Week in Review: Questions

UNC-TV Science Week In Review 

UNC-TV Science Week in Review: July 4, 2013


Smartphones are great, right? Whether you’re just killing time browsing Wikipedia or watching the stock market with bated breath, the information is just a click away. You just have to ask a question.

Science, alas, is not as simple as using a touchscreen, but in the end it boils down to the same thing: a question. Whether they involve the nature of the universe or the nature of our belly-buttons, those questions lead to answers that help us understand. But the process always begins by asking . . .

Why Won’t It Stop Raining?

Have you been outside lately? Me neither. This week brought a close to one of the wettest Junes in North Carolina history (we got edged out by 2006). Chapel Hill got slapped with 5.13 inches of rain on Sunday with 9.24 inches in the last week. Stanly, Cabarrus and Montgomery counties saw four times their usual rainfall in June with more than 15 inches of rain in some spots.

Why has North Carolina been getting hit so hard? What meteorologists call an upper trough has been sitting to our west. By causing changes in the wind, upper troughs cause pockets of low atmospheric pressure to form to their east. Lower pressures mean clouds and rain. Our upper trough has been abnormally strong, keeping North Carolina’s pressure low. But there is relief in sight. That upper trough is weakening and a high pressure system called the Azores or Bermuda High, which permanently sits over the Atlantic ocean is making its way westward toward us.

The rain could have been much worse, as well. The rainfall record for 24 hours was set in Mitchell County in 1916. They got 22.22 inches in a day!

What if We Used Different Labels?

On the subject of making it rain, RTI announced Wednesday that if vaccine manufacturers in the US switched to marking vaccines with 2D barcodes instead of labels for record-keeping, doctors and manufacturers could save a combined $310 million by 2023.

Currently, the Federal Government requires doctors to keep extensive records of their vaccines, including their National Drug Codes and lot numbers. Doctors are also recommended to record the expiration dates. A linear bar code, like what you see on your groceries, can only record one of those so nurses have to manually record the other information, which takes time and can lead to inaccuracies. A 2D barcode could record all this information.

RTI conducted a study of 3,669 pediatric and family medicine practices and 11 drug companies to see how many doctors would use the 2D barcodes. They also calculated the costs and benefits, based on time, cost of scanners, and the costs of printing 2D barcodes rather than the linear ones and sticky labels now found on vaccines.

They found that 60% of doctors and seven out of 11 manufacturers would make the change. The final numbers are based on some assumptions of technology cost and do not include pharmacies, but their estimates could mean some important changes to an expensive industry.

How Are Brains Built?

Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are made of cells. These cells, called neurons, form pathways so they can pass electrical and chemical signals from one cell to the next. If the neurons aren’t in the right place, signals get interrupted and brain messages aren’t stored and sent properly.

Researchers from UNC Chapel Hill investigated how developing brains create pathways. A special type of brain cell called a radial glial cell forms a scaffold in developing brains. New neurons rely on this scaffold to find their place in a pathway.

The researchers found that when a gene called Arl13B malfunctions, radial glial cells go blind. They can’t coordinate with each other to build the scaffold and as a result the neurons aren’t placed correctly. Misplacement of neurons is the fundamental issue in many neurodevelopmental disorders, like Joubert syndrome. By identifying one of the causes of these disorders, scientists can begin to search for potential treatments.

How Can You Tell a Person From a Computer?

Artists, poets and philosophers have explored the question of what defines humans. What is it that sets us apart from the Earth or nature or animals? Now scientists at NC State are taking a crack at that question as it applies to problem-solving. Specifically, what sets humans apart from computers?

The scientists, led by Robert St. Amant and David L. Roberts, had 179 humans and their computer program, called ACT-R, play a puzzle game. In the game, pairs of matching cards lie on a table facedown and scrambled. You flip two cards at a time and if they match you leave them face up, if they don’t you flip them back over. You win when you find all the pairs.

Both the people and ACT-R played the game several times: sometimes going for speed, others for accuracy. The researchers were looking for differences in how the people and the computer made decisions, the goal being to find something distinctly human in how people solved the problems.

The end goal of this research is to apply the “human” decision profile to security programs. This would allow them to recognize online “bots” that can mimic human behavior to access private information.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.