Letter from Editor-in-Chief

Since March 18, 2018, ISR has been sent out every week during the school year featuring new discoveries, ideas, opinions, and advice from the scientific community. From the science of science and microwaving grapes to CRISPR controversies and how gut microbiome has an impact on the brain, an array of inspiring and exciting materials has been covered in our weekly issues. I started ISR in the hope of bringing information from the edge of human knowledge into ISP community and inspire people to not only see what's out there but also get more excited about science. College can be so busy sometimes that we forget why we are here and stop feeling our passion. Hopefully, ISR can rescue us out of the daily dullness and help us to think about the big world around us.

I can't believe that it has been more than a year since I started this. I've had a lot of fun thinking and writing these dispatches and getting feedback from you guys! I'm also fortunate to have other people joining along the way. Writing on ISR not only motivate people to follow science news and think about science but also help people to improve their communication skills. A community effort to share and present stories will benefit everyone in ISP. 

As I'm graduating this week, I will step down as the Editor-in-Chief of ISR but will remain as an editor contributing to the journal regularly for the next year. Rossoneri Jing (EC18) will become the new Editor-in-Chief and run the journal with his funny fonts. If you have any questions or want to join ISR, feel free to contact either of us. Have a good summer! I will see y'all over the summer or in September! Also to EC19, welcome to Northwestern and ISP!
Yay we made it!
Shiwei Wang (EC16)

Why would people confess to crimes they did not commit?

In law practice, confessions have always been the "gold standard" indicator of guilt and would sometimes override hard evidence by misleading people to interpret the evidence in the wrong way. However, it is not rare for people to confess crimes that they did not commit under interrogation.
Saul Kassin, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, decided to study such behaviors and find out the reasons behind it. He designed a “computer crash” experiment and performed it on multiple volunteers. The volunteers were told that hitting the Alt key would trigger a computer crash. However, the computers were programmed to crash regardless of what keys were hit. Then the volunteers would be accused of hitting the Alt key. At first, almost nobody confessed. Then, Kassin started to add variables based on what he and other researchers had learned about actual police interrogation tactics.
In reality, sometimes the police would falsely tell a suspect they have witnesses to the crime—causing a suspect to doubt their own version of events. (Under U.S. law, police are permitted to lie.) To simulate this, he asked a confederate to claim that he/she had seen the volunteer hitting the wrong key. Those students confessed at more than double the rate of students paired with witnesses who said they hadn't seen anything. Under some circumstances, nearly every student facing a false witness confessed. Some students ended up believing they really had caused the crash, coming up with explanations such as, "I hit the wrong key with the side of my hand." So deeply had they internalized their guilt that some refused to believe Kassin when he told them the truth.
Moreover, another thing the police usually do in reality is to bluff. For example, an interrogator might tell a suspect that they were waiting for lab results on DNA from the crime scene. In Kassin’s experiment, in addition to accusing the students, the experimenter said that all the keystrokes had been recorded on the server and would soon be examined. The false confession rate soared. Post-experiment questionnaires revealed that many of the bluffed volunteers signed a confession to get out of the room to avoid the stressful situation and assumed they'd later be cleared. The volunteers were fine after the experiment, but in reality, the falsely accused person might have to wait in jail for years before they could be finally cleared.

(The picture above: on the left is Saul Kassin; all the people in the poster on the right have confessed a crime which they did not commit)

Inca civilization was better at skull surgery than Civil War doctors, World Neurosurgery

Cranial surgery without modern anesthesia and antibiotics may sound like a death sentence. But trepanation—the act of drilling, cutting, or scraping a hole in the skull for medical reasons—was practiced for thousands of years from ancient Greece to pre-Columbian Peru. Not every patient survived. But many did, including more than 100 subjects of the Inca Empire. A new study of their skulls and hundreds of others from pre-Columbian Peru suggests the success rates of premodern surgeons there was shockingly high: up to 80% during the Inca era, compared with just 50% during the American Civil War some 400 years later.

David Kushner, a neurologist at the University of Miami in Florida teamed up with John Verano, a bioarchaeologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Anne Titelbaum, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Arizona in Phoenix to examine trepanation’s success rate across different cultures and time periods in South America. They discovered that the success rate readily increases from 40% in 400 BCE to up to 83% in 1400 CE. Over 1000 years, people refined their technique, resulting in smaller holes, less cutting and drilling, and more careful grooving. 

However, it's important to consider the fact that injuries during the civil war are much more serious than injuries in Inca. Direct comparison between the success rate might not do civil war doctors justice. Yet the success rate in Inca is still "astonishing" and is "a credit to what these ancient cultures were doing", comments Emanuela Binello, a neurosurgeon at Boston University who has studied trepanation in ancient China.

Type A blood converted to universal donor blood with help from bacterial enzymes, Nature Microbiology

Among the four types of blood-A, B, AB, and O, the O type blood is considered as the universal donor. For a blood donation to be successful, the donating blood should not cause blood antigen, which means that the immune system of the acceptor was triggered to attack the alien red blood cells from the donor. The immune system recognizes red blood cells by distinctive sugar molecules attached to the surface of the cells. However, the O type red blood cells lack the distinctive sugar molecule and thus could not be recognized and attacked by the immune system of the acceptor. The universal donor is very important in emergency rooms, where nurses and doctors may not have time to determine an accident victim’s blood type, and is a constant shortage.
Scientists have been trying to find ways to convert other types of blood into the universal donor. Recently, Rahfeld, Withers, and their colleagues found out that a kind of human gut bacterium, Flavonifractor plautii, could be a good candidate to convert A type blood, the second most common type, into the universal donor. The team chopped up DNA from a human stool sample and loaded different pieces into copies of the commonly used lab bacterium Escherichia coli. They added the enzymes created by the gut bacteria to blood samples and found out that a tiny amount added to a unit of type A blood could get rid of the offending sugars.
Before this method could be used to produce O type blood in real life and cut the universal donor shortage, scientists will have to test the reliability of this method and make sure that the enzymes do not inadvertently alter anything else on the red blood cell that could produce problems. Still, this method is promising and could potentially double the availability of the universal donor.
Spotted for the first time! A fish holding its breath underwater
Watch ants ripping apart a spiderweb to rescue a sibling
Quote of the week: A train stops at a train station. A bus stops at a bus station. That's why people call their desks their work station.
ISP Sci. Rev. 23 (2019)
Editor: Shiwei Wang, Rossoneri Jing
Integrated Science Program
Northwestern University

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