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CBS Faculty and Students WOW at Comicon

June 13, 2017

Once again, Center for Biology and Society faculty and graduate students tapped into their inner geek and presented to full rooms at Comicon!  CBS Faculty Matt Chew's  panels covered aliens, tweeting, and what to do if you're lost in the desert. CBS PhD Student Aireona Raschke participated in two science panels covering such topics as how biodiversity conservation is represented in the movies as well as how the Aliens movie monster relates to modern day bugs. CBS PhD Student Christian Ross presented on the "Science of the Lambs" and Erica O'Neil, the community engagment lead with the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics presented on such topics as Legion, the super-hero and mental illness as well as how leeches and mercury may still offer some medicinal benefits. Read on for the full descriptions!

When Aliens Attack: The Science of Extraterrestrial Invasion     
Panelists: Matt Chew, Nicole Mathwich (UA grad student; Arizona State Museum), Michael Moran (ASU grad student; School of Molecular Sciences), Dante Lauretta (UA; Lunar and Planetary Lab). Each presenter chose a specific classic sci-fi invasion story to explain some aspects of what kinds of problems invaders would face. Matt Chew began with "War of the Worlds," showing how in 1898 H.G. Wells used  Darwinian principles and some then-familiar stories of real introduced species to show how Martians would be ecologically maladapted to life on Earth. Nicole Mathwich began with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to suggest that replacing or co-opting humans one by one was a workable strategy, then showed how Spanish missionary Eusebio Kino had done something analogous by turning members of the Tohono O'odham tribe into cattle ranchers. Michael Moran used "The Thing" as a point of departure for discussing how alien organisms adapted to re-developing their anatomies based on terrestrial patterns had (at least) some precedent in the behavior of known cell types. Dante Lauretta began with the 1985 novel "Footfall" to evaluate the possibility of using asteroids as impact weapons. Lauretta directs the ongoing OSIRIS-REx mission to collect and return samples from the near-Earth asteroid "Bennu."
Send us a Tweet: Birdwatching in Arizona 
Panelists: Matt Chew, Cathy Wise and Steve Praeger (Audubon Arizona), Kathy Burdick (Tucson). Each presenter chose a set of pop culture bird references as a point of departure for discussing Arizona birds and where to look for them. Cathy Wise showed how certain birds seemed to be well adapted to defeating particular comic book villains. Matt Chew discussed bird and especially crow symbolism in Japan, then talked about crows and various other black birds found in Arizona. Steve Praeger connected the different colored "found feathers" from the classic role playing game "The Legend of Zelda" to Arizona birds they might belong to, and used those examples to discuss bird conservation. Kathy Burdick used American cartoon birds (Tweety, Woody Woodpecker, Roadrunner) to talk about recognizing common birds and attracting them to backyards.
Sandworms and Sarlaccs: The Science of Desert Survival 
Panelists: Matt Chew, Charis Royal (ASU Biosecurity grad student; concurrent UA Public Health grad student), John Cornelius (PhD candidate, ASU SOLS). Panelists briefly discussed adaptations for desert survival in plants (Chew) Humans (Royal) and tortoises (Cornelius). Most of the session was devoted to addressing audience questions about practical strategies for coping with Sonoran desert conditions, focusing mainly on preparedness. 
Conservation in Princess Mononoke 
Aireona's first panel hosted a discussion with the audience about the lessons that the movie Princess Mononoke teaches about biodiversity conservation. Panelists discussed key characters from the movie and their perspective on the relationship between humans and nature. Aireona discussed the "untrammeled wilderness" standpoint of the movie's namesake, and covered some of the history of conservation biology's ways of dealing with humans in nature. This panel was extremely well attended, filling the room!
By tooth and by claw: The Science of Monsters
Aireona's second panel examined the history and definition of monsters, and then covered several case studies of monsters in order to teach the audience about culture, archeology, and biology. Aireona covered the connections of the famous movie monster, the xenomorph from the Aliens franchise, and discussed the parallels that this monster has to real species such as parasitic wasps, and several social insects. This panel also filled the room to capacity at 144 and involved audience participation throughout.
Science of the Lambs: How Domestication Shapes Life
While most of the panel focused on traditional breeding techniques both for agriculture and laboratory experiments, Christian Ross cast vision forward, looking at genome editing technology as the future of breeding and domestication. Ross stated, “Genome editing, and CRISPR-Cas 9 in particular, is a real game changer for animal and plant breeding. More than ever before, CRISPR-Cas9 enables quicker, cheaper, and more efficient manipulation of genomes in quite precise ways.” In his presentation, Ross detailed two real-world example cases of genome editing in agriculture: the development of white mushrooms resistant to browning and polled (hornless) cattle. “In both cases,” Ross explained, “CRISPR technology has enabled researchers to alter organism traits without introducing any DNA from different species—a marked difference from many other common methods of genome manipulation. As such, these changes, in principle, could eventually be made through traditional breeding methods. Essentially, CRISPR is speeding up the process of traditional breeding. What would have taken traditional breeding years or decades to accomplish can now be done in the lab in a matter of months.”

No Controversy to Teach: The Science of Global Warming, Vaccines, GMOs, and Evolution
O'Neil's panel focused on the scientific basis for the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). O'Neil explained that despite their modification, GMO products do not pose any greater risk to human health and safety than their non-GMO counterparts. Over the past twenty years, thousands of scientific studies on the health safety of GMOs have overwhelmingly supported that conclusion, including a comprehensive report on GMOs from the US National Academies released just last year. “The science is in. GMOs have been studied widely and in-depth, and the consensus is that they are no riskier than traditional crops,” Ross said. He also emphasized that while there is scientific consensus about the healthfulness and safety of GMO products, that does not mean that there are not broader societal implications that should also be considered. “The controversy of GMOs is not just about their safety, but also about how they are perceived and integrated into society. The ethics of the business practices of corporations like Monsanto, economic outcomes for small-scale agriculture in the US and abroad, food accessibility, justice, and security are also legitimate loci of controversy and conversation.” Ross concluded that “it is important that we recognize that though the questions and concerns about GMOs need to start with the scientific facts, they cannot end with them alone.”

Bones: The Real Science of Forensic Anthropology
Judging by worn down teeth and the curvature of the spine this skeleton must have been a scientist working in a lab, as only those who work in excess of 80 hours hunched over a bench grinding their teeth in frustration develop these features. As Bones enters its final season, O'Neil discussed how accurately crime dramas reflect forensic anthropology.

Breaking Bad: The Science of Cooking 
Why does searing food make it taste so much better? What the heck is the difference between baking powder and baking soda? In this panel, Erica O'Neil will discussed what different cooking techniques actually do to the food we love...mmmm food, yummy yummy food.

Filth, Disease, and Stink: Science and Medicine in the Victorian Era
Leeches. Mercury. Homeopathy. All these were tools used by doctors in the Victorian Era. Erica O'Neil discussed why physicians at the time thought they worked, and whether there is any value in these treatments today.

Brain Research and "Legion": Super Heroes Face Mental Illness
The protagonist in Legion is an extraordinarily powerful mutant who struggles with mental illness. In this panel, O'Neil discussed the strange world of the brain and mental health and how well the show portrays it.

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