. Duncan are healthcare workers from the hospital that treated Mr. Duncan. The worker has only one known contact since she developed symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state public health department are involved in close monitoring of contacts and evaluating how the health worker became infected. Seventy-six people were involved in Mr Duncan’s care while he was in the hospital.  So far only one worker has been diagnosed with Ebola. Contrast this to the many West African healthcare workers who have died due to their work with Ebola patients.

Read entire post at Ebony.com click here

Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

NOTE: The except below is from a series of articles by Fathers published by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Eduction.

By Caleph B. Wilson

This Father’s Day will be my second as a new dad and, with it, my happiness has grown tremendously. Explaining the value and excitement of being a father is difficult. It requires that a man lay down his shield, take off his breastplate and expose his heart.

On the third Sunday of each June, family members make phone calls, send cards and gather to celebrate biological dads and the many men who serve as father figures. Each of us has unique experiences with our dads and the men who support us. Many commercial images we see will remind us of men who hold a special place in guiding our lives. As we view those images, men like me, a black father, feel explosions of happiness like all fathers. But something puts an asterisk on the joy.

The asterisk often refers to the many news reports and pundits offering statistics about how engaged black fathers are more rare than a leap year. My many experiences tell me otherwise. Yet the counter messages fight very hard to settle in our minds. So let me offer a perspective on how reality should lead the way we view black fathers and how those fathers should view themselves.

Let’s start with a report last December demonstrating that black fathers that are in their children’s lives are more involved than fathers of all other ethnic backgrounds. (Yes, read that sentence a few more times.) As I reflect on my life and the men in it, I do not need a scientific study to inform me of how loving and engaged black fathers, biological or not, are.

Without guidance by my dad, uncles, cousins and mentors, my life would not have been as happy.

Each man in my life has given a bit of himself to shape the man that I am. That is a debt that I cannot repay. At every turn of my life, a community of fathers has been there for me. That perspective can be found throughout the vast majority of families and communities nationwide.

Read entire post at MIJE.org  click here

Reading List: Historical Science Contributions from Around the World (Incomplete)

Encyclopedia History Arabic Science

Arabic Science

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

Arab science in the golden age (750–1258 C.E.) and today (Be sure to check out the references in this FASEB Journal article.)

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

Historical Perspectives Science, Technology and Medicine

Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (Journal of African Civilizations)

African Origins of Science & Math (Bibliography)

An Open Letter to Jason Whitlock’s Posit on HBCUs and Their Alumni

Some things in Jason Whitlock’s post rings true; however, it lacks a bit of critical analysis of what actually happened in terms of athletics and academic development at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Whitlock failed to mention how from the 1970s until today, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) recruit black athletes for their programs very hard. While at one time many of them considered black athletes to be inferior. As always selling tickets, i.e. making money, eventually trumps bias when it comes to making profit. (Today many PWIs still have higher percentages of black athletes than they do black students overall.)

PWIs operating on large budgets have convinced most of the best black athletes to attend their schools and participate in their programs. Recruitment has become almost a quantitative mathematical process. PWIs find the talent leaves while leaving room for HBCUs or minority serving institutions (MSIs).

Calling Coach Robinson the “Knute Rockne” and Grambling the “Notre Dame” of black football is frankly an insult. Based on the talent that came out of Grambling, it was the flagship of college football, PERIOD. Likely, until the mid-1970s Grambling and many other HBCUs would have likely “beat the breaks” off any PWI that took the field. (We can find out when someone makes a reliable time machine.) I would love to have been able to see video of any PWI national champion play the black college national champion from 1920-1970.

How much wealth would HBCUs have gained if they were able to keep the past stream of athletic talent in place up until today? HBCUs would have been able to build 60,000 – 100,000 seat stadiums or arenas. Imagined 10s of millions of dollars of decades of tax exempt revenue.

What Whitlock also neglects to mention is the historical underfunding of public HBCUs. This dearth of state funding has directly slowed the development of academic programs. Take the Ayer’s case in Mississippi and Maryland HBCU Equality Lawsuit. (We must not forget the role that enslavement of blacks played in building the endowments of many of the elite Northeastern seaboard institutions.) In both cases the respective state lost lawsuits that pointed out how the history of “Separate but Equal” policy played out in the development of higher education.

Let us take a few moments to imagine the amplification of the impact on the numbers of black civil and thought leaders, if pubic HBCUs would have been funded on par with state PWIs. What types of academic capacity could have been grown? How many large donors could have been attracted to the an engineering, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and education programs.

Therefore, alumni and black community giving is not the sole reason that HBCUs face increased difficulties today. Yet, alumni giving has it’s place in the current issues that HBCUs face.

As for the truth portion of Whitlock’s post, giving to HBCU’s by blacks is lagging behind horribly. The black community and HBCU alumni faithfully attend HBCU sporting and social events. Unfortunately, that enthusiastic HBCU spirit does not translate to high levels of direct giving to HBCUs.

Overall, blacks give a higher percentage of their income to donations to non-profit organizations. Most of these organizations are faith based. Therefore, HBCUs and alumni have to reformulate the approach to soliciting donations. Perhaps, working with places of worship can build scholarship funding bases.

During a recent conversation with Nelson Bowman III, Executive Director of Development at Prairie View A&M University, he proposed a fundraising challenge to me and other HBCU alumni. If 2,000 alumni of any specific HBCU gave $50 per month for a full year it would raise $1.2 million for the school. Increasing the amount the donation or number of alumni would insure that the amount of money raised increases.

Other than money, alumni should also be willing to do pro bono work for HBCUs. Donating our professional skills and time can help cut cost for the schools.

As outline in Whitlock’s piece, HBCUs have produced leaders in a wide range of professions throughout the country. That is an opportunity to bring a diverse range of talent together to help HBCUs think through issues, solve problems and execute innovative solutions.

Yes, problems exist at HBCUs just like PWIs have issues. Alumni can help HBCUs implement their respective missions and raise funds. We have to translate our love for HBCUs into attainment of resources. After all, if you are like me, your professional existence would not likely have happened without walking the hallowed grounds of an HBCU.

About the Author: Caleph B. Wilson, PhD is an affiliate member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and biomedical sciences postdoctoral fellow at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a graduate of Alcorn State University Alumni and member of the National Science and Technology News Service.  In addition to his work as a scientist, he participates in outreach programs to promote STEM, through mentoring, science education and professional development advisement.  Follow him on Twitter: @HeyDrWilson

HBCUs Need to Seek Leaders from Nontraditional Sources

By Caleph B. Wilson

In this environment of limited educational funds, stable leadership is the key to ensuring the health of any university. However, unsteady leadership acutely impacts historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With the recent departure of Alcorn State University’s former president, M. Christopher Brown, another HBCU has seen a change in leadership. Unfortunately, some of these leadership changes have been marred in scandal.

As an Alcorn alumnus, I am very concerned with Brown’s unexpected departure. The Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), Mississippi’s public college and university governing body, is investigating Brown’s purchasing practices. In addition, the IHL is planning a search for Alcorn’s next president. During the search process, my No. 1 question is: How can alumni work with IHL to assist in finding the best candidates?

Traditionally, HBCU presidential candidates have moved from leadership positions at other HBCUs. Also, they have traditionally been alumni of HBCUs or minority serving institutions (MSI). In the past, that was a good formula for the HBCU seeking a new president. However, it leaves one HBCU without leadership while another one gains from their loss. This situation presents an opportunity to expand the leadership search outside the ranks of the traditional HBCU community.

Within the last few years there are some HBCU presidents that have switched institutions and left their previous schools in better shape than they left them. Presidents like Walter Kimbrough at Dillard and Ronald Mason Jr. of the Southern University System improved Philander Smith and Jackson State University, respectively. They represent the type of leadership that Alcorn should be looking for.

Read entire post at DiveseEducation.com click here.

Building STEM Bridges: Scientists Overcoming Isolation by Building Community

By Caleph B. Wilson

Diversity has become a watchword in the scientific community. For the last 20 years colleges, universities, government science agencies and private foundations have worked to increase the numbers of scientists from under-represented backgrounds. Some of these policy changes have resulted in an increase and improved retention of scientists from low socio-economic homes, women and ethnic minorities. Additionally, funding was put in place to support science policy changes and build the infrastructure to produce scientists from communities that have traditionally had no personal interactions with scientists.

I was fortunate to be one of many scientists who benefited from institutions that participated in programs sponsored by one or more of the funding agencies mentioned above. However, there is a concerning by-product of the strides to increase the diversity within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. STEM training is a rigorous process and the environment in which it happens often isolates under-represented minority (URM) scientists. Moreover, many URM scientists do not have substantive dialogs about their work with members of their own communities. This means that an enormous repository of information is not connected to underserved groups. For this reason, many URM scholars work diligently to counter the isolation of science training and connect with their communities.

Read entire post at Scientific American click here.

National Postdoc Appreciation Week: Judy Swan Kicks It Off with a Proposal Writing Workshop at Penn.”

* This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council’s Newsletter.

By Caleph B. Wilson

The University of Pennsylvania kicked off National Postdoc Appreciation week with a very exciting two part proposal writing workshop, “Best Practices For Effective Team Writing and Developing Grant Proposals” by Dr. Judy Swan.  She the Associate Director for Writing in Science and Engineering of Princeton University’s Writing Program. Dr. Swan’s background as both a biomedical graduate student and postdoc mirrors the experiences of the postdocs under the Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs umbrella; therefore, she brought a wealth of relevant expertise. Dr. Swan’s morning session focused on writing as a team and the proposal structure.  The afternoon focused on how to move forward with developing and writing a proposal.

From the beginning of the workshop, Dr. Swan pointed out a very key point, which is this, “What distinguishes scientific writing from other forms of writing is that we write in teams.” However, postdoctoral level scientific team writing has an apparent issue. As graduate students, we are sent off to write papers and theses, alone. After finally struggling and getting something written, our PI takes the ‘correction pen’ and enthusiastically provides feedback in the form red text and comments. Our writing is hard to pin-point in all the changes outlined by ‘tracked changes.’ In order to transition to effective team writing, we have to begin to think about writing in terms similar to how we collaborate on research projects. Dr. Swan explains that in team writing “you will get a draft from people (or write one) that does not look like what you need it to look like.”  The question is this:  How do you move forward with crafting a proposal that transforms into a well written and clear document? First, determine the major expectations of the writing. Get feedback to improve your document. Finally, rewrite the document to conform to the readers’ expectations, for a solid proposal.

In the case of proposals, the funding agency’s reviewers are the reader that you are considering. The goal is to get your proposal read and scored.  This may seem like an obvious point, but in this tough funding environment the writer that passes the triage process has a fighting chance at getting scored. Moreover, a well written proposal has a stronger opportunity at scoring well.

Dr. Swan laid out a number of points that will help your proposal survive the triage process.

1) Read the funders proposal structure and submission instructions very, very carefully.

Yes, “the devil is in the details.” Groups, organizations and agencies have very specific structure and instructions. You do not want a lack of following instructions to be what tanks your beloved proposal. Remember, funders and reviewers are looking for reasons to reduce the stack of grants that they receive.

2) Make sure that your proposal has all the elements outlined by the funder.

Although, you have thoroughly read the instructions and put your grant together, it is possible to focus on some aspects more closely than others. Those parts that seem to be easier can be easily overlooked. I have found creating a checklist to be the best way to ensure that my proposals have required elements.

3) Know which parts of the grant require the most emphasis.

The type of grant can determine what elements are more critical. Because postdocs are early career investigators, some grants may focus more on your personal or leadership backgrounds. Others may need you to emphasize your science. Weight your proposal appropriately.

4) Be clear on the proposal review process.

Developing projects and executing them is stressful enough. Try not to compound your stress by letting your imagination run wild! Be clear on the time frame of the review process and how it proceeds. Moreover, do not be afraid to follow up if the review process exceeds the timetable. Unforeseeable events happen. You need to know if you should be working on a resubmission, or submitting elsewhere.

5) Write in a way that allows your reviewer to be enthusiastic about your proposal.

Enthusiasm should be the result of the rewriting that you and your team have done. An excited reviewer will likely give you a fundable score and fight for your proposal during a study section. Out of a stack of grants that a reviewer has slogged through, an easily readable and solid proposal is refreshing, according to Dr. Swan.

Prior to starting the writing workshop’s afternoon session, some of us were able to participate in roundtable discussions. Dr. Swan had us tackle the one of the most difficult parts of writing – getting words on the page. Many postdocs have to get over the hurdle of starting a writing project before moving to the team writing process. To describe this process Dr. Swan said, “It is hard to believe writing is a process of injury.”

Afterward, the roundtable discussion had some great points on how to bet the writing engine warmed up. Here are a few things that were mentioned by postdocs:

“Use your (lab) notebook to put parts (of papers) together early.”

“Write everything in your (lab notebook’s) results comprehensively. Read it the next day and refine what you wrote.”

“Write figures (and legends) first.”

“Write the introduction (and abstract) last.”

“Try writing something every day to make writing a habit.”

Overall, getting some words on the page represents the best way to get your writing moving forward. Spend some time to refine your best practices. You have a writing rhythm. Find it and writing will become routine.

Dr. Swan’s afternoon session highlighted the stages of writing. As you consider putting your proposal together, keep your process in mind. Dr. Swan mentioned this, “Writing is a physical process. What is your ritual?” For example, do you need to set aside a half-day block of time, play your favorite music and get a glass of your favorite beverage to get into your writing rhythm?

As you morph into a writing superhero prepare yourself to move through the writing stages.  That starts with giving yourself an adequate timeline to complete your proposal. Start with asking this question: How much time do I need to get this proposal written?  The appropriate answer to this question is based on a realistic assessment of your skills and the scope of the proposal. Getting through following steps is key:  1) Pre-drafting,  2) Drafting,  3) Revising, and 4) Editing/Proofing.

Pre-drafting entails everything that you do to get the background materials ready. This usually means a large and scattered pile of papers or files. What is the best way for you to manage moving through these materials? Organize them to in a way that keeps you on task. This is when you explore your ideas and develop an outline for a coherent proposal draft.

After getting your thoughts and plan together begin writing. Revisit the key point of your proposal multiple times throughout the draft. The reviewer will know your point because you will keep reminding him or her.

Analyzing what you have written is part of the revising process. Does your preliminary data support your aims? Do you need to do more experiments that are in line with your proposal? This is a good time to for the writing team of co-authors and contributors to review the proposal. Putting together the best proposal prior to the editing process is your aim.

Editing is the time to eliminate unnecessary words and sentences. Start with having your editorial support review the proposal. Multiple editors can give you a fresh perspective on the document. They will be able to help you flesh out glaring issues with readability. During the drafting process you worked steadfastly to get your words on the page. Editors should go through your proposal sentence-by-sentence. Each sentence should support the point of the proposal.

After moving through the stages of the writing process the reviewers should easily be able to read your proposal.  “We want the reviewer to make up their mind in the first reading,” says Dr. Swan. Additionally, she points out that “every sentence needs to maintain the same judgment throughout the document.”

A final take home message: If you can get the reviewer to become and stay interested in your proposal, you will be off to a good start. Keep in mind that a well prepared, edited and written proposal is both necessary and sufficient to garnering enthusiastic support of your reviewer.

Dangerous Mis-information About a Federally Funded HIV Vaccine Trial

By Caleph B. Wilson

Since, my days as a graduate student, family, friends and strangers have asked me about the validity of biomedical science reports in the media.  Many articles and blogs are accurate; however, sometimes inaccurate information is put forward.  In those instances, I attempt to help the questioner understand why the information is incorrect.

Below is a case of a website getting the information HORRIBLY WRONG!

A Facebook friend shared a blog post that stated that a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded HIV vaccine trial “gave 41 people HIV.”  As expected a post like that got my attention immediately!  So, my first question was:  Why haven’t I heard of this before?  It seems like major news because of the safety concern.  This would have been alarming news in the HIV research community.

So, as usual I navigated to the shared webpage and began to read.  After reading the post, I did a Google search for the name of the trial: HVTN 500.  The sixth post was a press release from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), the NIH branch that funded the study.

While reading the NIAID press release, I was wondering when I would get to the part discussing the new HIV infections.  The information was in the fourth paragraph.  This is what I said:

Overall in the study from the day of enrollment through the month 24 study visit, a total of 41 cases of HIV infection occurred in the volunteers who received the investigational vaccine regimen and 30 cases of HIV infection occurred among the placebo vaccine recipients.”

This is what the above quoted text means.  Yes, participants that receive placebo or the vaccine contracted HIV.  However, the sentence does not indicate that the vaccine or placebo was the source of the new HIV infections.  What the press release is pointing out is that the vaccine was not effective enough to justify continuing to spend tax payer dollars on it.  Simply put, scientist and physicians determined that a careful public health research project did not work and decided to stop it.  This is how science works.

Given the misleading information in the website posted by my Facebook friend, I decided to respond to the post and point out why it was dangerous misinformation.  This is how I determined that the information on the website was incorrect:

1.)    The website did not list or link to the group that did the study

This is a major red flag.  Anytime a website cannot point me to facts, I get concerned.  As a scientist, I always challenge myself to read the sources.  Creditable information will invites critical review.  This webpage was making me work to find information rather than pointing me to it.  Especially given, that it claimed that a federally funded clinical trial was responsible for spreading HIV, I wanted to read this information.

2.)    No other media or science outlets came to the same conclusion as the shared webpage

News like this warrants independent verification from multiple sources.  It is hard to believe that media outlets would not consider it to be major news that an NIH sponsored trial was spreading HIV.  If this would true, it would be inescapable.

3.)    Carefully reading the both the NIH press release, the blog post and linked information in each

Anyone can read the available information and make a conclusion based on what is there.  It only requires a working knowledge of what is presented. In this case, there is a major discrepancy between what the NIAID has to say and what the website stated about the HIV vaccine trial.  I invite you to read the press release, blog post and sited sources to reach your own conclusion.  Also, search the internet, PubMed and other sources.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section of this post.

Above all, I am pointing out that each of us has a responsibility to insure that we effectively evaluate information that we consume.  Not doing so, will result in spread information that may not be accurate.  The danger in the case above is that success in combating HIV requires informed volunteers.  Mis-information or inaccurate media reports may prevent advancements in battling HIV.

Scientist Addresses Misconception That His Lab Has Used Competent HIV to Cure Cancer

NOTE:  The open letter below was originally published on Facebook Fan Page of Ray Flores and reprinted with Dr. Posey’s permission.

By Avery Posey, Jr

I just responded to the author of an article from Upworthy that is circulating the web through social media. The article is titled “Doctors Take A Long Shot And Inject HIV Into Dying Girl. The Reason Why Will Amaze You.” The media has a tendency to sensationalize the news and we often find ourselves believing what we read, so I want to clarify the assertion made by this article because I find the title to be misleading and troublesome.

It is true that the therapy developed in my lab that has treated and cured leukemia in approximately 12 patients. However, it is not entirely true that this treatment is done with HIV. The truth is that we only use parts of the HIV virus that are necessary to insert DNA into other cells (like T cells in this case). This virus is only able to insert into a cell once, cannot replicate, and does not inactivate patient CD4 cells like HIV does. The patient is not HIV+ after therapy.

The real work of this cure is the DNA that we insert into the patient T cells. It is a special and novel gene that does not exist in nature. The new gene enables the T cells to now find and kill the patient’s tumor cells based on a molecule they can now see on the surface of those tumor cells. This is why the therapy works. It has nothing to do with the use of parts of the HIV virus.

As a member of an ethnic community that has been preyed upon by the medical community, I find it terrible to suggest that any doctor would intentionally infect someone with HIV. No medical professional would use HIV to treat anyone; Tuskegee shall never be repeated.

As a member of a social community that has been victimized by HIV and still deals with the stigma of HIV, I am disturbed by the possibilities that could arise from articles with such sensational titles. HIV does not cure cancer.

Thank you for allowing me to clarify misconceptions reported and circulating the web. Please share this and help dispel the rumors if possible. If anyone is interested in learning more, they are welcome to inbox me.

Avery D. Posey, Jr., Ph.D.

This commentary is not written on the behalf of any company or institution. The article is linked.

NOTE:  The above open letter is a re-post of a social media response from Dr. Posey