Science Finds a “Stupid” Gene. What Should We Do With That Information?

shutterstock_dunce-stupid-gene-940x540

Linguist/philosopher and Philly native son Noam Chomsky once postulated that the current era of human history might “provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid.” We got closer to that answer last week, when researchers from Cardiff University in Wales announced an intriguing new find: a gene for stupidity. Specifically, they showed that kids born with two copies of the common gene known as Thr92Ala who also have low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ than children with only one copy of the gene, or with two copies but normal hormone levels.

How low an IQ? Between 70 and 85, the researchers say. Anything below 70 is classified as an intellectual disability; the 70-to-85 range is considered “mild intellectual disability.”

So, let’s all rush out to have tests on our unborn babies, right? Read more »

Meet the Philly Start-Ups Leading the Entrepreneurship Era

Philadelphia start-up company AboutOne

Photo by Jonathan Pushnik, styling by Jessica Lawinkski

Something big is happening. It’s not obvious, and it’s nothing tactile—but it’s most definitely a shift in the way we normally do things around here. It’s spurred on by a group of people who, above all else, want to create something that is their very own. With a whole lot of passion and tireless energy, they’re dreaming up new uses for technology, coming up with problem-solving products, and sketching out websites on napkins at coffee shops. Our research turned up more than 100 start-ups (whittled down here to the 20 coolest) that are happening right now. And while those companies may be small, what they’re part of is something huge: They’re changing the way business and culture look in Philadelphia. They’re ushering in an era in which our city is suddenly smarter, hipper, younger, more communal, more energetic and more creative than ever before. And this is just the beginning.

>>Could your kid be the next Steve Jobs? Inside the push to create the next generation of entrepreneurs.

>>If you’re going to run a startup, you may as well do it right. Here, a roundtable with Philly’s entrepreneurship leaders.

AboutOne

Lifestyle | Paoli
The pitch: Creating a safe digital place for families to share information.

Joanne Lang’s lightbulb-over-the-head moment came in the wake of an unfortunate situation—as her asthmatic son was rushed to the hospital, she was asked for his medical information and couldn’t remember a thing. “I knew all the information was filed away, but I couldn’t click on anything to give the paramedic what he needed,” says Lang, 43. “It was traumatizing.” (Her son is okay.) As a developer for SAP, she had the background knowledge in secure cloud technology to be able to turn her filing cabinet into a digital platform. The result: AboutOne, a secure family-planner app that aggregates items and info like health records, education forms, important contacts, numbers and dates for parents and caretakers. Since its introduction three years ago, it’s garnered press from the New York Times, USA Today and the Today Show.

Make or Break: AboutOne has raised $4 million in venture capital, and a new user platform is in the works. An official launch in January will be Lang’s first glimpse of revenue projections—users who want more than 1GB of cloud space will have to pay for a premium subscription. Long-term, Lang hopes to repurpose the platform into a tool that’s useful for corporate executives.

 

Curalate

Business | Center City
The Pitch: Harnessing the power of pictures.

It seems like a runaway success—revenue has increased seven times compared to last year—but Curalate, the company started by Apu Gupta and Nick Shiftan, was initially something else entirely. Recognizing that it wasn’t working, Gupta, 38, and Shiftan, 32, instead came up with Curalate: a visual marketing analytics company that tracks the impact of images using sophisticated picture-scanning technology—an invaluable tool to better understand photo-driven sites like Instagram and Pinterest. Big-league clients include Gap, Neiman Marcus, Urban Outfitters, Under Armour and Swarovski.

What’s Next: Curalate has received a total of $4 million in VC money and continues to add more services, like Fanreel, a tool that allows clients to reuse user-uploaded, hashtagged images on their own e-commerce sites.

 

DuckDuckGo

Tech | Paoli
The Pitch: Online search without the creepy spying.

The search-engine world might be dominated by one untouchable, but 34-year-old Gabriel Weinberg is banking on a novel concept: privacy. In 2008 he launched DuckDuckGo, a search engine that eschews the personal data collected by sites like Google and Bing—data that can not only tarnish accurate ad results but is seen as increasingly invasive. He’s on to something: Last summer’s Snowden NSA scandal helped grow DDG to more than 100 million searches a month.

Make or Break: DDG brings in revenue through a single ad banner and an affiliate program with Amazon and eBay through which DDG gets a percentage of transactions that start from the site.

 

SEER Interactive

Business | Northern Liberties
The Pitch: The smartest SEO.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the foundation on which Wil Reynolds, 37, built SEER. He hired his first employee in 2005 and his 70th in the fall. Crayola, Wine Enthusiast, a Fortune 50 bank and BHLDN have all hired SEER to get them more online visibility by analyzing the way they interact with search engines like Google and Bing, then implementing adjustments to their standards and websites. Finding and retaining talent is key, and to help, Reynolds has created a Silicon Valley-esque culture: His headquarters (nicknamed the “Search Church”) are in a rehabbed house of worship, and he takes the gang on field trips to Six Flags and hosts yoga classes for his crew.

What’s Next: Most of SEER’s success has been recent—the company has grown 35 to 55 percent over the past few years. Reynolds is committed to Philadelphia: Last year he relocated about 40 percent of hires to our region.

 

SnipSnap

Retail | Center City
The Pitch: Coupon-clipping goes digital.

Penny-pinchers, rejoice! SnipSnap’s technology lets users snap photos of coupons, upload them, share them with friends and scan them at checkout—entirely through an app. When the idea hit, 36-year-old Ted Mann left his job and joined local accelerator program DreamIt Ventures (a company that awards seed money and mentorship to great ideas) to work on it. Thanks to front-page placement in the iTunes App Store, SnipSnap secured 200,000 downloads in its first two weeks.

What’s Next: Mann recently scored impressive retail partnerships with Toys “R” Us and Bed Bath & Beyond, which will publish coupons directly to the app. SnipSnap will take $1 every time one of those coupons is redeemed.

West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

The bell rang at 3 p.m. Kids burst from their second-floor classrooms at the West Philadelphia High School Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering and leapt down the stairs. Most filed past the metal detector onto the street, where a trash bin spilled colorful garbage, but a few stayed behind, making their way into a drafty garage and slapping down their backpacks with purpose. A vaguely fungal smell emanated from racks of motor fluid, tools and spare parts, and a sign straight out of the ’50s read ALL SKIRTS & SHORTS MUST BE WORN KNEE LENGTH. It was February 2010. On a wall, a lime-green banner was emblazoned with a quote from Henry Ford: “Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.”

Several students entered a small, brightly lit classroom to the side of the garage and dug into a cache of snacks. Others clustered around Simon Hauger, 40, a spindly white guy with an icy thatch of prematurely gray hair. He stood next to a black sports car. The body was removed for now, sitting off to the side, meaning that the steel frame beneath was visible, along with two separate propulsion technologies: an electric motor and battery pack in the front, and a diesel engine in the back. This was a hybrid vehicle of original design, built by Simon and the kids to travel the energy equivalent of 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline. If they could get to 100 MPGe (the “e” stands for “equivalent”), they had a chance at winning a $10 million contest for the Automotive X Prize. They called themselves the West Philadelphia Hybrid X Team.

Simon said he wanted to work on the sports car’s turbocharger.

“What’s a turbo?” he asked Diamond Gibson, 17, a native of Liberia.

“A turbo, it uses air,” Diamond said.

“It’s like a fan or something,” said Azeem Hill, a thoughtful junior with freckles and thick glasses.

“If I took the fan that I put in the window in the summer, my box fan, and blew air in, would that push enough air?” Simon asked. “No. That only sucks so much air.”

A turbo, he continued, is basically an air compressor—a tool that converts energy into quick bursts of air. The point is to increase the engine’s efficiency by allowing it to squeeze more air into each piston.

“Now, here’s the hard part,” Simon said. “You need to pay attention. Anytime you compress anything, what happens to its temperature?”

“It rises,” Diamond said.

“Right. It gets hotter. And when things get hot, like in a hot-air balloon, what do they want to do?

“Expand,” said Azeem.

“Expand. So our goal for a turbo is to pump air in. So you’re compressing air. It’s getting hot. You’re fighting yourself, right? You need something that cools it off.”

The kids liked Simon; he had a way of relating abstract concepts to the real world. “The way he teaches,” said senior Jacques Wells, “he could teach algebra to a guinea pig.”

Ruth Patrick, Philly-Based Science Pioneer, Dead at 105

New York Times:

Ruth Patrick, a pioneer in studying the health of freshwater streams and rivers who laid the scientific groundwork for modern pollution control efforts, died on Monday in Lafayette Hill, Pa. She was 105.

Her death, at the Hill at Whitemarsh retirement community, was announcedby the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. She had been associated with the academy for more than 70 years.

Dr. Patrick, an adviser to presidents and the recipient of distinguished science awards, was one of the country’s leading experts in the study of freshwater ecosystems, or limnology. She achieved that renown after entering science in the 1930s, when few women were able to do so, and working for the academy for eight years without pay.

“She was worried about and addressing water pollution before the rest of us even thought of focusing on it,” James Gustave Speth, a former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said in an e-mail message.

Washington Post:

From 1933 to 2003, Dr. Patrick published more than 200 papers and contributed to books. She taught botany and limnology at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 35 years. After studying the water quality near DuPont chemical plants, she became an adviser to the company on environmental issues and, in 1975, was named the first woman on its board of directors.

At a White House ceremony in 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Science.

Until she turned 97, Dr. Patrick worked five days a week at the Academy of Natural Sciences, whose limnology center is named in her honor. At 100, she still came in to her office to work on her multi-volume text “Rivers of the United States,” whose installments ran up to 900 pages.

“Many of the things that we take for granted now, in terms water quality and water purity, would not be where they are without her,” Peck said. “Ruth Patrick always tried to apply what she was studying to broader social concerns and helped to make the work relevant. She thought that, ultimately, the reason for studying all this was to help to improve human life and the life of the natural world.”

 

Transgender No Longer a Mental Illness

Photo by Think Stock

In a big step for transgender rights, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has removed being transgender as a mental illness. Rather than being labeled as mentally unfit, transgender individuals will now be diagnosed with something called gender dysphoria – which suggests emotional stress when it comes to gender identity. This is a major change from when gender identity disorder was listed as a mental disorder 20 years ago.

In an interview with The Advocate, APA’s Jack Drescher said, “All psychiatric diagnoses occur within a cultural context. We know there is a whole community of people out there who are not seeking medical attention and live between the two binary categories. We wanted to send the message that the therapist’s job isn’t to pathologize.”

So rather than to suggest that somehow gender identity can be treated, if not cured, the new classification will ideally bring more acceptance. In the legal world, it could also have positive implications as many transgender individuals risk losing their jobs and children when the case is made for mental incompetence.

Keep in mind that homosexuality was also considered a mental illness up until 1973.

A New HIV Study in Philly

Philadelphia FIGHT’s Jonathan Lax Treatment Center and the Youth Health Empowerment Project (Y-HEP) are set to begin Philly’s first Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis program (PrEP) for HIV in young men who have sex with men. Not only will participants receive prescriptions for the pre-exposure prophylactic TRUVADA, a drug designed to help prevent HIV, but the study will examine how ongoing treatment could cut down on the spread of the disease in the gay community.

Photo by Think Stock

A group of 15 HIV-negative men (ages 18 to 29) will be part of this initial program – they’ve been recruited through social networking and local AIDS service organizations. The group will meet weekly to discuss everything from HIV stigma and risk to prevention and overall wellness focused on eating, non-smoking and safe sex. Participants will also receive a one-week supply of TRUVADA at each meeting, and remain under the close medical supervision of the center’s Dr. Helen Koenig.

“PrEP prevents the HIV virus from infecting cells of the immune system, and therefore can prevent the spread of HIV when taken every day,” says Koenig. “It is critical to use every tool at our disposal to protect groups at the highest risk of infection.”

The men will also receive baseline tests for HIV, other sexually transmitted infections and kidney function throughout the program. And participants will have access to free medical care at the center for the duration.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, gay and bisexual men who took the drug daily before and after exposure to the HIV virus, and who were counseled about safe sex practices, greatly lowered their risk of becoming infected. Philadelphia FIGHT is the first organization in Philadelphia to start a PrEP program for those who are currently HIV negative.

The World’s First Transgender Bird?

We’ve heard of same-sex couplings in the animal kingdom, but not transgender birds. Researchers in New Zealand think they may have discovered the first one, however. Known as a bellbird, this little fine feathered friend (about the size of a sparrow) has the DNA of a female, but behaves like a male and exhibits a mix of each sex’s plumage and behavior.

Researchers told the Dominion Post News that the color balance could be due to a shock or incomplete molting process. The bird also tends to behave like males who move “deliberately” to defend food. It also sounds like both a male and female bellbird, with loud calls that are female-sounding, but in a loud pattern most closely associated with males.

The Maori name for the bird is “korimako,” though the researchers are calling this one a “butch bellbird.” It’s the first species that researchers have ever discovered showing a distinct gender mix.

“There’s something we can’t pin down,” conservationist Erin Jeneway told the paper. “We haven’t seen anything like this before.”

SURVEY: Sex is the Question

Photo by Think Stock

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) want to know even more about men who have sex with men. Whether you’re gay, bi or questioning, a new online survey has been launched – the largest of its kind – asking questions that will help researchers seeking new ways to fight HIV, AIDS and other STDs, and to better understand men’s sexual health.

It’s called Sex is the Question. It’s private. It only takes a few minutes to answer. And it even makes a donation to the It Gets Better campaign.

The survey also provides feedback. Once it’s completed, you’ll be able to compare answers with others, and you’ll even receive educational material to help inform you about sexual health – completely anonymously.

Gay and bisexual men account for more than half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. alone, according to the CDC.

What are you waiting for?

Click here to take the survey.

Gay? Straight? It’s All in the Eyes

Photo by Think Stock

Is it the way he walks? The way she talks? Probably not. But researchers at Cornell University are saying that one way to study sexual orientation is in the eyes. The study, published in Live Science, suggests that pupil dilation can indicate someone’s level of arousal depending on which gender they’re eyeing up.

The study finds that gay men who are attracted to other men experience a dilation of pupils when looking at erotic images of the same sex (while straight men responded to women and bisexuals responded to both). The same goes for women, though these results were a bit more complex as straight women in the study tended to dilate to images of both sexes even when they felt feelings of arousal for men.

“So if a man says he’s straight, his eyes are dilating towards women,” the lead researcher Ritch Savin-Williams tells Live Science. “And the opposite with gay men, their eyes are dilating to men.”

The researchers also believe this is an especially accurate testing method compared to monitoring someone’s, well, nether regions, as less people are willing to become subjects if it means having probes and other devices attached below the belt. But studying the eyes, says the researchers, opens up a whole new world to the very old question of whether “gaydar” even exists.

Have we just been looking in the wrong place for too long?

« Older Posts