So begins National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris in his chapter, “Broken Culture," in his newly published book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions.
Darwin was driven by curiosity; he didn't start out with a “coherent hypothesis,” Harris says. Plus, Darwin "had no need to hustle for money,” and "he was in no hurry to publish his discoveries.”
Today the “high pressure of competition can tempt even the best scientists into dangerous territory,” Harris warns in his 278-page book.
You can hear what Harris says about sloppy science/faulty research when he travels from his home in Washington, D.C. to the University of California, Davis, campus to deliver a Storer Lecture.
Harris will speak on “Common Errors that Bedevil Biomedical Research and How to Fix Them,” from 4:10 to 5 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 25 in the UC Davis Student Community Center. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow the lecture.
The lectureship, established in 1960, is funded through a gift from Professor Tracy I. Storer and Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer to bring eminent biologists to the UC Davis campus. Speakers have included Nobel laureates, members of the National Academy of Science and acclaimed authors in the life sciences and medicine.
“Richard Harris has written a very important and unsettling book based on his careful investigation of the biomedical research enterprise,” said Mark Winey, distinguished professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and dean of the College of Biological Sciences, UC Davis, who is hosting the journalist. “We can expect an intriguing and thought provoking lecture.”
In his book, Harris relates that American taxpayers spend $30 billion annually funding biomedical research. “We all rely on biomedical research for new treatments and cures,” Harris points out. “But this critical enterprise is not in the best of health itself. Most experimental treatments fail. One reason is that the underlying research does not hold up to scrutiny. Scientists find that far too often that they are unable to repeat experiments that other researchers have carried out.”
By some estimates, half of the results from these studies can't be replicated elsewhere—the science is simply wrong, Harris asserts.
The national award-winning science journalist, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has covered science, medicine and the environment for NPR Radio since 1986. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a bachelor's degree in biology, he began his journalism career as a reporter for the Livermore (Calif.) Tri-Valley Herald. He later joined the San Francisco Examiner as a science writer. He is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and the Northern California Science Writers' Association.
We just finished reading Rigor Mortis today. It's not only an eye opener, but a call to action. It's as easy to read as a well-documented and detailed newspaper investigative piece, complete with patient and researcher interviews and anecdotes. It zeroes in on “the constant scramble for research dollars” and the fact that scientists' “promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries.” Sadly, it's often quantity over quality in the "publish-or-perish" world of academia.
Harris writes about egregious research, targeting cancer, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, diabetes, and other diseases--diseases that can and do affect us all, either through taxpayer funding or personal/family/friend experiences.
Charles Darwin was in no hurry to publish his discoveries. Neither should today's researchers. We can and must do better.
(Editor's Note: The presentation will be recorded for later viewing. Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is coordinating the Storer Lectureships in Life Sciences for the academic year. She may be reached at email@example.com)
You've heard of "musical chairs," that anxiety-driven elimination game involving chairs, music and players. When the music stops and a chair is eliminated, the players race for the remaining seats. No one wants to be the first loser.
Well, insects, too, play "musical chairs," but with flowers as chairs. The music: the flapping or buzzing of insect wings.
Such was the case this week as two syrphid flies, aka hover flies or flower flies, kept jockeying for the same Mexican sunflower blossom (Tithonia rotundifolia).
It was a close contest between the black hover fly or Mexican cactus fly (Copestylum mexicanum) and the hover fly (probably Eristalis tenax), which is often mistaken for a honey bee. Neither wanted to be the first loser.
Who won? Neither. They abandoned the "fight" and took flight, each heading for a different blossom to forage for more nectar and pollen.
Life is like that.
If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.
She's right. Just as birds maintain a "home tweet home," honey bees and honey connoisseurs insist on a "home sweet home."
But how much do we know about honey? We know that European colonists brought the honey bee to Jamestown in 1622 and we know that a San Jose beekeeper brought the honey bee to California in 1853.
Harris, quoting from the National Honey Board, defined honey as "the substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees."
She went on to say that:
- A honey bee gathers nectar from an assortment of flowers. Nectar is very high moisture--about 80 percent water.
- The worker (bee) drinks the nectar through her proboscis, eventually filling up her crop or honey sac.
- Once the sac is full, she will return to the hive. While in flight, the nectar is mixed with the enzyme invertase.
- Upon her return, the forager gives her nectar to the house bee.
- The bee actively engaged in processing nectar pumps out the contents of her honey sac into a flat drop on the underside of her proboscis. She draws it up and repeats the process for about 15 to 20 minutes.
The Honey and Pollination Center is hosting a Honey Sensory Experience Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11 at UC Davis so you can learn all about honey, taste honey varietals from all over the world, and hear what researchers are doing.
The all-day course, to take place in the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science's Sensory Building on Old Davis Road, is for beekeepers, bakers, mead makers, honey lovers, packers, importers, professional buyers, honey producers, and "anyone who wants to gain expertise in the aroma of honey analysis," said Harris. "Over two days, expert teachers will guide participants through a unique tasting and educational odyssey."
For the past nine months, the center has been working with a team of sensory experts and trained tasters in the sensory lab in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. The panel analyzed the flavor, aroma, color, pollen and nutrition of three varietal honeys with samples produced across the nation. The center's goal is to create a description of each varietal honey's unique characteristics.
“We have about 300 varietal honeys here in the United States,” Harris pointed out. “Many aren't produced each year. And some years actually have a better crop than others. Our center's goal is to help consumers understand what each varietal honey should really taste like.”
Well-known varietals include orange blossom and clover honeys, although these are rarely pure varietals, Harris said.
“According to current honey labeling laws, the varietal listed on the label need only be the predominant floral source. Simply, a blended honey of 23 percent alfalfa, 25 percent wildflower and 25 percent cotton with 27 percent orange blossom can be labeled ‘Orange Blossom Honey.' Swap out the orange blossom for clover and you have a new varietal.”
The Honey and Pollination Center, at the forefront of honey sensory research, developed the first-ever Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel. The wheel has been featured on National Public Radio, at the Smithsonian, and at tastings and specialty food conferences across the country.
In addition to Harris, the presenters will include Orietta Gianjorio, member of the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey; Hanne Sivertsen, sensory researcher, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology; Amy Myrdal Miller, certified nutritionist and owner of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, Sacramento; Joyce Schlacter, certified quality control specialist and director of food safety and quality, Smitty Honey, Iowa; chef Mani Niall, owner of Sweet Bar Bakery, Oakland, Calif. and Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño, based in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Niall, known as “Baker to the Stars,” served as a chef to Michael Jackson and a chef for the National Honey Board in the 1990s. He is the author of the book, Covered in Honey: The Amazing Flavors of Varietal Honey.
Miller, a UC Davis graduate, is an “amazing nutritionist,” Harris said. She is a farmer's daughter, a highly regarded public speaker, published author, and founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, a privately-held agriculture, food, and culinary communications firm.
The course, which includes breakfast and lunch each day, is $625. To access the agenda and to register, see http://honey.ucdavis.edu/events/honey-sensory-experience-an-introduction.
Bees and blister beetles, yes.
We remember writing about her work in April of 2013 when she addressed the Nor Cal Entomology Society (now folded) about her research on how blister beetle nest parasites cooperate to mimic the sex pheromone of a digger bee. She had just returned from the Mojave National Preserve, tracking the solitary bee Habropoda pallida and its nest parasite, a blister beetle, Meloe franciscanus.
Fascinating research! Saul-Gershenz, who grew up in New York, studies the chemical ecology and parasite-host interactions of solitary native bees and their nest parasites across the western U. S., including the coastal sand dunes of Oregon and the Mojave Desert in south-central California.
"The solitary bee is the first native bee to emerge in the spring on the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve," she told us. “The adult beetles emerge on the dunes in the winter months at Kelso Dunes and feed exclusively on the leaves of Astragalus lentiginosus which leafs out in January."
The bee's emergence is generally synchronized with the onset of blooms of the Borrego milkvetch, which is the sole host plant of adults of the blister beetle at Kelso Dunes.
Basically, the larvae of the parasitic blister beetle produce a chemical signal or allomone, similar to that of a female bee's pheromone to lure males to the larval aggregation. The larvae attach to the male bee on contact and then transfer to the female during mating. The end result: the larvae wind up in the nest of a female bee, where they eat the nest provisions and likely the host egg.
Leslie is now Dr. Saul-Gershenz. She received her doctorate in entomology in May 2017. And on Wednesday, Oct. 18, she will share her research at her exit seminar, "Host Range Evolution of the Bee Parasite Meloe franciscanus," set from 4:10 to 5 p.m. in 122 Briggs Hall, Kleiber Hall Drive.
"We report that different populations of M. franciscanus exhibit local adaptations that mimic both the behaviors and the chemical composition of the sex pheromones of locally available bee host species," she writes in her abstract. "We compared a population of M. franciscanus larvae, known as triungulins, parasitizing nests of Habropoda miserabilis (Hymenoptera: Apidae) from the coastal sand dunes of Oregon with a population parasitizing the congener H. pallida in the Mojave Desert in south-central California. We determined that M. franciscanus populations are the same species using molecular analyses.
Working in collaboration with the Neal Williams bee lab and the Steve Nadler molecular lab in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, she and chemical ecologist Jocelyn Millar at UC Riverside found that multiple populations of the blister beetle Meloe franciscanus are locally adapted to different bee hosts in different allopatric populations. (Professor Williams is a pollination ecologist, and Nadler is a nematologist and chair of the department.)
The UC Davis evolutionary ecologist also explored which functional traits of hosts are useful for predicting parasite host range. In another study, she brought together a dream team of bee biologists and received funding from the Bureau of Land Management to study the impact of utility-scale solar development on desert bees. This study documented that these landscapes are biologically rich, even in drought years, and contain a minimum of 114 species of bees including six undescribed species of bee.
The significance of her work?
"Our research has added to the understanding of the communication signals of bees in the genus Habropoda," she related. "We now know that they use long-chain hydrocarbons for the female sex attractant and vary the position of the double bounds in different components and vary proportions of these components to avoid cross attraction among closely related species. Parasites co-opt this communication channel to deceive male bees in the Meloe-Habropoda system.
"In our host functional trait research we show that annual host abundance and host abundance from year to year, as well as local temporal overlap are highly predictive of host range."
Results on the impact of utility-scale solar development on desert bees showed high bee species diversity in the Mojave and western Sonoran region. "This suggests the importance of careful regional planning and additional research to protect this area of significant floral and fauna biodiversity," she said.
Future plans? To continue her research.
Leslie Saul-Gershenz, recipient of numerous grants and author of a number of publications ranging from peer-reviewed papers to books, is the co-founder of the Bay Area-based SaveNature.Org and director of Research and Conservation (1988 to present). The international conservation consortium works with partners to protect ecosystems around the world.
She is also a 2004 graduate of The Bee Course, an intensive 10-day workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. One of the instructors is Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, also one of her many collaborators.
Among her other current collaborators: scientists Lynn Kimsey, Neal Williams, Tom Zavortink, Rebecca Hernandez, all of UC Davis; Terry Griswold, USDA-ARS, Bee Biology Lab; Monica Geber, Cornell University; and John Ascher, National University of Singapore.
Her next presentations of her research will be at the Entomological Society of America's annual conference, "Ignite, Inspire, Innovate," scheduled Nov. 5-8 in Denver,Colo., and the California Native Plant Society Conservation Conference, scheduled Feb. 1-3, 2018 in Los Angeles.