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Researchers, assemble!

Check out these ASU panels at Phoenix Comicon.
ASU researchers examine the science of sci-fi at Phoenix Comicon.
May 31, 2016

ASU scientists to examine realities of science fiction at Phoenix Comicon

From the mutant-making X-genes and Tony Stark’s gold-titanium alloy suit to Jedi lightsabers and Star Trek’s alien races, science — or at least the idea of it — has long been a staple of comic books, movies and TV shows. Even Superman, a font of impossible powers, offers pseudo-scientific reasons for what he can do, mostly involving the differences between his home planet Krypton and Earth.

But how much of that “science” is real? Could be real? Has any sort of grounding in reality?

Scientists and researchers from Arizona State University will answer these and other questions the first week of June at the annual Phoenix Comicon as part of the event’s science track.

They will have their work cut out for them. Ever since Lev Horodyskyj, a senior instructional designer in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, “took it from the grave” four years ago, Comicon’s science programming has boomed in popularity. About 150 people attended each science panel last year and 120 researchers participated, according to Bekah Brubaker, one of the event’s volunteer organizers.

“We want to get people to realize that science is everywhere,” she said. This includes her own hands. Brubaker’s long, pointed nails are painted black and red, with one finger on each hand decorated with an atom and another with a DNA strand.

An ASU alumna and molecular biologist, Brubaker recently gave a talk on the science of villainy. She thought it was appropriate given that her field frequently falls into pop-culture disrepute — think of the experimental serums that create some of the superhero world’s most-wanted.

Comi-what?

A comic con, short for comic convention, is an event where artists, actors, writers, media producers and directors, businesses and fans of all geeky flavors come together to celebrate and promote popular culture.

As the name suggests, comic books are a prominent part of a comic con, but the bigger events also highlight novels, TV shows, movies and games in seemingly infinite subgenres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Many attendees come elaborately dressed as their favorite characters. You might find Batman sharing a pizza with the Joker in the food court while a horde of zombies lurch toward the next anime panel.

In 2015, Phoenix Comicon welcomed more than 75,000 attendees. Putting the focus on the science (or lack thereof) in pop fiction is one way the organizers in Phoenix have put a unique spin on our native con. With the event’s proximity to ASU, the university’s researchers are heavily represented on the science panels, but they are also joined by scientists and scholars from Arizona’s other public universities, medical facilities, professional organizations and more.

This year is the first in which the event’s science panels are operating as a separate entity, giving the event the distinction of being the only U.S. comic con to have a dedicated science track. It is also the only one to offer professional development certificates to K-12 educators, with the approval of the Arizona Department of Education. That’s because a talk may ostensibly be about how gamma radiation could not actually create the Incredible Hulk, but in the process of hearing physicists debunk Bruce Banner’s scientific mishaps you can learn a lot about what gamma radiation actually can do.

The education is not just for the attendees, however.

“The goal is to promote science literacy and science communication,” Brubaker said. That means literacy for the public and communication for the scientists themselves. “We want balance, not just the big guys on the panels.”

Ironclad science

Heni Ben Amor, a manga enthusiast and roboticist at ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, will be participating in a panel on the science behind Iron Man. He is also bringing one or two students with him to help them hone the ability to convey their work to the public.

“Whether it's in the beginning, when you communicate your ideas and try to get feedback from your peers and reviews, or whether it's at the end after you finish the experiment and you want to convey why this experiment and the results are important and how they fit into the global picture — all of that is a communication process,” he said. “I hope that in this less formal setup, students can learn that without any hesitation.”

portrait of man next to manga drawing
Heni Ben Amor, an associate professor of engineering at ASU, builds robots and will participate in a panel about the science of Iron Man at Phoenix Comicon in June. He also enjoys reading and drawing manga, and produced the illustration on the right.

 

Of course, the learning opportunity is not the only draw for Ben Amor and his students.

“To be honest,” he said, “it's fun and it's cool.”

Ben Amor’s work is pretty cool, too. He explores machine learning and human-robot cooperation and was inspired to pursue a robotics career in part through his love of comics and sci-fi. In particular, he was influenced by the manga “Grendizer,” about a scientist who builds robots to protect the Earth from invasion, and — unsurprisingly — the “Iron Man” movie.

“That movie had a very strong effect on me and a lot of other robotic scientists. Because it very nicely depicted a situation where robotics, virtual reality, human-machine interaction — all of this came together in order to create one vision of how these can be integrated together, which is very appealing and makes sense,” Ben Amor said. “Quite often I actually motivate my talks with scenes from ‘Iron Man.’ Even in my scientific talks, I would basically start with a video from Tony Stark and say, ‘OK, how do we get there? What do we need as a technology?’”

This year, the science-track organizers have planned about 45 panels. In addition to “Science of Iron Man: The Real Tony Stark,” there will be “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: The Science of Jaws,” “Human Enhancement in Captain America: Civil War,” “Eye in the Sky: The Science of Drones,” and “X-Men, Mutations and You,” to name just a few.

See more videos of Heni Ben Amors' robots in action herehere and here.

The most foreign language

The organizers are also diversifying the panel experts and topics by bringing in more humanities and social science scholars. This year, such panels include “Good and Evil: What Science and Humanism Have to Say About How to Save the World” and “Qapla’! How to Make Your Own Language.”

In the latter panel, Carrie Gillon, an ASU assistant professor of English, will talk about alien languages and what they might look like.

“Language is biological,” said Gillon. “Languages share certain properties in common. There are many rules that language could have, but doesn't. If you were asking a question, you don't just reverse the word order. No language does that to create a question. But maybe an alien language would. Maybe aliens have different brains and have different ways of structuring their language. And maybe we wouldn't even recognize it.”

Like Ben Amor, Gillion has invited two students from her language-creation class to join her. In the class, students are required to create their own languages, a la the master language-smith himself, J. R. R. Tolkien. This year, the diverse creations included a Sith language, a goblin language and an Underground Railroad language.

Gillon says that participating in Comicon is not just about answering people’s burning questions about Klingon vs. QuenyaKlingon is the language of a proud, violent warrior species on "Star Trek." Quenya is one of the languages spoken by the Elves in J. R. R. Tolkien's world.. It also benefits her field.

“For one thing, it's one way of getting linguistics out there. Because for a long time, nobody even knew what linguistics was and it's just now becoming popular enough to be in TV shows. So it's a good way to get the field out there, get people excited about language and to dispel some myths,” she said, adding, “But also it's just kind of fun to hang out with other nerds.”

Nerding out with Gillon is certainly fun. For instance, she offers sage advice on how to become a fellow “Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan,” noting that the secret is to skip the first season and start with the second. She also points out the show’s linguistic value, with clever wordplay and a Shakespearian tendency toward interesting lexical creations. 

If you too would like to get your geek on with folks like Gillon and Ben Amor, assemble your posse of preferred superheroes and head over to the Phoenix Convention Center on June 2–5 (find more details, including scheduling and tickets, at phoenixcomicon.com). Even if you aren’t much of a comic book fan, you’re sure to enjoy the science. Because science is cool. Just like bowties

 

Written by Erin Barton, Knowledge Enterprise Development

Top photo: Spider-Man and a Tusken Raider pose for a selfie in front of the Millennium Falcon at Phoenix Comicon 2015. Photo by Francis Farrelly/Phoenix Comicon under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

 
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Superbug: What you need to know

Is this new superbug the end of the world? No, says ASU researcher.
May 31, 2016

ASU researcher explains how realistic all those "end of the world" headlines are

Last week the Department of Defense issued a report detailing the case of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman who had a rare E. coli infection resistant to all antibiotics, including colistin, which is a harsh drug used only on the sickest patients.

The superbug is the first known case of its kind in the United States, and the report sparked strong reactions. The concern was that traits of the infection could jump to other bacteria that respond only to colistin, creating an unstoppable superbug.

ASU Now talked with Dr. Shelley E. Haydel, an associate professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and a researcher in the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, about how realistic the threat is.

Question: The World Health Organization said the superbug is the biggest threat to global health.

Answer: I wouldn’t say that. A couple of the headlines were quite misleading. I don’t remember all of them, but they were all —

Q: We’re going to die.

A: “We’re going to die and it’s not treatable.” That’s not true. If I could explain as simply as possible what was in the paper that came out that caused all these headlines, and why it’s not the end of the world as we know it related to microbiotic resistance, and why some of the information from that report is important, and why it’s not the end of the world.

Everyone has a chromosome, including you and me. Bacteria have these little small plasmid DNA molecules, separate from the chromosome. These can be passed into another bacterium. The chromosome can’t, but these can be passed easily. This is one of the ways antibiotic resistance is spreading rapidly.

What this paper showed is that one of the last-resort antibiotics, which is called colistin, for the first time they found the resistance gene for colistin on a plasmid. Previously the resistance gene had always been in the chromosome. So, mutations that occur in the chromosome, I can’t pass that. I can’t pass that to anyone, but these plasmids I can.

ASU associate professor Shelley E. Haydel
ASU researcher Shelley E. Haydel. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

 

One of the reports actually described colistin resistance in CRE. CRE is one of the big issues in antibiotic-resistance bacteria because of this first C, which stands for carbapenem. Carbapenem is part of a group of antibiotics that are reserved for people in ICU, who are really, really sick.

Q: Heavy-duty stuff.

A: Heavy-duty stuff, and we really didn’t see that before the last five to 10 years. It was our best antibiotics that work against a lot of different bacteria, so save those for the sickest people. Now we have resistance to carbapenems. So what we’re seeing in the carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae — which is what the E stands for — this is the only antibiotic that would work for patients with CRE.

Now, this antibiotic was taken off the market 50 or 60 years ago because it destroyed your kidneys. Now we’ve gone back to that antibiotic because it was the last remaining antibiotic that could be used to treat patients with CRE. Have we seen patients with CRE and colistin resistance? Yes. The strain in the Pennsylvania woman, she was not resistant to carbapenems. Is it bad? Yes, because we’re seeing colistin. And it’s on a plasmid. Could that plasmid get into CRE streams? Absolutely.

So, a little bit of issue related to the headlines: It wasn’t colistin and colistin resistance in a CRE strand of bacteria; there are antibiotics that were still active against her infection. It’s the colistin resistance on that plasmid, meaning eventually we’re going to see it.

Q: Has this come about by overprescribing antibiotics, or people becoming more resistant by having more antibiotics in their systems?

A: Both. Antibiotic stewardship is that basically people demand antibiotics for viral infections, people demand antibiotics for everything, and it’s a matter of not prescribing antibiotics when they’re not needed. We have millions of infections each year that aren’t caused by bacteria but antibiotics are administered. It’s problems associated with the genetic passage of DNA between the organisms; the best way to confer resistance is to pass a little DNA. Exposure of the organisms to antibiotics used in livestock — it’s a combination of all of those things.

Q: That’s true; they’re pumping cows and chickens full of everything.

A: They’re healthier and they’re fatter and they’re bigger and they make more money from the meat.

Q: So it’s not all the fault of doctors? We can lay some of the blame on farmers as well?

A: Farmers and patients. One of the stories I read in the past was a mom or dad who has been dealing with a baby who has been crying for two weeks because they have an ear infection or a viral infection and they’re at their wit’s end and they go in and demand antibiotics. The justification is that it’s a viral infection but maybe that baby will get a secondary infection, so here’s your prescription for antibiotics. Part of it is to get that patient out of the door. They think it’s going to help, and most of the time you ask that mom or dad did it help, and they’re going to say yes. Did it help? Probably not, because it never was a bacterial infection.

But that’s a placebo effect on mom or dad. Eventually the viral infection in children, babies, adults, you’re going to get better over time. It might’ve been that two-week time when it was about to get better and the antibiotics just happened to be available at that given time. That’s a big education point. You hear about it every time it’s in the news: Antibiotics do not work against viral infections. If you have a cold, don’t take an antibiotic. If you have the flu and feel awful, antibiotics won’t work.

Q: So your coach’s old advice wasn’t so bad after all — spit on it and take a lap.

A: That’s right.

Q: What’s going to be a solution? A bigger gun?

A: Inevitably a new drug — a new miracle drug that will generate resistance to it.

 

Top photo: A closeup of E. coli, which is an example of Enterobacteriaceae, a normal part of the human gut bacteria, that can become carbapenem-resistant. Carbapenems are a class of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502