Thursday, November 28, 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A Brief Overview of Microbiome Studies and Why They are Important


The discovery and characterization of microbial species continues to be a long and painstaking process.  Scientists have spent decades (well... really centuries) carefully studying the distinct properties of different microbes, examining the evolutionary relationships between different microbes, and organizing microbes into taxonomic groups based on various commonalities.  One of the many benefits from this research program, and especially the DNA sequence characterization and organization of microbes, have been the resulting reference database collections which are used in sequence-based microbiome studies.  In recent years there has been a lot of excitement growing aroung the use these DNA sequence reference databases to characterize microbial communities.  While the spotlight has really been on microbial communities as a whole, the importance of individual microbial species discovery and characterization has been somewhat overlooked.

Flowchart illustrating the synergistic relationship between studies focusing on
microbial community characterization and individual microbe characterization.
Studies involving characterization of individual microbes provide references
for microbial community studies, while microbial community studies provide
context for individual microbe characterization studies.  This relationship is
sometimes overlooked.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How Scientist Soldiers Are Directly Aiding Overseas Military Efforts

Although most people think of scientists as people in lab coats working in University labs and teaching college courses, scientists overall apply their skills to a wide range of jobs and careers.  One of those careers I, and probably most people, don't often associate with scientists is that of a soldier.  Although we don't hear about them much, soldier-scientists are playing important roles in the US military efforts overseas.  Science recently published a relatively brief article about soldier-scientists in Afghanistan, and specifically the experiences of Dr. Alexander Stewart, a glacier morphologist and soldier-scientist of the U.S. Army’s 143rd Infantry Detachment.  Here I am going to just briefly highlight some of the points I found interesting, and bring up some discussion points that I think are worth talking about.  The citation for the article can be found in my works cited, and it is definitely worth a read.

Alexander Stewart (Geologist) examining a repaired wall
at the Band-e Sultan Dam in Ghanzi.  Taken from ref [1].
As many of us are probably already aware, the war in Afghanistan has required enormous combat efforts, but has also required a focus on teaching Afghan citizens and helping them rely more on their government and less on the Taliban.  While this has been done in many different ways, one of the approaches has incorporated the expertise of PhD scientists.  The soldier-scientists advise military leaders, as well as aid Afghan citizens in building and farming projects, projects for promoting education, and projects involving climate research.  According to the article (quoting Stewart), this is the first time soldier scientists have been deployed in noncombat missions in a war zone.